Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Michael Berman, executive strategic consultant with Vantage Technology Consulting Group and former chief information officer for the California State University System. (Recorded live at the EDUCAUSE 2023 Annual Conference.)
Jack Suess: Hi, this is the Integrative CIO podcast broadcasting live from EDUCAUSE 2023 in beautiful Chicago. We're here today to talk with one of our colleagues. My name is Jack Seuss. I'm the Vice President of IT at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Cynthia, would you like to-
Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden from the University of Pittsburgh. And we're here with our friend Michael Berman.
Michael Berman: It's so nice to be here. Thank you.
Cynthia Golden: We're happy to see you, Mike.
Jack Suess: So before you introduce yourself, Mike.
Michael Berman: Yes.
Jack Suess: I think we both want to just congratulate Cynthia for winning the 2023 EDUCAUSE Leadership in the Professional Award.
Cynthia Golden: Thank you.
Jack Suess: Congratulations.
Cynthia Golden: Thank you very much. And I am in the presence of two other leadership award winners, I think 2020 and 2022. Is that right?
Michael Berman: Yeah. We're [inaudible 00:01:00] the goldfish bowl here at EDUCAUSE.
Cynthia Golden: Here. We're in a goldfish bowl watching all the conference attendees walk on by.
Jack Suess: So Mike, why don't you tell us a little bit about your career and your background?
Michael Berman: Sure. I went to grad school thinking I would be a computer science researcher and I found I wasn't really that good as a researcher, but I was good at teaching. So after I left there, I became a college professor to a teaching oriented state university, Glassboro State College. But right away I found there were resources that I needed in technology, particularly the internet. And that brought me into contact with trying to figure out how to get ahold of money and how to make things happen in technology. And eventually I ended up as effectively their first CIO at that campus. And that was 1998, coincidentally the year of the first EDUCAUSE conference.
Cynthia Golden: Yeah, I think we were all at that first EDUCAUSE conference, weren't we?
Michael Berman: It was an amazing experience.
Jack Suess: Yep. It was in Seattle. And as Cynthia and Mike were reminding me that we had Steve Jobs as one of the keynoters.
Cynthia Golden: He was our keynote speaker the first day, I think.
Michael Berman: Yeah, I can remember being in the room with him. It was before he had a black turtleneck.
Cynthia Golden: Yep. He wore a yellow and black plaid shirt. I remember that.
Jack Suess: Are there any other sort of memories over the years from EDUCAUSE that you want to share right now?
Michael Berman: I would just say that coming year this year and seeing so many people, I know I didn't meet all of them at EDUCAUSE, but so many of them, and I would say... We may talk about this later, not just from universities colleges, but from industry as well and the long-term relationships that I've built. And that's been the best thing about the peers and relationships that I've been able to build. And EDUCAUSE has been at the center of that all along.
Jack Suess: Yeah, for me, what I would say is that I've been to NACUBO, I've been to APLU, [inaudible 00:03:15] too, a lot of different conferences. But the breadth of people that come here year in, year out and just the dynamic nature of this conference makes it unique and it's always one that I look forward to.
Cynthia Golden: And you know what? I think for me, knowing the two of you guys is a great example of how the connections work and how you can build relationships and they will last. We have a community where you can count on other people, and I know that I could contact either one of you at any time and bounce an idea or a problem off you and get really good feedback. That has all been because of this association and being able to make these kind of connections.
Michael Berman: When I talk to younger people who are moving into IT leadership positions, a lot of times they'll tell me about how lonely it can be on their accounts because they don't necessarily feel like they can trust people, that they realize that you have a different relationship with the people in your organization. You can't necessarily always be frank about what challenges you have. But when you come to EDUCAUSE, you're in these big room full of people who understand your pain because we all have very similar problems and it makes such a difference to have that network. My profession would've been so much different without it and not near as fun.
Cynthia Golden: Yep.
