"I'm Just Going to Walk the Earth"

min read

You may have heard that I am stepping down from my CIO position at the University of Maryland. Assuming that you did, and that we’ve been acquainted over the years, you are probably wondering about the details and if I’m OK. Let me provide some details of personal note in the opening part of this blog post, but in the second half I hope to describe what it is that I want to do next – for myself and also for our higher education CIO community. {If “TMI” gives you agita, just scroll down!}

First off – I’m OK. This was my choice. This was my idea. Really.

The last year has been cathartic on many levels. To be very direct, I lost more than a few people I knew, before what we would consider “their time.” I won’t blather about how they were my best buddies; they weren’t. But they were people I knew, and people with whom I shared a laugh, or a meal, or moments of conversations about overcoming challenges we faced in our profession and in our lives. Their passing reminded me of others who have left us—some more than a decade ago, like my very dear friend Gerry Bernbom. Their passing made me aware of my own mortality.

In addition, other friends and colleagues have been dealing with challenges of serious medical illnesses and family crises. Still more colleagues and friends—and family members—are grappling with career and employment interruptions, the kind not of their choosing. The lives—and tribulations—of others illuminate our own lives. When these events come in bunches, how can we not perceive that someone is trying to tell us something?

A friend once told me that our lives are bounded by two points: the point at which you come into the world and that at which you leave it. The second point can come suddenly, with little advance warning, as is often the case with life’s adversities. At these moments, you are suddenly beset with trials and travail, or you step on a rainbow. Then is not the time to be wishing about the things you might have done, or done differently. I hope I have a long, long way to go before that second point arrives. But I don’t know – none of us ever does. Given this, how can we not ask questions until answers emerge?

Well, for me, an answer emerged. I don’t want career options; I have finished my “career” as a CIO. I want to explore other options, period. I don’t want a job; I’ve had jobs for 35 years. Been there, done that, and not enjoyed a vacation or a full weekend that I can remember! Although I may work on lowering my golf handicap and improving my grasp of Keith Richards’s guitar licks, I am not going to be a [beach] bum. I’m going to work, but my focus is going to change—onto my health and fitness, my wife, my life—and an above-the-campus set of challenges that interests me greatly.

In the movie Pulp Fiction, the ending scene in the coffee shop with Vincent and Jules (obliquely referenced in the title for this blog post) is a good analogy. (Google the title; if you don’t know the scene, viewer discretion is advised.) Like Jules, I have been sitting here contemplating what comes next.

First, I’m going to finish up some key initiatives here at the University of Maryland and then assist its leadership in finding someone to be its next CIO. The institution, its leadership team, its community of scholars, and the staff in the UMD Division of IT deserve a great CIO. Whether I have been one of those is not for me to judge. Perhaps, though, I can help everyone make the best choice to fill this critical role for the special snowflake that is UMD. This challenge interests me greatly beyond the very transaction itself, since I truly believe that one of the key problems facing institutions involves addressing “the CIO pipeline” (more on that in a moment). Maybe the right person to advise the hiring of a CIO for an institution is that institution’s departing CIO?

And after that? Then I’m just going to walk the earth. Go from place to place. Meet people. Get into adventures. That’s what I want . . . to get into adventures!

EDUCAUSE President Diana Oblinger has offered me just such an adventure: to continue to serve the association and the community in the role of Presidential Fellow, with a focus on addressing the CIO pipeline challenges. One part of this role is to help EDUCAUSE guide talented IT leaders as they develop into high-impact and highly successful CIOs (whether they are already in the role or are aspiring to it).

Beyond talent development, another aspect I am eager to explore is what I see as perhaps the most critical facet of the pipeline challenge: that the people who hire CIOs (presidents, provosts, campus communities) don’t understand well what it is we do. They don’t have a good grasp of the value we can bring beyond simply keeping the wheels on the road, and thus they don’t know what to look for when making a critical leadership selection for their institutions in this time of technological disruption. I believe EDUCAUSE can make a difference in this aspect of the CIO pipeline challenge. There is no perfect, singular CIO model that is interchangeable everywhere; we aren’t building iRobot-CIO. Search committees and hiring executives must be helped to understand what their institution needs in a 21st-century CIO and how to recognize those attributes in candidates who appear before them. Not an easy task, mind you, but one I am eager to work with EDUCAUSE and others to address.

There is also another, larger challenge: developing ways in which we help explain technology’s disruption of higher education to boards, presidents, provosts, and other “non-IT types.” Our conferences, presentations, panels, and articles are very rich in content but are written mostly for consumption by our colleagues—that is, written by IT folks for IT folks. We have to develop a means of communicating with leaders and decision-makers who aren’t imbued with a deep understanding of IT and the disruption. We need to be bold in doing so. And we need to be quick about it, because time is short and disruption is under way.

I hope that by working with you—as one of you, now moved from the field to the sidelines but still with the game fresh in my mind—I can find ways to share our experiences with the broader community. So often, the leadership roles in IT in higher education are lonely places, where we keep our own counsel and learn things too often the hard way. EDUCAUSE has provided the forum where we have always been able to share, but we can do better—and we can do more. I can do better—and more—with more time to focus and reflect on our challenges. I realize that this is a perishable commodity too—that soon our ever-changing landscape will make my experiences and reflections of less relevance and value. So be it. Just one more reason to get to work now.

I’m pretty sure of what awaits me in 2014: finishing up at UMD and completing my time as EDUCAUSE Presidential Fellow, helping to describe and address the challenges I've mentioned. I also know there is more to come as I begin to walk the earth.

I hope that we’ll get into some adventures.