Tag Archive: siguccs

why not to cut your travel/conference budget

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.

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?

managerial crossroads

I find myself at a strange intersection in my professional career.

On the one hand, I have prided myself on “doing more with less” in terms of what our department has accomplished with a significantly smaller budget than comparable groups on campus (to be clear – the “more with less” motto that is often used when budgets get tight or staff are laid off is one which I am firmly against and perhaps abhor as a managerial method.  We can work on getting every last drop of productivity out of our resources, but we can never do more than 100% of capacity, and we should never ask our staff to even try).

On the other, I find myself saying bold things that I have yet to back up with my own actions.  For instance, of late I have spent much time thinking about the future of IT in higher education.  This has been stewing in my head for some time now but Theresa Rowe‘s opening plenary at the SIGUCSS Management Symposium in San Diego really crystalized things.  We simply cannot keep doing things the way we always have been.  Maintaining the status quo – including the thus far incremental improvements to our systems and services – is not sustainable.  We must radically reassess our service portfolios and even reconsider whether we have the right job descriptions – much less the right people – to meet student, staff, and faculty needs going into the next decade or more.  Are we structurally sound and prepared to meet the challenges of delivering Google and Facebook-like services and innovation on the budgets that we have?  Can we really keep trying to achieve enterprise-level performance on budgets that corporate IT departments would laugh at?  I have long asserted that we have to make tough decisions and invest in those services that give back the highest value, not just the ones we “have always done.”  Rowe gave an even clearer and more comprehensive analysis ranging from technology trends to HR to management to budgeting.

Yet…have I done this in my own job thus far?  Have I actually led my staff in the charge to reduce our service portfolio to offer only high value services?  How do I even know the value level of our current services such that I can make an assessment?

I have spent the last 4 years building up the reputation of Law Technology and Academic Computing at Santa Clara Law School.  We are not perfect and many people know that.  But few point to those deficiencies as symptoms of a dysfunctional department.  There is a faith in our department – and the effort that we put into each of our duties – that has become the fundation of our role at the school.  I am extremely proud of where we are compared to when I arrived.  It’s been a combination of marketing, professional development, management, hopefully some leadership and definitely some changes in personnel.  But it’s real.

And it’s time to take advantage of it.

2012 will be our “crash” year.  This will be when we take all of this goodwill and faith in our department, bank on it and make the potentially radical changes that address the changing needs of academia.  I am convinced that, in the long run, all of our changes will make people happy.  I am also certain that in the short run several people will be upset by the removal or alternation of some services.  But during 2012, we will assess where we are, decide in what we will invest, identify what we must cut in order to achieve those goals (and things will be cut – I will not allow our portfolio to just increase without change elsewhere), and make significant changes.  We will use personal interactions, school and university-wide marketing, a bit of political maneuvering and I’m sure some apologies.  But this will be the year.

January 3 is when we return to work.  I’m sure you’ll hear from me by the end of that week…

Murphy’s Cousin in action

So if Murphy’s law states that “if it can go wrong, it will,” then is his cousin the one that states “if things could possibly be incredibly frustrating, they will be?”

There are a lot of conferences every year, for all kinds of fields.  In academia, there are quite a few, too, such that overlapping or back-to-back situations happen a lot.  On the other hand, for the most part, I notice that conferences of the same type don’t usually happen at the same time.  So technical conferences – how to manage a lab, stuff like that – are in early summer, then maybe late summer, then maybe in the fall.  Management conferences – the big one in Educause – is in the fall, as well.  But people who go to Educause are not usually the ones going to the technical conferences.  

However, right now I am facing a situation where the Law School Admissions Council – LSAC – has started a new, senior IT-related conference called ESCON (electronic services conference) and is actually significant subsidizing attendance.  It’s a big move on their part.  This is law school specific, though, yet it’s also leadership/management related.  Lots of admissions officers will be there, too, but part of the goal is to get the two groups together.

Now, that is from April 1-3.  Of course, as Murphy’s Cousin’s Law dictates, while usually management conferences are going to be spread out, the ACM SIGUCCS Spring Management Symposium, which is designed for those aspiring to be higher-level managers/CIOs/etc, runs from March 30-April 1.  I have applied for a grant to attend – again, very generous and I would be incredibly grateful if I were selected.  

But…c’mon.  Seriously?  One ends on April 1 and the other begins the same day?  And I don’t find out about the SIGUCCS grant until February but I book airfare for the ESCON now, which means I might leave SIGUCCS a day early, fly back to the San Francisco area, then basically meet my wife at the airport to change the contents of my luggage and jump on a plane to fly back to the eastern time zone for the ESCON.  And obviously if I get the grant I will go to both (I also have been wanting to go to the management symposium for a while now).

And yes, both are in a the eastern time zone, so I have to factor in minor jet lag, too.