Jack Suess: And we could probably talk all night on this, but the one last thing I was just going to add is to what you were saying, Mike, is that I believe that as people come here and they realize they're not alone in these problems, they realize it's not them. That, okay, this is happening elsewhere. Now they can find people and talk about, "Well, what's worked or how have you done with this?" And really, [inaudible 00:05:09], yeah, and it is.
Michael Berman: Right. We didn't just realize there is no solution.
Jack Suess: Yeah. Nobody's fixed. It wasn't your fault.
Cynthia Golden: No one's figured this one out yet.
Jack Suess: Well, instead of talking about this the whole time though, I know we wanted to talk a little bit about leadership because we've all been involved in leadership. I know you've written articles on leadership. So as we get started, I guess my first question, and I'll ask you, Cynthia, since you just gave a talk on leadership today, some reflections that you have in thinking about the leadership journey that you've been on and then maybe, Mike, you could talk a little bit about yours.
Michael Berman: Sure.
Cynthia Golden: So one of the things that I've had a bunch of conversations about today with different people has to do really with preparing the next generation of leaders in this crazy, crazy time that we're in. We had challenges. I've had a lot of challenges as the years have gone by, but I don't think I've been in quite the same situation that we're in right now with all of these pressures and the side effects or the after effects of the pandemic. I've been thinking a lot about what should we be doing differently to prepare the next generation, and how do we want to sell these jobs? IT leadership jobs are hard and how do we want to sell them to the people who are coming after us and what are the things we should be doing? Well-
Michael Berman: That was a conversation stopper.
Cynthia Golden: That is.
Michael Berman: I think it's tough. And I just mentioned in my journey, I ended up leaving IT leadership a year and a half ago, and I think living through Covid was a big factor in there. And it was both pressure that brought as a leader to realize that every day you were getting aligned with people who didn't know what was coming next. And they looked to the leaders in their organization, whether they were the formal leaders like those of us who were senior administrators, and then also the other people that they looked up to or trusted.
It was hard to show the vulnerability and the struggle that you were going through when everyone around you was looking for somebody to kind of be strong and hold it all together. So I held it all together for a couple years and that was about it. I mean, I just felt at this point in my career, that was really tough. I mean, my organization, the Cal State system, I had 175 people in my group. When you have 175 people in a group, every day several of them are really struggling. And if you're an empathetic person and you take that seriously, it's a lot to absorb.
Cynthia Golden: Well, and they were struggling with people in their own families or some of our own staff getting sick and losing parents or losing family members. And that's something none of us ever had to deal with on that kind of scale.
Michael Berman: Certainly not so many so close together. It's such a constant [inaudible 00:08:23] and a member of my staff lost two members of her family. I do think that a leader has to strike a balance between being a human. Oh, we always have to lead with humanity. You also have to have some kind of attachment, and it's not the same as you're not a member of these folks' family and you're not a friend in the same way that you're a friend with other people. But boy, if you are somebody who's empathetic and you respond to other people's pain, when you go through a time like that, it is very worrying. And I'm sure it was for all of us.
Jack Suess: Yet, as we look back, it might be probably technology's finest time when we think about all that was accomplished during the pandemic and how quickly we were able to keep things going in ways that sometimes were really good and sometimes were like [inaudible 00:09:28]. But it was something that I think we can see that we've made a difference. As we get into this period now where things are returning a little bit more towards normal, I think giving people the opportunity to breathe, to step back. Yeah, there's a lot that we still need to do, but we have to also be recognizing we're coming out of this major effort that has really taxed everyone. For our own sake, we need to be ready to be sharing the fact that we need to slow down from time to time.
