Monday, October 20, 2014

As I See It: #3 on Funding, 2015 Educause Top 10 Issues

The Top 10 Issues of 2015 for higher education technology were announced recently at the Educause conference in Orlando. This entry is my third in a series of ten as I share my thoughts on each of the issues.

Issue #3: Developing IT funding models that sustain core service, support innovation and facilitate growth
 
For me, this is the big one. The super big one.

Remember when the easiest part of budgeting technology was the operational part? You knew you were going to get to keep your staff. The previous year's operational needs were mostly carried over with slight adjustment for expected annual increases. You must pay utilities, so no cuts to telephony, wiring, and licensing agreements. The big battle oftentimes took place in the 'capital' world. If you had a communicated desktop refresh plan, those dollars were less difficult to attain, but the 'big projects' were the kicker. The inevitable hassle of selling the SAN investment could often be lessened by simply using the phrase 'disaster recovery' in the ask. But remember when innovative meant capital? Trying to drive innovation via large-scale, one-time investments almost always required a heavy rotation of presentations to executive leadership, flanked by consultants, asking for the moon and being content when handed a tiny star. It was something. Remember when that was as tough as it got?

Suddenly (aka #suddenlynotsuddenly) we wake up and the entire need has flip-flopped, but the model is as stoic as a rock.

Suddenly we might need less capital. (Notice I simply said less.)

We thought it was tough to fighting for a large chunk of capital. Try fighting for increased operational.
  • Technology speed outpaces the speed of modeling.
  • We want to build less, and cloud more. Operational.
  • We want to have hosted so less maintenance. Operational.
  • I want my VDI in the cloud becomes less to own/maintain and 24/7 support. Operational.
  • Universities need to focus on efficiencies. 9 times out of 10 the smartest choice is the hosted solution. Operational.
  • Small hosted modules are more agile and responsive than large blocks of in-house software require in-house supported hardware. Operational. 
  • We need more bandwidth. Operational.
  • We need more wireless coverage for our students on campus. Operational.
  • We need more storage for streaming video. In fact, we need a comprehensive storage solution and we don't want to build it on campus. Operational.
  • Our business school wants to be able to communicate via video on a significant basis. It's part of their curriculum. Operational.
Basically, our (our meaning every higher education institution's ) current funding model supports clunky, labor-intensive, and archaic (meaning outdated 5 minutes ago) process. Our current funding models support a world where innovation equals capital. But innovation these days equals 'hosted', 'cloud', 'annual services', '24/7 maintenance' and 'collaborative solutions'.

In finance where budgeting and predictive analytics means, almost literally, the world, how can we be predictive at this pace of technology change? How can we budget when needs and requests continue to comprehensively change? We stick with the model, we stand still technology-wise because you can't fake innovation.

And all the while we still need capital dollars. The 'computer refreshes' of yesterday are the 'storage needs' and 'infrastructure refreshes' of today.

I'm not sure who's going to solve this riddle, but someone (or many someones) need to band together and identify needs first, then culminate a smart approach to address this. Is 'financial innovation' a phrase? If not, it needs to be pretty quick. Higher education has often been viewed in the past as a bit behind 'the corporate world'. We've made some significant headway while corporations have been tied up in legal red-tape over the cloud technologies and security breaches. Once they get that mess untangled, they'll be moving full-steam ahead and I'm thinking their funding models might be a little more agile than higher ed's. As a competitive person, I want US to get ahead of this. First. And with a quickness.

Friday, October 10, 2014

As I See It: #2 on Academic Technology, 2015 Educause Top 10 Issues

The Top 10 Issues of 2015 for higher education technology were announced recently at the Educause conference in Orlando. This entry is my second in a series of ten as I share my thoughts on each of the issues.

Issue #2: Optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning in collaboration with academic leadership, including understanding the appropriate level of technology to use

The first email in my inbox this morning? Coding with the kindergarten crowd [www.eschoolnews.com/2014/10/10/coding-in-kindergarten-653/], an article tying student success to kindergarten use of programming. "Teaching coding in kindergarten helps young students learn important creativity and problem-solving skills that will position them for success as they move through school," says Amanda Strawhacker from Tufts University in the article.

