Freeman Hrabowski and Jack Suess on Successful President/CIO Collaboration [podcast]

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Community Conversations | Season 1, Episode 4 | Originally recorded on 12/16/20

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE CEO and President, talks with UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski and CIO Jack Suess about what makes their longtime working relationship a success.

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John O'Brien: So welcome to our community conversation. I am really thrilled today to have two real powerhouses in their own fields. So we have Freeman Hrabowski III the president of UMBC one of the most exemplary institutions in the US and Jack Suess, the chief information officer at UMBC, and these gentlemen have worked together for a couple of decades. Jack Suess was recently named an award winner, leadership award winner at EDUCAUSE. So what a great time to have a conversation today about how effective CIOs work with their presidents, and we're going to hear from two of the best. So I would love to hear from each of you what your first impressions were of each other back when you met, I think 20 years ago, let's start with you, Freeman.

Freeman Hrabowski III: It's a great question. It's very interesting, John, that I met Jack well before he became the CIO. He was working as the number two person, as I recall in computing, and there were several impressions. Number one, it doesn't take anybody five minutes to realize here's somebody special. He's an excellent thinker. As soon as he starts talking, you realize this guy has really thought about what he wants to say. Number two, he had a way of being very comfortable with himself and with other people. And that struck me because as you know, sometimes people who are not in technology can feel somewhat overwhelmed by those who are very knowledgeable in technology. He had a very comfortable way of speaking in regular English and language and explaining things. From the beginning, I said, here's a winner. That was my first response.

John O'Brien: Jack?

Jack Suess: The first time I remember interacting with Freeman was when Dr. Hrabowski was beginning to get the Meyerhoff program off the ground. I don't know if you remember Freeman, but that first cohort of Meyerhoff got Apple Mac computers. We were getting in these new apple Mac computers, and we were going to be giving, I think it was 10 students that were in that first class of Meyerhoff scholars. I was involved in just sort of working to get the computers set up and get them distributed to the students and just sort of getting to talk with him. At that time, I had never interacted with anyone that was at that level of the administration. And you got a sense that his mind was always working. And I was sort of all [inaudible 00:02:53] in the first sense of meeting him. But luckily that project was one that went successful and we were able to sort of build on that over the years.

Freeman Hrabowski III: Jack, there were 10 Meyerhoff scholars and there were 9 finalists, and we put them together for 19, but you're absolutely right. I do remember you're working with them, and what I remember was your sense of curiosity. You wanted to understand the program, you wanted to understand these kids who were at that time, high achieving young black males usually. I always said, at that time, when you saw a group of black males on the campus, you think about basketball team. But these were kids who were going to be physicists and computer scientists, and he was curious. When he says my mind was working it's because he was asking me a question every minute, it was great. He was very interested in understanding. That's what I remember.

John O'Brien: I mentioned recently that my impression when I came to UMBC virtually to be part of the staff celebration of Jack Suess winning the award at EDUCAUSE. I told the story of being at an international meeting with a table surrounded by people, and Jack quietly saying something in the room, growing silent to listen to him. Jack, I don't know if you think of yourself as an introvert, but I think of you as an introvert of sorts, quiet. And when you have something to say, everyone listens because of it. Freeman, I guess I would probably put you under the extrovert category. I talked to a CIO recently who said that he was absolutely saying I'm an introvert and said that it was exhausting for him to work with the president who was so exuberant. This is just a wild card question but discuss.

Jack Suess: I actually think that Freeman is a lot like me. He has some tendencies towards extroversion, but I've also watched what he goes through to get himself mentally prepared. True extroverts pull in the energy from the crowd, but often introverts, it's a bit draining as you're doing these events. I can see some days where I've been with Freeman and you can see that the energy with him gets drained. I don't think he's quite the extrovert that he comes off. Because of that, I also know to be trying to make sure that when I'm working with him, I'm not draining his energy.

Cause a lot of times going in for meetings and talking with him, knowing that two hours later, he's going to be talking to some group or he is going to be doing something. I'm trying to make sure that I'm trying to give him time to rebuild that energy level to be able to be his very best that's there. It's learning to be working with people and understanding them. I think I'm somewhat like him. I can do external, but I do need to be refreshed. I don't draw a lot of energy, new energy from needing in these external environments.

Freeman Hrabowski III: I have to tell you, as I think about what Jack just said. He, in many ways, sounds like my mother. I'll tell you what I mean about that. If anybody knew me, well, it was my late mother. And she knew I really was not an extrovert Jack and I, first of all, are fellow math majors. We start there. We both get goosebumps during math. Number two, what Jack has said, shows his insights into human behavior. It's just that as a precocious kid in math, I was always being taught by my parents to smile and to be outgoing because I tended to want to go inward and think about what people are saying, right? They just pushed me to do this. When you see me laughing and everything, it's sincere, but it's a habit that I've developed.