Michael Berman: I agree, but I don't know if that's the reality for many people because I think we're moving right into new sets of crises, just the entire social situation that you face, the world situation, increasing the sense that there's increasing violence in the world and that affects all of us and the folks in our organizations as well. The budget pressures, the demographic pressures, it's a lot. It's a lot. And I don't think any of us have the answers to that, but it does seem like there was... I used to talk to my team and I would say, "Yeah, and this is going to end and we're all going to get together for barbecue." And I think we thought it was like, there's going to be a day they turn the switch, everyone will get the vaccine. We'd say we have herd immunity. No one's going to be sick anymore. It's all over. We'll all come out of our caves and celebrate. It didn't happen that way at all.
Cynthia Golden: It did not.
Michael Berman: So there never was that. We didn't have V-J Day like they did in World War II. Not that I would swap what those folks went through, but there was never this crowning moment when you could say, "Ah, the sun is out, it's shining. We can all just hug and dance." It didn't really happen that way.
Jack Suess: So I'm going to turn this because I feel so depressed. Let's talk about something else. And I think one of the things-
Michael Berman: Life is good.
Jack Suess: One of the things that we wanted to talk about was also sort of the fact that you've taken on a new role. You've gone from being in higher ed now to working part-time for a vendor and you're doing wonderful work, but could you talk a little bit?
Michael Berman: Sure. And I'm actually working for more than one vendor who I have a contractual relationship with, and I'm doing other things as well, but the main thing I'm doing is working with a company called Advanced Technology Consulting Group. And I actually think it's one very successful model for how higher education and the for-profit sector can work together, partly because it's made up almost completely of people from higher ed. This particular group, there's 11 people in the group and 10 of them were in higher ed. One came from the healthcare sector, so also an adjacent sector [inaudible 00:12:24] higher education.
I do think that... And we were thinking about the future of the relationship between higher ed and all the different industries that support higher ed. I hope we're moving towards a time when there's a more porous relationship between those two. There was a time when if you knew a younger person earlier in their career and they said, "I'd like to go work for this technology company, but I really think I'd like to come back and work for higher ed," I think most of us would've probably said, "Well, that's pretty risky because if you go work for that company, the chance that you're going to be able to find a senior position in higher ed is not very good because people are going to not take you seriously. They're going to think you don't really accept the mission of higher ed." Or almost as if there's going to be a taint or a mark on your form that says you're not a real higher ed person.
I think we're moving beyond that and I think we're going to see... I know at least one high profile person who went to a vendor is now a CIO, and I think that's really healthy. There's challenges with it. So in this case, yes, I am not getting my paycheck directly from a higher ed education institution, but right now I just got off a call with community college, I'm working with them and they trust me, not because I'm a technology expert, but because I'm a higher education expert and I've been there in that role.
Cynthia Golden: Has your perspective changed at all about how higher ed should be working with the vendor community?
Michael Berman: Well, one of the things that I... Most of my career, I was in the state system, which had very strict ethical rules that made it very hard to work in an intensive way of higher education. I remember going to a retreat with Zoom and everyone else is drinking wine in the hotel. And I'm going like, "I really need to go and go back to my Holiday Inn because I don't even know how much this bottle of wine costs and I have to report it to the state, the value of it." And it was difficult, and there are good reasons for that. I'm not complaining. There are good reasons for those ethical rules, but they make it very hard to really influence the future of those organizations because I literally was walking out of a meeting with the CEO of a technology company because I couldn't be there because they were about to have an expensive dinner.
So I hope we can find ways that are ethical and that protect the interest of the institutions, but also I'd like it to be easier for people to move back and forth between those worlds without having a conflict of interest. You figure out a way to do it.
Cynthia Golden: Yeah.
Jack Suess: Well, one of the things that has sort of come to my mind is that... And it's really a result of the move to software as a service for applications. But if you go back 20 years, you might've had 20 major vendors. Now when I go and I look at our software as a service list and other things, we probably have 250 vendors that are really important. So we have to begin understanding how we can work better with the vendor community because it's essential for us to be better and do what we're going to be doing as we go forward over the next few years.
