Klara Jelinkova on the Pursuit of Efficiency

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 8

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Klara Jelinkova, Vice President and University CIO for Harvard University.

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Jack Suess: Today, we're joined by Klara Jelinkova, Vice President and University Chief Information Officer at Harvard University. Klara, I loved your Harvard bio picture. It was quintessential Klara. It was informal, but you had a wonderful smile on your face. Could you take a few minutes and sort of talk about your career and how you ended up at Harvard?

Klara Jelinkova: I'm an accidental technologist, right? So I'm actually an economist by training. I have a degree in economics and Slavic languages, then later on I got additional degrees, but my training was in that. And when I was graduating from college at UW-Madison, I realized as any good economist that IT paid more than entry level economics jobs. So here I am. I turned my, what was a hobby at the time into a career.

I have been extremely fortunate to not only work for some great universities, but also to work for great CIOs. I worked at UW-Madison. I worked both with Annie Stunden, who was a legend, but also with Ron Kramer, two just really wonderful CIOs, then I went and I worked for Tracy Futhey at Duke University. And again, Tracy has been very giving and very supportive of my career. And actually one of the assignments that she gave me as kind of an interim assignment was a very important assignment, which was being in kind of an interim Chief Information Security Officer role that lasted nearly two years, but really prepared me for the CIO, my first CIO role, which was at University of Chicago.

And then I left Chicago to go to Rice University. And I know this is kind of an interesting choice, but I was interested in working at a slightly different university that is smaller in scale, but where the job was somewhat larger. So the job reported to the President, but also my job was VP for Information Technology and International Operations, so it allowed me to flex outside of IT. I found that very interesting because I saw more of the academic enterprise and how the academic enterprise works. And then now, I have been at Harvard almost one year.

Cynthia Golden: So Klara, you've talked about these incredible institutions that you've been involved with. How do you go about managing your career? You mentioned a few of the choices that you've made. And what has influenced you in making these changes from one institution to another?

Klara Jelinkova: This is such an interesting question, Cynthia, because I am not sure that I'm actually managing my career. At least not actively. But I'm always motivated by what I can do and  what is the problem that is put in front of me. And that is what drives me. So I view my career as a series of assignments, but this common thread in my career. I have been involved in the Common Solutions Group and Internet2 ever since I was at UW, and somehow that becomes... So there are these job assignments that I have, these roles that I have played, and I have learned different skills in each one of the roles, but then there's the national work that has been very important to my career as well. I just don't know that I'm that plan-full.

Jack Suess: So Klara, you and I have been friends for many years and at least on a few occasions, I think we were the only US CIOs that went to the Terranea Conference over in Europe, and I learned about the fact that you grew up in Czechoslovakia. Talking about your mother really interests me how she was a physicist and a programmer. Can you talk about how that early life influenced you and how that has helped you evolve as you've made the leap to the US and to different institutions?

Klara Jelinkova: So thank you Jack for asking this question. So one of the profound decisions that my mother made for me was in middle school. There were two classes that we could take, one was typing and the other one was programming. I wanted to take typing because all the girls took typing, and my mother said, "Do not take typing. If you learn to type, you will always take notes. Take programming." But also my mom actually taught me how to program. At the time we were... So it was learning Pascal was what that class was. And actually, my mother was incredibly supportive of me learning computer skills. And she smuggled a Commodore 64 on a trip from West Germany into Czech Republic for me. But I loved that thing. And so that's why I always say that computers were my hobby because it was something that I did with my mother. My mother is very cerebral, very introverted, and so it was a great way to relate to her. See? My career has been shaped by powerful, influential women from the start. What can I say?

Jack Suess: I think you and I might be two of the people who listen to this podcast who ever programmed in Pascal.

Cynthia Golden: No, you can add me to that too.

Cynthia Golden: Anyway, Klara you mentioned Internet2 a few minutes ago and the national work that you've done. Could you talk a little bit about your involvement with Internet2 and why that community is so important to you?

Klara Jelinkova: So to me, Internet2 is about bringing universities together to actually deliver certain types of products. So it's not just a collaborative community, but it is a community that is jointly providing services and influencing how services are provided. I have been very lucky to be supported by people, such as Jack. I mean, it was actually Jack who got me involved within Common in a kind of a leadership way. I was involved more on the technical side.

And just kind of being part of a group of people that deeply care about an issue, whether or not it's federated identity, networking, et cetera, and we are working together to make it happen and not necessarily taking our institutional perspectives, but taking a perspective of what we need nationally and internationally, I think is a great training ground for a CIO because a lot of the time in a CIO role, you need to not think about a parochial view of an organization, but you need to think about the university-wide impact, right? Just like any higher education community, it's a wonderful community.

