the great pretender (syndrome)

This is one of those posts where I”m choosing to be really honest about myself.  The good thing about that is that I’m taking the time to look at myself, consider who I am, where I am, and where I still need to go.  My shortcomings as well as my strengths.  And that’s, generally speaking, a good thing to do.  The bad part is that I could reveal something about myself in a very public forum that allows readers to focus on only the weaknesses and miss the strengths.

I think it’s more important to be honest, sometimes, even in an open space, than not.  So here I am.

Right now, I am at the EDUCAUSE/CLIR Leading Change Institute, their top leadership workshop program.  There is a part of me that feels out of place.  Perhaps even a pretender at times.  I am around campus leaders at universities that are orders of magnitude larger than my institution, both in student population and level of IT complexity and sophistication. We might be facing the same challenges, conceptually, but the basic fact is that the specific topics they are working on are far beyond what I’m doing, at the least in terms of scale and sometimes for bigger reasons than that.  For instance, we have an ERP, and so do other schools.  We have to deal with the data integrity issues that accompany such a system just as other schools.  But our ERP is small enough that we literally moved it from one location to another by picking up a single box and carrying it from one building to another, whereas other schools have dozens of servers and incredibly complex network environments that would make such a concept a herculean operation.  In this case, I enjoy freedom from the smaller size of Menlo College, but I also find it hard to relate to such a dramatically different environment.

In the “scarier” case, the other institutions are dealing with challenges that aren’t even on my radar.  Items that are just beyond the scope, entirely, of what we need.  I don’t spend any mental cycles on these topics at all, yet they are important to the overall field of higher education IT.

I have spoken with a few other CIOs about “imposter symdrome.”  This isn’t a new idea – someone gets a job and feels he or she doesn’t below there.  They feel they are not qualified, the others are way more qualified, etc.  Since I got to Menlo College, I have felt this at times.  However, I feel it more when I am away, working with those from other institutions.

It’s not that I think Menlo College is an easy place where just anyone with a brain can be CIO.  It is a challenging place for a leader and manager, and the kind of strategic planning required takes skill and focus.  My job is not easy by any means.  But I feel I have earned a spot at the table.  I definitely don’t feel I am over-qualified to be at the leadership table, mind you.  Just that I am comfortable being there, at Menlo, where I have established my credentials (I think and hope).  I certainly still feel quite in awe of the others at that table more often than note, and sweaty palms prior to speaking up are still common.

Here at the Institute, “big data” came up over casual dinner.  Now, I’m well-versed enough to know what big data is and the hundreds of ways different schools approach interpreting and managing it.  The challenge of big data is how to analyze it effectively.  Beyond this basic understanding, though, I felt lost.  We don’t have big data problems at Menlo.  Take our ERP example.  Our entire enterprise database fits on a single server.  The stories from others at the table were  astounding, in terms of scale, and sophisticated.

To my left were two people talking about not only data warehouses and technologies such as Hadoop, but how to effectively utilize data warehouses beyond the basic notions.  They were past the fundamentals, and onto how to be more efficient, more effective, etc.  Business process that leads to business intelligence.  They were on step 2 (or, depending on your institution, step 10 or 100).  Others at the workshop speak of managing departments of dozens of staff.  An introduction from another attendee spoke of the initiative to design a new integrated IT/Library/”knowledge center” of the 21st century where the budget had been slashed to “only” $1.2M.

My entire budget is $1.5M and our entire department is 7.5 FTE.  Including myself.

I have to admit, I felt like a pretender and a bit of a crisis of confidence arose.  I almost forgot what Hadoop was for a minute, and then, in a terrified state of ignorance, couldn’t think of other alternatives at all.  And I have never been involved in a business intelligence project beyond the superficial, despite my professional goal to bring greater awareness of operations to Menlo.  My version of business process improvement is to get people to use our ERP tools more often.  Yes, I still think that the breadth of what I work on justifies my title, but I was reminded of how small my world is compared to others.

This morning, while ruminating on this sensation during my walk to breakfast, I tried to think of analogies that would help me wrap my mind around this sensation of not belong.  I first came upon the idea that while I’m not ready for the majors just yet, in my most optimistic mood I was at least a top prospect in the minor leagues.  The organization (EDUCAUSE) thought I was worth some investment, and I was hitting well with a good OPS+.  I’d be called up in a year or two.  I felt this was a good analogy, and felt a surge of confidence about my future.

That is, until I realized that the minor leagues are no substitute for the majors.  Thousands of top-flight prospects in the minors never make it to the big show.  Hundreds make it and are complete failures.  How many actually succeed, truly?  And while such failures are hard to diagnose, sometimes it’s something very simple.  The competition even at the highest levels of the minors just isn’t the same as at the major league level.  The fastballs are faster and the curveballs break better.

This realization didn’t do much for my confidence, and I continue to struggle to find a good mental balance.  After a few hours into the first session, I felt much more at ease and of course realized that I have a lot to offer to the overall group.  And my ambitions for my career remain the same, and my drive undeterred.

I am truly honored to be in a workshop along side these other attendees, because I could tell just over dinner that they truly are campus leaders today, deserving of inclusion at such a program that will only improve their abilities down the road.  I am flattered that EDUCAUSE thinks I belong among them.  I know that what I do on a daily basis is in the realm of a CIO and not, say, a director.  But I was reminded last night that scale does matter and, while perhaps the “minor leagues” is not a good analogy, there is something to that idea that is perhaps more applicable than not.  And it is eye-opening in a good.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.