As an IT leader, of course I see the value in technology within the academic realm. Admittedly and quite obviously, I'm biased. It's not uncommon for me to step back and try to view a situation through the lenses of someone not in an technology-related field. With confidence I can state I do this weekly at a minimum. Why? In order to be effective, it's important that I look at technology realistically and remove any barriers that may exist between myself and the academic side of the house in reaching a consensus on the best way to move forward with an initiative.

It has been shown that technology helps engage learners at all ages. It seems as if we're going at this a bit backwards as we should have captured the interest of teachers and professors first. Now students are demanding something that not all faculty are on board with. So now what?

This is where the relationship between your academic technology team, your administrative technology team, your faculty leadership (power users, deans, associate deans) AND your technology leadership becomes really key. If the relationships aren't there, if there's a gap to be bridged, get on it. These relationships are a powerful ally. As a cohesive unit, you should be living and breathing your mission, developing a plan on how technology will help facilitate and drive that mission and setting a course and following it. The more you think about it, the more difficult it's going to be to get started. So just start. Baby steps are a great first step. What are others doing? If you're like me you want to establish attainable goals  that make sense to your institution and in the process just might be better than anyone has ever seen. Have I mentioned I'm competitive? What's the saying, 'Go big or go home'. But don't misunderstand, that doesn't mean go gauche or overboard.

Identify your needs and craft a technology solution that is more powerful than intended with a smaller footprint than ever imagined. Remember when it was cool to have a giant, clunky hunk of technology in the classroom? Yeah, me neither. But apparently that used to be the goal. Streamline your needs, make them mobile/agile/scalable/(insert another buzzword here) but with serious power. Think intuitive, plug-and-play classrooms where a professor can walk in with their personal device of choice, click a button and be 'connected' the the classroom. It's doable. And never forget: every school, college, program has different needs. There is no 'one size fits all' solution.


Never stop with the implementation. Technology selected and installed? Now you're on the never-ending reunion tour - reintroducing, retraining, and reselling this technology in a new way to all faculty that are willing to listen. After all, technology will only get used if it's beneficial and easy. A professor doesn't need to be embarrassed at the front of the classroom by a piece of non-functioning technology.

The value of technology in the classroom I believe is known or minimum 'heard of' by the majority in the academic world. But there's a sweet spot that needs to be hit - where teaching is effortless via the use of the technology, where the delivery vehicle knows its place as the facilitator but not the educator, and where continuous training and learning 'new ways' is comfortable, accessible and beneficial.

Friday, October 3, 2014

As I See It: #1, 2015 Educause Top 10 Issues



The Top 10 Issues of 2015 for higher education technology were announced recently at the Educause conference in Orlando. This entry will be my first in a series of ten as I share my thoughts on each of the issues. 

Issue #1: Hiring and retaining qualified staff, and updating the knowledge and skills of existing technology staff

I am extremely interested in the topic of staff as it’s a continuous focal point for me as a leader. I believe an IT department is only as strong as its weakest link. I also believe that the mindset of an IT employee needs to embrace – and never fear – the pace of change. 

Building and sustaining an enviable technology team is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of my job. It’s also terrifying to reach the apex of ‘awesome team’ and realize that it can almost certainly only go down from here.

How to attract staff? Believe it or not, it’s not all about the money in IT anymore. Of course no one hates buckets of money, but in higher ed it’s nearly a given that you will not be mistaken for a Rockefeller anytime soon.  However, it is oftentimes the mission and the energy and the ‘vibe’ of the promised team that will attract the best and brightest. On a shoestring budget? Don’t despair. Play up your positives. Dig deep and sell your position as an enviable and exciting one. Fight with your leadership for the free perks – continuing education, ownership of projects, flex schedules. These all have immense value as the role and the work atmosphere oftentimes complement each other well.
Retaining staff. Manage the way you want to be managed. Empower your managers to manage. Let teams take risk. Heap on praise when you hit the mark and absorb the flack when your team experiences a ‘miss’. Increases, no matter how slight, need to be leveled for a ‘wonder team’. Especially in higher education if you choose to dicker over what equates to a few hundred pre-tax dollars annually, the negative impact on morale will most certainly outweigh any positive impact. Staff need to feel like they are progressing and improving to stay engaged. Even if you need to bring in training and cost-share with other universities and business, don’t stop the training opportunities. Especially in the technology arena. Keeping skills continuously improving can make or break future relevancy.

