2018 EDUCAUSE Rising Star Award: Damian M. Doyle [video]

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A conversation with the 2018 EDUCAUSE Rising Star Award winner.

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GB: How did you find out about winning the award, and how did you feel about it?

DD: Well, I think I found out a little while ago. It's an interesting process, where you're notified well in advance of the public announcement. I would say I was probably a little struck, very honored, and a bit humbled. To get a national award took me by surprise. I did know that a nomination had gone in, but I'd say, just very honored and very humbled by it.

GB: Cool, that's great. So, just to talk about some of the things that you have been involved in, one of them is academic research and central IT, and I'd like to start by asking you, Why do you think academic research and central IT, historically, have trouble working together?

DD: I think, historically, they have very different set of priorities. Central IT, at least a large portion of central IT, is affiliated with the business of the university. It's not all we do, but it's very operational focused. We need things to work. We need things to be reliable, whether it's tools like email or video conference or learning management. Whatever it is, it needs to be something that the campus can utilize. It needs to be, first and foremost, just a basic thing that everybody can rely on, and that's a very different priority from academic research. There was a gentleman who showed me a shirt the other day. It was from a physics university and it said, "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research." It's a little tongue-in-cheek, but it means that the purpose of research is to push the boundaries of what we understand. So, IT and research computing—researchers need the IT to work as well—that's certainly a priority, but they need a flexibility that is a little bit different, there and then. So, it's a different way of thought, where it doesn't need to be five nights of up time if that means sacrificing being innovative and, at times, at central IT, you need a system to work and people don't want to be up at 3:00 a.m. trying to fix it. We don't want the business of the university, even the business of teaching, to be affected, and I think sometimes, different groups get too centered on that. Central IT will think too much of the business and research computing will be too much in the theory, and that difference just made it hard for them to work together because they just couldn't understand each other, where they were coming from.

GB: So, how do you guys approach that at UMBC? What has been your approach to solving this puzzle?

DD: I think this is where we benefit from being a younger university. We don't know we're not supposed to work together at times. And for us, we're very centralized. One of the beauties of coming up in the last 50 years, we didn't have a lot of resources to really stand up a lot of different centers at different times,  so IT was very centralized. We've had very stable leadership, and they work very closely with the rest of the university. It doesn't mean we didn't have problems there and disconnects, but what we did a couple years ago is we actually bought out some of the Assistant VP of Researcher's time, so that he's working in the Office of Vice President of Research but he's also working for the Division of IT. And by buying out his time, I would freely admit, when we did this, I thought, "This is gonna look nice, it'll be a nice gesture." But what it really allowed is—it allowed him to have time to understand how we worked. And then he brought us into opportunities and meetings with new faculty and different centers that hadn't ever had a relationship with central IT, and by him bringing us in and then us explaining and helping to educate him on what we were doing and what services we had, it closed that gap in a way that I don't think most universities have been able to do. It really did make it a whole lot easier to have initiatives where central IT was involved in academic research and in research computing in a very positive way.

GB: That's great. Can you talk to me about what your advice would be for other universities struggling with this same problem, maybe that don't have the same exact conditions as yours? What are some concrete plans they could make to address this?

DD: I think that's a valid point. You don't have to be buying out somebody's time, but I do think it is about relationships. To some degree, it's getting the different groups in a room and talking through and helping them understand what they're each trying to do. We're unified here in the sense that our research computing group is within central IT and it's within the infrastructure, and we don't have a big disconnect where the group running our high-performance computing has no relationship with central IT or not a very good relationship. They're integrated in the same groups. What that does for us is it forces them to talk. If you don't have a structure that does that just bringing the groups together and having some meetings where they understand here are the pain points we're seeing, here are the projects we're working on. Those are gonna be very different. Central IT may be working on a campus refresh or an enterprise storage architecture refresh, where research computing may be trying to solve issues around scheduling of jobs on high-performance computing or how they work with each individual faculty, knowing that everybody's lab is unique and everybody's research is unique and they can't deploy a one-size-fits-all. Just understanding the priorities—understanding and building that relationship—is probably the biggest thing. People understand what the other groups are doing. There are ways they can be supportive and different techniques we can take. Central IT needs to be less rigid and research computing needs to be a little more focused on being redundant and being resilient as much as they can, within that context, while still having that mission to support the research, first and foremost.

