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Tracy Schroeder on Leveraging Frameworks

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 13

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Tracy Schroeder, Vice President for Information Services & Technology at Boston University.

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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.

Jack Suess: Today we're joined by Tracy Schroeder, vice president for information services and technology and chief data officer at Boston University. Tracy, I've known you for many years. I can't think of a person that is more universally respected by their peers than you are and who really represents what we like to think of as the integrative CIO. Could you take a few minutes and talk about your career?

Tracy Schroeder: Thanks, Jack. And first of all, I appreciate the generous introduction and the respect of my peers.

I think I had perhaps a head start in at least what I think of as the integrative CIO in that I came to the role from outside of IT. I think of myself as a higher education administrator and leader first before being an IT leader because that's what I was.

I came to higher education, frankly, writing a newsletter at the Academy of Art College at that time, now the Academy of Art University and ended up, through a series of circumstances that I won't bore you with, in a role of the director of curriculum and enrollment there in the Office of the President.

And just given the nature and structure of that organization, doing everything from hiring adjunct faculty to sweeping through classrooms before the start of the semester, I hired bus drivers, I wrote accreditation reports, it was just a dunking in all aspects of higher education. And went from there to the University of San Francisco in what was a more conventional job.

But once I got this top to bottom view of higher ed from the Academy, I then went into some other administrative roles at the College of Professional Studies at the University of San Francisco and didn't really move into IT until after having interacted with IT from the administrative side, running projects like the implementation of web-based grading and student services and a student portal on behalf of the Office of Academic Enrollment Services, of which I was a part.

And I came into IT in a crisis moment in what I would describe as a highly unlikely accident, in a sense. I became an acting CIO in 2002 when the then CIO had to go out on an abrupt health leave, which was very unfortunate. But he had only been there about 18 months and he hadn't really had time to develop a team that was prepared to have someone step in for him.

And I had just project managed a portal launch, and I guess that had given me a certain level of visibility with the leadership of the institution. And to my shock and amazement, they asked me to be the acting CIO. There's an interesting story that follows that, but I won't go into that now.

But I've always been the person between IT and the institution, either as a representative of the institution trying to get help from IT or as a member of the IT organization trying to make sure that we're serving the institution in the way that it needs to be served.

And at its core, I think that that's our role as CIOs is to bring the power of technology to the goals of the institution and to enable the institution to use technology as they wish.

So anyway, I think that integrative role is one that has been the heart of what brought me into the role in the first place and what gives me joy and life in the role.

Cynthia Golden: Thanks, Tracy. That's a really interesting career path and the way you talked about the roles you've played really do speak to that integration, which we all know is so important.

So you then made a major transition from the University of San Francisco to Boston University, and that was a transition I think both in the size of the institution and the institutional focus and that kind of leap is also rare in higher education. Could you talk a little bit about that experience and any lessons you might want to share with our colleagues who might be thinking about a similar jump?

Tracy Schroeder: It turned out to be very helpful to me to have participated in EDUCAUSE activities such that I had some material that was out on the web, namely a podcast that I had done about ERP and service management that Richard Katz asked me to do after some committee service on a committee that he ran.

And it turned out that that podcast was something that the chair of the search committee at Boston University came upon while he was looking at candidates that had been brought forward by the search firm. And I was told later that they wouldn't have taken me seriously as a candidate if it were not for that podcast and hearing what I had to say.

So I guess the advice would be to get yourself out there a bit such that even if you're from an institution, that an institution you aspire to work for does not consider a peer or peer plus as folks sometimes say that they might still look at you and at least decide to talk to you because you said something interesting or wrote something interesting.

So that is advice number one. Number two is, if you're successful in making such a move or when you're considering such a move, do not assume that the awareness you have of how higher education is supported and enabled by IT, that it scales linearly and that the principles you have applied successfully in your role or roles to date will necessarily work at the new place.

The fact that your organization is a quarter of the size of the future organization, but that organization is maybe only three times bigger in terms of student head count, you think, well, there should be some inefficiency there, there's some money to be wrought out.