The other challenge I faced is that if I'm walking around campus and I'm looking as seriously as I can look, and thinking about things. People want to know if something is wrong. Jack can be extraordinarily charismatic. I've seen him do this on our campus when he wants to. At the same time, he's right that we tend to think deeply about things. And I'm very comfortable with few words and understanding our roles require us to do certain things at certain points. But the most important point for a CIO is to know the audience, is to know one's president and leaders, and to figure out what the best chemistry is.

When I think about Jack, I think about is he a CIO? Yes, but he is one of my critical thought partners, and he's also one of my counsel. We think about attorneys as general counsel, well no, he's a counsel. That's not just about technology as important as technology is. It's about life at UMBC. It's about relationships. It's most importantly about problem solving in a way that pulls other people into the work. What Jack does that's so keenly important is to understand human behavior and to be able to ask questions, to pull people along as we work towards greater understanding.

John O'Brien: That's very much my impression of Jack probing, and you used the word earlier, curiosity. I do think that's one of the attributes that makes such a difference. So anybody spending any time with the two of you together will be struck as I am by the chemistry. Actually you use the word once, between the two of you. I want to think about the evolution of your relationship. Was that chemistry always there because you know, the secret language of math majors or did it evolve and was there some intentionality of figuring out how to work effectively together?

Jack Suess: For me, one of the interesting aspects of this is that we came together in a difficult time. You know, where we really began working heavily together was when we were implementing the PeopleSoft project at UMBC. Freeman used to joke and call it people hard, not PeopleSoft. But this was one where we went through some challenges. I think that going through challenges, you learn the medal of someone. I think he grew comfortable that I was willing to take criticism, but not take it personally. And to use that criticism to say, yeah there's a problem, we'll work with you to fix them, we'll roll up our sleeves. But that effort of working and also watching him absorb criticism. One of my goals with the PeopleSoft project was if he was going through a really tough time as well from the campus and I wanted to make sure that I did everything in my power to be making whatever that time was going to be as short as possible. We were really trying to double down to be resolving whatever issues were there.

Freeman Hrabowski III: The notion of trust is critical here that Jack had built such goodwill with faculty and other colleagues on campus and people trusted him. His approach was always one of calmness, analysis, understanding. People knew he and his team were doing all they could, but he had to also make it clear it wasn't just about people in OIT that these matters and people's self implementation matters in auditing. It's not just about the business office. It's about all of us. That is the point that Jack was making, and that he helped me to make as I work to develop language with him that we would use with the campus that said, this is a multiyear process, that there will be mistakes, that we'll get knocked down and we'll get back up.

But what he did that was most important. He never got angry, John. Jack never got angry. I could be a little volatile sometimes. He had a way, that same calm look that he has right now that he always had. His message was in one way that we'll get through this. It takes time. We'll get through this. You know, I have a saying those the gods wish to destroy, they first make angry, got that from somebody from you years ago. But he had that ability even when people wrote nasty letters, the mean spirited letters, the emotional letters, or in a meeting of town hall of remaining calm and it always inspired me to be better. That's what this guy does. This is what this exemplary CIO slash leader does. He inspires us to be better than we thought we could be. That was what was required in those difficult times when we were trying to figure it out when it wasn't just challenges with the campus, but with PeopleSoft themselves, as we were going through that evolution to the next level.

Jack Suess: I think for CIOs, especially those that are reporting to the president. One of the key things that you have to recognize is just how busy they are with their time. And I view my job as making sure that as much as possible, I'm going to keep the day to day from hitting Dr. Hrabowski. Occasionally something will happen, but it really is part of my job to be managing processes, working with people, to make sure that he's not having to spend his time dealing with what I would call administrative issues, but more strategic and tactical. You do have a role of building these strong trust networks in order to be able to know that people can work through you. That if it comes to you, that's going to get it done, that they don't have to go around you to the president to get their thoughts or issues addressed. That they can come directly to you. That's been one of the key things that I've tried to emphasize.

John O'Brien: Listening to each of you tell your stories again, it seems like you got really lucky to find each other at the same institutions. Given what you've learned about what works well, what's your advice, Jack, for CIOs who don't enjoy this luxury with their president? And Dr. Hrabowski, what about you for presidents who don't enjoy the chemistry of you two have? How about start with Jack?

Jack Suess: Freeman and I were actually talking about that earlier today. What I mentioned to Freeman was that what really helped me was getting to work with him on some of his speeches. Then especially when we ended up doing some articles for EDUCAUSE. Working with him on the thought process of how he thinks about a topic and how he goes about organizing his thinking really gave me insight into how he processes information and how I can better give him the kinds of information that he needs when he needs it in order to be able to make better decisions. This effort of working collaboratively with a president was just a great example. And I would encourage any CIO if they get the opportunity to work with their president that they take advantage of that opportunity because it is such a great way of learning how they think and learning how you can be better at helping them.

