kaiyen: pepper

the life and times of Allan Chen

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startups and higher ed IT

When we bought our house 4 years ago, we invested in some improvements. One was to lease a solar panels for our roof, from a quasi-startup that worked specifically in cities with sizable solar rebates.. At the time, the notion of leasing panels rather than buying and installing outright was pretty controversial. You didn’t own them, you didn’t get the rebate, and you are dependent on another company for maintenance, etc. The way I saw it, at the time, was that since I didn’t have $30,000 lying around for an install, not getting the rebate was moot. We would get a significant energy savings, so it seemed like a win-win. One of those situations where a solution that is sub-optimal to many was actually pretty okay for us.

I’ve had to revisit this decision recently, and it occurred to me that it’s not unlike the times I’ve worked with startups while here at Menlo. At face value, it seems really dangerous to work with a company that has 10 employees and is a year old. These companies can go through ups and downs. The obvious one is going out of business, but there can be severe changes in direction due to market forces, abrupt adjustments to planned features quarter by quarter, and a seeming rotating pool of sales folks (if they have a sales force at all). Ironically, the one consistent thing has been negotiating pricing – these companies want to get into the higher education market, so they are usually willing to talk until we find something mutually beneficial not only now but also for at least a few years down the road. I can’t exactly adopt something now at an affordable price then pay ten times that amount in year two.

At the same time, all institutions should be looking to take advantage of new technologies and solutions and especially here in Silicon Valley there are many options around if one has an open mind. We can do some really interesting things with security, management, and monitoring based just on some recent agreements that we’ve made. And not so long ago, when I was still at Santa Clara Law School, I was working with “start ups” like Box, which is definitely a lot more than a fledgling company now.

There are many reasons to pursue partnerships with startups. One of course is that we’re a small college, and they are flexible on terms because they want to get into our market. These are companies that are hungry and of course must create compelling solutions to problems. They are there to be a David to the existing Goliath, and to aim that sling-shot with great accuracy. We have come upon some truly stunning products from these companies that have greatly enhanced our abilities. Of course we have been careful in the solutions we’ve pursued. We need to consider the benefit from multiple angles (will this provide not only superior results and features, but also at a reduced management load?) and of course the risks. Sometimes we have to look at what stage of venture capital funding they are at and the valuation established by investors along with the technology itself.

In the end, though,what has mattered is having the open mind to consider such solutions and the organizational ability to take advantage of them. We must be open to the idea that, perhaps because of certain aspects unique to Menlo College, taking a calculated risk makes sense. Just as how leasing those panels, at that time, made sense for us in our particular situation. While we missed out on $10,000 in rebates, we never could have gotten them anyway, and we’re still getting an energy savings every month that far exceeds the lease payment we have to make. In the case of start-ups at Menlo, we may not get the benefits of working with a larger company with its substantial infrastructure, but we get at times a better (or better-fitting) solution with fewer strings attached.  Even if a company goes in a different direction with some tool we’ve adopted, as long as we’ve gotten what we need out of it and haven’t entangled our operations with the solution such that it’s a chore to undo, it’s probably been worth it. And we’ve shown again that we as an organization are agile enough to take a calculated risk here and there. In many ways I value that agility that we’ve developed and the mindset that propels it more than anything else.

In the long run, this agility plays out in more traditional ways. Some new next-generation security option comes up, and we’re able to act on it faster than one might expect. There might be a new technology that is actually quite hard to master, but because we have placed an emphasis on the ability to adapt and learn, we can go through that adoption process sooner than others and perhaps get ahead of the curve. We’ll make our mistakes, but perhaps we can rebound from those, too, without as much pain because we’re accustomed to such changes from taken risks. Or perhaps we’re just going through a “normal” infrastructure refresh that involves servers, storage, and our virtualization layer. Perhaps we’re able to handle that kind of stress better, too. No matter what, agility and a mindset that appreciates that flexibility is invaluable.

I’m not saying that I’m going to be reaching out to start-ups and taking risks – calculated or otherwise – at Muhlenberg. But I do hope we can achieve the kind of agility that we’ve found here at Menlo. And if we are able to buck a trend here and there and do something new and impressive, then that certainly wouldn’t hurt.

thinking about frameworks and “best practices…”

As I prepare for my move to Muhlenberg College as their CIO, I have been doing a great deal of thinking about adapting to new situations. I have been keeping a completely open mind about Muhlenberg and the Office of IT themselves – I must learn the environment and culture and absolutely cannot make any judgments before arriving. But I have been thinking a lot about how transitions go in general. I’ve been reading the books, talking to mentors, and just tossing around ideas. I have allocated much time to considering the myriad of ways to handle a transition, both personally and to those with whom you interact. And a big part of a transition is what set of values will drive the organization.

