Innovating and Creating

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This post is reprinted with permission from authors Tom Holub and Bill Allison. It was first published June 18, 2015, in the Wisdom Café, a University of California, Berkeley professional development site for UC Berkeley staff. —The Editors

Tom Holub: Bill Allison is the Director of Architecture Platforms and Integrations for Information Services and Technology at UC Berkeley. His organization develops and supports a wide range of technology infrastructure on campus, including Berkeley’s Google Apps instance, the Berkeley Desktop, and the OpenBerkeley web publishing service. We met to chat about how he keeps his teams innovative and creative.

Holub: What are some things you do to encourage high performance in your department?

Bill Allison: It starts with understanding the large context of the university. Make sure that whatever you’re doing is pretty well aligned with where the campus is headed, so that you’re relevant. I’m providing that context for the people on my team, so that they understand not just the immediate job at hand, but they can see the big picture. When you let them to go beyond the rote description of their jobs, it gets them thinking much more expansively about the possibilities. They understand their work better than you do, so let them figure out better ways to accomplish their tasks. Within your own organization you’re enabling an intelligent fabric of support for the work.

For example, our engineering teams realized that we need to communicate better about what we do. They figured out some tools to create promotional videos, and they got to exercise their creativity in producing them. Those are showpieces for the work they’re doing, and they’re informational for our clients. That’s a bottom-up effort that has worked well.

Open Berkeley


The Berkeley Desktop

The anti-pattern is that you can’t be efficient if everyone is choosing their own technology. So you need to have some standards, but those standards can be liberating, because within the boundaries, you can focus on the value-added layer rather than choices at the commodity layer. What are you building and creating on top of your framework? How are we going to enable people do their jobs better, faster, more intelligently, through the services we provide?

I want everybody on my team to feel like they could walk out of the university and get an awesome job anywhere, that they’re not weird Berkeley barnacles who can only succeed here. As a result, they’re using technologies and services that align both with other institutions and in industry. The upside of this is that we’re able to connect with and learn from others, so our team isn’t having to invent solutions that are bizarre and unique to our university. If the staff feel like they’re not weird Berkeley barnacles that can only succeed here, it creates a sense of ease that makes them more comfortable, more creative.

Holub: How do you transition from legacy technologies that you know you have to support, to modern systems that you know are the direction you want to go?

Allison: You can’t realize the value of new technologies for either innovation or savings unless you’re able to turn off some of the old services. We recently retired our Sakai service and an on-premises–hosted collaboration service that resembled SharePoint, called Research Hub. To do shut these down we funded a project to help users of those services transition to new technologies, like Box, and Google, and specialized systems for the museums. You have to put the user experience first; you can’t just tell them it’s shutting down. We partner with the community and help them move to the new system, and help them realize the benefits of features that come with newer technology. Our staff should not have their identity tied up in a specific technology to the point they can’t let go. Fundamentally, our identity is built around enabling research and teaching.

If you’re willing to take on new work, and you’re willing to change what you do, to evolve with the needs of the university–we will always need great people to keep this place running and to keep it innovating.

Holub: How does that conversation go, when you’re telling someone that the project they’ve worked on is going to be shut down? How do you get them on board?

Allison: We have that conversation a lot. There were some people on our email team who thought that moving from our homegrown CalMail service to Google would mean they wouldn’t have a job. Now, as then, my message is this: If you’re willing to take on new work, and you’re willing to change what you do, to evolve with the needs of the university—we will always need great people to keep this place running and to keep it innovating. We can’t guarantee employment for life, but if you are helping us move forward and serving the research and teaching mission and helping our faculty, we’ll find a place for you.

In technology, some people feel more closely allied with the technology itself rather than the institution, and you need some people like that. But then sometimes the university changes direction, and it makes more sense for someone like that to go out to industry or somewhere else they can use their technology skills.

We recently had our staff retreat up at the Space Sciences Lab, and we got to see some real examples of IST technology in use. Part of the high-performance culture is making those connections, understanding what it means to support a major research university.

Holub: How do you assess your performance as a manager?

Allison: I question my performance every day: Am I working on the right problems? Am I building the right relationships? Does what I’m doing matter? Are my teams positioned to succeed in supporting research and teaching? If our services vaporized, would people care? What’s our impact? Are we making the university a better place? Are we helping other people do better? Evaluating these questions on a daily basis is how I focus my energy and set priorities.

Tom Holub ([email protected]) worked in IT for the College of Letters and Science, University of California, Berkeley, for 18 years before founding Totally Doable Consulting, a technology strategy and management firm focused on education and non-profit organizations.

William Allison is director of Architecture Platforms and Integrations for Information Services and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets as @billallison.

© 2015 Thomas Holub and William Allison. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.