There are things you don't understand about how higher education scales. It scales like a fractal not in a linear manner. And the research piece especially is just confounding. It is a confounding factor in thinking about scale and you don't know what you don't know when you're going into a new role like that.

And committees always want to ask you to speculate on your solution to problems and what something might cost or how many staff might be required for X thing, and sometimes you're simply forced to answer that kind of a question with some kind of speculation, but I would suggest that you caveat your answer with, "Well, based upon my experience thus far, but I understand that I would learn new things in your environment."

Cynthia Golden: Good advice.

Jack Suess: You've been now at Boston University for 13 years. Over that time you've had an increased number of responsibilities, you've taken on some new roles including that of the chief data officer. Can you talk a little bit about BU's digital strategy and the projects you're working on and where you're hoping to continue to evolve BU?

Tracy Schroeder: Well, first of all, I'll just heartily agree that the work is never done, especially in these large complex institutions that were really the first to bringing technology and large information systems to higher ed in the first place. We have such a massive amount of technology modernization to do, such a massive amount of technical debt that I'm still modernizing systems. I've been working on it for 12, 13 years now and I'm still trying to finish the job. So there's a tremendous amount.

I mean, the core of BU's digital strategy is to modernize and to get to a place where we can, in an agile manner, plug and play solutions together so that we can move and adjust at the pace at which we want to take on new initiatives. And that's really difficult if you're trying to do everything yourself.

So we're striving for a modern, component-based agile architecture that enables us to take the best of what's available at that point in time, and then when it's no longer the best thing available, put it away and take the new thing. Not to mean that we're distracted by shiny objects, but we don't want to be limited by the constraints of what we can develop ourselves. And as those of us sitting on long in the tooth legacy systems know that's a big transition to make.

That said, it has been a long time. I think a key part of staying that long is having a president who sees technology and things digital as something that is worth his time and who manages in an overtly data driven way. So the desire to have systems that provide good quality data that can then be translated into action and used as a part of everyday processes is a value to my president and he's clear about that in every aspect of his work.

So it helps to bring a level of engagement to folks' work with data and I really don't have to try to get people to use data. My challenge is to feed them enough to keep up with the hunger for it. That's a welcome challenge.

In terms of bringing data into IT, I think that was a combination of two things. One is that we have a data hungry culture led by the president, and the second was it was an evolution for me and it was actually something I requested as part of my own growth in the organization and that the president felt would serve the institution.

But unlike many points in my career where I did something because I was asked to, that was actually a case where I asked for something because I heard some of my colleagues talking about how critical they felt that this was going to be for the future of the CIO role. And as I looked at what was most interesting and important that the institution was working on, I felt that that was where I could most grow and hopefully add value.

So it has been a big and challenging transition to bring the two groups together, but I think it is adding value and we've been able to make good progress on some of the harder things like data governance and data management that is serving us in important ways now, especially with regard to DEI data. We're better positioned than we might have been to deal with the need to leverage that data more and bring different types of that data into action in our systems.

Cynthia Golden: So Tracy, as you brought these two different groups together, how did you work to integrate them? What was important in that process for you?

Tracy Schroeder: I think it's was important to acknowledge the cultures of the two teams, how they were different. And I actually learned from some mistakes I made initially in that I wasn't intentional enough and overt enough about managing and articulating the roles and responsibilities of the two groups' ownership of services. So in an ITIL sense, service catalog ownership and accommodating and facilitating sharing of differences in ways of working.

So I think we had a bumpier transition, particularly in the first six months than we might have had. And after that period, I basically had to take a step back and say, "Wait a minute, we need to have some meta-level meetings and discussions about how we're working together and roles and responsibilities and ways of interacting."

And we ended up redefining our service catalog to pull out data management and analytics from being embedded in administrative systems, and some of the IR stuff wasn't in the catalog at all, to restructure that, create a whole new section of the catalog and align ownership differently, and then look at how we were using tools and processes.

So say for example, the fundamental differences in the structure, in the culture that I would observe is that IR is a more organic responsive culture of delivery to request and a lot of survey response and ad hoc reporting, bringing data together ad hoc and very flexible ways of working, and no ticketing systems, no service request, service management, et cetera.

