Finding Your Secrets to Success

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Jack Suess is Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Recently the co-editors of this blog asked if I would write a series of posts to share something I use when I am a guest lecturer in one of our University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Information Systems courses. The lecture is called “So You Want to be a CIO: The Secrets to Success.” When I first started giving this lecture about five years ago, I would describe my position as CIO and how I got to this position. I soon realized that for many students, still struggling to find their way in our profession, the idea of being a CIO was as foreign as wanting to be an astronaut.

Amazingly, the professor requested I come back and give this lecture the next semester. For that class I stepped back and thought about the fact that when I started in IT, I certainly had no idea I wanted to be a CIO. So for this lecture I focused on how to get started in the IT field. That lecture went much better. I talked about the range of work in the IT profession and how important it is to align your career with your interests and talents. I was doing better but still wasn’t hitting on all cylinders; however, I was asked to return the next semester.

For the third try, I realized that I needed to step back even further and talk about how to be successful in your career. I came across a resource that helped me immensely, a TED Talk by Richard St. John on “8 Secrets of Success.” In 3.3 minutes, St. John did what I had struggled to do in an hour: he summarized the important questions and ideas needed for success. He also identified eight secrets to success:

  • Find your passion.
  • Focus on serving others, not yourself.
  • Get good at something.
  • Learn to focus on what is important to you.
  • Learn to work hard but smart.
  • Find people you respect to push you when you are feeling down.
  • Think big; ideas matter.
  • Persist through the failures and challenges that are sure to come.

Over the next few months, in follow-up posts to The Professional Development Commons, I will discuss all eight of these secrets and try to relate them to my story. I hope you will join in and share your story as well.

For this first blog post, I’ll start with Find your passion. Few of us know, when we enter college, what our passion is. We may get lucky and find it later, or we may continue to live in pursuit of our passion. I got lucky, as I will explain in my story below. But there are also steps you can take to find your passion and make it your career. First, there are some wonderful tools for assessing your personality and interests: Myers-Briggs (I am an ESTJ), Strengths Finder [], and Compass, which is one I use with students. These help you to know what brings you joy. Second, once you know what you like to do, demonstrate you are prepared to work on your own to become the best you can be in that area. As I tell students, if you really love what you are doing, it becomes your hobby; you spend your own time testing new technologies or learning new insights because you get intrinsic satisfaction from doing so.

So how did I find my passion? I started college at UMBC in 1976, originally planning to study electrical engineering but settling on mathematics. As an applied math major, I was encouraged to also take the computer science track in the math department because of my interest in numerical analysis. I did, but I didn’t really think computing was something I would like. Then I got a job at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in the summer of 1979. I worked as a student programmer and consultant, and my job was to convert Fortran IV programs to Fortran 77 on a new minicomputer. I found I loved doing programming projects at the university. The things I hated about programming in courses—the lack of working with other people and the time constraints— were much different when working professionally. I found that what I loved about math, solving problems, fit perfectly into working with stakeholders to solve their problems through programming. After that summer, I was asked to stay on. Fast-forward 36 years, and I’m still at UMBC, as CIO!

What I learned working as a student consultant was that I loved three things; (1) being intellectually curious and solving a variety of tasks, some of which I had to learn on my own, (2) working with people, especially faculty, on their problems, and (3) multitasking—not being tied to a single effort but having a variety of tasks, many of which I was unaware of until I arrived each day.

These are still the three things I love in my work today. For me, being a CIO in higher education is the best job in the world. Every day I get the opportunity to collaborate with faculty to advance their teaching or research, find ways that technology can be used to improve services, and work with students to spark their passion in technology. I come to work knowing that each day brings the opportunity to make a real difference, and that fact drives me to do more. I know I’m not unique. Through EDUCAUSE, I have met many people—many of you—who share my passion for technology..

What are your stories? What got you interested in higher education IT? What drives you to stay in IT? I invite you to share your stories over the next few months. And if you are still looking for your passion, I encourage you to follow my blog posts as we go through the rest of the 8 secrets to success. Next up I will combine two of the secrets to discuss the importance of getting good at something and learning to work hard but smart.