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Barron Koralesky on Strategizing

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 3

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Barron Koralesky, CIO at Williams College, about how strategizing and collaborating play such an important role in his job.

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Jack Seuss: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack Seuss, Vice President of IT, and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden, Associate Provost and Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Each episode, we welcome a guest from in or around higher education technology, as we talk about repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner in support of the institutional mission.

Hi everybody. This is Cynthia Golden, and I am here with my colleague, Jack Seuss. And today we are talking to Barron Koralesky, who is the CIO at Williams College. Hi Barron.

Barron Koralesky: Hi Jack. Hi Cynthia.

Jack Seuss: So Barron, we'd love to have you introduce yourself to the audience. Talk maybe about how you got started in higher ed and what led you to the CIO role. Thanks.

Barron Koralesky: Well, we all take different paths, and for me, I always wanted to work in higher ed as odd as that might be. I originally wanted to be a professor. I dreamed of teaching astronomy at a small college, and while I was working on finishing a PhD, I looked at the job market and I decided to jump tracks and take a quick path to being at a small college and I ended up at Macalester College working in the sciences as an Instructional Technologist. And at a small college IT department, I got to do a little bit of everything, and that was really fun. And at a small college, I got to be involved in far more things than IT. So, each role led me to the next and I wanted to give more, and I wanted to experience more, and I learned more and that eventually led to becoming a CIO and moving across the country to start up a career here at Williams, where I could serve both the technical needs and the institution as a whole.

Jack Seuss: One of the things that we wanted to talk about in this podcast is the EDUCAUSE term Integrative CIO. And we're really interested in what does that term mean to you and also how have the events of the last six months either amplified or challenged your approach to that role.

Barron Koralesky: Oh, it's totally amplified it. It's never been more integrative than it is right now. Just like we were talking about, nobody is getting anything done unless we're all doing it together and figuring this out, partnering with every department across campus. And we've been putting these strategies into action at unbelievably high speeds for months on end. So, this is really living that Integrative CIO aspect. It is really challenging, but it feels like we're acting in the spirit of the greater mission every single day.

Jack Seuss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Barron Koralesky: The thing that calls me back to the EDUCAUSE usage of it is we're really building trust and bonds with other areas of campus in this crisis that is creating a much stronger foundation than we've ever had upon which we're going to be building for years into the future. And I'm already looking ahead as we look forward to an ERP change in our future, I know I'm going to be calling on this great trust that we're building now to do those projects and others.

Jack Seuss: That's a great summary and a great point to raise that I'm sure many people would say is true at their institution as well.

Cynthia Golden: Well, don't you think so much of the work we do is built on good relationships? I mean, I, that has been critical to me in my career. I also, I will say that for me, this has been one of the busiest periods of my life and I'm sure it has been for both of you. Barron, how have you managed the stress and the demands on your time for yourself and for your team?

Barron Koralesky: To be honest, very poorly. And talking with you all and everybody, all of my peers, I think we're all in that same boat. It's been hard. We've all been this busy at moments, but never for this long. Part of what helps me get through is tapping into that sort of passion and mission, and I think we're a bit better at this in IT because we're inherently problem solvers and there certainly are tons of problems coming our way. But honestly, I just don't think it's sustainable and I worry about all of us.

Cynthia Golden: I found myself saying that to people over the last few months, this isn't sustainable, but here we are you know, we keep going.

Barron Koralesky: Well, what are you two doing? [laughing 00:04:43] I need some advice.

Jack Seuss: Well, I survived a three-year PeopleSoft implementation that I thought went five or six. But for me, it's really been a key to be thinking about healthy habits. And so, no matter what, I get my run in, or I get a long walk with my wife, or just something at the end of the day, even if I have to go back later on and do email. But, if I don't have some way to sort of release the stress through exercise or something healthy, then it builds up more. And so for me, I've just been, trying to be really making certain that after four or five or six hours of WebEx or Zoom meetings, I'm taking a break, getting outside, doing something different to try to just sort of get my head back.

Cynthia Golden: I've been the same way. I've tried to go for a long walk every day. And I started lifting small weights at the beginning of all this. And I've managed to keep that up. And I know the days when I don't do that, that really bothers me. And clears your head a little bit too, to just get outside. I think that getting outside has been important.

Barron Koralesky: Yeah. For me too. I really enjoy hiking. So I'm fortunate to be in an area that's...

Cynthia Golden: Yeah.

Barron Koralesky: Is good hiking. But if, if you're starting to lift weights by the end of this, you're going to be totally pumped.

Cynthia Golden: Little weights, little weights.

Jack Seuss: So, it's, as we think about this, though, let me turn and ask you, cause I know you really care about your team. So how are you though trying to take care of your team? Because for me, one thing that's been a little easier is that my children are grown and out of the house. And so, you know, I really see some of my colleagues with younger children and they just have their lives turned upside down with the fact that schools have all been virtual and things like that. And so what have you been trying to do to be helping your teammates while still trying to meet the needs of Williams?

