Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with another two members of EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Committee: Wesam Helou, Interim CIO at Cleveland State University, and Luke VanWingerden, CIO for Tri-County Technical College. They discuss how YPAC has been a great resource for young higher ed professionals to find community at EDUCAUSE.
Jack Suess: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack Suess, vice president of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden, associate provost 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.
Today, we're talking with two leaders from the EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Committee or YPAC. Today, our guests are Luke VanWingerden, Luke is Chief Information Officer for Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, South Carolina, and Wesam Helou, interim CIO at Cleveland State University. Welcome to both of you.
Jack Suess: Welcome. We've been really looking forward to this conversation, Luke and Wesam. Why don't you take a minute and introduce yourself to the audience and tell us how you got engaged with YPAC.
Wesam Helou: Thank you. My engagement with YPAC a little over two years ago. I was a Director of Strategy at Cleveland State University and at the time my Chief Information Officer as part of my mentorship and development, wanted me to engage in more strategy influenced communities and that brought EDUCAUSE about. I joined EDUCAUSE. So through joining EDUCAUSE I ended up applying to the YPAC , so I can grow connections across universities, and I can both contribute and also learn from EDUCAUSE and that was how started my YPAC journey.
Jack Suess: Luke?
Luke VanWingerden: I actually had a colleague of mine while I was at the university of South Carolina Upstate, who she was very involved in EDUCAUSE, point out the YPAC saying, "Hey, you should consider this. If I nominated you, would you accept it? I think it would be great for you." To be honest, I didn't know a whole lot about YPAC at that point in time. So that year I attended a couple of the YPAC meetings at the annual conference and I was like, "This is actually a pretty cool community." They just welcomed me in and so I was like, "Yeah, I'd definitely be interested."
And so, after going through the application process and reading just the questions that were being asked and the value that I think I could bring to the YPAC as it went through my head it was, "Why wouldn't I be willing to give back because so many folks have invested in me?" whether it's through mentorship or guiding me, whether it's a silent mentor or an active mentor within the EDUCAUSE community help bring in other young professionals or folks new to the education space?" was critical for me as I engaged that in that community.
Jack Suess: Luke, I'm going to follow up on your YPAC statement and just ask, you said it was a cool community, what made it cool for you?
Luke VanWingerden: The thing that I loved about the YPAC the most was, they all jump in. None of the folks that are part of the YPAC, the central committee or the broader one community, was afraid to try something they didn't know. They were all willing to jump in and say, "Hey, I've never done that but I'm all over it. Let's do it."
Jack Suess: Wesam, does that resonate with you at all?
Wesam Helou: 100%. I think in my joining of EDUCAUSE I also joined through the pandemic and I was on a virtual platform which made it even a touch harder for me to meet people. The YPAC was an excellent way for me to share experiences where I think one of the great values of YPAC was it reduced that intimidation line and it allowed you to be a little more vulnerable because you're around folks that you believe are sharing a lot of your experiences and maybe because it is reflective of folks that are in the first decade or so of their experience.
To be honest, everybody feels these. But that space, it gives you that initial strength to say, "Yeah, maybe I don't know this and maybe I have a little more comfort that maybe a couple more people around the room aren't going to roll their eyes and they'll say yes, I do too," so that was one of the ways that I saw value.
Jack Suess Luke, just following up on what you were saying earlier, your institution is a community college and is there anything specific to community colleges that the YPAC has helped you address?
Luke VanWingerden: For me at a technical or community college, the YPAC bridged some of the differences in the different types of institutional types. It really opened my eyes to why can't we do some of the things that other institutions are doing even though we have a lot of hands on programs or first generation college students or a lot of transient students that aren't here for very long. Their goal is to transfer out or their goal is to come get this training for this one course, but why can't we do it better? Not that our institution wasn't doing it great. They were doing really good things and we still are. But in some cases, we were working really hard. And so, it really opened a lot of the community where I could have those conversations to say, "Why not?" or, "Why can't we have this single entrance into our digital campus community like you would picture a gate at a lot of the private institutions?"