One way to develop values that has come up quite a bit surrounds using “best practices” and various frameworks for managing IT organizations. I speak specifically about ITIL and Lean IT. The former is a non-prescriptive approach to managing organizations of almost any kind, with discussions about defining a service vs. a process, how to catalog and therefore understand those items, and determining “owners” for the sake of accountability and communication (massive oversimplification of a powerful set of tools). When applies specifically to the world of IT, the acronym ITSM is commonly used – IT Service Management. So the processes become the Help Desk, and the service might be repairing a printer or building a new wireless network. Owners become specifically the Help Desk Managers or the Networking Administrators, for example.

Lean also comes from outside IT – its origins are with manufacturing. Pioneered by Toyota, the idea is to eliminate wasteful, non-value-adding processes and utilizing “demand management” to create a pull-based flow of procedures and practices. The end user pulls in pursuit of valuable service, which better defines what resources and methods are truly needed to deliver that value. Whereas Toyota was talking about helping eliminate waste in their car manufacturing plants, Lean IT isn’t really that different. The wasteful process might be handling password resets, and demand management might be a lot different (I could read a thousand books and I’d still have no clue how to manage the demands of faculty to create the same kind of “pull”), but the ideas are the same. Identify processes that don’t add value to the end user and eliminate them, find a way to look at the end of the “value stream” and build your operations to fill those values, rather than deliver products because that’s just what comes out the other end.

This post started out as a discussion about the role of ITIL and Lean in higher education, about the pros and cons of going about them in different ways. However, as I wrote, I realized something more fundamental was afoot.

Both frameworks talk about “value.” In ITIL, it’s all based on whether your process or service provides value in the eye of the customer. In Lean, you work hard to get rid of non-value adding work. While I personally define value broadly, it is easy to start thinking of “value” as “flashy and new.” Investing in value means enhancements that gain attention. Value comes from high profile services. Also, there is a trap of thinking that something that is a relative commodity, such as a Help Desk, where services can be documented and are repeatable, is by definition not actively adding value to an organization. They should, therefore, be eliminated or at least receive less investment.

The problem with this viewpoint is that it presumes that value is either mutually exclusive from or trumps importance. A reliable Help Desk is critically important to the organization, and provides a service that is extremely and fundamentally valuable to the larger institution. Yes, procedures can be boiled  down to documented, repeatable models. In fact, at a Help Desk in particular services should be commoditized as much as possible, such that virtually everything is based on a prescribed set of steps that lead to consistently repeatable results. One should make the Help Desk as “dull and reliable” as possible, as compared to “flashy and new.” But sometimes commodities are dull, yet they add a ton of value. I do not think anyone would claim that a Help Desk does not add to the overall value of an IT organization to the institution. A lot of investment should in fact be made into documenting and commoditizing those services. This investment can take the form of new knowledge base systems, ticketing protocols, and even staff. Bottom line – something that is easily codified isn’t necessarily unimportant nor non-value adding. It is very possible for such services to be incredibly valuable because they are so important.


staying focused in the face of interpersonal adversity

There are certainly a lot of posts, articles, tweets, almost anything that deals with how to stay focused when there is some kind of adversity around.Hopefully you find something useful in what I”m providing.

I’ve been dealing with some interpersonal stuff at work lately. It’s a professional relationship, but the adversity is purely interpersonal. I don’t want to go into details, but I personally feel there have been some inaccurate portrayals, that we (the department) have been thrown under the bus a bit, and that all in all we’ve gotten a seriously short end of the stick. Maybe the nub. I’m not saying we are not without fault in this – it’s not a baseless set of comments. But it’s not a collaborative one, either.

My point is not to complain nor to vent. My point is about how and upon what to stay focused in such a situation. At least for me.

Own up to mistakes

Without a doubt, we’ve fallen flat on a few things. We missed one deadline several months ago by a few weeks, and it was a doozy of a deadline. There was miscommunication, work done in the wrong direction, a huge shift in direction and too much time taken to get something done. I’ve owned up to this. It is critical to accept blame where it is due. And of course I don’t mean in a way that generates a defensive stance, nor in a combative way. Just accept that things went wrong. No excuses (not because there aren’t good reasons, but because no one wants to hear them).