Jack Suess: So Klara, as you talk about community, and you have been just a wonderful leader in the Internet2 community, I'm curious, what gives you hope for the future, and what gives you concern as you're thinking about community, especially coming out of the pandemic that we have?

Klara Jelinkova: So can I tell you what I worry about the most? I worry about our pursuit of efficiency. I think we have taken it way, way too far. And that efficiency is eroding our effectiveness. So bear with me for a second. So we have gotten completely addicted to these 30-minute meetings on Zoom and going from one to the other, And then you get on these Zoom meetings and you go straight into the agenda, right? What happened to waiting for the person to come across campus and having a little chit chat with your colleagues? What happened to this, "Oh, hey, how is your son, daughter? How are your parents? How was your vacation?"? So we have kind of squeezed joy out of life through this pursuit of efficiency, and I think it is eroding our sense of community.

And one of the things that we as technology leaders... And I'm not talking about CIOs actually, I'm talking about us as a group of technology professionals that have to take on the mantle of leadership and lead from where we are. We have really not grappled with the human impact of this kind of drive for efficiency. So one of the things that I talked to our team about is, "Let's bring some inefficiency back. Let's take the hit." And we are doing this test this summer. "Let's take this hit. People take time off. We are going to tell people that we are going to potentially miss deadlines." I have signaled this because we really need to bring the community back because... in some aspects, and we need to have barbecues, and we need to have Juneteenth get togethers, and we need to just be together without an agenda and probably without Zoom, just kind of relating to each other in a more human way.

So I think we are at this pivotal point because we have been in this technology induced efficiency for the last two years, and if we don't flip back, we may lose what made our communities on campuses special. And I'm talking about, especially the IT communities because we know that we are all going to have hybrid work, but we need to somehow bring this community sense into the hybrid work.

Jack Suess: I certainly agree with you completely at the institutional level, but I also think it's true at the community level. We haven't connected face to face as often, and so figuring out how we think about what face to face... Now, maybe pre-pandemic, there were too many meetings that may be there, but I think the idea of no face to face meetings will sort of undermine that connectedness that you're talking about that's just so important as a social fabric of keeping people connected and building trust. So, no, that's a great point.

Cynthia Golden: Well, I agree too, Jack and Klara, and I think that we're going to have to be really deliberate going forward about looking for those opportunities and ways to connect people.

Klara Jelinkova: No, no, absolutely. And so we are actually very actively thinking about that. We are starting this summer a staff council, which we didn't quite have before. And one of the goals for the staff council is to really try to figure out and work with the leadership directly in a kind of a staff council sense, on how to bring the sense of community back.

The thing that I worry about also in this space is when we are very sequestered in our homes, our support network erodes as well. So it used to be kind of this concentric circle. It was you and your family, then it was your workplace, then it was the people that you got together for dinner every Friday and Saturday, and then it was extended community, et cetera. We are facing incredible onslaught of very troubling situations. And I think without the sense of community and being able to have water cooler conversation... our employees are more vulnerable because they don't have that support network that the workplace actually provided. Cynthia, this is where you have a fantastic point because the intentionality can be around people, just having the ability to talk to people about things that are troubling them. Right?

Cynthia Golden: Mm-hmm. And some people don't really know that they're missing that either.

Klara Jelinkova: Right. Right. Right.

Cynthia Golden: And that where we come in, I think in leadership roles to look at what the situation looks like and do what you're doing, which is working with the staff council. I think that's great.

Klara Jelinkova: Yeah. I just really think we need to provide more support for our employees. We have had open conversation about burnout. I think that happens on every college, staff burnout, but what we are hearing from our staff, and we have an amazing team of people that are very open, they're saying, it's not just the burnout from long hours, it is also the burnout of kind of this onslaught of news and concerns.

Klara Jelinkova: Right?

Cynthia Golden: Yeah.

Klara Jelinkova: It's just too much. And so I think it is our role as an employer to provide support for people and to give them a sense of community that cares about them. And so I just think that's something that we will need to grapple with over the next year as we come back.

Cynthia Golden: I agree. I think that's going to be important. So Klara, in September, to circle back to Harvard a little bit, you joined Harvard as a CIO, and could you tell our audience what your focus is in this role and how this might be different from your previous roles?

Klara Jelinkova: So the Harvard role is a very, very interesting role. So it's a University CIO role. The reason why it's called University CIO is because Harvard is legendarily distributed. And so each school has a CIO. So I chair the CIO council, and each graduate school has a CIO. So I'm in some ways... Each school has its own set of priorities, right?

Then I'm also the FAS CIO. So FAS stands for Faculty of Arts and Sciences and it is the undergraduate college, but also all of the PhD/graduate programs, plus a division of continuing studies, plus athletics. So it's a very unique construct. So I am also, at the same time, a little bit of a school CIO. And it's very interesting to exist in these different... spaces and think about what is the right thing to do, what the priorities should be, and how do you do the right thing for Harvard?