Because you know you're on the campus and you pass the library and you pass your advisor and you pass all these folks, why can't we create that same experience here? And so, it was through those relationships that we started. I want to be very clear, my institution was doing some amazing things but we didn't... In IT, we weren't looking at that partnership level and really saying, "How do we partner with the institution because it's not about IT?"
And so, as I engaged more with the YPAC, there was a marketing person and there's a person who is deep in data like Wesam is. And so, there was these bits of challenging that folks would do as they brought their strengths to the table. Again, I would say, folks weren't afraid to speak up and speak out and they were okay to be wrong. They were okay to say, "Oh, I really looked like a fool in that," but they were voicing that and so folks felt the encouragement to speak out and we are able to do some really cool things and practices that I'm able to bring back to my institution.
Cynthia Golden: You're really talking about having a community. Are there things that you think that groups like EDUCAUSE could be doing to further engage the community and technical colleges?
Luke VanWingerden: I think within EDUCAUSE, if we're a community of learning and a community of engaging each other, really being vulnerable with each other. I remember a conversation with the YPAC where there were some folks that were struggling because of role changes, because of various life's things that were going on, and this was in the middle of the pandemic. After some conversations with different members of the YPAC or after different conversations with other folks, there was a sense of, "Hey, we're here to serve you, YPAC. Just like you're here to serve the EDUCAUSE community." We're here to serve each other and hold each other accountable in ways but then also say, "Hey, I got your back. What can I help you with? What can we take off your plate? I'm there with you."
And so, I think from an EDUCAUSE perspective, really stepping back and saying, "Hey, we don't all have this figured out. We're all going down this same path together." And so from an EDUCAUSE perspective, one of the things that I've tried to really encourage folks to do is be vulnerable. Brene Brown talks about it. I think every IT person should read the Power of Vulnerability or listen to her talk because we need to be emulating that because none of us are alone. And so, I think for EDUCAUSE bringing that level of vulnerability to the forefront of... We don't need to talk about that successful project. Yes, I want to hear about it but how many times are there failed projects or things we did wrong that really is often very formative?
Cynthia Golden: Thank you. I'm going to switch gears a little bit. The title of this podcast is the Integrative CIO and both of you are in CIO roles on your campuses and in our podcast we've been interested in exploring how the CIO works inside of IT and across the institution and with others outside of the institution to support the mission. With that in mind, what does the integrative CIO mean to you and what do you think we need to do to help leaders deliver on what it means? Wesam, maybe we should start with you?
Wesam Helou: Sure thing. Thank you. In my experience of eight months now being in the interim role at Cleveland State University, we've been internally focused very much on making sure that we're coming back from the pandemic healthy, we're understanding how to integrate and communicate face to face again, making sure that we are all inclusive in our health practices, and we are very inclusive in where people get their news from. That is my first and foremost focus right now is to make sure that we are a healthy community that is learning how to now embrace both hybrid workforce but also the face to face and get back into it naturally and allow people to come. Through my work with our team and as we navigate that, we are also trying to be more efficient and more strategic about the work that we're doing. Through this loss... We've lost a lot of IT employees to the private market and the competition is very hot right now.
So, part of my first point was also to create within our team a sense of community and loyalty and remind people of the great mission that Cleveland State is representing. But also with a smaller workforce, we need to be more focused on the work that we do. That's what I'm working with the team on now to make sure that we are strategic and that we are efficient because we really are having a hard time recruiting but our projects and our technologies are only growing.
Outside of our department, I'm working with new leadership. We have a new president as of a couple weeks ago that we are very excited to welcome into that office and that brought in a new provost as well. Making sure that we are accessible, that we are there to co-write both of our strategies, and make sure that we are on the same team trying to help the students is outside of our department. The relational aspect that I focus on and spend a great deal of my time on, making sure that we are aligned with the campus strategy and that we are an integral part of it. Not only talk about it.
Cynthia Golden: Luke, what does the integrative CIO mean to you?