Don’t blanket accept blame, either

The first point doesn’t mean that you should just accept any negative comment that comes your way. Again, no reason to make it a confrontational situation. That’s counter productive. But accept fault for what is truly something you let fall through, but don’t just waffle under pressure on other points. But don’t get angry, either, in defending yourself. Keep it calm.

Write lots and lots of drafts. Then don’t send them and just see someone in person.

If a lot of the conversation (and misrepresentation) is done over email, don’t get sucked into that. This is a serious bad habit of mine, I admit. But whatever you do, write lots and lots of drafts of a reply before you even consider sending. Tone it down each time. Then, when you think you’re ready to send, don’t do it. Don’t send it. Just get up and walk over to that person’s office and have a face to face. Heed points 1 & 2- do’t go in there and just agree to whatever the other person says. Lay out your case, address, in a calm manner, what you agree with and don’t agree with. And then get out of there with your head held high.

You’re there for to provide solutions to users. Always remember that.

What matters, in the end, is that we are solution provision groups. Ideally, our relationships are collaborative and we’re about working together to find solutions that will help the institution in general. But at the very least we’re here to help. And never, ever, let interpersonal matters distract from this. Maybe a specific email on one topic is a bit heated, but all others are balanced and even, as they should be. All other interactions are about getting things done. Stay focused, and you’ll remember your real purpose.

Short and sweet. Well, short anyway. I leave it to you to decide if it has any sugar (worth).


on second thought…

Let’s be honest – I tend to get pretty introspective around the new year. Not in a dark way, but certainly many of my thoughts are dedicated to what I have done but many more of them are focused on what I have not accomplished, or sub-optimal results. It’s my nature to be more critical than not. I have spent a lot of energy the last year or so trying to celebrate the positives, and with my friends in the SIGUCCS tribe I have made a lot of progress, but I still have a long way to go. One thing the Tribe has helped me do, though, is to turn these critical moments and make them points for improvement or at least lessons learned rather than merely negatives with which to obsess. Considering I came to Menlo College with the fundamental goal to learn about being a CIO (and an institutional leader and manager, of course), let’s see how I’ve done.

The Best Advocate for You (and your school) is You

I like to work on relationships with our partners and even vendors. I like to cultivate connections with someone like our Value-Added Reseller (VAR) where they understand our needs and appreciate my expectations. I hope that vendors – actual manufacturers – will work with us on deals and pricing that show appreciation for our small institution and staff. I’ve also spent a lot of time building partnerships around campus, with other leaders, department heads, faculty and staff. In many ways I hope that these local relationships will yield strong voices of support. For example, I have tried to reach a point with a VAR where, when a project comes up, my priorities (do things the “right way,” and don’t presume that I want the easy way just because we’re small) are their priorities. I had begun to believe that vendors would go the extra mile for us on implementations and installations. I’d also started hoping that partners around campus would speak up for us when appropriate and helpful to all parties.

This was a stupid and naive approach.

At the end of the day, the only person (or group) that can effectively advocate for your vision, your priorities, and your needs is YOU (or your department). The only one that can always ask “wait, but what’s the right way to do that, not just the ‘small college’ way?” is going to be the person paying for those services. The only one that will even consistently notice that things have not been done that way is going to be you – outside groups will not be reliably pro-active to pursue the path that you prefer or even need. At the very least, one must be vigilant for any presumptions made and constantly verify that everyone is on the same page. You are the owner of your processes and solutions, plain and simple.

And regardless of how strong that relationship is with a partner on campus, even if all parties are seeking progress and there is no pettiness or personal gain issues at play, no one can truly take your place at the table. We all work hard to get to the table, and we need to be there when the questions come up.

This might seem pretty obvious, and in many ways I hope it is to most people. My point is a more nuanced one. We have faith in our efforts to form partnerships, and we pursue them so that we are working together more often than one for one another. We can and should still try to establish these relationships and invest the time needed to maintain them. But its naive to believe that you can let things just go on their own way without constantly checking on things. And remembering that at the end of the day – every day – you are the one that has to be the advocate for your institution’s or department’s needs.

Don’t Under-Manage your Projects. Ever.

