kaiyen: pepper

the life and times of Allan Chen

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Educause Review Review – “A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?”

Disclaimer:  I realize my comments might be taken as criticism of other CIOs or of the intent of the writers of Educause Review. First, that’s not at all my goal.  My goal is to say that perhaps the time for us to discuss the “still changing” role of the CIO is past.  And should be past.  But saying this doesn’t mean that I necessarily think that I don’t fall victim to some of these thoughts and even practices now and then.  In other words, I’m saying that my house might be made of glass…but I don’t think I’m throwing stones.  At the very least, in terms of career accomplishments, I have no right to make these comments.  But if I always thought that way I would rarely write anything.  This is a general commentary, and is not about myself at any rate. 

Also, note that while I am highlighting an Educause Review article in this particular post, it’s mostly because it’s the most recent one on this topic.  I’m certainly not criticizing the publication nor its various editors and staff (many of whom I know personally).  If this is still an important question, then ER should be covering it.  However, I am not sure it is an important question.

In early June, Educause Review posted an article titled A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?   The question being posed is whether, in light of all the changes in higher ed in general, IT is facing a set of changes so dramatic that the entire role of an IT organization must be reconsidered?  It asserts that “the IT organization must be prepared to engage with its institution in a number of ways in a fast-paced environment” and that this is an “issue of transformation.”

Several interviewees give a variety of answers, but I must admit that I am having trouble with the question, and the premise itself.  I don’t think there should be any transformation going on at all, at least not now.  More broadly, I don’t see why we are still having this conversation.  Shouldn’t we already be what this article is asserting we should be…changing into?  If we aren’t already there, then the problem isn’t about adjusting to change tomorrow, but about whether we can be effective leaders today.  So why the ongoing discussion?

On the one hand, if one looks at the field of IT unto itself, without the context of managers and leaders, then yes, there is a major shift occurring.  One can either acknowledge this change and take advantage of it to grow an organization, or ignore it and become irrelevant.  Essentially, in a time when many IT services are becoming commodities and students (and faculty and staff) are bringing in personal devices that are sometimes far more powerful and certainly more mobile than what departments have been able to offer in the past (BYOD), if an IT organization doesn’t think about change, then its role as a vital part of the institution will be greatly jeopardized.  But I think looking at just the entity, the set of services that make up IT, is a completely useless perspective.  What matters are the people and the leaders that are in place.

Any and all leaders in IT today must be looking at the landscape far beyond the technology.  Business processes, enabling innovation, supporting mobility, accepting BYOD, and pushing forward new and creative initiatives.  If a CIO isn’t already instinctively thinking about these matters, about the role of IT as part of a key, strategic and programmatic component of a rapidly changing landscape, rather than just a service provider, then there is a serious issue.  Again, the true, underlying question for me is why are we still discussing this?  Maybe we need a note on the side saying “hey!  make sure you’re thinking this way!” with each issue but surely Educause Review with all its great content can devote some pages to other topics.

The identity crisis is not about IT from the perspective of the IT leadership.  It’s one created entirely by the institution itself, if and only if it is not putting enough thought into the role of IT or ignoring the hopefully-forward thinking minds that lead such organization. Of course, this is in fact often the case – the institution is lagging behind the existing change in leadership styles in IT.  Even if there is a really creative IT leader that understands these dynamics, it’s certainly possible that other executives at the institution will disagree.  They will be the ones that relegate IT to simply a service provider, rather than an enabler or a creative entity that adds value.  This is certainly a big challenge.

But the article implies that the identity crisis is located in the IT organization, or is at least partly so.  This discussion therefore still doesn’t make sense to me.  A leader in IT, today, should be considering the department’s role in the institution’s long-term strategic planning all the time. Let’s look a bit closer at some of the comments, and I will take another probably-too-bold step in offering my own thoughts and responses.

thoughts from the EDUCAUSE LTL volume 4

I didn’t get to write a post yesterday because I was exhausted.  Our teams do presentations on the 4th day, yesterday, that is meant to “make the case” for some proposal for a fictional institution.  We worked late into Wednesday night, I was rehearsing my section of the presentation even later than that (into Thursday morning), and then the presentation itself certainly was a high pressure situation.  We were all just very, very tired.

