Why CIO is the Best Job on Campus
Is the CIO position the pinnacle of a technology career—or a powerless position? Five CIOs tell us why they think they have the best job on campus.
A CIO encounters many challenging situations, but a challenge isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it can be an opportunity. The field of information technology thrives on change, and as the campus change agent, the CIO stands smack in the middle of higher education technology. The CIO’s job involves change and diversity of experience; it involves working on many different things, from small projects to major initiatives, frequently with different campus and community stakeholders. Many of these interesting opportunities give you, as a CIO, the chance to make noticeable changes not just at your institution but also in higher education more generally. Now that’s influence.
A major factor behind a CIO’s success comes from serving as an enabler for the institution’s strategic and operational goals and direction. CIOs are often in a position to see the different moving parts of the institution and the connections that will help them succeed.
The CIO is one of the most unique “C-level” positions in a college or university, acting as a matchmaker between what the institution is trying to accomplish and what the appropriate technologies are to facilitate these goals. CIOs are in a position to partner with other C-level executives to enhance customer experience, with students as the primary customers. The CIO has access and visibility that’s arguably second only to the president’s. The complex nature of the CIO role and the challenges we face (and solve) are what make the job so great! We work with every area of campus and develop institution-wide visibility and knowledge that’s second perhaps only to the president’s. We can bring people together in ways that others can’t, and we can help them turn ideas into reality. What greater power is there than that?
The CIO’s impact on the institution should include advocating for the effective and efficient integration and use of technology, as well as managing information to ensure that the best decisions are made. Additionally, the CIO should continually look for ways to improve processes, cut costs, innovate programs, and ensure the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of all the information collected and stored by IT departments.
When it comes to what is considered to be one of the main purposes of higher education—teaching—here too CIOs have the opportunity for transformation, of student learning and the entire educational experience. Working with faculty to explore and integrate new technology-enabled teaching and pedagogical models supports them in their core mission and benefits students as a result. Faculty are key stakeholders in campus technology initiatives and are vital partners in building successful implementations.
As CIOs, we get fired up about setting direction, creating strategy, and solving issues and problems for our campus communities. The CIO should not be “the” problem solver, however; we are enablers who create an environment in which the IT staff feel (and are) empowered to solve problems. As CIO Kyle Johnson explained: “Many CIOs have heard the job called the CI ‘no,’ and I’ve gotten personal satisfaction in turning that perception around. Some at my current institution call me for help even if it isn’t directly related to the IT area. I’m more like a CI ‘go’ now.”
When it comes to major technology implementations, CIOs definitely sit on the hot seat. As CIO, you might sometimes feel like a target has been painted on your back, especially given the normal glitches affecting any big project. Conduct due-diligence research at the very beginning of the project, and remember to include all relevant stakeholders (don’t assume you know who they are—find out). Appropriate planning and preparation make all the difference between success and failure for any project, but especially for technology implementations.
All C-level executives, whether CIO or CFO, should have the same leadership qualities. You must want to serve other people and be willing to work through other people. You have staff whose job it is to take care of the technology itself. Your job is to understand how the technology is used, how it's deployed, and how it can change what you do. You don’t need to be a programmer—you need to be able to think strategically and have vision. And you need to delegate, because people are looking to you for leadership and general management.Most complex problems cannot be solved by a single piece of software.
As CIO, you see all parts of a problem, especially if you regularly communicate and collaborate with C-level executives and stakeholders at all levels (and don’t forget students). Yet for many problems, there are no integrated solutions; most complex problems cannot be solved by a single piece of software. Your ultimate goal is to enable and empower everybody else to do their jobs in addressing their part of the problem. To do that effectively, you must develop relationships based on trust, and you must be sure your collaborators know that you truly value their input and that you are concerned with more than just the IT department’s needs.
For example, Johnson found himself in the middle of a tangled problem that directly affected his university’s guarantee that students who followed the recommended path through the curriculum would be able to graduate in four years. Because Johnson heard from multiple stakeholders about the consequences of not having adequate shared data, he saw a way to implement a solution that could solve multiple problems by looking at them as part of a larger, multifaceted problem.
What drives many effective CIOs is finding ways to break down campus silos, allowing people to more easily communicate and collaborate with each other. CIOs need to look across campus for potential partnerships and think creatively about problems that the IT department could help address. For example, CIO Michael Berman’s IT group partnered with the Public Safety Department to prepare the campus for emergencies and to improve emergency communication. When a major brushfire surrounded the university grounds in 2013, the team successfully notified the entire campus community of the danger and helped facilitate a rapid evacuation. To participate in such an important collaboration and see it pay off in real terms is deeply gratifying.
As CIO, you’re privileged to lead a department whose products and services can be found throughout the institution. Everyone in this profession wants to provide solid, problem-free services. Much of the negative commentary about information technology comes from the fact that technology is invisible when it works well and glaringly visible when it doesn’t. Much of the negative commentary about information technology comes from our invisibility when the technology works well and our glaring visibility when it doesn’t. We provide a service that people don’t notice until it’s gone or until technology glitches cause recurring problems. Feel that target on your back? Just remember, it’s temporary.