GB: I'd like to shift gears just a little bit. This isn't on the list, but one of the topics I'm gonna try to cover in depth in 2019 is IT governance and, as an enterprise infrastructure VP, I was wondering if you have anything to say about that? What is your approach to governance? What you think about governance strategies?

DD: I think when I first started out in the infrastructure, I probably saw governance as a bit of a roadblock—"Man, now I've got to go and talk to all these different groups just to do this obvious, clear answer that I know is right"—and that's a very reasonable way to think about it when you're just starting out. But I've come to appreciate there's an incredible benefit in a good governance structure where you really do have stakeholders from across the institution. We have an IT steering committee at the university. I forget it's actual charter, but it's essentially tasked with helping with the coordination of IT initiatives and providing feedback and recommendations on how we should be going forward. So, as a group, we would engage before we rolled out second-factor authentication, before we looked at upgrading our finance systems, changing the LMS—any large-scale project that's really going to shape IT goes before that group—even something like deciding how we're going to do mailing lists. Are we going to continue with mailing lists or move to groups within our portal? We discuss with that group, and it has faculty, staff, researchers, leadership, different constituents all across enrollment, management, the library—everyone we can find to get together. Having those perspectives—the way they think about IT from the outside—is incredibly useful. It really does make a big difference understanding how they're going to use IT and how they view some of the changes. To us, we're so used to change being constant. Every software package is being upgraded, every technology is advancing at an incredible rate. We just take for granted things need to change. Understanding what that change really impacts and how we need to work to explain that, mitigate it, do education around it, or sometimes understand that we need to try to state a course at times. It just provides tremendous value. So, I think having a robust functioning governing structure is really key, and it goes back to people, though. It's having the people in the room who will work with you, who want to be partners, and who understand that IT can really be an enabler of success for whatever project they're doing or whatever work they're doing.

GB: Great. Thank you for that answer. I'm gonna shift to 60,000-foot-view questions. These are very general but I just wonder, What do you think is one of the biggest challenges in higher ed IT right now?

DD: I saw that one on the list and I thought, "Do I go off like the top 10?" And I think the answer a lot of people give is security and things around cybersecurity. I think for me, it's not as much, that's a major concern, making sure we're protecting our data and keeping things secure, especially with all the different avenues of attacks, is incredibly important. But I think for me, the critical thing is making sure that IT is really seen as a partner and not as just a tool or that basic infrastructure. You need IT one way or another, but there are things in my life—I need my plumbing and my electric and my house to work, I don't want those to fail—they are incredibly important to me, but I'm not consciously thinking about ways they're helping to do a lot of things in my life. I want IT to be a partner that people engage with that they say, "I have something I'm trying to accomplish. Is there a way that if I work with IT or I have some kind of alliance with them or partnership, this is going to make what I'm doing better?" and "This is a way I'm going to improve what I'm doing." I don't want it to be, "Well, I need that to work so I can do what I'm trying to do." I think making sure that we continue to be a partner and that we're seen as an enabler and not a blockage or any kind of group that is getting in the way of innovation it is a high-level thing, but I think that's the biggest thing we've got to prevent from happening as we become more and more essential, still making sure we're relevant.

GB: That's a great answer. Now, this might be a redundant question to you, but I'll ask it anyway, because it may be the same thing, but what issues keep you up at night in your position? What are the things that are going through the back of your mind that you're thinking about?