I’ll have a recap post at some point of the entire experience but, as was the case the first couple of days, a quick reflection is still important.

With all the work done to find our strengths so that we can apply them effectively, I have come to appreciate that strengths can actually be weaknesses themselves.  It’s all about context.  When working in a team where everyone is a highly-motivated, potential formal or informal leader, strengths such as being an Achiever (wanting to accomplish things), an Arranger (always understanding how things work together), and Input (wanting know more and more) can be a problem.  They can make me inpatient, they can make me potentially disruptive.  Considering the effort put in by my fellow teammates, I can only hope that I did a mildly effective job of keeping myself in check.  Perhaps most of the time.

This means that there is even greater nuance to dealing with strengths and weaknesses than I had realized.  Before, it was know your strengths, which helps you understand your weaknesses, then either address the weaknesses head on (out of your comfort zone) or find a complement.  But strengths themselves can be weaknesses.  My, this can get complicated.

One thing I saw during the building of our presentation was that all of us having to just buckle down and get the thing done allowed our “executor” strengths to come through, and then our other strengths could rise above that.  It was almost like a base or “safe space” for us to start opening up.  I felt a lot more comfortable knowing we all had this common goal that included a timeline, where we really knew we had to just get down to it.  But even so, no one stopped indicating those existing strengths.  I found this fascinating and I truly enjoyed just turning to others and saying “I’m not good at this, someone please help me.”  Others rose up, gave me ideas, and things came together.

Considering that “leading from where you are” is a fundamental part of leadership in general but also key for those of us that are parts of larger organizations, this was pretty cool to watch.

I want to thank all of those at LTL 13, and to my teammates on team 5 in particular for an amazing experience.

thoughts from educause LTL volume 3

So..I’m really tired, and this is going to be short, to be honest.

Last night my team worked on finishing the presentation we will make today to the “senior administrative leaders” that the LTL faculty will be “playing.”  We are to pitch a specific idea, with implementation, budget, etc., that will address a strategic concern of a college.

Until last night, I have to admit that I haven’t felt completely at ease with our group.  This is not a statement about the people, much less about any one person in particular.  It’s about trying to form a team made up of people that have all come to a workshop designed to build leadership.  This is a group here to become better leaders.  Putting us in groups is going to cause some unease.

But there is nothing like a project, trying to make something concrete, to bring people together.  As we worked together, our skills and strengths emerged naturally.  Even more impressively, the way we offered to help just flowed.  Someone would ask for help (I know I did several times) and others would start working on solutions.  One person made headway, and ideas were thrown about, and we ended up with a great product.  When we did a run-through, we all gave feedback equitably and fairly, and we have, I think, a solid product.

I don’t know what today’s reflection piece will be, but I know that last night’s collaborative experience will be the sticking point for me for the day.

thoughts from the EDUCAUSE LTL, volume 2

I a still at the Learning Technology Leadership program from the Educause Institute, and the latest reflection piece we’ve had is on leadership.  Unlike the first assignment, this one was done in the morning, before getting on with the day.  So it’s shorter.

We were asked to discuss how the first day’s discussion may have changed our views on leadership.  My response follows, and additional commentary past the jump.

While the concept of leading from within a group (rather than at the forefront) is nothing new, the discussion that stemmed from the governance committee model at Northwestern still struck a chord. Even at a small institution such as mine, where working with anyone means working with everyone, maintaining a steady focus on communications and sharing the ownership of knowledge and understanding is a powerful tool.

Unfortunately, this also takes a lot of energy. I am inspired by the prospects of what such shared communication can provide. Yet I am also concerned about the sheer amount of effort required to sustain such a program.  At a larger institution, you not only have more resources in terms of number of people from your own organization to attend these meetings, but just more people in general.  At a small institution, at some point, these committees are all the same people, and you have to watch for burn-out, disillusionment, and perhaps even annoyance with the process.  That is completely counterproductive.