Case in point, the web developer. Keeping in mind I cut my technology teeth on web/application development, it was about five years ago that I started to notice the decline in the web developer role. With open-source options like Wordpress entering the market and the ability of anyone being able to find a cool template and create their own website in literally minutes, it became clear that the typical clunky .php websites of higher education were on a slight path out. Web developers started going one of three ways. One, heading to design roles. After all, creative will always have a niche as an ‘art’. Two, digging in, refusing to learn new skills and ignoring the warning signs of a threatened trade. Three, recognizing integration as an upcoming need to tie ‘all that is online’ together. Creative roles moved to Marketing, those refusing to open their minds to anything new are hanging in there until someone notices they’re not needed and – boom! – integration roles are where it’s at IT staff –wise.
With cloud, virtual, and modular technologies oftentimes combined with internal technologies, every user still wants one entry point, immersive cohesion and absolute single-sign-on. Roles focusing on integration of all systems and the individuals that rock these positions become invaluable.
So, who’s re-allocatable? If you see roles fading, who do you run toward to take the new technology ball and run with it? Look for: willing to learn, excited by technology, respectful of when to play in production, people-people, fearless about new languages, grasping big picture. Thankfully that comes close to describing almost all technology folks, right? 

So what’s the declining role I see now? Well, it’s desktop support. The fleet of technicians that run around and service individual classroom and office computers. I’ve thought this for a few years now. Initially I wondered if I envisioned this because I worked in an environment at the time where the technicians were staunchly rigid and even more petulant about learning new, better, faster. Then I realized all upcoming trends and movements bolstered my initial vision. For example, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a major player. No longer are schools outfitting an over-abundance of classrooms with computers. Students come to school with the expectation of using their own device. And their own choice of device – meaning your systems better play nice (integrate) with all of the devices. And why are students bringing their own devices? Well, because it’s 2014 and it’s actually encouraged in many high schools now. Within a few years this will likely be the norm. In addition, devices come with warranties, run better than ever, and rarely have significant issues and, if they blue screen, the kids aren’t going to take them to the in-house techs to save their data in most cases. They’re hitting the Apple store or similar. Personally, I like this trend as it takes the ‘uh-oh what if I destroy this students hard drive?’ fear off the shoulders of my staff. So we have BYOD paving the way to not needing a fleet of techs on the payroll. Of course we’ll always need lab computers to run specialized software, right? Well no. Not if you virtualize those specialized softwares. The SPSS-esque scenarios are decreasing as we virtualize the beefy space-hogging softwares and allowing them to be simply transmitted via a browser to everything from tablets to smartphones. Many schools are leasing desktop computers for staff, virtualizing office applications and allowing employees to bring their own devices as well. So now, we again have two sets of technicians. One, those that disagree with my vision. Two, we have a bunch of desktop technicians freaking out about their jobs. No need to fret. Guess where we need you all? Storage, network, vendor management, integration, planning and security. I look at the tech team we have currently and have confidence that 100% will make that transition, should it occur. 

Once again, an IT team is only as strong as its weakest link. The people at the core are defining success and failure. If you as a leader can only focus on one area (aside from uh-oh you need to be able to handle more), make it on your staff. Attracting, hiring, retaining and training your staff is really top priority for technology excellence.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Moving Up the Ladder: The Toughest Lesson to Learn

So you think you want to be a manager?

Then a director?

Then continue up the 'senior leadership' ladder? Go for it.

IT leadership, now more than ever, is an excellent path to pursue for the, let's say, not faint of heart. It's a fast-paced, tough industry to manage while keeping any semblance of work/life balance (don't get me wrong, it can be done!) and, let's face it, there is stress. Think of your home when the internet is down. See that face? Multiply it times infinity. It's real. It's a challenge. And if you love challenges, what will it take for me to put you on this IT management path today?