Michael Berman: Sure. I mean, we can remember times when there were people who literally bought some of their own equipment, built their own servers, installed open source software on them. They really wanted to maintain that independence and it's an attractive idea to be able to do that for lots of reasons. But in today's technology, it's not practical anymore. And you are going to depend upon many major vendors and many, many more [inaudible 00:16:34] vendors. And the more that we can work with them in a productive way, they can understand us, we can understand them, which is really important too. Sometimes I feel my colleagues are kind of beating the drum of, "Well, they need to understand us," and that's true, but we should take the time to understand what they need and then try to find a balance. Because it doesn't benefit us if our major suppliers go out of business because they can't figure out a way to be productive. We want them to understand us and we want them to be successful by their scales just as we want our students to be successful.
Cynthia Golden: Yeah, it's the whole idea of partnerships that we talk about all the time, that we've been sometimes successful and sometimes not.
Michael Berman: Well, same as on campuses. There are people who really understand from a partnership means, we all give a little and we listen to each other and a partnership means you do what I tell you. I'd be a good partner.
Jack Suess: But I would say that, and I hope maybe you can also give some guidance because of being at the CSU, you really had a portfolio that was driving a lot of change. But what I have found is that if you can get vendors... If you listen to them about what they want to accomplish, but then you're also prepared to be sharing your goals and priorities, you can begin to really start to see if there's the basis for a productive thing.
The other piece that I really enjoy is... So we have a Research Park Incubator on campus, and I really love working with early stage companies and talking to them. One, I often warn them against the higher ed sector just because we're slow to buy and it takes a long time to make decisions, but if you do want to come into this space, it's a great partnership and we will often be long-term customers if you live up to your end and can deliver product that is helping us meet our needs of supporting the university. That's just a blast to be sort of helping to shape where some of that direction goes.
Michael Berman: Yes, I agree. And it works best, and sometimes we don't always have a choice, but it works best when we can find companies that are very ethical or very honest and transparent who will listen and will adjust their models just as they may ask us to adjust some of the things that we do so we can make stuff work well. Those are the kinds of relationships I have with some of the folks that I see on the floor and we really have a friend type relationship, partnership type relationship that goes beyond the transactional. I know that they're not nice to me just because I bought something or will buy something. I'm not in a position to buy anything from them now and they're still happy to see me. And then there are others who if I never saw them again, that we'd probably both be happy. So it's finding that right balance.
Jack Suess: Mike, as you're thinking about the work that you do at the CSU and some of the projects that you were involved in, are there any sort of things that you think really were great examples of projects that the CSU undertook? Because for many years, it was a highly collaborative group and it may still be. I'm just not as familiar with it in the most recent times around joint work across the 23 campuses.
Michael Berman: Sure. Well, I think I found that collaboration waxes and wanes based on the personalities of the people involved. I think there are people who naturally seem to lean into collaboration and are willing to develop trust, and there are others who for whatever reason want to hoe their own row just as there are across other organizations. And there are those who say they want to be partners, but they're interested only in as far as they get something out of it. A good partnership, both sides get something. And if you go into it just as a game where you're going to maximize what you get and you don't care what the other side gets, that's not a basis for a long-term partnership.
So in a way, it's not that different from working with a vendor supplier partner because the ones that are willing to play a long game and play a game of trust, you can work well. So it just varied and it varied over time as to different leaders or institutions. And institutions often will take on the character of the senior leader, the president. So California State University, just as in, I think it's SUNY and a lot of other systems, at the end of the day, you don't report to the system, you report to the president or the leader of your campus and that's the person who tells you if you're doing a good job or not. So they tend to hire people in their own image.
Cynthia Golden: You were the inaugural CIO, right, for a system CIO?
Michael Berman: No, no, I wasn't.
Cynthia Golden: No? Oh, okay. I don't know why I thought that.
Michael Berman: I wasn't. There were others well before me. I think David Hurst is the first.
Cynthia Golden: Oh, that's right.