Freeman Hrabowski III: I observed Jack over a number of years in meetings, at first, with his boss and him, and other people. I could see that he was, as I said, a good thinker. The advice I would have for presidents is get a chance to talk to that CIO with some of his staff, for example, or with other people, because you can learn more about how to build chemistry between two people. When you see the chemistry among a group of people, you get to know more about the strengths of each person and what works to bring and to build on that relationship. It's perhaps the most important thing I would say to a president is allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to learn. I needed to say to Jack, even when I was making the decision about moving him under me or to be right there directly reporting to me, I should say, when people on both sides of administrative and academic, we wanted to have the computing person under them.

I needed to understand why it was important to have this one-on-one relationship. And it had to do with not having things filtered for me. Having me responsible for understanding more or about the significant role of technology. Third, especially important that I came to understand we don't bring the technology in after we figured out what we want to do. That person needs to be at the table to bring up that perspective, not just of technology, but of the broader perspective one gets as a result of working in technology that can help across areas. That could never have happened if I didn't have that key person in this case, Jack, right there with me before meetings, during meetings and after meetings, as we went through different challenging times, and times to make ourselves better. Let me give you one of the comments that will make some people laugh.

I am the first to say, I have so much more to learn with the use of technology. I'm running a technology campus and learning every day, give me a math problem in abstract algebra or in statistics that I'm really happy. And I tell you this, for this reason, it's important to say what you know as a president. What you know, and what you don't know, it really is. For a CIO, it's really important to remember you are an educator. You are a leader and an educator. Jack is always teaching me not just about the importance of technology, but how to use the technology. And it requires an openness if I am to encourage others, to do it, to say what I know and what I don't know. And I'm learning every day. And during this COVID period, I'm really learning much more. And the good news is that Jack has empowered his staff to work with me.

Also, people tend to want to just tell the president how to get it done. What I've learned and what Jack has appreciated with my saying with him is don't just give me the fish, teach me how to fish. It may be less efficient, but teach me how to fish and I had to. He's so kind to me, sometimes he would feel sorry for me in the early days. I said, don't do that. Don't do that. Make me figure it out myself. It's been very helpful to have that kind of open relationship to say I can learn more and that I'm learning every day. I think of all the things about our relationship, we are both learning every day, different things about our campus, about our colleagues, about the problems, about the use of the technology and ways of being as effective as possible.

John O'Brien: What you're describing is a relationship built on trust and mutual respect and empathy and shared understanding of the challenges of each other's job. And you can't even, there's a catch 22, because that's great if you have it, but you can't get that if you haven't even gotten the attention of a president. Our data would show that 70% of CIOs in our community don't report to the president and only 60% are a part of the president's cabinet. So Freeman, what is the one or two things that a CIO who doesn't report to the president and isn't on the cabinet can do to enable the kind of great relationship you're describing?

Freeman Hrabowski III: Here is the suggestion for CIOs who want to be a part of that leadership team and are trying to figure out how to get around the table. Look at the examples of what we call best practices. The fact is examining the relationship between the CIO and that president's council, and with that president of places that have a different structure from your own, right now.

In other words, what are the advantages, the idea of building community and greater understanding of how technology can help us could not have happened if we had not had Jack around the table. I could not be as effective at a president now after almost 30 years, if I had not had the wise counsel of my CIO, even in our one-to-one relationships and ongoing conversations, because the president is going to set the tone and work with others to shape the direction. The president needs as much information and as a broader perspective on these issues as possible. For me, that has come as a result of the CIO reporting directly to me and of that person sitting around the table in our leadership group as an equal voice and as a thought partner.

Jack Suess: So John, one thing I would say to my CIO colleagues is while I consider myself a pretty good technologist, it's never about the technology. It's about what you can do with the technology. And one thing I always tell all people who are aspiring in this career is you have to learn so much about all of higher end of the different functions from what's going on in enrollment management, to the graduate school, to provost office, to administration and finance. There's so much material out there that I think it's incumbent upon CIOs to be reading and following outside of the IT organization as well, the trends and key issues that are happening because then you can speak to, oh, I see this is happening. Have you ever thought of how technology could play a role to improve this? Those kinds of openings are really key for CIOs and that's how you can sort of move yourself up to be indispensable in an organization is to help others be better.

John O'Brien: I heard two data points from CIC, which is a liberal arts college's survey of presidents that said that the number one area in which presidents feel the least prepared is technology. Then when Ted Mitchell came to our conference from ACE and talked about president's priorities, he pointed out that only 12% of presidents saw IT as a strategic priority. I might be getting the exact language wrong, but it's a discouraging set of statistics. Freeman, when you became a president, did you have any idea how technology was going to be sort of ubiquitous and an institutional differentiator?

