Melissa Woo on Communicating

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 2

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Melissa Woo, CIO at Michigan State University, who has been recognized for her staff development, change leadership, and talent for communicating with diverse groups of people.

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Jack Seuss: Welcome to the The Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack [Seuss 00:00:10], 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.

Jack Seuss: So, today we'd like to welcome our colleague Melissa Woo to the show. Melissa is Executive Vice President for Administration and Chief Information officer at Michigan State University, which she joined this last year. Melissa, we've all known each other for some time, but why don't you introduce yourself to our listeners?

Melissa Woo: Great. Thank you, Jack, and thank you, Cynthia, for inviting me to do this podcast. I've known both of you for many years, and I really appreciate this opportunity to reconnect. So, the way I started in higher ed, actually, I did not start in IT. So, I was finishing up my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, and met someone and needed to stay on campus. So, actually, I first started out in the field of radiation safety and then, somewhere along the line, a few years in, I realized that all of my other duties, as assigned, had something to do with computers in the Environmental Health and Safety Office. And I thought, "Wait, I actually enjoy this," but not because of the technology. What enjoyed was that technology could be used to connect people and break down barriers of communication between people. And that's actually what drew me into technology.

And from that point, I mean, I literally switched, in my early 30s, to an entry level job as a [inaudible 00:01:58] system administrator and worked myself up from there. And so, since then, I've been at the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the University of Oregon, Stony Brook University, and now Michigan State University. And I don't know when I decided I wanted to be a CIO after I'd made the switch into IT. I think a lot of it was simply that I think I got frustrated, honestly, and maybe this is what drives a lot of us, at things that I couldn't change, or I didn't feel I could more directly change.

And in order to really be one of the people that changes things or is a change leader, it does mean becoming a recognized leader, in some cases, though I will also say that a recognized leader is not the only way to lead change. And I think that's what really drove me, was this combination of seeing technology as a way to break down communication barriers between people, but also just the desire to be able to be at the table in helping to drive change.

Cynthia Golden: As we talk to our colleagues, we do hear a lot of different stories about what drove people to the CIO role, and you've just been through some additional change, because I know you joined Michigan State as CIO in December, right?

Melissa Woo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cynthia Golden: And by September of this year, you were promoted to Executive VP, with responsibility for human resources and planning and facilities and other areas. Can you talk about this change, and why it happened, especially... Here we are... In the midst of a pandemic?

Melissa Woo: Well, part of it is situational, and I think a lot of people can resonate with just sometimes being in the right place at the right time. So, what had happened is that this position went vacant just after our President, President Stanley, began his time at Michigan State University, and for context, he's only been MSU for a little over a year now, and he's actually been serving in that role at the same time as being President for over a year. And I think he decided it that he learned a lot, and he said he learned a lot, and it helped him a lot understand the administrative side of the university, but because there's a pandemic, and because he's an infectious disease physician and specialist, is that he realized it was time for someone to take over the responsibilities, and he and I have a really strong trust relationship. And I appreciate his confidence in me in taking over this role since I have been primarily in the IT vertical.

Cynthia Golden: So, what has this expanded portfolio really meant for you, in a practical sense?

Melissa Woo: I think, in a very practical sense, it's helped me to look at the potential for greater efficiencies and effectiveness across administrative areas. So, I mean, we have multiple contact points for our campus community, our clients, and our customers. We have duplicative services in areas. Now, I'm not going to say the phrase "shared services," because to me, that's jumping to a solution without actually understanding what your problem set is, but I see real opportunities for better connections between the areas. I mean, right now we're talking about better support for different gender identities, as well as honorifics, in our systems. Well, really, the people who should be driving that are HR, as well as the academic side that handles student information systems. It shouldn't be IT, but I can be the one that brings everyone to the table, because I oversee both areas. And that's just one of many areas where, just from a practical sense, and that's what it's meant to me, is that more ability to create change in a positive way.

Jack Seuss: So, that's a great answer, and it really is interesting that the background that you have in IT, I guess, has given you visibility over the years to so many of these systems and processes that that has sort of helped to give you new insight, or are you feeling like it's a major learning effort in some of these new areas that you hadn't anticipated, such as HR policies or budget development or things like that?

