Musings, Rants, and Random Thoughts
I spend a lot of my time thinking about “the enterprise.” An enterprise level infrastructure. Enterprise level operations. An enterprise network with reliability and durability. Servers that will fail-over to each other and systems that will survive power outages and redundant network connections. Enterprise level thinking, where we plan, strategize, implement, evaluate, and then start over.
What about making myself more enterprise? Not how I work – hopefully I’m already operating at some level that at least someone will consider in the ballpark of moderately well-performing (qualified enough for you??). But what about…how I am as a person?
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…
The post title is about friends becoming…more than friends (can you name the movie?), but this is NOT about that. It is about the nature of a (professional) relationship changing due to a realization of significance.
I recently accepted a position to be CIO at Menlo College in Atherton, CA. A post about that is in progress but discussions with people motivate me to write this one first.
I have always trusted, respected, and in many parts of my job admired my manager. She is a professional above reproach who still invests herself personally in her projects. She treats everyone fairly. Most importantly, she has been a mentor to me (as much as a manager can ever be a true mentor). She has helped me along from a young, inexperienced (never been a manager before) but presumably filled-with-potential subordinate to someone that has, I think, proven to be an adaptable, strong-willed leader of a group that needed change and realignment. This is no small task for me to have accomplished, and I could not have done it without her support and guidance.
However…when I applied for this new job, even though I respected my manager so much, the concept of trusting one’s direct supervisor to the extent of using her as a direct reference OR notifying her of your intent to apply for another job was foreign to me. It’s still a bit weird, to be honest, but the concept literally did not compute or exist or…anything.
It’s very difficult to explain in writing, to be honest. But I can offer my thought process as an example of how I honestly did not even conceive of this idea before. To me, my instinct is that she is my manager, and therefore I don’t do anything until offer is in hand. As a manager she will take my efforts as a sign of not being committed to my job, lack of loyalty, etc. But perhaps that is too simplistic of a view. In some cases, the layers above that basic reporting structure should be considered. That step – taking time to consider the relationship as unique and distinct from a generic manager-subordinate one – just never happened. It never entered into my thought process.
Looking back (a whopping 2 weeks ago) and having spoken to a few people at very high level executive positions at the school and university, I now realize that in some cases, such a relationship is possible. One has to be careful, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have such a relationship again. But I do feel that it is possible, and I will, in the future, consider these extra layers as I look forward in my career.
The subject line might make this seem like a really obvious post. Of course, regardless of financial pressures, one should try to keep as many budget line items as possible and therefore not sacrifice the travel/conference budget. We never want to cut anything right?
However, both after the dot com bubble burst and then the beginning of the Great Recession, I’ve seen departments slash these budgets first. The very first thing to go is travel and suddenly no one goes anywhere. It’s just accepted as a luxury that cannot be afforded anymore without much discussion.
I argue that this should be one of the last things you cut. That you should fight for this vigorously in a budget defense and even to the point where you sacrifice other services in order to maintain that allocation. Of course, what you really should do is energetically and critically analyze your overall service portfolio, find things that can be cut and/or increase efficiency and keep that travel budget. I would never advocate for abolishing any existing service without careful thought just for the sake of being able to attend a conference. But I am certain that there is something that can be cut if you look closely enough. And make hard decisions.
At the least, cutting travel budgets should be just as hard a decision as eliminating an existing (core?) service. It shouldn’t be an automatic decision when budgets get tight.
This isn’t really about the need to network, meet in person, etc. Truth be told, while I value the opportunities to meet with people, I am fully aware that we can create and maintain very strong professional relationships – and exchanges of information – without meeting in person. We can take it as far as the occasional video conference to really get things together and understood properly. You don’t have to meet in person.
This is about professional development, and connection to the community that helps foster that development. And accomplishing the former via the latter is only viable if you maintain a presence and set of relationships that grow from consistent attendance at certain conferences. You attend often enough to get invested, and you go again and again, and become more and more involved. This becomes an investment from your department in you, and you in your development.
