Lessons of a University Libraries CIO
Q: How did you segue from degrees in divinity and American history to IT?
Actually, it was easy. I started my career in theological libraries. Since they are usually small, there were no IT specialists. So back in the '70s when the library I was working in needed to create a computer microfiche catalog, I did the necessary preparation work for that, and I essentially oversaw the automation of the theology library at the second school I worked at: Southern Methodist University. Since we didn't want to automate just the theology library at SMU without doing the others, the project grew much larger.
From that point I was recruited to Duke University to be the university librarian and part of the mandate I was given was to automate the libraries at Duke. Back then it primarily meant creating an online catalog -- moving from a card catalog to an online catalog...on a computer system available at that time within inside the library. It did not become a network-accessed library until later in the '80s. So when I was at Duke serving as university librarian, there was a transition in academic computing and my title became vice provost for library affairs. Somewhere along the way I was also given the title of vice provost for academic computing and I held both jobs concurrently.
I had some education, but I sort of learned on the job...I guess you could say my working career, which began in 1972, sort of paralleled the growth of technology in universities. Technology really didn't get to be totally widespread throughout universities until the mid 1990s.
What IT projects are currently on your plate?
We just finished a strategic planning process that helps us identify priorities for moving forward for improving the infrastructure of the university. I'll give you three examples of priorities: we're trying to create a more virtual university in terms of how we accomplish the working mission of the institution. What that means as you distill it is, many aspects of the university at this point in our history have been moved into a computer environment, but they've all grown up independently so there's administrative computing, there are quite a few academic computing systems that are enterprise-wide, there are library systems, and the list could go on and on.
But these were all done for all the right reasons individually as we figured out how to do them, so these systems don't talk to one another and so our agenda is as we go forward is to create a much more coherent learning management system that will make it much easier for the faculty and students and staff to use this environment in a connected way. This means they don't have to log into one system and sign out and log into another system and sign out. It would be one general system. It will take us quite a while to get there, but that's our goal: create a much more user-friendly, integrated work environment. Our plan is to accomplish or make great strides in that in three to five years. It's a large job.
How many systems are we talking about?
I haven't counted them, but if you think about the large central systems, and then add in the more school-based local systems -- we're 17 schools and a college, so we're probably talking about a great many. It's hard to speculate; the number is big.
The second project is related. It may hold the key to how we go about the first one, which is we want to make the principle means of access to this virtual environment Web based. Essentially, that means you would log on to your intranet on your desktop and have access to the most important aspects of your work other than those that would have to be accomplished in a face-to-face environment. One of the features we created about a year ago is to let students register on the Web. We'd also like for [other functions] to become more Web-based; giving permission to sign up for classes, things like that. So we're just trying to make it easier to negotiate the necessary amount of bureaucracy to work together. So the second project is to accomplish this virtual environment by having it be Web-based.
The third [project] is a library example, which is a microcosm of a larger problem. The library has moved significantly into a more digital information environment where we have online journals, online e-books and Web sites with great deal of information, including our online catalog, which points you to paper-based resources. Now the problem is most of these are separate, that is, we have a commercial database of say, journal articles with its own proprietary search engine access and we have a great variety of those in our research university. So if you're a user you have the same problem on the library level that you have on the university level where you have to log in to that database and do your searching and get out and go into a different database. So the question is, how do you create the technology that aggregates if you will, all those search engine-driven sources of information so you could just have one search? So we're working at that level as well to make it much easier for someone to initiate a search and get back information about our digital and traditional resources all in one retrieval set.
What's your view on the implementation of new technologies and bleeding edge versus a more conservative approach?
I have a pretty straightforward view about that. We want to be, in most matters, sort of not on the bleeding edge, but soon thereafter when the bleeding stops. In most cases we don't want to be on the bleeding edge. In well selected, strategic areas we want to do some things that are out there. If all of us took a conservative approach there would be no bleeding edge and nothing to trail. So the research university environment works best when each of us identifies those places where we want to prove some things.
How large is your IT staff and what skills are you in need of?
Our central IT staff is probably around 160 or so. Our turnover rate is pretty low. We have had extraordinary good luck in terms of recruiting the kind of skills we've needed. We're actually opening some new positions...in high-performance computing using super computer cluster technology, so we need people with deep technical skills in the high performance cluster area to work with our faculty members in computational science and engineering. Essentially, it's the staff to work with the faculty as they structure their research, based in our big super computing cluster.
We're extremely fortunate -- we have great network people here, some of the best in the business, I think. I'm extremely pleased with the expertise of our technical staff.
Which of your skills has served you best in managing IT?
I'm probably a type B. I think my personality is pretty level; I don't get really excited one way or another, and this is an environment where it's sort of impossible for there to be regular difficulties all the way from somebody pursuing new construction and digging up the network lines to water leaks and destroying connectivity. You can barely get through a reasonable period of time without something going wrong so it helps not to be very excitable. But essentially, I think at the level of a CIO one of the essential skills is to be able to find good people because these are hard jobs, they're relentless, change is constant, so having colleagues who are comfortable with change and being able to cope with it, bringing in those people into the organization is critical.
The IT world is a world full of hype. I think you have to have a reasonable instinct for seeing things through the lens of reality because the paradox is everything is always the biggest, best and fastest but it's also obsolete tomorrow, so it's about making one's way through that environment where hyperbole is frequent. It's an interesting challenge.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
I'd divide this into couple of things: one is the mission of higher education is a worthy mission. That is, educating individuals and so what makes me proud within that is the role I'm able to play in creating the infrastructure that allows this university to achieve its ambitions and its mission in educating individuals. Throughout my career there have been bright rising young people who have gotten a good foundation in my organization and have either risen up or moved out to greater things and I am always proud when my organization is able to help someone advance his or her career.
What advice would you give someone looking to advance their career the way you have?
A couple of different things. One is you have to be willing to be a change agent. To some degree, technology will not allow you not to be a change agent, but you have to be comfortable with that and that means you will cause some discomfort for your community. You have to be aware that people don't always feel good about that. You also have to take some risks, because the rate that technology changes means you can't wait until something becomes a standard, because in essence, the standards change with some frequency. So you have to be able to make decisions in an environment where the nature of the environment is to take some level of risk.
The third thing I'd say is it takes a lot of patience, and by patience I mean understanding that some reasonable percentage of every community is change averse and risk averse. And so one has to be as patient as possible and kind of as participatory as possible in making these changes and moving the infrastructure forward. A CIO has always to negotiate between getting there too soon and getting there too late, and any place where you stop and take the measure of where you are in moving things forward, some will think you're going too slow, and some will think you're going too fast.
What keeps you awake at night?
What do you do in your spare time?
I love to flyfish and I'm kind of a seriously amateur astronomer. I like to observe the skies.