Melissa Woo: I mean, I do have some learning curve, but the point is that there are great leaders in all the different verticals, and I really don't presume to micromanage, because they know their verticals better than I do. I just need to be able to support them and know enough to be able to support them, and also just see the commonalities between the different administrative areas. So, I think being in IT, though, has been very useful because IT sees pretty much everything. I mean, it may be at a very shallow level, but we actually have insight to pretty much every part of the university, and I think that's helped.

Jack Seuss: Since we've been dealing with the pandemic, we continue to live through times where there's great uncertainty occurring. Can you talk about what your role has been in getting the campus prepared?

Melissa Woo: I mean, my role has been really just to make sure that the great leaders that we have within our enterprise IT organization, as well as those the campus units such as the colleges and the other administrative units, understand what the challenges were to flip to remote and then actually go from remote to a more thoughtful, online teaching, learning, and working. So, really, I couldn't do my job without all these other people who are doing a great job of leading this flip and continued improvement of how we support our campus in this time.

Cynthia Golden: So, Melissa, how have the faculty responded to all of this on your campus?

Melissa Woo: And I feel, really, I mean, I have a lot of sympathy for the educators, because they were asked, pretty much within one day, to do a remote flip, back in March on our campus. And the switch to a more thoughtful online also happened on a relatively fast timeframe. So, we're trying to provide a lot of grace and understanding to our educators who may be a little lost, but others have really, really reacted well. I mean, we very quickly put together a structure for faculty, pedagogy support, and technology. I mean really, really fast. We hired a number of postdocs very, very quickly to make sure that they could actually work directly with educators who needed help in bridging the gap between pedagogy and technology.

Jack Seuss: For me, it's been one of the busiest periods of my life. How are you managing the stress and time demands, for both yourself and for your team, to make sure that you're staying healthy and capable for the long term?

Melissa Woo: It's all about priorities, because you have to have priorities and communicate them and actually recognize them yourself. I mean, there's a saying a lot of us have is that, "If everything is a number one priority, nothing is." So, I do live by that. It's that we have to establish top priorities that we work on, and we let other things go. We have to. It's a pandemic, and as far as the team goes, at least I can speak for the people who report directly to me on the IT side, is that something I've held to for years and years is that I communicate to them directly when I bring on someone new or when I start a new job.

And it's to say, "I will not email you after 5:00 PM on a weekend, and I will not email you at all on weekends. I will not answer your emails after 5:00 PM on a weekday, or anytime during a weekend, because, really, I don't want you watching for my emails. I don't think that you should feel obligated to do that. I think you should spend time with your personal life, your family, if you have one. If something is that darned urgent, guess what. I'm texting or calling you, and that almost never happens." So, just anecdotally, I was at my last place of employment for a little under four years. I only made one call in that entire time across the multiple members of the direct reporting team, only one, and things were really, really bad.

Jack Seuss: So, let me do a followup and ask you. So, for me, I find that, because we're at home almost entirely, if I don't get outside and run or walk or just do something at the end of the day, my brain starts to turn to mush, that I have to have this sort of separation between work. And I may work later at night, come back to that, but I have to sort of get outside and just see people, even though I'm socially distanced. It's just being able to wave to neighbors. Is there something that you're doing that sort of helps keep you grounded and attuned, to be able to sort of keep you operating both at a high level but also sort of managing your stress and the challenges that happen in today?

Melissa Woo: Well, for one thing, I have an incredibly supportive husband. I mean, it's amazing how much he tolerates from me sitting in front of a laptop for about 10 hours a day. That said, I actually, interestingly enough, do not have a permanent office in my home. What I've done is it's entirely a temporary setup. So, what I do is I break it all down at 5:00 PM, and I put it to the side so that I'm not tempted to actually dig in and do any real work. And then I set it up in the morning when I start, and that's my way of delineating going to work versus not being at work. So, I've sort of artificially duplicated the whole process of actually "going to the office..." And I could air quote that, but no one is going to see it... And leaving the office. And that's how I manage it. I mean, and I've gotten back into bicycling, which I'm going to have to stop doing soon, because we're about to head into fall in Michigan, and you can imagine what that's like.

Cynthia Golden: We were just talking about buying a treadmill.

Jack Seuss: We've got the stands for mounting our bikes, and we've got a new monitor upstairs and so we'll both mount our bikes and just use that.

Cynthia Golden: Well, kind of pulling sort of the whole pandemic topic to together, I think that a lot of us are really trying to look for the positive aspects of the pandemic on higher education. And I guess I'm curious, from your perspective, what kinds of things do you think might stick? What kinds of things are we doing now that maybe we weren't before that you think might stay with us in the long term?