I put forth my “path” to core committee involvement for the 2012 SIGUCCS Conference. This is held annually and brings about 300-325 (topped out at 450 but 2008 wiped the slate clean, almost) people in higher education IT together. These attendees range from executive to line level, from CIO’s to Help Desk Managers and even a few software developers. SIGUCCS is part of the Association of Computing Machines, the main benefits of which are the requirement to write a formal, standards-compliant paper on one’s presentation topic (if you want to present, you have to write a 4 page paper. Now that will make people decide if they are really willing to get involved or not even at the speaker level) and the inclusion of that paper in the ACM Digital Library. I’ve done only 3 papers and they’re fairly old, but I’ve been cited a few times and yes, it’s on my resume/CV. (I’d link to the papers but you have to be a SIGUCCS or ACM member to view them).
Every time I have attended SIGUCCS, I have increased my network through in-person meetings and chats. But I’ve also become more and more invested in the organization, and I think I have developed as a professional as a result.
I look at my path to where I am today vis-a-vis SIGUCCS.
- Attended Fall 2005 Technical Conference (age 27)
- Presented (twice) at the Fall 2006 Technical Conference (age 28)
- Missed 2007 as I changed jobs, and the nature of my new job made the 2008 Technical Conference no longer completely appropriate
- Was grant winner and attended 2009 Spring Management Symposium (age 30)
- Attended and presented at 2010 Spring Management Symposium (age 31)
- Attended and was track chair for 2011 Spring Management Symposium (age 32)
- Attended 2011 Combined Conference (first time merged together) (age 33)
- Treasurer and presenter for 2012 Combined Conference (age 34)
- Will be treasurer for 2013 Combined Conference (age 35)
I realize that you can add from year to year. But notice that except for a small gap in 2007-2008, when I went through a rather significant career change, I moved from attendee at the Technical Conference to attendee and then involvement in the program for the Spring Management Symposium (so this is more aspiring leaders than line staff) to actual conference core planning committee for 2012 (and invited to repeat role in 2013).
I’m not saying that people around the country are saying “oh, Allan Chen? Yeah, he’s that guy from SIGUCCS!” But I can tell you that if you said “Brad Wheeler” I’d say “that visionary CIO from Indiana University that I read about in Educause all the time.” SIGUCCS is not Educause, but then again it would take me a lot longer to gain this level of involvement with Educause (especially because Educause is so big that organization of conferences is generally through its own existing mechanisms – not volunteers. I’d have to be writing articles and whatnot to reach any level of notoriety).
I am invested in SIGUCCS. The people whom I meet at SIGUCCS Conference – even those whose budgets have been slashed and only come every other year – are ones that I consider consulting when I run into various problems. In the exact same way that I’d think about calling someone over at Central IT or perhaps up the road at Stanford. And I have developed professionally, which is a benefit to the department and yes, to myself in the long term should I look to other professional opportunities.
And all of this is because I have fought for the travel budget. Because we stopped offering staffed video recordings in non-automated rooms (something we’d been wanting to do for a long time anyway – we’re putting our energy towards lobbying to automate the rooms instead), because we cut back on a ambitious cloud-storage pilot (let’s find 50 committed users rather than 50+50 occasional users), and because we continue to look critically at our budget and service portfolio, we have maintained our travel budget. And my web developer gets to go to the one conference per year that is the conference for people in his field. My Systems Manager has been able to go to a couple of intensive virtualization briefings or trainings, and I can bring one of my Support Team folks to SIGUCCS as well. In the past I’ve attended Educause, too (though now it conflicts too much with SIGUCCS).
So think twice before you cut that budget. Or perhaps take another look. It’s an investment in your team to be able to send them to conference. It’s an investment for an attendee in the conference itself and the community thereof. And it’s an investment for almost everyone professionally. And if we don’t care about our level of investment in our jobs, our careers, and the quality of our work…are we in the right field?