You can never put too much effort into project management. Whether the project is small or big, oversight and management must be consistent and run from start to finish. Even informal projects need regular attention. More importantly, don’t get distracted. If you’re doing too many projects, then find a way to spread out the load. If you’re not a formal project manager and your “regular” work gets in the way, then keep yourself on target with the project first and manage your daily duties accordingly, or give that project to someone else.

This might seem easy for me to say – of course project management is important, and of course we all wish we can shift things around or give projects to others, but that’s just not realistic, right? The way I see it, it is my job, as a manger and leader, to help my team keep projects balanced, and to manage expectations of those around campus. Whether it’s our web applications developer, our social media & marketing manager, or our actual project manager, I am there to help things stay balanced. I am there to enable them to do their work, to be successful. I am there to run interference if one project has to bump another one off the list. That’s what I do, so that we can keep the project management capacity we need to keep things on track. Because, again, you can never have too much project management capacity. That means that there has to be someone constantly moving things around to keep capacity at a maximum.

And one other thing I learned – of all the folks on the team, I’m perhaps the one that has the hardest time shifting my attention away from my “regular” duties (like…supporting the team in their own project management needs). So I probably shouldn’t take on big projects. Definitely learned this in a rather rough way.

Take Your Professional Networks to the Next Level

I’m sure everyone puts a lot of energy into building professional networks. At conferences, through attendance at webinars, participating on mailing lists, or via some other means, we work hard to meet others and to establish at least some kind of meaningful bond that could bear fruit of some kind or another down the road. Whether it’s literally our LinkedIn network or merely and generically the network of people with whom we are linked, it is important that we put energy into development and maintenance.

However, if you can take it one step further – interaction at a human level – then things really change. This could be going out to dinner or for a drink with folks in your network – rather than just lunches (that occur during the business day anyway) – or, if people are remote, setting up a chat room for regular interaction. It could even still take place at a professional event, like a conference, but the interaction itself is more personal. Yes, I’m at the bar networking with others, but I’m there spending time on a human level with others as well. We aren’t just talking about the job, nor are we just making small talk. The difference can be very subtle – asking for professional advice is one thing. Being comfortable enough to bluntly complain about a situation in a candid way before asking for that advice is something deeper.

I’ve spent a lot of time networking at conferences the last several years, building my network. I’ve done just about every leadership and management program that EDUCAUSE offers, and I’ve become involved with SIGUCCS at an organizational level. After all this investment, it’s been just the last year or so that my interactions have gone to the more human level. Several of us meet online on a regular basis. Some of us are in an always-on chat room where we indeed do complain about things now and then, yet always also ask for advice. Some of us are even talking about going hiking or backpacking together at some point.

I can’t really quantify and can only vaguely qualify the impact of this difference. But it’s been meaningful, certainly, and people I considered peers became more than acquaintances and are now bona fide friends.

if you don’t put up a new building, you might as well give up

The title of this post is purposely provocative.  Over and over again, we are seeing examples here at the Leading Change Institute of these innovative, collaborative and creative spaces that are parts of new or heavily renovated buildings.  Redo all classrooms, put in tools for untethered teaching, and now you’re an examplar of innovation.   Tear out all the traditional materials in one space and convert it into an innovation space and you are cutting edge.

The depressing part of these examples is obvious – if one cannot do such extensive renovations or new builds, are we destined to fall behind?  Should we just give up?

Of course I am aware that it’s very possible to be very innovative while utilizing existing spaces, or perhaps with only minor changes.  We can put in untethered teaching tools while doing a “standard” technology refresh for a classroom.  We don’t need entirely new buildings.  A conference room with new monitors, screens, and white boards is suddenly a dynamic collaboration space.

But the examples, time and again, are of new buildings, and it is depressing at times.  Let’s start focusing on existing spaces that have been converted, without massive related changes.  If you have to completely alter one practice in order to free up space – that doesn’t count.  Can you take a location, building, lounge, etc. and modify it in perhaps several small ways and provide dramatically improved teaching/learning/social interaction aspects?  Let’s hear about those.  Let’s see photos of those spaces.


brain space

Something else I’m learning from the Leading Change Institute from CLIR/EDUCAUSE?  That a lot of people keep track of a lot of trends, articles, and ideas, all the time.

“Have you read that article from X?”