Melissa Woo: I think that we, as people, have rediscovered what it is to give grace to others, because it's been a really key part of survival during the pandemic is making sure that we have some level of empathy and grant grace to people. On a more practical level, I think it's demonstrated to us that there are some roles, in IT particularly, that can go to permanent remote working, and the advantage of also overseeing HR now is that I've had that discussion with our head of HR, and we're going to put together a policy for true remote work and so we'll see what comes of it, but certainly that's not for everyone, and it's not for every role, but there are people that are more comfortable working from home now, or working remotely, because it suits their life balance better being at home.

Cynthia Golden: I think we found the same thing.

Jack Seuss: When you think of the Edge of Cost term "integrative CIO," what does that mean to you, and how have the last six months either amplified or challenged your approach to the role?

Melissa Woo: Well, I don't know if I define integrative CIO the same way as everyone does, and perhaps I do, but what I see in it is, again, it hearkens back to what I said earlier about how the CIO sees a little bit of everything on a campus, and a truly successful CIO will be able to integrate all that knowledge of all the different processes and areas across campus towards truly supporting the business of the university. And as far as the last six months, or actually this pandemic, has gone, I think it actually has really amplified that aspect of the CIO role is that we've all gone remote, every function, nearly every function of campus, of course not all of them, since I [inaudible 00:14:40] oversee infrastructure and plan, has gotten remote. And so that knowledge of how everybody else works has really helped, I think, the IT organization best support all the parts of campus. And of course, we've got more to learn, but at least we have the beginnings of a conversation with every area of campus, to ask them what they really need now.

Jack Seuss: So, I want to do a followup on the integrative CIO, because I think you're in a unique perspective, and something that you mentioned there intrigues me. And one of the things that I have thought about as I have interacted with different people is the role that facilities has in thinking about sort of the life cycle of the infrastructure. It's a different world, because you're talking about buildings, which last 50 to 100 years or more. You're talking about other systems, but it has struck me that these other areas, which have a much longer history of being part of universities, have brought practices and thinking that could be advantageous to IT, which has a different sort of threshold in its time domain for its systems, but we don't quite practice the same life cycle thinking. And I'm curious if, in this molding, it has changed some of the ways you would've approached IT as you've gotten this perspective across different areas, to be infusing that into the technology culture.

Melissa Woo: Interesting you should ask that, Jack, because I thought about this issue between campus infrastructure and IT infrastructure, I think, at least two campuses ago, and the difference in time span. And it's a fascinating one to me, but I will say that I see more similarities than differences. And so, for example, because they're both central support units, they both have similar challenges with funding models and, "What is subsidized versus chargeback," that sort of thing. So, the timeframe issue is an interesting one. I think you can still deal with some things the same, but because of the 50 to 100 year building life versus your five to seven year turnover on IT capital assets, that changes how you might fund things. You would probably borrow money to handle a 50 or 100 year building, but you're almost certainly not going to borrow money for something that turns over in, say, a three, five, or seven year period, because you'll still be paying debt service against it after you've turned over the equipment.

Jack Seuss: That's interesting. Thank you.

Cynthia Golden: So, we should switch gears here just a little bit. And Melissa, you've been really active in our professional associations, including Edge of Cause, and in fact, I think that's how we first met, through [crosstalk 00:17:39]-

Melissa Woo: Yes, it was.

Cynthia Golden: ... Connection. Can you talk a little bit about your engagement with groups like Edge of Cause and [Internet2 00:17:45], and others, and what role do you think they have to play in supporting our institutions?

Melissa Woo: Well, there's at least a couple major ones. I mean, one is as a convener of the different professionals in the field. I mean, that has been one of the most important aspects of being involved in Edge of Cause, Internet2, and other professional organizations, is the organization's role in bringing us together and allowing for the person to person professional networking. It's been incredibly important to understand what other campuses do. You may not do exactly the same thing, or solve things in exactly the same way that another campus does, but it's very helpful to hear what others are doing, if I only for a certain amount of self affirmation that your campus is maybe not as behind as you thought you were on something, because the truth is we're all behind on something and we're all ahead on something.

I mean, if there's anything I've learned, it's that. I think the other is also a collector of good practices, and documenter of good practices, and sharer of good practices across the discipline so that we're not all reinventing the wheel. And I think both Edge of Cause and Internet2 have been very good about ensuring that we all have access to this information and that it's widely shared.