Luke VanWingerden: Our campus vision is passionate people transforming lives and building strong communities one student at a time. That's our vision as an institution and within IT, with my role as the CIO, it's not any different than that. That's really easy to say, "Oh, it's no different than the campus mission or vision or values," right? But then, what does it look like to live it out?
And so, really coming under the vision of the college, coming within the strategy, and saying, "How is the IT strategy aligning with those?" For us, we have four strategies, they're each one page. That's our IT strategy, four 1-page strategies. We have a data strategy, a user experience strategy, a hosting versus hosted, and a security strategy. That's it. They're one page. Anybody can pick it up and read it and go, "Oh yeah, I want that. That's what we need to be after. We need one entry into our digital campus community," or "Yeah, we should have a 360 degree view of the student." Not because it's an IT thing but because it's how we want to engage those students because they're people and it's one student at a time, not all students or because you're a student, we're going to call you Student 47835, right? That's not the goal. And so, we need to say, "How are our practices falling within the vision of the institution?"
Wesam Helou: To your point, Luke, you can build that 360 vision only through collaborating with your provost or your enrollment management VP and having those relationships and that understanding of what they need, bringing it back to the IT department, and then enabling that vision with that information, right? So that, 100% agree with you.
Luke VanWingerden: Sometimes that means having hard conversations, right? Sometimes it means saying, "Hey, I hear what you're saying. I do. I really do hear what you're saying. However, I think this is what you're really after and if we do that, we can do that but you're not going to be able to achieve what you're really after over on the other side." That credibility to say that and then do that is hard and that takes time to build because the first time they're going to be like, "Yeah, but there's all these either failures or these places where you didn't deliver. Why should I believe you over here?" And so, it's building that credibility as well.
Jack Suess: I love the back and forth between you two on that topic. That's really great and I was thinking about the fact that so often, I have conversations with one of our key users and I'll hear, "Well, I need X." Part of my job is to be saying, "Well, yeah, I've heard you need X and this person over here needs Z but if we thought about it a little bit differently, we could be doing both," and, "Have you two talked and can we get people together to be seeing how we do both by being able to compromise and understand each other's needs?" That power of using the IT leader to help forge these conversations and sometimes they're difficult. It's one of the superpowers of the integrative CIO and it really seems like both of you have that.
Cynthia Golden: I agree and I heard running through that exchange just now is the importance of building really good and strong relationships on your campus. That is what enables you to have the hard conversations and make those decisions and trade offs.
Jack Suess: Luke, I loved your reference to Brene Brown and I listen to her podcast all the time. Because if you haven't built connection and trust, you can't have difficult conversations.
Luke VanWingerden: Absolutely. Well, I keep a box of tissues in my office for a reason. It's amazing, the conversations that folks will come in and plop down in a chair, right? There's no training for that as a CIO but that's part of the engagement because it's often something else that's driving that's happening. I think the last thing we want to hear is another thing about COVID or the pandemic, but I think that really hurt a lot of the relational capital that was built of just popping into somebody's office or engaging at very different levels.
Wesam Helou: Luke, the thing is these micro interactions enable you to do bigger and achieve bigger level compromises amongst team members. Jack was mentioning where we would... In our role as CIOs, we hear a lot of conversations, and we can then unify and bring different people together that may be similar in their vision. But I've seen folks in my experience challenge that as a "waste of time" and I wouldn't really... Depending on how you value relationships and you value that sense of community, I would challenge that view and say that these micro interactions actually build a very healthy and foundational aspect to the department and to the college as a whole.
Luke VanWingerden: Well, and I can't even begin to say, who said this? This isn't my quote, but folks don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Showing up and listening and just being in proximity sometimes, like you said, it's a micro thing and it can take a lot of time though but the credibility that can build is, you can't measure.
Jack Suess: I'm going to come and want to delve into this a little deeper because we know the pandemic is reshaping work, especially among my younger employees, they have been really challenged. We've had virtual school in some instances. They're still dealing with the fact that COVID happens. I've also seen some of my teams thrive in ways that are just amazing being remote. Because as introverts, they've used the technology to interact so much more deeply with one another through the ad hoc communication tools that we see that people are doing.