Barron Koralesky: The college has allowed us to be really flexible in terms of work environments. We split up shifts and times on campus. A lot of folks do have childcare or the local school system is still remote, so they have to take care of their kids and their education. So the majority of my staff are working remotely and are not necessarily working eight to five. They might be putting in different hours on different days.

And in many ways we talked about that and we mapped it out and we're achieving a greater hours of service to the campus. Which is beneficial, because we see the same in our clients. They're not working eight to five. A lot of time, we see a lot of things coming in, in that six to 10 period after people have dinner, or maybe after they put the kids to bed, we get a bunch of things. And then we get them closed before the next morning, which there's some benefit there. But again, I worry about the sustainability of that. And, and I try to tell people that, you know, do your shift and then unplug and then come back and do that next shift. Don't stay connected all the way through. That's not sustainable at all.

Cynthia Golden: And that's really hard to manage when you're at home and everything is right there. You're not even making the physical environmental switch, you know, from campus to home.

Barron Koralesky: It's very hard. You're right.

Cynthia Golden: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Jack Seuss: So, one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about, and I was really interested to see this, because I actually didn't know that you were involved in this was related to the DEI initiative, was you were part of the EDUCAUSE Work Group on Gender Identity in Higher Education. And what really brought that story home to me is for many years, I had been involved in the identity management space in common and internet too. And I attended a meeting over in the UK. I mean, over in Europe. And one of the talks was by a transgender person at the Irish Identity Federation. And she talked about the challenges she had to go through to change her identity from a 'he' to a 'she' as she went through the activity. And she was able to do this, but she highlighted that for her, it was because she had personal relationships with other people who could be making the change, but she talked to the community about, you can't be expecting transgender students to have to go through all the steps or have these personal relationships.

And it really brought home to me, the fact that often, we have created these bureaucracies that make it so difficult for students to fully express themselves. And, so I'm just sort of curious, could you talk a little bit about that work and where you see it going? Cause I know from talking to you, you made great first steps, but it's nowhere near finished.

Barron Koralesky: No, and it's not going to be finished for quite a while. It just like you, it was the realization that our legacy systems and processes are not inclusive, and we need to do better. And I think we in higher ed can lead that effort and treat our communities with more respect. So I was really fortunate to be part of that effort. Our goal was to bring vendor partners and representatives from all sectors of higher ed together to look at a better way to more respectfully address the identities of our faculty, staff and students. And this was all expertly facilitated by EDUCAUSE in that white paper, we suggested a future enterprise system design that would have multiple identities for any individual. And that identity would contain its own name, pronoun, gender, and all kinds of other attributes. And you could have multiple of these.

Of course our systems don't do this now, but it seemed very extensible that way. You might have a campus identity, and an identity for your diploma, and maybe a legal or medical identity, and others along the way. And it could be expanded as identities change and people change. Likewise, that campus could limit where these identities are used in different ways. Like legal name may only be available to certain areas to protect their privacy, but ultimately each person would have far greater agency in controlling their identity and how it was used. It's a big change. And I think, you know, legacy systems are legacy because they have a deep root. So this is going to

Cynthia Golden: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Barron Koralesky: So this is going to take a lot of change, a lot of time to change, but I think we have to drive towards that type of architecture in order to have something that's flexible.

Cynthia Golden: Did you get a sense that this is equally important to our vendor community?

Barron Koralesky: Well, that was [laughing 00:11:34] that's a great point. When we started this, none of the systems supported pronouns. This was a long time getting this group together and getting discussing. But part of the goal was to bring them together, to have them see what each other is doing. And one of them emerged as offering that across faculty, as staff and students' modules and others started to follow. And I think there's some peer pressure there too, coupled with pressure from clients, to ask for that. But I think it's, you know, higher ed is ahead of the game, but I think this is true in the business world too. They want these attributes to be able to be used in their environments.

Cynthia Golden: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So if we stay with the topic of your engagement with EDUCAUSE for a few minutes. I know that you and some colleagues just finished up the first-ever EDUCAUSE Institute Management program online. And, based on my past work in the program, I was really interested and pretty excited to see that happen. And because I know how valuable these management and leadership development programs have been to our community. And I think that the plans to offer one could not come at a better time when you think about it, because of the pandemic issues. And so, I'm really interested in knowing more about how you thought the program went and also about the professional programs that you've utilized as part of your career progression. You know, how did they inform your work on the Institute?

Barron Koralesky: Yeah, that's a great question. I'm a first-time faculty, longtime participant in EDUCAUSE Institutes and professional development. I was really grateful to be part of the Fry class of 2005, and that was professionally and personally life-changing. And I've been in the Leadership Institute, and I actually consider every annual meeting to be a professional development activity.