Approximately two years ago Michael Beck, executive coach and business strategist, stated, "I did some research to find examples of CIOs who successfully transitioned into that CEO spot... and I didn't find any." [http://www.enterpriseefficiency.com/author.asp?section_id=2189&doc_id=246638

A little over a year later we hear, "The CEO job has never looked more attainable to CIOs. In today's business climate, the monster forces of social media, mobility and analytics technology are moving tectonic plates beneath traditional C-suite roles." [http://www.cio.com/article/2382358/leadership-management/cios-share-how-they-made-the-leap-to-ceo.html]

Let's face it, we (technology leadership) are what many businesses need today - we are nimble, agile and service-oriented by design and we calmly work almost exclusively in high-stress environments. Add in recent drivers like business focus and financial acumen and many of us are ready to own it all. Couple this trend-change with a recent Gartner study identifying "CIOs as the title most responsible for driving digital innovation and change, the latest sign that the role is evolving away from a reputation for just managing back-office technologies." [http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2014/04/14/ceos-say-cios-will-lead-digital-innovation-gartner/] Basically in Pretty Woman terms, "Let me give you a tip: I'm a sure thing". The sky is the limit career path -wise for a great CIO. 

So you want to hop on and ride this wave? I'm happy to share with you the pill to swallow.

Be the scapegoat.

I remember the day I went from being a developer to being the manager. Friendships changed, they had to. To be successful I needed to focus on managing effectively and fairly. I could no longer check the 'I have a best friend at work' box in the annual work/life survey. Peer positions, maybe. But as a developer, I'd worked in a veritable bullpen for years. Collaboration was forced then modeled effortlessly across all levels. Although I remember that friendship realization hitting as if it were yesterday, that dramatic shift didn't hit me as hard as the day I realized I was the scapegoat...and I needed to suck it up and be cool with it.

Newsflash: When you leave positions, others take your place. Regardless of how irreplaceable you feel you are, everyone is replaceable. You take a pivotal step to advance yourself, someone is coming in behind you. And they are attending the same meetings you did. With the same people you did. Discussing the same topics you did. From that point forward, for every negative, you are the reason it's incomplete. You are the reason they are behind. You are the reason it's not off the ground. Likewise, every accomplishment is thanks to 'the new guy'. Every great idea is 'the new guy's idea'. Projects you'd worked on for months and left wrapped up in the office chair with a pretty red bow for 'the new guy', they are his accomplishments, his sweat, his tears.

Sure you get some solace from knowing that 75% of the people sitting around the table know the history and where the credit goes, but it remains unspoken except in back offices. And furthermore, it doesn't matter to anyone. Most of all, it cannot matter to you. It's an ego thing. It's a principal thing. But mostly, it's everything you need to let go of and move on to grow and succeed.

The next job, if it's meant for you, is a snap. Technology is technology. Any industry, across genres, across seas - it's all the same. The challenges get bigger and, if you're like me, that's the fun part. The tough parts involve the emotions and 'the sadz'. Moving up and on involves missing people you care about, detaching from projects that were a part of your soul, and having your blood change from 'previous job logo colors' to 'new job logo colors'.

Challenges for those of us engaged and enthralled with the ever-evolving world of technology tend to come from the craziest places. The situations that terrify others - change, automation, mobility, bandwidth, demand - tend to soothe us. While misplaced blame and unearned ownership hit us the hardest, likely because we tend in technology to work equally with our heart and minds. Regardless, make lemonade and realize the minute you become the scapegoat, you are officially on your way. Best of luck!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

From Farm-to-Table Technology Series: Back to Basics

"The phrase 'farm to table' is a buzzword referring to food made with locally sourced ingredients. Our society is in a rapid state of technological innovation, which means that we often compromise health and nutrition for the sake of convenience, hence the popularity of fast food and TV dinners. However, a growing number of consumers have started to seek healthier and more environmentally friendly alternatives to the processed foods that dominate grocery store shelves."