Jack Seuss: So, Melissa, we've known each other since before you were a CIO, and you've done amazing work now at a number of institutions, but you had difficulty landing your first CIO job. Can you talk about perseverance and the lessons you learned in that part of your journey, and what you would say to people now?

Melissa Woo: Well, for one thing, I can't say enough about all of the people that supported me through my struggle, and I will use the word "struggle," to land my first CIO job. I mean, for many... And hopefully this resonates with people... It's very similar, but actually about 10 times harder than landing your first management job, because everybody wants somebody who has already been one before. Well, the problem is there's always a first time. So, there were a lot of people that I'm forever grateful to that put my name in with search consultants when they were contacted by search consultants for open positions. They were people that were just great mentors and just kept cheering me on, because I mean, there were so many interviews, including finalist interviews, and I was starting to say, at the time, "I feel like basically a forever bridesmaid, never a bride."

I'm not sure a guy can say the same thing, and that's what I was saying. And I think what really helped, and it's something that I counsel people about now is, if you made it to the finalist level, that means that both you and the organization think you're qualified. You should feel good about that. You're qualified. Past that, it's just a matter of understanding of whether or not both of you can work together. And that will not always be the case, so I also counsel people, "If it doesn't feel good, and if you don't feel as if you resonate with the atmosphere and the culture of that organization, then you really need to pass it by, because you're not going to be happy. They're not going to be happy, and it'll all end in tears." Well, not necessarily, but you know what I mean.

Jack Seuss: That's great advice.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah. I think it is too. And along those lines, I guess I'm interested in hearing what has been most influential, or what or who has been most influential, in your journey as a CIO in this sense. You just talked about mentors, and as we think about the roles that they play in our career, what advice do you have for peers who aspire to be CIOs and IT leaders?

Melissa Woo: Mentors are very important. And the problem is, if I start naming people, we're just going to go on and on and on forever. I did a couple talks in the past where I tried to put up photos of all the people that I owe so much to and then kept running out of space, I mean, because there are so many people, including both of you, by the way, calling out to both of you, Cynthia and Jack. You were fantastic mentors to me early on. So, my advice to people is, "There's no such thing as one mentor now. You should be looking at multiple mentors." Most of these are going to be informal, and it means reaching out to mentors who satisfy what you're particularly looking at, at any particular point in time. So, at some points, it might be your need for sponsorship, and of course that means a mentor who knows you well, because hopefully, they won't sponsor people that they don't know well.

In other cases, it might just simply be for friendship, or professional friendship, someone that you can rant to or bounce ideas off of. I mean, so there are so many different functions of a mentor that no one person will be the end all, be all for you. And so that's my advice, is to look for the multiple mentors, depending on what you need in your career at any particular point in time.

Cynthia Golden: That's great advice.

Jack Seuss: So, I want to add just a quick followup in thinking about your mentorship model. You've been a passionate advocate for DEI activities, both in Edge of Cause, Internet2, and at your institution. What are some thoughts that you have for how we can be making sure that we're bringing forth the next generation leaders that's going to be diverse and inclusive?

Melissa Woo: Well, for one thing, as hiring managers, we do have to look at our own inherent biases first. The other, which is harder, just what I would call the "implementation issues..." And these are hard, because I've done them before... Is to look at things such as your job descriptions, the way that your search committees function, what their inherent biases are. I mean, and these are harder than they sound. So, for example, right now we are actually working with HR, which is really interesting, since I oversee HR, so this might be easier than around requirements, specific requirements stated for a Computer Science Bachelor's Degree, or a "related degree," but they always say that... The issue I have about that specific requirement is that it is known that there are far, far fewer women and people of color who have Bachelor's Degrees in Computer Science. By having that as a requirement, you have artificially narrowed your candidate pool. So, right upfront, there is a structural problem. So, we need to be looking at cultural and structural problems going forward.

Jack Seuss: That's great advice. Thank you so much, Melissa. This has just been wonderful, to get to talk with you, and just I'm thrilled that you were willing to join us. So, thank you.

Melissa Woo: Well, thank you so much for asking me, and it's so great to reconnect with both you and Cynthia. I mean, it's been a while, so-

Cynthia Golden: I know. It's great to talk to you again.

Melissa Woo: ... Thanks so much.

Cynthia Golden: Thank you so much.

This episode features:

Melissa Woo
Executive Vice President for Administration & CIO
Michigan State 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