Cynthia Golden: Sure.

Barron Koralesky: Up through getting to serve on the board of directors with Jack as the Chair. That was an amazing amount of professional development. But yes, I got to be faculty with the awesome PB Garrett and Damian Doyle, along with excellent EDUCAUSE staff like Veronica Diaz, on the first online Management Institute. And we started to work on this in the before times, way back in 2019, when the entire world was different. And we thought of this, it was going to be an alternative to the in-person Institute and it quickly became the only option available. But it wasn't emergency remote teaching. We had been designing this for years. We put a lot of thought into it.

That said, the pandemic did impact the Institute, unsurprisingly.

Cynthia Golden: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Barron Koralesky: On a positive note, we found that the participants were using what we were talking about immediately in their work and reporting back and talking about it with each other. On the negative, they like us were stretched very thin, and didn't have quite as much to invest in it. But the outcome was great. We built a cohort in an online program. I think they connected well, we connected, and I'm excited to interact with them throughout both of our professional careers going forward and I hope to see them soon at an EDUCAUSE meeting when we can gather again.

Cynthia Golden: Do you think they'll stay connected as a cohort in the year to come?

Barron Koralesky: I hope so. It is much harder. That's getting together in that intense week of time, humans' bond in amazing ways. So we tried to do that and it lasts about 10 weeks, so you have more chances to interact. And we built-in group work, which is always a challenge.

Cynthia Golden: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Barron Koralesky: That's where that interaction and those connections are made. It's in the group work, not in the synchronous sessions that we have. So, we started a listserv and we're starting to talk, and I hope that keeps on going.

Well, congratulations on that, because I think that's a wonderful thing for EDUCAUSE to be providing to the community right now and I'm hoping to send a few of my folks to the next one.

Yeah. We, the three of us signed up again. We had so much fun teaching together, and we're going to do it again this fall.

Cynthia Golden: Good.

Jack Seuss: So, on that. I'm following up. I'm curious. Do you still connect with your fellow Fry colleagues from the 2005 class?

Barron Koralesky: I do. And that's an amazing thing. Plus, EDUCAUSE did a lot of work to try to connect across the different years. So, I see a lot of them, and I connect with them, and it turns out, serve on committees and other areas with them. I think that was an investment, a calculated investment, to improve the community as a whole and EDUCAUSE as well.

Jack Seuss: I think it is great that you're trying to be thinking about community. Because to me what was so, I never had the opportunity to go through the Fry. At that time, I was already a CIO, and it was, it really wasn't designed if you were a sitting CIO at that time. But, from all the people that I have sent through it, and people I've seen who have gone through it, the connectedness has been there and it has been sort of a professional network that people have relied upon no matter where they are in their careers. Some ended up going on to CIOs, other didn't, but no matter what year pathway it was a group that you were still staying connected with. And that just speaks highly to the value of the EDUCAUSE program.

So, staying on the topic of career paths for just a moment, you sort of talked about it, but you didn't go too deeply into how you became a CIO and what was most influential. I, you mentioned you started in physics. I doubt that when you were starting college, you were thinking, well, I'm going to do physics and then I'll do this. And, and then I'll be a CIO. That's really what I want to be as the CIO. So, how did you end up, you know, sort of getting into this path, if we could dial a little deeper into this?

Barron Koralesky: Yeah, it, I didn't think that I would work in IT. As a matter of fact, I didn't even have a computer until my junior year in college, so I sort of stumbled onto that. But, it was that work as, working in astrophysics. I had to build my own computers and networks and program. And then, I served as a system administrator as part of my work in grad school, and picked that up. I was probably a relatively bad sysadmin, I won't terribly admit that. But you know, at the time, things were a lot less complicated than they are now.

And I picked that up and enjoyed doing that and found a really rewarding career where I could connect with a lot of scientists that way. And bridged over that gap, serving scientists as an instructional technologist, and still staying very close to the educational mission. But, a lot out of it was actually just where one could find a good job. I would love to be a tenured faculty member. That would be great. But there's very few tenured astronomy professors at small colleges. So, I still got to end up being at a small college and I'm very happy there.

Jack Seuss: Oh, you're still young. But, let me ask a following question in this, is: do you have mentors? And have mentors played a role in your career? And was that part of what you saw that helped you sort of have this evolution?

Barron Koralesky: Yeah. Mentors are everything in my career. I think after a certain point, there is no real professional development other than learning from each other. So, I actually consider probably half of the folks in EDUCAUSE as mentors to me. And they might not even know it, right.