Whereas on the IT side, we want our requirements documents and our solution architectures and our requests tickets and our incident tickets and our defect logs and et cetera, much more formality on the IT side. And after the intentional structural piece of it happened, the softer part was letting each group more observe how the other worked and to some extent decide the things that they wanted to borrow from the other culture.

So our IR group has become more process oriented and has adopted some of the service management principles and tools and even some of the project management principles and tools in order to better manage their time and resources.

And on the IT side, our folks have become a little more adaptive, a little more collaborative, a little more flexible to how they interact and support, a little more conversational, more things being managed by the historical BI team within operations and more lightly managed projects or self-managed projects without a project manager.

So anyway, they've kind of rubbed off on each other, which has been interesting to watch. That actually did happen in a more organic way, but the foundations had to be laid very deliberately so that people knew who was on first, otherwise some people felt like you're putting so and so into my job or asking them to take some of my responsibilities or vice versa, which wasn't the intention, but there was confusion. So we had to be really clear at the outset.

Jack Suess: That's really interesting how at the end of the day, it's not unlike merging families as you come together across different things and how you start to learn to work together. And I ended up having a presentation I did for AIR, which is the Association of Institutional Research, and it was with some other people and we were talking about the IT and IR boundaries.

And as it has worked out at UMBC, we have had a long, long history of really great collaboration. And there have been some times where people have said, "Well, why don't you want to bring IR into IT?" And in this particular case, what I said is, "Well, it's been working really well." And because I report to the president and IR has historically been right up through the provost office, I don't know that long term, I want to mess with something that's working right now.

And I think what you had is something where you probably saw it wasn't quite working as well as it could be and you've been able to bring that together. But I really encourage any listeners on here to be figuring out how do you build those collaborations with units like IR, because even if they're not reporting to you, your shared cultures as you interact can help each other learn some of those techniques. And so that's just a great story of how both organizations have benefited.

I'd like to think about another step and you've sort of highlighted some of it, or I think the audience would've picked up on it in this. I've always thought of you and you've always impressed me as someone who's really a consummate planner.

And I don't know whether you think of yourself implicitly as that's one of your superpowers or not, but I've noticed that as ideas come up in meetings or other things, where I've been at with you and we served on the EDUCAUSE board together and I've watched you in this, is that you seem to always be able to take ideas and then begin to be thinking about how you connect the dots and how you go from step one to step two.

Do you consider yourself a planner? And if so, how are you building that skillset into your organization? Because it sounds like you have an organization that's really thoughtful about the way that it's trying to do things.

Tracy Schroeder: I would say that I am deeply analytical and structured in my thinking. And what I'm always trying to do is make order out of chaos. And to do that, I do that both intuitively as well as I leverage frameworks. And in terms of building that in my organization or in my team, a lot of that is through frameworks.

It was very important when I joined BU that I oriented the organization on an IT service management ITIL framework and that meant we trained everyone and we built a shared vocabulary, a shared understanding of processes and tools. And that enabled us to attack problems in a way where it leveled the playing field between the people who were new to the organization and people who had been here for 25 years.

But leveraging frameworks like ITIL or PRINCE2 or PMI for project management or TOGAF for architecture, these are things that I turn to and that I hire for in that I bring people in with a framework expertise. And I encourage people who are already here to go out and learn the applicable frameworks for their discipline. And I reward people going getting certifications. I announce them at every single all-staff meeting, which I have six per year, one every other month now, more during COVID and post COVID than prior.

But at the beginning of every staff meeting, I acknowledge new hires, people who've been promoted and the people who got certifications. And I'm sure everybody does that, but I think frameworks are important and help to convey an appreciation for structured thinking and shared vocabulary.

Jack Suess: That's great. I love that. I hadn't really thought that far across in how frameworks help with the shared vocabulary and shared thinking, and so thank you.

Tracy Schroeder: Oh, cool.

Cynthia Golden: It's a really good model for people to think about using. So I want to switch gears just a little bit, Tracy. I know that earlier in your career you were involved in the Jesuit colleges and universities IT group, and later you talked about, a few minutes ago, how you got involved with EDUCAUSE and also Internet2. Can you talk a little bit about how community has been important to your professional development and how you use our community to build your team's talents?