It will be a delicate balance and I will be adding “informal” to many of the names of these governance/communication groups, but it certainly has great impact, regardless of institution size. And that means it’s worth the effort, in almost any case.


thoughts from the educause learning technologies leadership program volume 1

Day 1 of the Educause Institute for Learning Technology Leadership came to a close last night.  For just a half-day session, I am truly exhausted.  I am also excited that such a dynamic experience will span the next 3.5 days.  I’m sure I’ll get a lot out of it.

We are asked to reflect upon a specific topic each day.  Last night, we focused on the results of our StrengthsFinders surveys.  This tool, which I’ve used a few times now and find quite useful, tries to identify 5 strengths based on a big, long series of survey questions.  They are actually statements, and you have to choose which one better describes you.  For the most part, they are not opposed, which means it’s not easy to decide which one fits you best.  So you make a decision that is a combination of logic, thoughtfulness, and gut.

Below is a slightly-edited (just tightened up) version of what I wrote in our internal Yammer group.


virtual desktops in the higher education world

As I was working on my post about my adoption of the “VDI Lifestyle” I started thinking about the role and viability of virtual desktops in higher education in general.  It’s great that I’ve adopted it and use it the way I do, personally.  And I do think that the reasons why I’ve taken to it so thoroughly are important for many users to consider.    But from a strategic planning perspective, how do virtual desktops it fit into higher ed?

Operationally, a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a pretty complex setup.  It has a lot of moving parts, and it relies on all of the moving parts all the time to be successful.  For us, that means VMWare View as the backbone, Unidesk for management of the desktops, Active Directory for access, and all kinds of hardware connected as thin clients, converted retired desktops, all-in-one clients with built-in monitors, and then many staff using full-function desktops with the VDI software.  There are servers (7 of them serving 300 desktops – imagine if you were a much larger institution), a fast storage array (running solid state drives), network switches and lots of blinking lights.  We’ve had hundreds of hours of configurations and many lessons learned the hard way.

So on the one hand, it’s a tough proposition for a small IT shop.  Even a medium sized one, if you don’t have dedicated folks, it’s not going to be easy.  There is more than enough specialized, proprietary knowledge to require quite a bit of staff time.  This is a key part of making a strategic decision to move forward.

There are significant benefits, though.  Centralized management, a clearly-defined budgeting plan (either servers or perhaps Desktop as a Service), addressing server and desktop needs all at once (a big issue for us when we started), and quick response to user requests (need SAS on your desktop?  Just give me 10 minutes, reconnect and it’ll be there) are just a few.  When the moving parts are in sync, it’s quite beautiful.  So for the administrator, it is a powerful tool, and for support staff, a way to ease the load.  And if we can ease the the administrative overhead, then we can allocate resources to other needs, such as in-person desktop support or personal consultation.

But making strategic decisions isn’t just about internal operations or ease of administration.  That’s all about the department.  What truly matters is what we can deliver to the end user.  Desktops for work productivity is a Business Service Catalog component, and we must never forget that we are trying to meet customer needs here, not our own.

The first question I ask myself when making strategic decisions is “how will this improve productivity for the staff, faculty, or students?”  Yes, sometimes these discussions are quite short – without an ERP, we don’t get much done at all, so we need to have one.  Upgrades to networking, wireless connectivity, and other factors are all in the same ball park.  But there are lots of other services that do require some more thought, and something as fundamental as one’s computer certainly does (or should) fall into that category.  Most of the time the average computer will meet all needs.  But one size does not fit all – will the standard desktop handle the work of a statistics researcher?  What about laptop users?  Ultrabooks vs. desktop replacement?