Jack Suess: Have you learned how to do that?

Klara Jelinkova: Still learning. Still learning. And you know what? I mean, I think that's actually great because you want to take every job that you have and you want to learn something, but I think one of the things that I'm doing more and more is developing a network of people that are functioning as, essentially my sanity check, right? So we have a little FAS team that gets together, and we are talking about things and issues that are coming up and saying, "Well, what is the best approach that we should take for FAS?" The CIO council is a very good venue to have conversations about the right things to do for the university.

Actually in the CIO council, it's very interesting, one of the things that we are trying this coming year is moving away from the kind of traditional five-year strategic plans, and moving to more agile methodology where we decide to have two to three goals and make progress on those two to three goals in 12 to 18 months. And some of it is a little bit a response to the pandemic because it seemed... The world has changed so much that planning five years out just seems a little presumptuous, but it's also giving us permission to experiment a little bit more and do just certain things quickly and inject... kind of a sense of innovation. We can do something that is not big five year project, but rather try something and if it doesn't work, well, let's try something else. Because one of the really important things I believe that we can do as leaders is to stop doing things. Saying, "No" is more of a testament to leadership than saying "Yes." So how do we inject that? How do we give people a place to say, "Hey, it's okay to try something and for it not to work"? Something not working is not a failure, right?

Cynthia Golden: Right.

Jack Suess: Well, speaking of learning, I know that from conversations with you that you're going for your PhD. And so you've been a student through the pandemic. I know you started before this, but how has going back and getting your PhD given you more insight for learners in general or insight to how to grow professionally?

Klara Jelinkova: So just to correct, I'm getting an EDD.

Klara Jelinkova: So it has been very interesting to be a remote learner. And one of the things that I now appreciate a lot more is a lot of the time during the pandemic when we were asking students about their experience, the most differentiating element of their experience was the professor in the classroom. And the only thing that the technology could do and the administrative tasks and administrative systems could do was not to make that experience worse. But nobody would say, "Oh, I have completely fallen in love with the Student Information System." Nobody will say that. And I realize being a student that's absolutely true. I mean, we provide the environment, the context in which the learning happens, but still, the primary experience is with your faculty member and with your cohort.

So I have formed wonderful friendships with people all around the world because my program is international, but also great relationships with my advisors. And the thing that I learned, and I think is an incredibly helpful skill, and it happens when you go through any sort of a doctoral program because you have to write this thing, right? So I'm four chapters into my five chapters. So by the time you have to write something of that length, if you have to write an email, no problem. Writing a five-page paper, no problem. Writing a report, no problem. The program that I'm in, which is at Johns Hopkins is very research focused and very analytical, and it gives you this academic bend when you're discussing problems that I think is incredibly helpful.

Cynthia Golden: What's your dissertation focused on?

Klara Jelinkova: It is focused on the issues of privacy and agency and learning analytics. There's quite a bit of research actually in this space. What is the student expectation of privacy and agency, and what is the institutional posture? So I ran a study... I have to run one more study, but I ran a study. It was very interesting. It was that the students overwhelmingly expect that if the institution is going to share their data with another entity, that they would be notified of that sharing.

So let's say that you have [inaudible 00:26:28], the... I don't what is it, some sort of a collaborative where institutions send data and they do analysis and holistic care of the student. So the expectation of the students is if an institution has an agreement that they would notify them that their data is being shared. That is not how FERPA is structured. That is not the law. And so it's that dissonance because what you see... I'm sorry, they tell you never to ask a graduate student about their doctoral dissertation, so cut this. Cut this. But what is interesting is how much the consumer expectations are entering higher education, but we have an institutional posture, not consumer posture. Do you see what I'm...

Cynthia Golden: Yeah. And that doesn't surprise me actually. I'll look forward to reading it when you're done.

Klara Jelinkova: You will be one of the four people... No, five people. My advisors, me, you and maybe my husband, but thank you, Cynthia.

Jack Suess: I can add two more people, myself and John Fritz. John has been sort of on what you've been talking about, student agency and learning analytics for five or six years and that was sort of what he wrote his dissertation on.

Klara Jelinkova: I know, I know.

Jack Suess: Klara, one of the things that's always impressed me is how you can be both blunt and compassionate at the same time in your conversations with people. I've always been impressed by the fact that you will push back on someone if you think that you need to have that honest conversation. And I'm just sort of curious how you evolve that skill? A few years ago, I read a book by Kim Scott called, "Radical Candor" that talked about this, and you operate in that perfect zone of honesty and compassion. And I'm just wondering how you learned to do that.

