a bigger step than I realized

It’s been slightly less than 3 months that I’ve been CIO at Menlo College.  While in many, many ways it’s not a conventional CIO position, I am still consistently surprised at how different my work is now compared to before.  I would presume that most people in CIO positions are working in relatively large organizations, where each direct report is a manager unto him or herself.  Here, I have a team of 7 (2 are 50%) including myself so I’m still very hands-on.  In many ways one would think that my job would not be much different from being Assistant Dean for Law Technology at the Santa Clara University Law School.  I am still doing strategic planning, still communicating with schools in the area for collaboration, and still working with a small team to be highly productive, rather than a large organization. You’d think the jobs would be similar.

You would be very, very wrong…

The difference between that job – arguably the CIO of the law school – and this one is significant.  First, the scope.  There is nothing in between being a Director of IT for a unit and CIO for an entire institution that prepares you for the scope of responsibilities.  I can’t imagine one, anyway.  I suppose that a CIO could throw all responsibilities at a direct report to give that sense, but even someone really bad at delegation wouldn’t give everything to one person.  You’d delegate to 3-4 trusted folks.  In which case none of those 3-4 have to deal with the scope.  But at the end of the day, a CIO of a small college like Menlo or a big one like, say, Princeton is still where the buck stops.  When it comes down to it, a CIO has to be at least aware of everything going on.

Even beyond scope, I’m now doing certain activities that I never engaged in before.  Negotiating the price of a SAN – sure, done that.  Negotiating the price of our ERP, then asking for installments to handle our cash flow environment, with a shorter contract under the stipulation that we’d get the same pricing next year?  Totally different.  And having to keep in mind cash flow all the time?  Puts a spin on everything.  Then the phones go down or the wireless network won’t hand out IPs anymore and it’s back in the trenches.  It really has caught me off guard, which is saying a lot because I tried really hard to be ready for anything.

The financials is the big part.  It’s not as simple as “you pay a lot for licensing and hardware refreshes, then use up whatever else is left wisely.”  I have both more and less leeway to use some techniques I found useful in the past.  For instance, I would cycle lean and “heavy” years at the law school.  One year we’d spend a lot on servers and storage – maybe $125,000.  The next year we’d spend $20,000, if not a bit less.  This helped me get that big budget approved, and gave the school a lot of flexibility in the lean years to allow other departments to do stuff.

I can’t do that now.  I am the one budget, so I can’t really give myself leeway by having heavy and lean years.  And while this is a very cooperative environment, the bottom line is that few departments have one-time projects that can be funded through decreased IT needs for that one year then absorbed into operations and budget from then on, while IT’s budget goes up again.  So I have to spend about the same amount year over year on everything.  I can move dollars around and perhaps yes, I can spend a bit more on something this year and less on it next year.  But my budget is not part of a larger overall budget in the same way it was at the law school.

I am also much more sensitive to cash flow.  Because I was abstracted at least one more layer away from the school’s direct finances and the decreased spending in one month by, say, the career center would offset increased spending that same month by Law Tech, I could spend more or less from month to month.  It didn’t matter as much if I had all of my licenses due in the same month.  Here, because my budget is fairly large, if I don’t spread things out I inhibit my own ability to spend.  Almost like our budget is so big that we hold ourselves back in terms of our flexibility.

There are a dozen if not maybe 30 other ways that have shown me, repeatedly, how big of a divide there is between before and now.  But the gulf has proven to be quite large indeed…