DD: Luckily, we have a very good infrastructure. So, I'm generally not kept up worrying something is gonna break. There's always a little piece of that. I was on call for so many years that I'll probably never lose that, but I think for me, it's a little bit redundant, trying to keep ourselves relevant, but more internally within IT, is trying to keep our staff engaged with the larger mission and making sure that they understand that they have a role and especially in the infrastructure. A lot of us are back of house and not out working with faculty a lot. It's very easy for a network engineer or a Unix administrator or a cloud architect to just focus on those technical skills and, heads down, they're doing great work, but they're not necessarily understanding how they fit into the piece, and I think there is so much need for great IT professionals. If we can engage them with the mission of the university, with the mission of higher ed, then I think we have a much better shot of helping them advance in their careers and also keeping them within higher ed and not losing them to other industries in our area. In our area, in the Baltimore–Washington Corridor, there are so many defense contractors and large government agencies. It's really tough for us to compete as to higher ed in terms of salaries and some other things. So, I think finding ways of keep that work force engaged is one of the things that I think of. How am I going to build my workforce, and how am I going to keep those people so that we can continue to do the kind of innovations we've been doing, because it's not going to be me who does them. It's going to be other people who are really working with the campus and are doing all of these things. So, I just need to set the pieces in place if I can.

GB: What cultural organizational shifts do you think need to happen in the next 5–10 years to keep IT effective and relevant in higher ed? I know you just talked about keeping your staff focused on the larger mission as well as their individual task. Is there anything else you think is important going forward?

DD: I think the complexities of our jobs are getting to a point that I worry about. There are so many tools. So many technologies trying to keep up with them is challenging in itself, but I think if I look out 5–10 years, and this is true in research as well, when you look at research, computer scientists are not just doing work in computer science. They are doing work across disciplines. They are working with physicists, they are working with psychologists. Everything is becoming interdisciplinary because every discipline is now using data and technology and analytics and trying to really figure out those problems that you can't do in a little, tiny piece. I think IT has that same problem. We tend to be siloed within IT and other times within the institution. We have our bubble and we operate in that bubble. In the infrastructure, I have a windows team and a Unix team and a network team. Looking out 5–10 years, those lines are a mess. They're already being blended, and that transition within IT is really challenging. Getting people to work cross-group in a very healthy way where they still feel like they have control of things that they're responsible for but they understand that if you're in a DevOps model or you're in these new models, there's not a clear line in the sand. I think every technical engineering loves if there's a nice, clean, "I go to here and then somebody else does this," and it doesn't work that way anymore. In higher education it's the same way. So, the other think with IT is we have the internal silos within our department, within our division that have to be broken down much more effectively, but then we have to work with the campus in a very fundamentally different way. It can't be IT provides a set of services and that's what we do. If you need that, then come to us, and if you don't, then figure out something else. It needs to be woven through everything that you're doing so that we're there to help but we're not a different group. Going back to the same word, we're more of a partner. We're really there in every step of the process not just at the end, "Oh, I need this thing for my team."

GB: Well, yeah, just seems like in the last five years or so, CIOs have become more engaged with presidents and having a seat at the table for strategizing and planning, so it seems like the ball has shifted a little bit in that direction.

DD: And I think that's where you see that it's a very healthy sign. We been fortunate here. Our CIO has reported to the president for the last 15 years and he has a very good relationship. We're very fortunate. We have very stable senior leadership. Our president, Dr. Robowsky, is going into his 27th year. Our CIO has been here—he's the only CIO we've had—Jack Suess. He's rolling off chairman of the board of EDUCAUSE. He's an exceptional, innovative leader in higher ed. Having that, it makes it a little easy for us because we don't have to fight those battles to get that seat at the table, but I think having it and having IT been seen as an agnostic group. If IT is under the CFO or under the provost or under these different areas, you can still do all the same work, but you have to make sure that everybody understands you have their best interests and you're not just looking at it from the business standpoint or from the academic standpoint. If the CIO is a little more agnostic, that discussion is just easier. It can happen either way, but it's more explicit rather than implicit.

GB: That's great. Well, Damian, that's all I have. I really appreciate your answers. Is there anything else you'd like to say that we haven't touched on?

DD: No, thank you for handling it so nicely. It's been a pleasure.