Tracy Schroeder: Okay. So community has been very important, not only in a literal sense, as I described before in creating job opportunities, but more fundamentally in terms of having folks to turn to, to ask questions, consult for their expertise or collaborate to get something done.

I have done some unconventional things, reaching out to peers for help. I even went so far at one point when I was at the University of San Francisco, I was in dire straits on a project I had and I knew that one of my peers had a very strong team in that area.

And I contacted my peer and I asked if I could borrow a developer, and they said yes. And we figured out how do it financially for her to loan me that person for this critical period of time. So I believe in radical collaboration and am always looking for those opportunities.

In terms of how that plays out with my team, I think all my folks now know whenever they're bringing me something among my first three questions is going to be, what are our peers doing? And have you queried the applicable lists and talked to your colleagues?

The list of our strategic peers is in my onboarding presentation for new staff. It's there for a reference for everything. You need to come into your meeting with me, whatever your proposal is, knowing what those peers are doing and having talked to your colleagues in those spaces.

And I encourage people to build those relationships so that they have the first phone call to their colleague to say, "Are you dealing with this or that or the other thing? Or have you seen X or Y?"

It's important not only for having some reference checks for what good practice is, it's also just good for your mental health to be able to compare how you're struggling with something and are you the only one, and finding out inevitably that you're not.

Cynthia Golden: It helps put things in perspective sometimes, right?

Tracy Schroeder: It does. Yes, it does. So I encourage my folks to do that, to participate in, be it EDUCAUSE groups or if they're in more of a different niche to participate in the groups applicable to that niche, be it a technical slice of Internet2, or some of the identity groups or cybersecurity groups. Those are all very important communities and if we're not tapped into them ...

It's also a differentiating characteristic of higher education and a value that we can offer to our staff. It's a kind of community they can be part of at one of our institutions that is really unavailable in the same way in a corporate environment.

Jack Suess: I can't agree with you more. I think that really is the differentiator. And it should be one of the things that hopefully as we're building teams, they want to take advantage of.

I'm going to touch base on another aspect that comes from EDUCAUSE, and it was a presentation you did called Hacking the Dress Code. And that session talked about formal or informal norms and how they can be either welcoming or off-putting to different groups.

And I'm just curious, there's also some of that, that's happening as we're thinking about return to work and the impact that it has. And so how are you thinking about things now and how has that presentation where you had to get involved in that activity changed the way you're doing things today?

Tracy Schroeder: Well, I'm glad you saw that presentation. It was a fun one to do. That was an example of a situation where I went from receiving escalated complaints on Twitter from faculty about my student employee dress code to partnering with them to make that presentation because I took the opportunity to have them educate me about what the dress code meant, what its significance and impact was. And I learned a lot. And it was a very meaningful experience for me and a rare opportunity to really, as a CIO, collaborate directly with faculty.

But anyway, what I learned was that dress codes are deeply embedded in Western white male norms and are alienating and negatively impactful on many marginalized communities, be they people of color or gender nonconforming or simply women or socioeconomic stratification, folks who are impacted by not being able to afford certain types of clothes.

Anyway, I learned that they are a significant source of stress and strain and alienation and found that there's a whole ... The word's escaping me now. They're going to have to edit this bit ... there's a literature around this. And I tapped into some of that with the advice of the faculty and we rewrote the student dress code.

And as we prepared for the staff to come back on campus, I had committed already to the faculty that I was going to revise this for the staff as well because they were concerned about that. And they said, "You've done this much, you've really got to finish the job." And so I was committed to do that.

And so I have since that presentation taken it the step further to take apart ... Previously, we had a dress code for our client services and support team, our field technicians, but not for anyone else in IT and that was inequitable that we had one for some people and not for others. And the one that we had for the direct frontline support staff was old fashioned, not equitable.