Michael Berman: I think it's David.
Cynthia Golden: Of course. Of course.
Michael Berman: I was the first CIO at a couple of the campuses I worked at.
Cynthia Golden: Yeah, maybe that's what it was remembering.
Michael Berman: Cal Poly, I was the first CIO there and it's always an interesting role to play.
Cynthia Golden: I was going to take us back a little bit to talking a little bit about leadership because I read a piece that you and your colleague Advantage, Kirk Kelly, wrote about 5 Keys to Effective IT Leadership or something like that.
Michael Berman: Yeah, 5 Key Habits.
Cynthia Golden: 5 Key Habits. One of them you've kind of just alluded to now about speaking the language of your stakeholders. I think that's something that sometimes in IT, we fall down on that little bit.
Michael Berman: Yes.
Cynthia Golden: Why'd you pick that one?
Michael Berman: I think that it's something that I always wanted to do. So it came natural to me because I desired it. I remember when I was a professor and they did orientation for the new faculty and somebody came from student affairs and they said, "Well, we always offer a tour of student affairs. If you come by Friday at 10 o'clock, we'll show you all the stuff we do." So I came by Friday 10 o'clock, I was the only one there and they were like, "Hello, what are you here for?" I said, "Well, I'm here for the..." They say, "Oh, we say that at every orientation, usually nobody comes by." So I was always curious, and I do think that... It's not in there, but that would be another great habit of leaders is to be curious. So I always wanted to know what are all these people doing? I thought Dr. Cottom talked about that today how people just don't understand this issue [inaudible 00:23:19].
But it's not that hard to find out if you go and ask people and listen to them. My dad was a newspaper reporter, by the way, and he was always just curious how everything-
Cynthia Golden: He asks people a lot of questions.
Michael Berman: He loved to interview people.
Cynthia Golden: Yeah.
Michael Berman: And ask questions and listen to their answers. Right? So I always wanted to know what does the provost actually do, and who actually makes [inaudible 00:23:40]? There's all these associate provosts, what do they do? Find out, oh, they do really important things they can make or break a university by the decisions that they make. This one is really great and kind of figures out how to fix all the problems that this other one causes. But I do think that it maybe was easier for me coming from faculty. So I speak faculty language. I was a member of the faculty union. I was on the faculty senate, I was on the curriculum committee, I was on the promotion to tenure committee. So I kind of knew that side, but I didn't know the business side as well.
Cynthia Golden: Yeah, you had the shared governance piece.
Michael Berman: Right.
Cynthia Golden: Yep.
Michael Berman: I mean I loved finding out how facilities worked. Oh, we have a campus architect? What does that person do? They're like drawing pictures of buildings. What is that about?
Cynthia Golden: Help us with classrooms sometimes.
Michael Berman: What's the difference between a controller and a bursar and a chief financial officer and how does that relate to this financial system? Oh, there's accounts payable and accounts receivable. What the heck is the difference there?
Cynthia Golden: Well, you know-
Michael Berman: I was always curious about that. And then I wanted to understand what their needs were.
Cynthia Golden: At one time, we did a couple sessions, we called it Higher Ed 101 for IT people who were coming from industry coming into higher ed and talked about exactly those kinds of things. Yeah.
Michael Berman: I know when I went to a new campus, I don't remember who it was, probably it was in an EDUCAUSE meeting or something I learned this, but I would go to people and I would say, "What could I be doing to help you be successful?" And most people would tell you. Sometimes they tell you, "Stop doing all those terrible things IT is doing." But then to find out, "Well, what is your goal? What is it you're trying to accomplish? What's keeping you up at night?" So with experience then, you learn those paces. I always encourage my team too. I'd always say, "I want you to..." When we come to EDUCAUSE meeting, my advice to people coming for the first time, I said, "Go through the schedule and pick something that looks interesting that you know nothing about and go to that." If you're an infrastructure person, don't just go to infrastructure sessions. Go to a session on learning [inaudible 00:25:56] and listen to that.