A combination of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) “movement” and the rise of widely-used, highly-effective third party communication systems (eg – Gmail over whatever your company/institution is using) has created what I see as a conflict about whether to support people that you’d call either early adopters or ones that have gone off on his or her own and away from standardized systems.
First, some general definitions and stuff. BYOD has arisen mostly because incredibly powerful computing devices have hit the mainstream. Tons of people have smart phones (though the actual % is lower than you might think – recent surveys indicate that a solid 30-40% of cell phone users have, at most, “feature” phones with keyboards or some other extra feature for faster texting, but no web browsing or anything like that. Many others just have flip phones for regular calling). Lots of people have tablets. And laptop ownership went past 75% a long time ago. So with all of these devices already in our pockets and bags, we have to start considering the ramifications of so much computing and productivity power being brought to our campuses and work places, rather than being provided by. A computer lab might need to be only half the size of just 2 years ago, with empty desk space being far more useful for students and their own laptops, etc.
Even though AOL first offered its own e-mail system a very, very long time ago (I was on AOL starting in 1994-1995, and I remember it had not yet purchased Compuserv), the massive shift to yahoo and google for personal e-mail also causes an issue. In the same way that we have to consider that users have their own devices which they prefer to use over the ones we provide, we must also be aware that one’s well-established gmail account might supersede the benefits of an organizational e-mail system (or calendar system, or chat system, etc). Yes, for work purposes there is the issue of separating official from personal e-mail but the lines get more and more blurred, even for employees, as adoption of these other tools gets higher and higher. Investment into one’s personal gmail account gets so high that his or her identity is based on that account, not the name.edu or company.com one.
We have faculty at Santa Clara Law – people who are scholars associated with an academic institution – who use their gmail accounts with gmail.com suffixes over their scu.edu accounts. I recently worked with a few marketing folks that asked me to contact them on their yahoo and gmail accounts instead of their company ones, because it was faster (and easier to get to one their phones, etc).
A lot of the two movements go hand-in-hand. Because it’s so easy to connect an Android phone or iPhone to gmail, people prefer to have that account when “on the go.” As they are more and more mobile, more of their e-mail goes to those “non-sanctioned” accounts. As more goes there, less goes to the official one. And so on.
As we look towards a shift to a new e-mail and calendaring (and collaboration) toolset at Santa Clara University, those faculty that switched over to gmail will in fact be left “out in the cold.” They are using the “commercial” version of gmail, and we’ll be using the “educational” version of either Google or Microsoft’s cloud-based solutions. Even if we go with Google, there is no migration option from a personal, commercial account to an institutional, Apps for Education one.
So…in a way, we are punishing those that adopted these highly-productive tools (gmail, gchat, etc), potentially a side-effect of early adoption of highly-capable devices (smartphones, tablets). We are penalizing early-adopters.
Yet we rely on early adopters to push the envelope, to ask the questions that those only one standard-deviation away from the mean have not yet considered, and to help motivate and inspire us to do more and be more creative.
How do we resolve this conflict? Do we create an environment that encourages early adoption? Many times it is these individuals that help instructional technologists (or just plain technologists) try new things and work out the bugs. But what happens when we switch to a standard that leaves them out in the cold? What safety nets do we provide? If none, then do we risk fragmentation (aside from dissatisfaction, of course)?
Lately, I’ve been either working with people who are less than enthusiastic about developing a meaningful rapport with myself and my department or have been affected by various issues that have made them less collaborative/cooperative. In general, I try to build relationships that will help out in the long-run. That will create allies, that will form partnerships, etc.
I have learned recently that perhaps it’s a futile effort. That the best tactic is, to turn a phrase, to put [the] baby in the corner. <nod to Dirty Dancing>
I use the term “baby” on purpose. A professional that is unwilling to develop a rapport – or even listen to one proposing to form such a relationship – is, in the context of a professional work environment, a baby. This is someone who is immature, pouts about the realities of his or her job rather than faces up to the challenges, and points fingers and places blame on others.