And if virtual desktops are under consideration, will what we can provide centrally meet the productivity needs of others? (more…)

livin’ la VDI loca

[thanks to Tom Rose from Unidesk, with whom Menlo College works closely, for some editorial suggestions and cleanup]

There is a big difference between technology that you use as a tool, and one that becomes a foundation of how you get work done.  A computer used to be a tool to access digital assets when needed.  Now the only way we can be productive at all is to be at a workstation or on a laptop.  We used to do searches for what restaurants are nearby and how to get from point A to point B, and now we would probably be lost  forever without our smart phones.

I’ve had an experience like this recently, with our virtual desktops at Menlo College.

This has been my first exposure to a Virtual Desktop Implementation, commonly referred to as VDI.  Here at Menlo,  the desktops being served by the installation are also called VDIs (our VDI system supplies users with their VDI desktops).  For the tech-heads, our implementation is based on VMware View (as compared to Citrix or Microsoft’s VDI/Hyper-V) with Unidesk to provision and manage our desktops.  Unidesk allows us to build applications in layers which we can basically mix and match as we wish.  Then View delivers that customized desktop to the user or lab.

It’s took the first 7  months of my time here, but I’ve made it through that paradigm shift, from seeing VDI as something “on the side” to relying on VDI as the a core component of how I work.  Without VDI, I would not be able to do my job.

When I arrived at Menlo, I had a laptop docked and connected to all my peripherals and powering two 22″ displays.  I had a VDI allocated to me, but I connected very, very rarely and only via the software client on my laptop.  So I was using my full-featured laptop to connect only as-needed to my VDI.

Later on, just to test our new VDI build (we upgraded throughout Fall 2012 and Spring 2013) and some new software (Office 2013), I had a Samsung All-In-One 22″ thin client (over which I actually prefer a standalone client)  installed in my office.  This was in addition to my laptop.

Because Office is an everyday application, I was on the VDI fairly often.  Rather than spin my chair around and around to use both my VDI for Office but my laptop for everything else, I would slowly start using the VDI for email, calendaring, and creation of documents  – not just testing Office, but using it.  I added some more applications, and eventually found myself with a VDI desktop that did everything my laptop could.

Then, around early April, 7 months in, I was in a meeting, with my laptop, and realized that what I needed was a file I still had open on my VDI.  So I connected, again from the client software on my laptop but this time stayed in the VDI the whole time.  I was now using the laptop merely as an interface.

One particularly important aspect of doing this was that even though I was connecting from my laptop in the meeting room and a thin client from my office, it was still the same VDI.  I wasn’t running two different desktops.  I was connecting to the same exact one.  If I disconnected in my office and then connected in a meeting room, everything comes up just as it was before.  I am not restarting.  I am not logging off.  There is virtually no lag before I’m up and running again, right from where I left off.

Later that week I purchased a 10″ tablet (VMware View runs on both iOS and Android), gave my laptop up to one of my staff, and haven’t looked back.  My main workstation is now the same two monitors but this time connected to a thin client not much bigger than a cable modem that offers audio, high quality dual output video, and even USB device support (including my web cam, though it’s choppy sometimes and can’t do HD).

When I’m in a meeting, I often do take notes in the cloud (Google Keep, usually) but have my VDI running just in case I need to jump over and access my more extensive materials in Microsoft OneNote.  OneNote is an incredibly feature-rich, designed-for-notetaking application that I’ve been using since it came out.  And it doesn’t run on iOS or Android and I’ve struggled with that incompatibility for years, but it does on my VDI.  When I am at home, I use my desktop and connect to my VDI.

I don’t do any Menlo work outside of my VDI.

I am now “livin’ la VDI loca.”  It is an integral, almost inseparable part of how I get work done, not just a tool for getting onto our campus network or for access to a restricted resource.   It empowers me to use my personalized work environment from anywhere, as long as I have an internet connection.

I did eventually get an ultrabook laptop, by the way, because there are of course some times when I am not on the internet.  But I haven’t bothered to personalize it beyond the basics.  Because now the laptop is just a tool, just a way for me to connect to my real workspace, my VDI.


hillbilly MOOCs

Note – I realize that using the term “hillbilly” might strike some as insensitive and some as rude. I apologize for that. The fact is that it has a strong relationship to the notion of “rural” and “backwards” and, in comparison with the other MOOC programs I want to discuss, it is appropriate. So yes, I am taking some editorial/artistic license in the name of a better “hook” of a title. I’ll change it if anyone speaks up.