Cynthia Golden: That's great advice.
Jack Suess: So one of the things sort of in that vein, I always encourage... We have a staff senate and I encourage our IT staff to consider being senators because it was really formative for me in the late eighties as I was starting out as a staff member. I got involved in the Senate and I just learned so much about the rest of the university. What do people do here? How do they do it? But it's also the relationships you begin to make as you're reaching out and learning about other people. And even just having conversations. What can make your life better? Or how could we be helpful? That's a great opener for learning more.
Michael Berman: Some campuses will have a leadership academy where they'll bring people from different roles on campus, and it's sometimes surprising how few IT people take advantage of that. They sort of silo themselves. That's okay, but not if you want to be a higher ed leader. If you really feel like you want to be a leader, I think you have to have a broader view and be able to look out and see. If you simply want to manage machines, you can probably do that. Although in the long term, that's not really a growth opportunity.
Jack Suess: You coming into this role with a faculty background is incredibly helpful, I think, from a teaching and learning perspective.
Michael Berman: I always encourage people... Another thing people would do is they would say, "So I think I want to be a CIO, and do you think I have the right background?" One of the questions I would ask them is, "Have you ever taught a class?" And I encourage them to, "Well, you got a master's, you could go to the community college and teach the IT 101 class or something that interests you. Maybe it's something completely different that you know about that you could teach a class." Because when that instructor calls and says, "That projector's not working for the third time this week, you need to understand what that means." It doesn't sound too bad to you if projector didn't work for three times, but when you're an instructor and you've got two hours a week in front of 40 students for 30 sessions and you've just lost 10% of your [inaudible 00:28:11] dealing with projector, that's a big deal. But I don't think some of our people realize that at first. No, no, no. People were just being cranky. It's a big deal.
Jack Suess: No, you're definitely right. And I think we often hear, well, they just start teaching two classes a week or three classes a week. And I remember early on in my career, I got to teach Assembly Language Programming because they didn't have anyone who knew the assembly language. So I was in there teaching that.
Michael Berman: '80, '86.
Jack Suess: No, no, no. This was actually CDC Cyber. Yeah.
Michael Berman: No wonder nobody-
Jack Suess: Nobody knew it. Yeah. But what was so funny with that is I realized I'm spending six, eight hours for every hour I was in the class [inaudible 00:28:52] trying to get ready because you just have to be so prepared when you're talking in front of students.
Michael Berman: And it may be that... It's a myth too or it's a rarity that instructors will just use the same notes year after year. And certainly not in computer science. I mean, you're constantly revising. And I think if you're at all a thoughtful person who cares about what you do, you're constantly revising and improving it, and I think the vast majority of our faculty are doing... It's a lot of work.
Jack Suess: It is. So we need to wrap up.
Cynthia Golden: Yes, we do.
Jack Suess: And I guess, Mike, curious if you have any sort of parting thoughts for our audience that you want to share.
Michael Berman: Well, I just want to say how inspired I was to go see my colleague, Dr. Felix Zuñiga, give his talk today. He won the DEI award this year, and I had the good fortune to work with him in the Cal State system. And I thought that to see someone who is so devoted to his family and so curious and so willing to give and to see him win that award, and to see Mac McIntosh congratulating him, who won last year, it's just wonderful to be in a profession where you have people like that. I'm grateful for both of you and for so many other colleagues that I've worked with. And Felix shows it's not just about CIOs or senior technical people. There are leaders all throughout our organizations, and we need to celebrate people at every level for what they do.
Jack Suess: I think that's a perfect way to end.
Cynthia Golden: I couldn't have said it better.
Michael Berman: Thank you.
Cynthia Golden: Thank you for joining us, Mike.
This episode features:
Executive Strategic Consultant
Vantage Technology Consulting Group
University of Pittsburgh
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County