Klara Jelinkova: Yeah. And I would say when I was younger, a lot younger, it was only the radical. So some of this comes with age. We all kind of wear down those edges, right? But again, it's through feedback by other people. And I had wonderful mentors early in my career. I mean, I mentioned several of them already, but one of them whom I didn't mention was John Peterson for whom I worked at UW-Madison for time being. And he was a retired Navy commander and running IT at operations unit, was a director working for Annie. It was his kind of second career. His retirement job. And I had one of those moments when I was only radical , and he called me and he said, "Listen, you are incredibly talented and you can actually be a CIO, but not if you behave this way. And you have a decision to make whether or not you're just going to couch this little bit differently." And that was an example of what you're talking about, this radical candor. It was also a wake-up call. And so I think I learned this by people giving me feedback and navigating my way through it.

Another person that gave me phenomenal advice was Mike Pickett. I don't know if you remember him. He was a CIO at Brown University. And I was at Duke and I was very kind of business. This is why I can joke about the efficiency because I was one of those people that would end meetings and leave. And Mike would say, "Linger awhile. Ask people about how they're doing. You don't have to leave the meeting right away. Nobody's kicking you out. I mean, learn a little bit more about the people that you work with." And so it was through these kind of thoughtful interventions that... I evolved and changed and became a happier person by the way, much, much happier person. So I think it's... You don't do this on your own, right?

Jack Suess: What you highlight is that all too often, when we're doing performance reviews, we may be going through the motions. And if you're not giving people honest feedback, you're really not caring enough about them. After reading that book and thinking about it, I've had to be more blunt than I was used to being because I recognize that's a part about caring. I want them to be the best that they possibly can be, and I want them to be able to have the career that they want to have, and I've got to give them the feedback that they need. And so I think that kind of advice, it behooves all of us to be both caring and honest in the way that we communicate with people. Thank you.

Klara Jelinkova: But also Jack, I mean, I guess what I'm also trying to say is we all are a work in progress and we are kind of a quilt that's stitched together by the people that we worked with. Right? And going back to a point we were making earlier about the sense of community, I think I have benefited by most of my career being in person. And I do worry a little bit about early career people, and are they getting the same level of mentoring that I was getting, and I'm sure Cynthia, you and Jack were getting as well, when people would just sit down with you, sit by you, and say, "Hey"? I mean, the things that Annie did for me, take me to meetings just to kind of sit there and observe, I mean... it's much harder to do now with this remote world, right?

Cynthia Golden: It is. And we talk about this... I talk about it here a lot and that's where I think if we're going to be in this kind of hybrid work mode, then that's back to this idea of having to be really deliberate about mentoring those early career people and trying to replicate some of the things that we all had that helped us in our careers. I agree.

Cynthia Golden: So Klara, we always end with the question, what does being an integrative CIO mean to you?

Klara Jelinkova: I think to me... it means developing an incredible network so you can sense things, so you can see what is going on at different levels of the organization, and being able to connect things that are not necessarily related on the org chart. And so this is another thing that is just absolutely wonderful about Harvard, you can look at Harvard and get an organizational chart, but the truth of it is that Harvard has a completely informal organizational chart that you're not going to find anywhere. And being able to understand that and being able to take viewpoints that appear divergent, but be able to connect them and find solutions that bridge them is to me what integrative CIO is. So not being able to see centralized versus decentralized as opposing concepts, but rather a spectrum and a decision of where you want to be, and the realization that with different services and at different times, one institution can be in different parts of that spectrum. So to me, that's what that means.

And I think the other thing, and I feel very strongly about this is that it is the role of the CIO to give voice to the people who are not thought of as decision maker and become the spokesperson for the end user. So a lot of the time, you have administrative systems rollouts, you have these executive companies, et cetera, but who is actually speaking for the people in the departments that are going to be using that system?

So now, at Harvard, for example, we are doing this, what we call a "face landscape study", and we are interviewing people, and we are purely looking at what is your experience of technology? And we are talking to departmental administrators and to students and to faculty because being able to get that perspective, in addition of the top down perspective, and doing it as a mixed method study where you have qualitative, not just quantitative survey, can be very powerful. So we interviewed about, 200 people by now. I interviewed 40 people myself. And that's our first phase. We are going to go into the second phase. And then being able to reflect it and make it consumable for executive audience and then translate that into actions that matter, that's another element of it.

Cynthia Golden: Well, thank you for these terrific comments.

Jack Suess: At UNBC, we read the Collins book, and what we always talk about is whenever we're in one of those moments, we sit there and we say, "The genius of the and, and the tyranny of the or", and try to find where that common ground is for the compromise between those two elements, but what you describe sounds really interesting. So thank you, Klara. This was wonderful.

Cynthia Golden: It's great-

Klara Jelinkova: Thank you for having me. Thank you for having me.

This episode features:

Klara Jelinkova
Vice President and University CIO
Harvard University

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