Massive Online Open Courses – or MOOCs – have been basically THE topic of the past couple of years. Whether it’s a company – Khan Academy – or part of a university – HarvardX – the creation and delivery of these courses has taken on a decidedly formal manner. There are offices devoted to helping design and deliver these programs, with dedicated staff. They have reached a level of maturity that, for instance, faculty whose curriculum have become part of the HarvardX program have written a formal letter asking for more oversight on the program itself. Faculty are injecting themselves into the program. Which means they are taking the impact of MOOCs on the larger issue of education and Harvard’s educational “brand” quite seriously. Which is a big deal.

For small institutions, though, delivering content online can be quite challenging. At Menlo College, for example, which is a very small college – 700 students – the first question is about getting something online. Not an entire courses. A MOOC is so far down the line that while it might be on the horizon, we’re still far enough away that we’re not sure if the world is flat or not. Perhaps we’ll fall off the edge of the world before we get to the MOOC implementation.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating how we might build a program overtime that would lead to an effective implementation of online course materials in a hybrid and/or “flipped” (rather broad description from Wikipedia) environment that could, in theory, eventually lead to acceptance and creation of effective MOOC-style curriculum. Since we don’t have an academic computing/educational technology program right now, this is an important issue for me and for Menlo. Is this a topic we wish to address as we build a program from scratch? If I had to pick, say, 5 low-cost, low-overhead, high-impact solutions, would any of them be the building blocks of online content delivery? Or should any of them be, with an eye towards that horizon?  One always wants to make tactical moves that align with strategic goals but is there enough clarity?

One thing we know is that the MOOC model is not going away.  From a purely business perspective, it is just too compelling to ignore. Right now the “open” part of the MOOC acronym suggests that profit should not be a factor at all. But at some point people will want to make money on any venture, and the notion of being able to deliver one set of content to 100, 200, 300 or any number of students in a ridiculously scalable model (single delivery system, single assessment model, etc – all scalable) is just too compelling and enticing. So MOOCs are here to stay. If you reel in the “ideal” that underlays MOOCs just a bit, courses delivered entirely online are equally obvious. They might not be massive and not as scalable (depending on implementation), but they are still very compelling. So, from a strategic planning perspective, I guess we do need to build up to a significant online presence for our curriculum.

For us, where we are starting from the ground up and with no staff dedicated to this purpose, we have to take this one step at a time. (more…)

enterprise allan

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?



I’ve started and stopped several posts over the past few weeks.  Stuff about my job, my career goals, technology in higher ed.  The type of stuff that’s become the focus of this blog as it has migrated towards one about my professional rather than personal life.

The reason why I kept stopping, though, is for a very personal matter.

On Saturday November 10, my father fell while walking down a set of stairs by his apartment in Brooklyn.  On the morning of the 11th, I found out the injury was worse than expected.  He had lost all sensation below his neck, leaving him essentially a quadriplegic.  That afternoon, I was on a plane headed to New York.  On Tuesday November 13th my father, having made his decision while completely lucid and with all his wits about him, started on morphine to control the pain he would be experiencing over the next few days.  He had opted not to have surgery that possibly – but not likely – would have recovered the use of his arms.  He would never have walked again in any case.

On Monday the 19th, a day after I had flown home and a few days before Thanksgiving, my father passed away.

Before I left, when there was a chance I’d still be in New York when he passed and possibly there for the funeral, my sister asked if I’d be willing to give a eulogy.  I was torn.  This would be for a man from whom I’d become estranged for probably the last 15 years.  A man who spent much of his life feeling frustrated about how everything had held him back, had prevented him from being a success.  Someone who spent the last decade of his life finally accepting that he had in fact been the main culprit in these failed dreams and aspirations, and that he had in many ways let down everyone around him.  Someone who had left my mother, sister and myself to find our own ways.