“I was thinking about the writings of Y and how they apply to what you are saying”

“Well, if you consider the ideas put forth by Z then you can really understand your point better about topic ‘something I don’t even understand yet'”

All of this makes me wonder if I just need to spend more time reading things, need to spend less time worrying about the “weeds” and day-to-day (those first two go hand-in-hand of course) or, perhaps, if I just don’t have the brainspace for all of this.  I have not even heard of the things people are referencing, much less unaware of the specific article being cited.

This is humbling more than anything else.  And instructive. To be an effective leader and one recognized as being knowledgeable, I do need to read more.  I need to track trends but, more importantly, I need to keep track of who is saying what.  If I know what one author has been saying about a topic, then I can more effectively track other ideas coming out of that field.  I’ve always been a pretty prolific reader, but I need to take it up a notch in sophistication.

Here’s to all those other attendees with me in this room with their incredible pool of knowledge.  I am truly impressed.

choosing to take the back seat

Last summer, I attended one of the EDUCAUSE Leadership Institutes.  I attended two different ones but I’m choosing not to identify which one this particular post pertains to.

One exercise that seems common among the various leadership programs from EDUCAUSE is that we write a card to ourselves.  Stuff we want to remind ourselves to do afterwards, or perhaps an important lesson we might forget that we need a reminder on.  One thing I did last time, for instance, was to design a staff retreat using certain principles we had learned.

In one of the two institutes I attended, we also had to write a card to the person sitting to our left.  Which meant that, 6 months later, I got a card with a suggestion from someone else, who had observed me during the week.  To paraphrase, this card said that I had

lots of great ideas and energy, but need to slow down and ask others for their opinions before speaking up.  You need to include others.  Only then would I be successful

To be honest, at first this was rather hard to take.  I felt a bit insulted and hurt; I wouldn’t be successful until I changed something?.  Of course, I soon realized that the person didn’t intend it in mean-spirited way at all, and that, in fact, he was right.  I do tend to let my enthusiasm and energy overwhelm the need to be thoughtful and inclusive.  Oddly enough, I also tend to be inclusive overall, wanting to keep everyone involved.  The two forces conflict, and the energy one sometimes wins out, such in this case.  This particular institute, I found myself on the minority of ideas a lot, and therefore caused some tension now and then.  I was frustrated by my group, overall, and even apologized to them in the end.  So yes, the part of me that gets overly excited to the point of excluding others became an issue.  This card reminded me of that.

Here I am today, at the EDUCAUSE Leading Change Institute, and I’m working hard at asking others for their opinions and letting others do the talking and presenting.  I’m not saying I’m doing a good job of it – but I am definitely letting others talk.  And I have to admit that it’s been really tough.  I want to say every idea I have, and I want to be the one to present it to the attendees.  I want everyone to know that I’m a presenter, comfortable talking with people, affable and funny.  I feel this especially at an event like this because I don’t know the other attendees very well.

But I know I need to let go, and I need to trust in others.  I have been trying really hard, with mixed success (as I was writing this sentence, I interrupted someone just out of enthusiasm.  Definitely still working on it).

It will be a good thing in the long run and I still have a ways to go.  I am determined to reel myself in for the rest of the week, and ask others for opinions and actively listen as much as possible.  I want to be thoughtful.

Not easy, but an important skill, without doubt.

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.

finding your inner avatar

I’ve probably given dozens of talks to students about the importance of being aware of one’s online presence.  The importance of having a professional picture on LinkedIn rather than using the one taken at a party with friends holding red Solo cups on Facebook.  Or even just cropping the party photo.  And I’m not even a career counselor.

Most of these chats have been pretty rudimentary.  Maybe just a couple of topics beyond the photo one and letting students know that many companies will do research into their social media activities in one manner or another.  My thoughts on this, therefore, have evolved towards what I like to think of as a higher awareness of one’s online presence.  More than just how one represents one self superficially, through pictures and the types of facebook wall posts or Instagram photos.  But at a deeper level.  At a point where what one posts online in all manners is part of a cohesive persona that is purposely chosen as a representation of your identity.

We use avatars all the time, but the most common instance is in video game play.  In those cases, a great deal of effort is often put into the avatar’s appearance, from clothing to armor to weaponry.  More than that, though, there is a conscious choice about the type of “person” that avatar will be.  The personality reinforced by actual behavior.  A wizard tends to be seen as sagacious, and I know many players who “speak” as their avatar in language tending towards the more knowledgeable and learned.  I know others that have chosen to be represented as warriors, and speak aggressively and sometimes even belligerently.  Certainly oftentimes these avatars are somewhat similar to the actual person – one that it perhaps a bit more fight-oriented chooses to be a soldier.  But sometimes the connection isn’t so obvious, and, again, some kind of decision has been made to not only look the part, but act and speak it, too.