When working with someone that is like this, my manager gave me some very sound advice recently. Don’t try to build a rapport. Ignore all the inane, illogical issues surrounding the discussion. Place out of mind the obvious fact that if we were to work together, we could get so much more done.
Focus on what you need, and how to get it.
Not in a selfish way – if we are ones that are frustrated over lack of building rapport, we are likely ones that are generally not selfish when it comes to working with others. But in the sense that, should all diplomatic efforts fail, just focus on what you need to get your job done.
Put that “baby” in a corner. Pin him or her down with whatever mental constructs you need to block out all the noise. Focus in on what information you need – how long before the problem is fixed? What do you need from me to fix it faster? How quickly can we get out of this conversation now that we’ve gotten our needed information? – and put on blinders to everything else.
This is really a last resort (and as last resorts go, this is far from Machiavellian) and one should still go for collaboration and communication first. But I’m already finding it to be a useful communication construct when one runs into serious and undeniable barriers.
Counter-points? For those 5 people that read this?
A great many of us, I am willing to wager, want to believe that we are doing something meaningful in life. That whatever it is we do, it is making some kind of difference to someone. It is quite reasonable that the “someone” is one’s supervisor, by the way, and that the “meaning” is in the quality of the work we do. Not everyone is out saving the world.
However, there are people about whom we marvel when we consider the work being done. The people that are, in some ways, saving the world. Inevitably, one thinks twice about his or her own accomplishments in such situations.
Perhaps not everyone is as introspective as I am (please don’t ask me how I’m feeling when the new year or my birthday is around the corner, as I really get gloomy then). And perhaps…though unlikely…there is a reader of this blog that has worked with cancer patients or started a school in a third world country. The type of stuff that makes me sit back and just say “wow.” But right now, I’m willing to bet if you took a look at the work of some of my colleagues, they would make all of us sit back for a bit.
Note – this is not a post about how I think my work is lame. Not at all. I enjoy my work and I do feel that I make some difference – for good – here and there. It is a post about how much I admire the work of others. I am incredibly lucky to call some of these people co-workers.
Look up the Northern California Innocence Project and find out more about the amazing work they do. Look up the cases of Maurice Caldwell and Franky Carrillo. Those are just a couple of the articles you will find in a quick search. Both of these men were imprisoned for YEARS. DECADES. Wrongfully. And, with the help of other law firms that generously donate their time, the lawyers at NCIP overturn these convictions not just on DNA but on poor defense attorneys, prosecutorial misconduct, or inaccurate “eyewitness” accounts. This is truly inspirational material.
The other day, I was over at the NCIP offices and was joking with Paige Kaneb - one of the supervising attorneys – about how we had purposely turned off her DVD-playing capability on her computer just to mess with her. Totally random joke and, admittedly, the kind that I make too often (oh, you’re having problems? that’s right, we decided to turn the internet off for you today..). But then I thought some more about that random chat later and realized that this person, this completely accessible, friendly person that is laughing along with my poor attempt at humor helped free these two men. Paige also mentions that she wants the DVD feature so she can watch footage from the LAPD. So she can help free someone else.
Later that day, I’m talking with Linda Starr, the project’s Legal Director, about what kind of laptop she needs. My questions are about how often she will be traveling with the laptop, what kind of battery life she needs, and other practical but banal items. Linda will be using that laptop on the road, helping to poke holes in the incredibly fallible human component of our legal system. But the laptop is just a tool used in pursuit of justice. It’s Linda herself, her devotion, and the work that comes from that devotion that just amazes me.