I have spent the last 15 or so years – since leaving home for college – trying to become a man using my father not as a role model but as a counter-example.  I did not explicitly try to be the opposite of him, but he was a cautionary tale in almost every decision I made.

Yet, on that night a couple of weeks ago when my sister and I asked my father if he was in pain and wanted to start the morphine, when he asked me if he was brave or a coward for choosing not to have the surgery and live a life that he did not want, in a wheelchair and fighting through painful physical therapy, I cried.  I sobbed.  I felt that rare type of emotion that simultaneously overwhelms yet does not cloud one’s thoughts.  The sadness and sense of loss was one that came from somewhere deep in my core, a place that was beneath the logical, conscious level from which “normal” emotions exist. It is with the residual of such a visceral emotional experience that I offer the following.

Robert “Bob” Chen was not a perfect father, but he was my father.  He yelled, he was short-tempered, and he sometimes saw us as holding him back and preventing him from achieving his dreams.  Depending on his mood, he either felt it was his destiny or his curse to be successful, as the oldest child in his family.  In either case, it was always external forces – such as his family – that thwarted his efforts.  But he was also a man that did eventually change.  He spoke repeatedly over the last decade that it was us – his son and daughter – that were the true successes in his life.  That if there was even the tiniest bit of our achievements as adults, professionals and now parents that could be attributed to him, he would be happy and content.  We were not perfect children nor did we make a perfect family, but we were his children, and his family, and in the end he thought of us with pride and took every opportunity to say as much.

Even when he was in the throes of placing blame on others, he did not entirely forget his family.  When he ran an office supply company, he named his products after us.  It is perhaps telling and was indeed prescient that his lack of attention to detail caused him to stumble even in this effort.  When he used my name as part of the brand of a line of paper products, he spelled my name incorrectly.  I could easily look back and think of him as hapless and that it was merely a portent of years of frustration to come.

I prefer to remember that he thought of me as his “Prince Allen.”

My father was not a perfect man, but he was an honest man.  Sometimes to a fault, to an almost child-like degree of naivete.  When he asked to borrow money for some venture, he truly did feel it would be a success.  If only you would invest in his dreams, you’d be paid back many times over.  Each time he embarked on a new project he honestly felt that he would succeed, that this would be the one.  Whether he was trying to climb the corporate ladder at the United Nations or striking off on his own, he was on his way to success.  How can you not find a degree of merit in such optimism?  How can you not find some value in that innocent faith in one’s ability to succeed?  How can I not hope that I will have that confidence when I am faced with a challenge?  How can I not hope to be like him in this way?

My father would say things that seemed confrontational and perhaps even hurtful at times.  What is the point of doing this or that?  Why would you study history, or anthropology, when there is no profitable future in those fields?  Why did you not visit more often or even talk to me online?

Yet I came to realize that these not judgments.  My father lived in some kind of meta-space where he could truly, honestly feel that there was no point in studying something other than business yet also accept that we had our own reasons for choosing our own paths.  That while he was deeply disappointed that I did not write him as much as he wished, he did not fault me or even question the reasons – really excuses – that I gave.  It’s not that he chose not to judge.  He simply did not.  His questions were questions, and his faith in the honesty of others in response to his own rarely faltered.

My father did not really know how to maintain a friendship, but he was perhaps the friendliest person I have ever known.  Even to his last days, when he was not in pain, when the morphine was not too strong and he could be clear of mind, he was smiling, talking, and reminiscing.  I spent many years wishing to be anything but my father.  Yet when relatives commented that I inherited his personality and good humor, I found myself filled with pride.  I found myself hoping that I could make the most of such a gift.

Robert Chen was my father.  No matter what I think of, remember, or even perhaps dwell upon from the last 34 years, I have and will always know that he was my father.  Someone that helped raise me and shape who I am today.  Whether the lessons I learned were pleasant or not, whether I was blamed or praised, whether he is the rule or the exception, I cannot be separated from him, nor he from me.  And I will treasure this for the rest of my life.