And so we put together one revised and vastly simplified dress code that applies to everyone. And I will say what we've tried to focus on is dressing appropriately for the function that you need to perform. So we don't say, don't wear high-heeled shoes, you say wear shoes that enable you to move quickly around a room if needed and protect your feet from any dropped equipment. So the statement is about functional need and respects the judgment of the person to decide what the appropriate shoe is to that function.

So we have a fairly short one page slide that we call shared expectations on work attire. And we've tried to jettison terminology like professionalism or business casual because frankly many folks don't know really what that means. And if they guess, they're guessing based upon white male cisgender norms and they're not helpful.

So we've tried to just emphasize the functionality that clothing needs to have, and make statements along the lines of, consider the norms of the specific unit or program you're working for and be aware of any specific requirements they may have.

So say for example, if you're supporting a board of trustees event, you need to be aware that that's a coat and tie event, but it's a dress for the day kind of approach and that doesn't mean you have to wear the same thing every day. So I think the impact of that on our culture has been that people are dressing in a wider variety of things and we are more open to that.

Jack Suess: And I think I've at least seen, even at my own institution, the pandemic has changed our expectations. We're all used to the Zoom attire, so to speak, but even now coming back, where we used to be more coat and tie, we're more casual unless you have specific meetings that are going to be there.

So I think it's really an important element to be thinking about as we're trying to broaden and diversify. So I appreciate you talking about what prompted it, but just then how you've expanded it as well.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah, what you've done seems to really make good sense, Tracy. So as you think about the title of this podcast and the term integrative CIO, after we've talked for a little while now, what does it mean to you and how do you try to exemplify the term in your work and in the work of your team? And I think you've woven that in, throughout our discussion so far.

Tracy Schroeder: So I've been giving this some thought since we've been planning to do this podcast. And as I think about it, I think it comes back to maybe a step beyond what I started with, which was more about translating from the institutional needs and vocabulary to a technical set of perspectives and vocabulary, that the integrative CIO role is more about being able to translating, but embodying and existing at the intersection such that the IT organization is a constitutive part of the mission and values of the organization.

And where I find we are successful or where I feel we are successful in that is when, say for example that HR, they come to me, a few times now, to pilot a new program with my staff, with the IT staff as participants in the program, not to build the system for it, we might do that too, but to pilot a new process or function. Or that they come to me or a member of my staff to participate in something that is not IT related directly at least and that we are a constitutive part of that.

So some examples of that kind of thing, we are piloting now with HR, a new exit interviewing process. It's a stay interview and exit interviews, collecting data about why people stay, why people leave, and providing that input in a structured way to managers about why people stay, why people leave, and developing action plans to reduce what we call regrettable losses. And so we'll be participating in that as a pilot group.

And in terms of things, for me personally, I've been participating in our anti-racism working group that is a group of leaders, that's faculty and some staff and executives as well, and working to basically be a participant in the dialogue around ... What we're trying to do is look at opportunities to remediate structural racism within the institution.

And an example of that is, I was on a subcommittee of that group where we were looking at our sustainability plan and our sustainability plan does not have a section on equity and justice in environmental action, and that needs to be added. And so we've spent some time looking at what would it mean to add that, how do we go about it, et cetera, formulating a plan.

And that's not IT stuff, and that's not to say that the definition of being an integrative CIO is doing non IT things, but it's more being active in all aspects of the institution. And I also sometimes look I think, and I date myself a bit, but there's an episode of The West Wing where the president makes a decision to fly the son of a leader in a state that is not a state of the US, but in a country that is in a conflict with others, to fly the child of that leader to a hospital.

And he conveys his direction to do this by, you're putting him on the plane. There's a big red cross on the plane, that this plane has no stake in any fight that is going on.

And there are times when I say to my folks, "We have the big red cross. We have no dog in the fight. We are facilitating and we are working towards a solution. We are Switzerland in terms of we are the entity that anyone can talk to about their needs. And we can broker conversations, some that are sometimes otherwise difficult."

Cynthia Golden: This has been really great, Tracy. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Tracy Schroeder: Thank you, Cynthia. And thank you, Jack. It was fun talking with you.

This episode features:

Tracy Schroeder
Vice President, Information Services & Technology
Chief Data Officer
Boston 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