Yes, part of me is feeling this sense of disproportion between my concerns about the accuracy of our equipment inventory and the work at NCIP. I’m the little elf that keeps the machine going while Linda and Paige (and don’t get me started on Cookie Ridolfi, who is a force of nature, to say the least, and worthy of an entire blog post) make real change. I make sure DVD players are working and talk about what kind of computer one should buy. Maybe I get to do something “exciting” and suggest a mobile broadband hotspot so that they can help work on these cases in the field.
And even if someday I’m the president of a university, or working in strategic development in a major tech company (yes, those are my goals), part of me will still think that what I’m doing pales in comparison to anything Paige, Linda, Cookie, and others do on a daily basis. And today, as the head of technology at the SCU Law School, my work feels somewhat narrow and tangential.
Paige, Linda, Cookie, and to all of the others at NCIP – on the odd chance you ever see this, please know that I feel lucky to be able to be the one that helps with your printers and DVD players. And that I hope that, maybe just a little, the strategic plans I work on today for the law school’s technology future will help make your jobs easier.
[NB - As I have been writing and editing this post, Google already updated their Docs application suite to make it a bit more functional. I haven't done a lot of real-time editing with someone else so I don't know if it's any better, but the point is that this post might be irrelevant before I do eventually hit "publish."
There is also the chance that other items about which I complain will be addressed quickly. Finally, this is all based on the premise that Google has done little to show true strategic planning from their somewhat haphazard roll-out of products. Not everyone agrees with this view, and I know that.]
I’ve mentioned before that I think Google lacks strategic planning, and that their tactical moves suggest disorganization and or potentially fatal decentralization in pursuit of freedom to innovate. First-to-market is an important achievement, and FULLY ACKNOWLEDGE that perhaps that is the one and only driving force behind the release timing of many Google products. But let’s put that item aside for now.
With the release of Google Docs for Android, which makes their own (half-assed) product on their own operating system somewhat more usable, I thought I would take a moment to examine the number of products that the company has launched that have potential that has been too long in realization or that have just floundered about, without a clear path to success. (more…)
Last week, during my budget meeting, I got to “see” a great tool that our finance officer had put together. It was a spreadsheet, true, but anyone that has worked with really complex ones knows that a properly designed sheet that has every reference done just right and provides the right data is as valuable as the $10,000 server software running on the $15,000 server in the data center.
What was weird is that, after being told of this great file, I was given a paper copy of what it looks like. I didn’t get to see any of its dynamic nature. I didn’t get to punch in my numbers and see how my proposal and/or its variants affects other parts of the school. I didn’t get to interact with it. It was an inherently digital artifact in analog form.
This struck me as a classic misalignment of the traditional meeting room and the digital commons (or some small version of it). Meeting rooms are about handing around stacks of paper, scribbling down notes, and then (hopefully) filing all that away in a place you can find later.
Working together in a digital commons is about interacting with files such as the one described, looking at different scenarios and sharing information via various collaboration tools (maybe I could import the data quickly via a cloud-based sharing tool. Or have it already in that tool and available as part of the numerous other cloud-based budget folders shared to the finance officer). Taking notes would be done on, say, a tablet, where one does direct, digital markup of the original proposal.
Everything stays digital.
Not every meeting should go this way. But one that is based around a dynamic, digital file…that probably should.
The idea of online scholarship has come up quite a bit recently at work. By this, I mean that part of a scholar’s work must, in today’s world, be done online, or at least exposed online. So when you write an article, you tweet about it. You have and maintain a blog in which you talk about your academic research and comment on events related to your field. A scholar really cannot afford to keep his or her work entirely in the hardcopy domain, passively waiting to be discovered and recognized.
It is my job, similarly, to take time to put my thoughts and ideas online. For me, topics would be educational technology, management in higher ed, and…lots of other things. If there is a resolution I’m willing to make for this year, it is not just that I will blog more often, but that I will make it a point to blog as part of my job. To be an active member of the online community on topics related to my job and my field. Yes, it’s still passive in that people have to find my blog or see my tweets, but I am here, online, and just a quick search away on Google…