Before our current technology era, business ran smoothly. Primary differences involved basing next moves on general experience while running at a much slower speed. Suddenly, the business world was thrust into a continuous 'shock and awe' state where gadgetry and basic (insert any programming language here) knowledge ruled supreme. Today, technology is a given and we need to take a step back and direct our attention to: the business. Without the glitz and glamor but showcasing metrics, data and competition. The basics discussed around the big table - of which, technology is one. 

I always enjoy reviewing technology trends for the current year about midway in to the year. A great example of spot-on trends, and one that appears to be mostly mirrored across a variety of media, can be found here: http://www.pwc.com/us/en/advisory/10-business-technology-trends.jhtml. The top trends are business analytics, social media in business and the use of mobile followed closely by cyber-security. No real surprises here now in July 2014 and, frankly, no real surprises when released last December either. 

When I think of technology and business, my vision expands beyond the basic uses of technology to compliment a business. Yes there will always be a variety of ways in which technology will enhance a business, but beyond the reporting and marketing there’s a more primal and underlying current. Technology facilitates success. Period. There it is. Not unlike a great farm-to-table experience, there is very little more holistic, satisfying and effective than when technology is a priority from the boardroom to the wiring and every level in between and emitted outward. Especially when the end result is better performance (people, product, market), higher profits (sales, savings, efficiencies, revenue) and improved productivity.

Before one takes the ‘farm to table’ analogy too literally, this does not mean that all technology needs to come from in-house magic. This will be discussed more in detail in a future series entry.

For now, it's imperative to get back to basics. Get back to business. The primary difference is that pre-technology, technology leadership was not at the table. Today, technology runs from farm to table, a benefit every step of the way.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It's Not Me, It's You...Breaking Up with your Managed Services Relationship

One of my first charges upon joining my current employer involved in-sourcing a fairly significant faction of the technology department away from a 20+ year managed services engagement. This department-part needed to be hired, trained, and integrated into an existing department. Over the course of the 20+ years there may or may not have been finger-pointing outsourced v. internal staff -style, a perception of not high levels of service, a general confusion around who to contact for specific issues and project management that aligned perfectly with the timeline of the provider but not-so-much the university. Hiring technology staff for a specialized administrative system including systems and administration expertise...in the northeast...on a budget...in less than six months?

Allow me to eliminate any dramatic tension by saying right up front, it proved to be a seamless transition. Seamless and somehow refreshing. And not only was the transition seamless, service has improved exponentially and cost decreased even more over the course of the ensuing year.

Remember when to the untrained eye it made sense to outsource quite a bit of IT? "Well if we eliminate that payroll, we'll save the company/college a million dollars!" Have you ever heard anyone give an update a few years later on savings? Most likely, unless it was a very small, duplicative, tier-1-support-level area, you have not been wowed by followup reports on cost savings and service improvements. Why is that? Here are a few of my 'takes':
  • Third-parties do have a direct interest in budgets - their own. 
  • Technology sales teams tend to be the best I've experienced. They can absolutely show you a savings on salary. It's when you match up those savings with the variety of other line items that the savings disappear rapidly.
  • Sales teams get you 'in the outsourcing' door with a hook: I can save you 50% of what you're spending now. What they mean is, what you're spending now on what you're spending now. There will be other fees and charges, expenses and investments. It's all about business. Theirs. And trust you will likely pay more.
  • If a company can convince a leader - let's say a finance leader - to pursue savings by eliminating an entire high-level branch of technology, suddenly there are no pros in-house on that area, for example, networking. You are now chained to a company and trusting them to monitor systems for a fee - that you might already be monitoring in-house for free. (Trust me, this happens, I've seen it.) You already have that service. Now you're paying for it again.
In-sourcing in 2014 is similar to the year when everyone finally succumbed to doing away with their landline at home for good. We all got cell phones and dropped our landlines, then panicked (what about 9-1-1???) and reinstated our landlines until, finally, we realized we could save money and survive without the safety net of that landline. YES. You can absolutely save money and get better service by investing in qualified IT staff dedicated to one budget (yours) and one business (yours). It takes time, patience and energy, but in the long run, it's often (not always) the smartest choice.