And so, I'm curious from the YPAC and from your own personal and professional experiences, how are you thinking about how this might be reshaping work. Wesam, you want to go first?
Wesam Helou: Sure. With how we are forming, I say flexibility is key around getting the majority of your work staff. Allowing adults and professionals to be professionals and trusting them with the work and managing by objective, you allow the individual within reason to take charge of how they are to complete the work. You outline what your objectives are from a community building perspective, and you allow that person to achieve it in the ways that they feel comfortable.
I am a non-typical IT person. I'm very much an extrovert on the scale of introvert to extrovert and a lot of my colleagues are not. While I might feel very warm and fuzzy in a bonding brunch that we host for the department, lots of other folks might not feel as fuzzy as I do and I respect that. I would like, and I encourage, each of my employees to engage in the ways that makes them comfortable either health wise because of the pandemic or have it be personality wise because of their preference. But being an all inclusive department means you respect everybody's preference and you treat everybody like a professional and if people don't deliver on the objective, then that becomes a different conversation.
Jack Suess: As follow up, you're then in a hybrid strategy that's more personalized.
Wesam Helou: Correct.
Jack Suess: Luke?
Luke VanWingerden: Yeah. Some of the points that Wesam made is spot on. I think the pandemic forced us to shift from, "I know you're working because I can see your eyeballs and the perception is that you're working because you're sitting at the seat at work," to, "What are we accomplishing?" and in a lot of cases, a great deal was accomplished. A great deal was accomplished. We did things that we only dreamed of three years ago and we did them in speeds that was so fast. But yet, I think we're paying a great deal now because it wasn't sustainable. Going at that speed has cost us in some huge ways from burnout and folks saying like, "Oh, not another thing."
How do we engage those folks to, get them back to that place where they are a high performer but it's not always taking one more thing? The question I keep asking, "Okay, folks are burned out. How do we get them back to where they're not burned out?" It's not take three months off because unfortunately, we don't have that luxury. It's how do we do that in meaningful ways and different folks need that in different ways. There's some teams where work can be successfully while working from home but there is value in seeing faces, there is value from the ad hoc.
Water cooler conversations and hearing somebody's laugh from across the suite, right? We're trying to figure out what does it look like and know not every role can be successful. And so, we're setting some folks up for failure whether it's personality or job type or role by putting them in a work from home environment. But we're setting some folks up for a lot of affinity for the organization by saying, "Hey, work from home. We know you can be successful. You have proven that over and over and over and over. This is a huge sign of trust and know you don't need to be physically here all the time to be able to be successful."
One of the conversations we've had is it's about equity and not fairness, right? We've got to look at what you can do in your role to be successful because I can't set you up for being not successful. If one of those roles comes open, yeah, we would love to develop you so you can step into that. There's been a lot of those types of conversations.
Wesam Helou: Luke, in the last five or six hires that we've had at Cleveland State University, every interview asks about hybrid flexibility. I am very challenged as a leader in an IT organization to lead in an organization that wouldn't allow you to have such flexibility because the talent these days is dictating that you provide it and I'm all for it, right? Again, back to the whole leading by objective and not... Your location doesn't mean you are not doing work. The workforce itself is dictating this new reality and I think it's also a generational thing whereas we see more millennials and Gen Zs and Gen Ys all come through, they're going to push this envelope further of work-life balance, of the amount of hours, and multitasking and doing laundry while going back and hopping on a meeting, that kind of dynamic.
Luke VanWingerden: Yeah. It's how do we navigate to this new normal. Well, that's not normal for a lot of folks, right? That's not what they're used to. That's not the past 25 years of their career that they've spent doing this. And so, for a lot of folks, there's a lot of loss that's going on, at least that I'm seeing in some of the community we have here in South Carolina as I engage with folks at private public technical colleges. So there seems to be a great deal of loss to some degree as well where there's a lot of folks saying, "Yeah, work from home," or there's this loss that's happening because it's the loss of the workplace, it's the loss of some of those relationships.