I remember telling Bruce Moss that one time that he was a mentor to me, and he took me under his wing a couple times and gave me pieces of advice that actually had meaningful application in my world and changed my path a little bit. And I don't think he was intending to change my path. He was just giving advice and it meant a lot to me. So, I think I have hundreds of micro mentors out there. And then there's a few people that I constantly go back to, and they've suffered with me for way too long. And they have deep, deep impact on my life. One of my biggest mentors is actually not with us anymore, but she's the namesake of the Teaching and Learning Center back at Macalester. And she was a biology prof and she taught me so much about how higher ed works. And that she took a lowly IT person and taught them the intricacies of higher ed unlocked everything for me. So [inaudible 00:20:11], I owe an amazing amount to her.

Cynthia Golden: So isn't that a good reminder to us about how important it is for us to be doing the same things?

Barron Koralesky: Yeah. It, somebody told me that once, that they called back to some piece of advice I gave them and said that was meaningful and it just shocked me. And I felt so honored and unaware.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah.

Barron Koralesky: Because I didn't know I did that and it was very, very touching. So yeah, I try to be intentional about listening and offering whatever I can. Cause it can mean a lot to people.

Cynthia Golden: So, speaking of advice. What advice might you have for our colleagues who aspire to be CIOs or to be IT leaders?

Barron Koralesky: Wow. I have lots of thoughts on that front. But I think one that I'd want to share is that it's just not a race. Take your time, learn, and grow in each role. I see too many people rushing to the next job or the next institution, where if you stay for a little bit longer and build your relationships, and build your experience, that takes time for you to grow. And that career ladders aren't necessarily vertical. And the CIO rung may not be the rung for you. So just find a role, a place, a team, that fits you and enjoy it. I think chasing a title is not the way to approach one's career at all. What do you have for advice?

Jack Seuss: Well, I wouldn't say it's advice, but I, one of the things I've been thinking about out is what I would call serendipity in life. And, when I look back there have been a couple of times where failures have turned out to be so beneficial that I wouldn't have realized it at the time, but then later on, it completely changed my path for the better.

You know, an example would be, in my sophomore year, I decided I wasn't going to be an engineer and transfer to the University of Maryland, College Park. I was going to stay at UMBC and decide to do a math major. Well, you know, in some ways, you know, originally, I went there to be an engineer and I just thought, ah, I don't want to do that. And, so not doing that ended up being positive, because I stayed at UMBC, and ultimately ended up working there and then having a career there.

The other one was, in my senior year, I applied to the Navy to go to nuclear power school. And this was right before Three Mile Island. And you'll laugh, because, but they came back and they said, I didn't have enough physics classes, so I didn't get to go. It didn't get admitted into nuclear power school and ended up then, you know, a few months later getting offered a job at the university. So it's, you know, the little things in life where you'd never know where they're going to take you. Sometimes you think they're failures, but you know, letting them play out, it can really, you know, change your life.

Barron Koralesky: I think serendipity is a really good point. I had somebody that was mentoring ask me, how did you plan out your path? I want to do that path. And I said, I didn't plan this at all. I just worked really hard. And then some door was there, and I went through it and I didn't know what I was doing. And I think some folks might look at my career and say I'm a failed academic. But I'm really happy where I am and you know, that it wasn't where I necessarily started out. But it, I'm really glad. [inaudible 00:23:52]

Cynthia Golden: I think that one of the things that's been really important to me has been mentors, and just recognizing those people who were mentoring me without me really even knowing it, especially really pretty early on in my career. But I certainly didn't plan the travels that I've had and the career stuff that I've had all the way. But I made a decision to take a job at Carnegie Mellon when I finished graduate school. My boss sent me to EDUCAUSE, I didn't know what it was. And I had a sort of a moment where I realized that rather than an IT professional, who happened to work in higher ed, I really wanted to be a higher ed person who happens to work in IT.

And I can really remember that moment. And, and the professional association was really pivotal for me, you know, at that point, because if I hadn't gone to the Conference, I probably wouldn't have found the community. And then, you know, that just led to many, many more great relationships and more mentors and more peer mentors. And, it's been very influential on my career and having spent time at EDUCAUSE. Now, that wouldn't have happened if I didn't take the path I had taken, but it wasn't planned either, Barron.

Barron Koralesky: I think we're cut from the same cloth, where higher ed professionals who happen to work in IT.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah. Yeah.

Jack Seuss: And it's been a great, great effort on the part of all of us and a great time. Well Barron, let me just end by saying thank you. This has been amazing. It's great to talk with you and you are, I think, a model for someone to be thinking differently. I know that you're going to continue to go on and do great things. Probably at Williams, but maybe other places. And, maybe someday you will be that professor. Maybe it won't be in physics, but maybe it'll be something else. So anyway, it's just been wonderful talking with you.

Cynthia Golden: Thank you.

Barron Koralesky: Thank you, Jack.

This episode features:

Barron Koralesky
CIO
Williams College

Cynthia Golden
Associate Provost
Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Pittsburgh

Jack Suess
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County