What keeps you from ripping off the managed services bandage and investing - possibly re-investing - in your IT team? The fear of transition? The fear of failure? The fear of downtime? The fear of backlash? In most cases it's the fear of losing the convenience of just paying someone to do something you're not at all familiar with - and never plan to be. If that's the case - hire someone you trust with the promise that you will support them, listen to them and allow them to be integrated into your long-term financial plan/strategy. They need to be someone that speaks your language, that you are comfortable with and that you look forward to sitting around many-a table with, on the regular.

Come on - rip it off. You'll feel better once you do.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Nickel and Diming is Not Fun: Redefining Infrastructure in a Technology World


Budgeting for technology used to be so simple. Operational dollars went to all expenditures that were recurring in nature - licensing, maintenance, billing, warranties through staples, travel and training. Capital dollars went to one-time expenses over 2k. Easy-peasy.

Welcome to today's exponentially changing world of technology, where an issue surpassing actual FUNDING is the after-process of PAYING.

Today let's take two scenarios.
  1. Building a new lacrosse field including renovating a stadium to make it 'high tech'. Clearly a capital project. The project is complete and a folder with the words 'Capital Project' written on the outside shields $10M worth of receipts for project expenditures. Your finance department receives the folder and stamps a big, green 'APPROVED' across the package and begins to process. No questions asked.
  2. Your IT department is leading a charge to upgrade the wireless infrastructure on campus. This is a one-time total overhaul of the core network, access points, hardware, wiring, and pipes, all in preparation to pump significantly more bandwidth across the campus. The project is complete and a folder with the words 'Capital Project' written on the outside shields $2M worth of receipts for project expenditures. Your finance department receives the folder and - - - the process begins. The next several months are littered with communications from Finance to IT questioning tens of expenses. Example: email received from Finance noting a receipt contains a line item for $30,000 involving wireless access points. There were 100 purchased, but the access points were $300, so that $30,000 needs to be moved to operational dollars. Each access point was under the 2k limit. Hmm. Well, this was funded as a capital project and IT doesn't have 30k in operational dollars. Every expense is scrutinized and presented as 'operational' instead of capital.
Please note: In scenario one above, there is a line item for $12,000. For 40 of the exact same wireless access points in scenario two. $300 x 40 = $12,000. ESPN has certain technology requirements for bandwidth and accessibility to even show up for a big game. Not surprisingly, the lacrosse field renovation passes without a second glance. Because it's a standard capital project.

Infrastructure is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly".  Herein lies the problem. Most look at the introductory definition without reviewing the second definition that has been added more recently. Infrastructure is also defined as "the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)" - BINGO.

Infrastructure is infrastructure. A hurdle we need to overcome involves re-associating 'building' with objects beyond bricks and mortar. Foundations don't simply refer to poured concrete. Foundations are also physical networks. As some invest in IaaS (infrastructure as a service) while most kick it old school with wireless in conjunction with physical networks, suddenly we're also defining intangibles (you can't touch a wireless network) as infrastructure. Mind blown? Let's stick with today's new normal of plain-Jane physical and core network infrastructure.

For now, the hurdle is helping to redefine infrastructure beyond buildings. Tomorrow is associating capital with invisible service. How can we best approach this? Real question.
This is a topic for all universities and businesses alike to minimally be aware of, preferably get some education on. As technology evolves, more focus will shift to smaller integrating with smaller. No more large chunks of heaping technology. Agility, scalability and integration will be key. IT will rally for the funding. The last hitch should be spending most of everyone's time explaining every single piece of the purchase. The right leader will know what is capital and what is not and should be more than willing to vouch for each expenditure - from the $300 wireless access points purchased Costco-style (in bulk) to the $800k virtual infrastructure block. It's all brick and mortar to us. Technology is infrastructure. The computer refreshes of yesterday are the total network overhauls of today, on set cycles to keep up with the pace of technology. Each are capital projects made of capital expenditures.

Fun times ahead!