And so, from my perspective, you still need to find a place that aligns with the values you have as an individual and the work-life balance you're after regardless of work from home.
Cynthia Golden: Luke, we're having some of those same conversations on my campus. One of the things that I think about are people who are coming into their careers, maybe this is their first job and we're coming into this hybrid or remote environment and how can we be deliberate about the strategies we use and how we think about developing them, helping them to develop as professionals. I'm just curious about what you think about that because it's different than what we did before when we just walked down the hall and said, "Oh, how are you doing today? How's it going?" You know?
Yeah. That's engaging whether they're a new employee to your organization or a new career employee. The first several weeks, they're in proximity here physically because we have folks rotating through the office so they're getting to work with and shadow folks as they come into the office one day a week throughout those several weeks that they're here.
We're doing standup meetings in the morning for the teams where they engage every morning. where they're touching base, they're talking about what's going on, they're talking about best practices, they're talking about priorities, they're talking about those things that you normally would just hear randomly in different places. But that doesn't happen on accident, we've got to take a different level of intentionality that was by accident in a lot of cases when you're physically in proximity with folks.
Cynthia Golden: Wesam, any thoughts on that.
Wesam Helou: I'll build on Luke's comment and say that actually being remote made us more intentional about onboarding than onboarding in the office itself. Onboarding in the office was a little chaotic, right? Because Cynthia, if you were joining my team and I was your manager, I'd walk you down the hall and be like, "Hey, did you meet Cynthia? This is Luke." That informal interaction in between meetings, we would do that and be like, "Let me run you on the floor. Let me show you where the printers at." But now with the managers, we actually sat down and said, "When we onboard, we onboard in a digital world. This is how we're onboarding."
In the first six months when we interview our candidates, we ask them to come to campus to an 80% basis, like a four out of five days. For the first set amount of time, the manager has that flexibility. But we ask then, that we add these folks that we all are there on a rotation basis, so they get to meet us in person, they get to put a face to the name, and they get that interaction. From there, if they need something from a web team or from a server team and they want to reach out, they know who we are, but the pandemic made us more intentional about it. I'll tell you that we do a better job post pandemic in a hybrid world than we ever did in person which was interesting because intentionality flipped that.
Jack Suess: As I've talked with my employees, we're very flexible. One of the key things we've also said is, "Look, if you're supposed to be here a few days a week, that doesn't mean you have to be here 8-5." If coming in at 10:00 is what's going to make your schedule work, because maybe you want to see your children get off to school or traffic is just awful if you come leave at 8:00 let's have the conversation so that the time that you're coming in, you can be productive, you're not taxed.
One of the key elements that you've both talked about is flexibility, personalization, looking at employees as people and trying to be sure that you're interacting in a way that's going to meet their needs but also meet the institution's needs. That's a great conversation. Now, I'm going to switch on you. I'm going to go to another important conversation. You're both at really diverse institutions and I'm curious how you're helping your institutional IT staffs and your institutional teams be diverse and also support that diversity of your institutions.
Luke VanWingerden: I think finding qualified folks or folks who have the capacity even to perform and do what we need them to do is, has gotten much tougher, right? And so, I think in some ways though, it's forcing us to look in different pools than we may have looked before and engage different groups where it may have been easy just to post a job posting and you get 30 applicants, and you have your top 5 that you could pick from. But I think one of the silver linings in some of the hard to fill roles now though, is we may be having to grow more of our own talent. That's a conversation we're having is, how do we increase those efforts in finding folks who have the desire or the capacity, but they may not know today.
So, we're taking part-time students who are actually students here right now and training them. But also engaging a lot of the underserved communities around us, engaging folks who are in different areas with those job openings.
Wesam Helou: At Cleveland State, we are a very diverse community, and our student population is also very diverse and we were voted number one in social mobility in the state of Ohio with the student population that we serve. So the mission is incredible and the student diversity is very evident and inclusivity. Most recently, the administration brought in a VP for diversity to also reinforce it not only amongst student but amongst staff and faculty. I think as we branch and also educate more foreign students and invest in that pipeline, it is our charge to have our staff and faculty reflect the student base that we have which will help our student base feel welcome when they walk into classrooms or into offices and they see people that look and resemble and have similar experiences as they do.
