One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced between Santa Clara and now Menlo is trying to remain focused on pursuing enterprise-quality services while facing the realities of the higher ed environment and its financial limitations. I think it’s easy to go one of two ways. Get a bit negative about our prospects to continue to deliver quality services to students with static or, more likely, shrinking budgets try to do “more with less.” Or look harder at operations, find places where efficiency can be improved, and perhaps even cut out some services to deliver 8 great products that keep the school moving rather than 10 okay and eventually less-than-okay services.
Note – these are perceptions and perspectives that arise from trying to implement and maintain top-notch services and support in the higher ed space. These are most likely not actual policy, on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis. I am not saying that there are managers in place at other schools that have “given up” on meeting these types of ambitious goals. I believe that everyone wants to deliver. I mean merely that, when facing this challenge, you don’t always look at the sunny side of things. In the time I was at Santa Clara, where we introduced and/or reorganized a lot of services and in the first few weeks at Menlo, I find myself going back and forth, and I am in some ways surprised by how intense the back and forth has been.
The other day, during a planning meeting for an event, a group of high level staff at Menlo spent 2 minutes discussing a particular item. 2 minutes doesn’t sound like much. But when the topic is who is going to pay for a balloon arch…2 minutes is eternity. This is the financial context of Menlo College. My point is not that it’s “bad” or “oh my gosh, see how tough it is for me??” But if it was eye-opening to me to see at what level financial decisions are made at a school the size of Menlo (687 students this year), then it’s important to help my 1 or 2 readers wrap their heads around it, too.
On the flip side, Menlo, its leadership and its board have been realistic supporters of IT. All of the credit goes to my predecessor, Raechelle “Rae” Clemmons, who established the importance of a proper IT infrastructure at any institution, even one as small as Menlo. In some ways, I think she effectively impressed upon these folks that perhaps it was even more important for Menlo to have a well-developed IT environment than at some other locations with (slightly) more funding. There is almost no margin for error when budgets are this tight, when the “minimum request” is always the one that is actually approved. So every dollar that is spent must go towards fundamental improvements to infrastructure and operations.
Almost paradoxically, even at such a small college, the closer we get to an “enterprise”-level environment (which usually means more money), the more efficient we can be, and the more money we can ultimately save. Just because we are small doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from these type of investments.
Today marks 1 month that I’ve been employed by Menlo College. Most of the time I’m so busy signing invoices (wow, the paperwork…) or going to meetings (I am extremely frustrated by how often I am late. I am down to 1-2 minutes but I have always felt on time was late, and early was on time…) that I haven’t really had time to stress over the budget. In some ways, because it’s not a budget that I designed, it’s so early in the fiscal year (meaning I can’t see or change any trends in spending) and of course because I’m so new, the budget is still somewhat of an abstract concept to me. I know how many dollars we have, but I don’t know how that translates in terms of operations. In a world where everyone is trying to commoditize and simplify CapEx and focus on OpEx…I really don’t have enough of a grasp on the former to help efficiency on the latter.
Two things I do know are that I need to create breathing room in both CapEx and OpEx so that I can do some stuff of my own. I need to look hard at our environment – from servers to help desk students to staff development – to help me create that breathing room.
I have already felt the impact of being responsible for such a broader scope as CIO – dealing with licenses for our ERP and looking for a replacement for our phone system…no, I didn’t have to deal with that at the law school at Santa Clara. And whenever I think about how the CapEx budget is bigger at Menlo than my entire budget at Santa Clara, I remind myself that you start adding together all these expenses that are new to me and that dollar amount shrinks awfully fast. So I need to find a way to find savings here and there.
In the last week I’ve ended our contracts with both of our value-added resellers (VARs) that split responsibilities for our consulting, systems management, procurement and networking. I switched to an entirely different one that charges by a pool of hours which can be used at whatever rate we choose, rather than a set monthly fee. In theory, I could buy the first 100 hours and then never buy any more. Granted, we would get nothing done, but if I want to have the flexibility to save money, I can just delay not only projects but also spending on support from our new VAR.
I have also used a combination of these VARs to look at some of the purchases we have made (many of which were after my predecessor’s departure but before my arrival) and find less expensive vendors. We are looking at returning only 1 or 2 items or not ordering a couple other, previously-identified ones so that we can look at potential alternatives, but we can recoup perhaps $10,000-$15,000 through these steps. A look at some licensing is going to yield about $9000 in software costs (fortunately, increases in costs for items such as our learning management system due to increased usage were already accounted for when the budget was built). I don’t know how much impact these savings will have in the long run, but if I can get in the neighborhood of $30,000-$40,000 in “savings” from the original budget…I can do something with that.
One thing I can do is focus on enterprise-level solutions. Again, a huge thanks to my predecessor for using the right building-blocks for all of her projects. We have enterprise-level servers on a solid network (though we are beginning to see signs of bandwidth issues, and I’m praying I can look at a network switch upgrade rather than potentially running new fiber optic lines between buildings). We have enterprise versions of software, rather than the commonly-used “standard” versions that are missing some key features.
However, not all of these parts and pieces of software are configured in a way that maximizes their capabilities and subsequently reduces our operating load. We have virtual desktops, for instance, which means we have fewer support calls to each individual machine on campus, but they are configured such that if a server goes down, all of the desktops housed on that server just vanish. I know and understand why this was done – plain and simple, it was cost. And I would have made the same decision at the time at the time. But because we have the right pieces in place, we can embark on an effort to leverage the “enterprise” versions of pieces of software so that when such a server fails, all those desktops just migrate over to another server and people can keep working. This concept can be applied in a number of other areas. In instances where we do need to upgrade something, those savings from above will help a great deal.
With this more efficient, more robust system in place, we can start streamlining our operations. It may be a year or three before a cycle of equipment refreshes, growth in in-house knowledge (which means less reliance on those outside folks for daily stuff and more for special projects), and some staff rearrangements really develop into a new ecosystem, but it’s a start. Without the right building blocks it would be 4-6 years. So the next task is to focus on getting to an enterprise environment so that we can focus on our small college culture. More on that one later.