Freeman Hrabowski III: In 1992, we did not see technology as the differentiator. We were beginning to look at the fact that we'd had all these huge machines and all of a sudden we were going to something smaller. To tell you how different the times are, I was the first guy on campus to get a cell phone. That was the first year I was president. They brought it over to me and it was so big that when I put it in my pocket, it was like a slide rule. It was a badge of courage. I was really cool. That's where we were quite frankly, even though we had begun to work with technology companies, and Jack was beginning to show me how things would not have to take up a whole room and we would be bringing them down, but we didn't understand. This is what I would think when thinking about the role of technology and the role of a CIO building on what Jack said. Jack understands the academic program.

Let's just start there. Jack could be a provost. He understands the challenges in teaching and learning because I don't know how you talk about teaching and learning in 2020 without talking about the critical role of technology. Not because it's all remote, but because of the different ways in which we use technology in our chemistry discovery centre, in hybrid approaches to the work, in what we are doing with our pivot program to prepare faculty, to use the technology effectively in classroom, in different ways from the humanities to the sciences. When I think about the role of a CIO, I think first about that person as an educator who really is passionate about improving the academic performance of students. Meaning, strengthening, teaching and learning, which can only happen, I would say today through the use of technology and looking at ways that students grasp concepts and the different methods we can use. Secondly, about the importance in research and the important role that technology plays. But most importantly about how we are using technology to communicate with each other building community.

I think when people ask those questions about how important is technology, I think the question is word it in a way that doesn't get to the point. How important is it to have community on your campus? To have people connected? How important is it to improve teaching and learning? What role is technology playing in that? Those questions in that way. The message to the IT workers is see yourself as leading the institution and being as excited about analytics being used to improve teaching and learning as you are about helping people develop organizationally. As we think about systems integration and ways of putting things to the services, to the cloud, it's important to have that balance.

John O'Brien: It's a version of the old NASA story with Kennedy, right? You're doing an important work wherever you're contributing.

Freeman Hrabowski III: Yeah.

John O'Brien: One of the most exciting things I know you talked about in your keynote, Freeman, was the work you did working with your CIO, working with Jack to diversify the campus but in particular, the IT staff. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Freeman Hrabowski III: Sure. It's such a story of transformation. I went to a meeting and the audience was primarily guys, primarily a few women and primarily white. Afterwards, Jack and I talked about it because I knew these people. They were wonderful doing a great job, but I said something to the effect that the room didn't look like America, or like UMBC, where you've got people of all races.

We talked about it a few minutes and I'm not sure we said much more about it, but when I came back and Jack, you can tell me how long it was, whether it was two years or whatever. I don't remember, or one year, but as soon as I walked in, I was just blown away. I was stunned because all of a sudden this group of young students, who are student workers, who are right pair of professionals to us looked like our campus, which looks like the Plaza of nations at the UN. Quite frankly, from all over the world, black, Latino people from all countries. It was a time for reflection. It really was. I'm going to ask Jack to say what they did because I just raised the question and Jack just moved with it immediately.

Jack Suess: I remember that day very vividly. I think it was two years when you came back and spoke. We went back and we processed what he had said, and he was right. You know, the first thing is looking at yourself and being honest. And that's one thing that Freeman always says is you've got to be able to look in the mirror and answer honestly. We looked and we said, we weren't being intentional about the way that we hired student staff. We were allowing student staff to recommend other students to hire. And of course, students that are white males are having their friends come in and more often than not they're white males. What we ended up doing is forming direct outreaches to different groups. Our centre for women in IT has become one of the areas that we work with very closely.

We ended up working with our computer science department, which had a scholars program that was bringing in some incredible students from the community college to study cyber security. This was a great diverse group of students. Once we got a diverse group of students in, this idea of if it's a good place to work they'll recommend their friends, really took hold. And we were able quickly, within two years to completely change the diversity of our student employees. What's really been fabulous about this is we've already ended up hiring four of those student employees that were diverse into our organization. It's becoming this way that we can be getting more diverse candidates to be able to come forward when we do have openings.

John O'Brien: Your time is so precious. This has been fantastic. I don't, the rest of my life's going to seem so empty if I don't see Freeman and Jack in it every week or so.

Freeman Hrabowski III: Let me thank Gerry first for everything he's doing for us.

Gerry: Oh, sure.

Freeman Hrabowski III: And John, let me just say, we value our partnership with you guys. We really do. I ended up talking about it more than you may know, but it encourages us to want to do the right thing, and to connect, and to be a model, and quite frankly, to keep growing and learning. And so thank you. When you have pilots that you want to think about or ways that we could just, just let us be involved. We would love to.

This episode features:

Freeman Hrabowski
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

John O'Brien
President and CEO

Jack Suess
Vice President and CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County