I, personally, am a first generation Lebanese American, also an LGBTQ+ community member, and there aren't a lot of folks that look or feel or think like me in circles that I've been a part of. Bringing that to the workforce, bringing diversity from not only from a gender perspective or not only from an ethnic perspective, but also bringing diversity from a mentality, bringing the nontraditional background, the resume that doesn't sound like IT but giving them a chance because of their attitude and their growth mindset.
Diversity has a lot of meaning outside of our traditional gender and ethnic what you can see in your eyes, right? There's a lot of diversity and actually, stuff that you can see. Building a community that truly is respectful and that takes the moment to be like, "Why did Cynthia say that?" or, "Why did Luke say this?" and being inquisitive and not defensive is the community that then welcomes this diversity. I've been challenging these ideas very much in my growth as a CIO and I've encountered folks that may or may not have appreciated my personal lifestyle or other... But I strive every day to make my community more inclusive and more reflective of our student base and of life in general.
Luke VanWingerden: Do you think, Wesam, that folks are taking a different approach to assuming the best in somebody and the comments they make versus assuming the worst and what happened?
Wesam Helou: Right. I always lead with giving people the benefit of the doubt and I always lead with asking people to repeat or rephrase what they said. I always listen and say, "Here's what I heard you say, Cynthia. Is that what you meant?" and give people a chance to rephrase or commit, right? And then, we can debate because that's what we do in higher ed, is everybody's opinion is valued regardless if you think it's right for you or not. But the essence of higher ed is the debate and the ability to agree to disagree sometimes.
Cynthia Golden: This has been a really terrific conversation. As we look to wrap things up, I just wanted to ask if you thought there were any other lessons learned from the pandemic because we touched on a number of those things that you think are especially important for yourself or maybe more broadly for your institution? Wesam, do you want to start?
Wesam Helou: Sure. I think, and this is reflective in a lot of the conversation that I've shared with you today. But if I wanted to stress on one thing that I learned through this hard experience, that we are still navigating in a lot of places is the employee wellbeing, is that we employ human beings first and foremost, nothing is that important. This is not life and death. Focus on the employee and make sure that they are the best they can be. And then from there, all of the other problems will solve themselves.
Lead with the person, lead with the human, be patient, and I think that's the key to success and that's the lesson I learned from the pandemic.
Jack Suess: Luke?
Luke VanWingerden: Yeah. I have two things. We accomplished a great deal in a very short amount of time during the pandemic but there was very clear priorities of things that we needed to accomplish to ensure that we could still care for students well in a remote capacity, teach students well in a remote capacity, enroll and recruits... As we go through all these pieces, that I can focus on those things and I can ignore some of the noise that's hitting me from other folks.
And then lastly, I heard a lot of IT folks during the pandemic say, "I'm not sure we're going to have to figure that out." I think what I would say is it's okay not to have all the right answers or have all the answers to say, "Hey, I'm going to have to get back to you," or, "We're going to have to figure that out together," or, "Let's sit down and dig through this." I think there's a level of comfort from folks in our communities when we don't come with the answer right away, when we sit down to solve it with them. We're in this together."
Wesam Helou: I want to second you, Luke, on the corporate governance comment. I think that through the pandemic, we were focused and we executed and we achieved a lot because of corporate governance, because of the layers of executive leadership that were hyper focused and then the second layer of leadership that was hyperfocused on getting it done. When you go back outside of the pandemic and that hyperfocus goes away, that was a great example of corporate governance working at its best and IT governance only works as good as corporate governance.
Jack Suess: I just want to thank you both. This was a great conversation. Focusing on people, being able to say, "I don't know but I'll get back to you," I don't think we could end this on any better advice so thank you.
Cynthia Golden: Thank you so much.
This episode features:
Interim Chief Information Officer
Cleveland State University
Chief Information Officer
Tri-County Technical College
Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Pittsburgh
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County