The IT Leader Today

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In spring 2015, EDUCAUSE and Jisc published a report on the future IT leader. Many of the working group contributors were interviewed about what it means to be an IT leader today, as summarized in this article.

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Karen A. Wetzel, Program Manager, ECAR Working Groups, EDUCAUSE

In 2014, EDUCAUSE, the association of information technology leaders in higher education in the United States, and Jisc, the organization supporting the use of digital technologies for higher education and research in the United Kingdom, partnered to form a working group to envision the future IT leader. A report from the group, Technology in Higher Education: Defining the Strategic Leader, was published in March 2015.

As part of the project, many of the working group participants were interviewed to get a better understanding of what led them to become IT leaders, what motivates them in the IT leader role, the greatest challenges they continue to face, and what decision they've made as an IT leader that makes them proudest. Their responses are summarized below, along with a selection of some of the interviews that best highlight what it means to be an IT leader today.

Working Group Interviewees

Tom Andriola, Vice President and CIO, University of California, Office of the President

Mark Askren, Chief Information Officer, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Eileen Brandreth, Director of University IT, Cardiff University

Nigel Cunningham, Deputy Director Finance and Information Services, University of Ulster

Aline Hayes, Director of ICT, Sheffield City Council

Joanne M. Kossuth, Vice President for Operations and CIO, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

Thad Lurie, Chief Operating Officer, EDUCAUSE

Paul Saunders, Chief Technology Officer, University of Dundee

1. Can you recall a particular moment in your career that changed your perspective and later on helped shape your success as a CIO?

When asked this question, one common theme emerged: Becoming an IT leader requires a significant transition from being a manager to being a leader that often can only be fully understood once experienced. It requires a change in how you spend your time, what conversations you have, and how you form relationships and partnerships. Being able to speak about the role of technology with business leaders and staff alike means that the IT leader straddles two worlds, but an IT leader is also ultimately responsible and accountable.

Becoming an IT leader also requires a shift from being heavily involved in the technology to building a team and trusting them to do that work. It's about working with a community and understanding how technology can help solve problems and, more importantly, how it can provide solutions and help further the institutional mission to make the institution more successful. It's also about being part of the community. For instance, Aline Hayes mentioned how important it was for her that "a couple of people that I had really good relationships with elsewhere in the organization … both contacted me individually and offered me their support," and Joanne Kossuth's moment led her to realize how important it was to focus on building "relationships that encourage an open dialogue around technology and its use and its benefits — and its disadvantages — and it actually ends up providing a much better product for the overall institution in the long run because of those relationships."

  • Mark Askren: "Not only do we need to get together … on our respective campuses, but many of the answers we're seeking are in the community, and by participating in that — that's a tremendous resource."

  • Eileen Brandreth: "The moment that I would say changed my perspective most was when I stepped up into my first director's role … At that moment it dawned on me that I couldn't do this just through my own knowledge and my own capabilities; I was going to have to build a team that shared a vision [with] me for how this stuff was going to work."

  • Nigel Cunningham: "A defining moment for me was that I … did a course … on systems and systems thinking. And that provided a language and a framework to look at issues and problems from different perspectives and be able to conceptualize these in a language that nontechnical people would understand and work with."

2. What has been the greatest challenge you faced in your role as CIO?

IT leaders face a multitude of challenges. The responses to this question ranged from challenges that are large and external — such as the ever-changing nature of IT and financial, strategic, or political challenges — to challenges that are more inherent to the role, such as how to convince other campus leaders and your staff alike to consider you as someone who contributes to the strategic thinking of the institution, rather than just representing the technical side of IT. Challenges may also be quite personal; for instance, Saunders noted the importance of remembering humility as a leader and the significance of the enveloping human trait of a future IT leader that was included in the EDUCAUSE/Jisc report. The challenges are ongoing, but may also be energizing, as Askren noted: "In a field that is changing as rapidly as IT, we need to find a way to integrate [and] leverage the technology to benefit the university, and that always requires change. … [T]hat's both very exciting [and] also extremely challenging."

  • Tom Andriola: "How do I reach and engage our IT professionals … to think about more than just implementing a tool or writing a piece of code, and thinking about how do we achieve the mission in a better, smarter, quicker fashion?"

  • Joanne Kossuth: "It's really keeping up with the evolving technologies and increasing demand in as secure a manner as we possibly can [while] at same time really enabling … collaboration…."

  • Aline Hayes: "You have to be able to talk to two different communities at once: your own community — your IT professionals … [as well as to] the organization and the business side and give them the same message…."

3. What drives you as a CIO — what makes you want to get to work each day?

Two themes emerged when the working group members were asked this question: they love a challenge, and they love being able to contribute and make a positive impact — on people, on the organization, and on society as a whole. As Andriola said, "Our organization is about a mission of teaching and learning, a mission of research and creation of new knowledge, and of public service. … The inspiration of those things and the impact that it has on real people [is what brings me to work every day]." As IT has an ever-expanding role to play in supporting the core missions of our higher education institutions, being an IT leader means that your job is to help students, staff, faculty, and researchers achieve their goals. It's a big responsibility, one that makes Hayes "feel beholden to do the best I can every day for those people" who rely on IT to enable them.

And the time is now. As Askren said, "There's never been a better time to be in the IT field in higher education."

  • Paul Saunders: "What we're doing is not providing people with access to e-mail and servers and storage and writing policies … what we are doing … is we're helping transform lives…."

  • Joanne Kossuth: "For me, it's the opportunity to make an impact and make a difference in both organizations and individuals."

  • Thad Lurie: "The chance to solve problems. Sometimes we're solving new problems with old solutions; sometimes we're solving old problems with new solutions. But it definitely never gets boring."

4. What decision have you made as CIO that you are proudest of?

While some of the group members were able to point to specific IT project decisions that they are proud of — such as Askren's move to centralize a payroll processing system (in an early example of software as a service) or the fully converged networks that Kossuth put into place (which turned out to be a good decision for both their infrastructure as well as their readiness) — others pointed to decisions that involved the people they work with. For instance, Andriola discussed bringing in training to help enact a cultural shift in his organization, while Saunders reflected on how he's encouraged his staff to take their annual leave and remember the importance of time away from work. For Brandreth, the decision was a personal one — moving from the financial industry into higher education: "There is a tremendous joy in working with the young … [and with] the brains of the country and understanding how they're making life-changing discoveries. … [K]nowing that all of that actually is reliant on … technology services…. Because you feel like that, you can infect those around you with that same kind of passion."

  • Nigel Cunningham: "[T]here's nothing wrong with looking outside the organization for help … so that we can concentrate on the more value-adding and strategic projects and adjust our skills and career pathways to do that."

  • Aline Hayes: "[T]hings that I've done that have created opportunities for other people to adapt and change their careers."

To learn more about the working group members, how their experiences have shaped their view of the future IT leader, and what roles and skills IT leaders will need to possess, see the full report, Technology in Higher Education: Defining the Strategic Leader, or the excerpted EDUCAUSE Review article with the same title.