Similarly, we should paying attention to not only how we look (better than that facebook party picture, hopefully) but also how we represent ourselves online.  Do you blog?  If so, what do you write about?  It could be about the intricacies of leadership and communication, which perhaps shows that I am one is a bit nerdy or bookish or about cooking, which demonstrates a life outside of work.  Something enjoyed on a different level.  Do you tweet?  About what?  Is the train late?  Or is there an interesting article about new trends in higher education?  What else do you use?  Might you actually use a facebook page as a discussion point above and beyond the purely social?

More importantly, have you made a conscious decision to do some combination of these activities?  If so, have you developed a kind of online personality through such an amalgamation?  Is it one that you like or intended to create?

embracing ignorance

I have been working on this post forever – well over a month.  My apologies.

Back in November, I was returning from a conference and was on the shuttle ride with two women from the UK.  They were here on business and had only 1.5 days to see San Francisco.  I gave some tips about what major sites to visit or, if they preferred the less crowded spots, some ways to finding the more hole-in-the-wall restaurants, etc.  Overall a good conversation.

At one point, though, I demonstrated a remarkable level of american-centric ignorance.  I mentioned how, at the conference, I was at the snack area between sessions and ran into someone from the UK who was confused about why there was honey available by the tea selection.  Showing some poor judgment, I presumed that while sugar and milk were staples of tea in the UK, honey must not be used at all.  I commented to my two shuttle-mates that this was a great example of differences in culture, even down to how we drink our tea.  I thought I was being pretty intelligent and insightful.

Of course, I was immediately informed that many, many British tea drinkers use honey, and that I just happened to be speaking with someone from a family that did not.  I felt rather foolish.  Why would everyone in the UK drink tea exactly the same way?  Why would I make such a presumption?  How could I let my ignorance rear its head so dramatically and embarrassingly?

As I slowly let myself off the hook for this, I realized that this was an important lesson and reminder about dealing with one’s ignorance.  In a social setting, one probably wants to avoid looking so poorly.  Best to know your stuff before opening your mouth.  But in a professional setting, where one is managing a disparate array of services, you have to embrace the fact that you will be relatively ignorant of at least some of those areas.  You have to push past that and still ask the questions that need to be asked, even if you look like an idiot.

As I’ve embarked on a few new projects lately, it’s become clear that I am really short on detailed knowledge ins some areas.  I’m not a systems person in general, have never managed anything beyond Windows Server 2000 in my life, and am a completely blank slate when it comes to networking.  It would be easy for me to either shy away from these topics or, at a bare minimum effort, just delegate it out to others and be hands-off.

The first scenario isn’t an option.  These are important topics (especially since networking goes out into security) and they cannot be ignored.  The second option – just letting others take care of things with a form of blind faith – is a truly bad idea because it involves completely detaching myself from potentially core operations (which, in turn, affect long-term strategy).

I have no desire to manage our network, but I’m going to ask questions.  I don’t want to know which Cisco switch is the right one, but I want to know why we want this feature vs. another.  And perhaps why we shouldn’t consider a different brand altogether.  I’m going to propose alternatives, even if those ideas are completely ludicrous and excellent examples of my lack of knowledge in the area.

I have to embrace my ignorance on these topics.  I have to embrace ignorance on a lot of topics.  At some point, if one continues to move up in an organization, he or she will be overseeing some area that is not within one’s expertise.  Ideally, you rely on your team to be the experts.  But our team is very small, and we honestly have no true networking staff available.  Even if we did have more staff, it would be unwise to completely disconnect merely because I don’t know the language.  Trust your team, but stay engaged.  Continue to ask others to explain concepts “as if you were a 4 year old.”  Read that article in the tech magazine and ask whether the big flash advertisement for some new product means anything.

We’re all basically ignorant about some topics.  At a dinner party, I’m not going to talk about firewalls and 802.11AC wireless (for more reasons than just my lack of networking knowledge…).  But at work, I’ll be the first to ask.  And the second, and the third, until someone has taken the time to explain to me to the level that I need to know.  I don’t need to know everything, but I can’t remain ignorant, either.