One big positive of a CIO career is the opportunity to participate in the wider community, whether that is technology peers, higher education, or local, state, or federal groups. For example, CIO Melissa Woo was asked to join a coalition in the Eugene, Oregon, area to help promote building a tech startup–friendly community. She also participates in a group that advocates for improving the computer science curriculum. Both roles let her leverage her position as CIO while establishing a valued presence across campus and into the local community. A major interest for her is affordability: “I strongly support the mission of public higher education institutions in trying to provide affordable education to their state’s citizens. In the CIO role, I’m able to help the institution develop the next generation of this country’s leaders.”
CIO Keith McIntosh recently joined the Advisory Board for the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS), which contributes to the education and development of the CIO in higher education. He also serves as faculty for the EDUCAUSE Institute Management Program. CIO Raechelle Clemmons tries to do as much as she can to contribute to the general body of knowledge in our profession, whether posting to listservs, writing articles, or simply responding to e-mail inquiries. She also serves as an EDUCAUSE Review peer reviewer and recently joined the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) Advisory Board.
To have a more fulfilling career, we need to move beyond seeing ourselves as IT people doing an IT job and say: "I'm part of a community. I'm part of a mission." CIOs must develop this mindset to succeed, but we benefit from encouraging our staff to think the same way. The campus community we all support benefits the most.
Moreover, to serve students better generally requires the intelligent development and application of technology to problems directly affecting them. That means knowing what those problems are. The best approach? Listen and ask questions. Berman had this experience when implementing technology to automate registration.
Johnson had a similar situation on his campus. A manual wait-list system caused problems not just for students and faculty but also for the associate provost who maintained it. Moving that process online and providing a self-service option solved a series of interlocking problems for multiple stakeholders. In this case, having a sense of the business of the institution suggested a technologically simple solution. When implemented, his small technology project made a lot of people on campus happy.
The CIO can also contribute to the student experience through small projects, such as the one that Woo funded through an arts class. This type of engagement reaches students and faculty at the personal level, with a goal of supporting student learning and retention. An added benefit of funding small technology projects is the introduction of new technologies to students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to work with them.
A common interest at many institutions involves supporting student learning by providing technology in different spaces—from information commons to intelligent classrooms to collaborative spaces in the library. How can the CIO promote the development of such learning spaces? As Clemmons asked on her campus, “How do you take space and pedagogy and technology and combine the three to create environments that really promote and foster student learning?” A building project on her campus sought to address that question.
"You need to really think about that intersection of space, technology, and function, the experience that you're trying to create, and make sure that those are very integrated." —Raechelle Clemmons
Even when CIOs have worked closely with faculty and staff to provide rich learning environments for students, a major goal they keep front-of-mind is actually engaging students in learning within those spaces. Used wisely, technology supports that goal and banishes boredom. Clemmons explains: “Being in higher education IT and seeing the impact we can have on students like me—people who were bored in class and weren’t learning in meaningful ways—has had a huge effect on me. We can use technology to change and enhance the learning experience in powerful ways. That's something that keeps me going because I want to create for students a type of college experience different from what I had.”
Having benefited from the help of great mentors throughout our careers, all five of us pay it forward by mentoring others, whether in aspiring CIO roles or other positions. We don’t expect a return—we simply find it gratifying to help people succeed. Mentoring is also a way to counteract the misconceptions that many people have regarding not just the CIO role but the IT profession in general.
“I think the main point of mentoring is helping people think through the process of what they want to do. I don't really worry about trying to mentor people to become CIOs. I try to mentor them to become who they want to be.” —Michael Berman
Part of the role of a CIO, as a leader, is to encourage all team members to think about their future career paths and goals and help them move forward. As CIO, you can provide different opportunities to your staff and expose them to new people, topics, and ways of doing business they would not otherwise encounter. A chief way to help IT staff is to ensure they receive training in the areas that will benefit both the IT department and their career goals. These steps to support individuals also help ensure the future of our profession.There’s something magical about seeing that “spark” in people's eyes when they begin to see the transformative value of technology and are excited by the possibilities.
Professional staff development adds to the positives of working in higher education information technology, especially given the typically higher salaries in other industries. We can’t offer the same money, but we can offer other things that make an IT career on campus worthwhile and rewarding. As Berman noted, “For me, the best part is having the chance to help other people achieve their dreams. I have been able to make professional development a priority everywhere I’ve been, and helped to create opportunities for my staff.” Professional development can help IT staff keep up with the changes in the nature of the IT profession and acquire a greater understanding of business functions and goals, positioning them to thrive as technical skills lose importance. There’s something magical about seeing that “spark” in people’s eyes when they begin to see the transformative value of technology and become excited by the possibilities—that’s an amazing feeling for a CIO!
Like anyone else seeking a position that encourages active participation as a campus change agent, the CIO must first find an institution whose culture “fits.” Even good CIOs can find themselves struggling at institutions that are a bad fit for their goals, their views about technology, and their personalities. Importantly, to succeed as CIO at a new campus, you should expect to think differently about your role according to the institution’s culture and needs. You can’t accomplish much if people don’t listen to you. Unfortunately, many of the negative stereotypes about CIOs may come from a bad fit between the person and the institutional culture. If you want your CIO job to be rewarding and a source of happiness, think about what’s important to you, and find an institution that shares your worldview.
Not everyone who becomes a CIO plans a career path leading to that position; some people simply like technology and find themselves moving in that direction almost accidentally. After all, technology is integral to modern life and exerts influence on society at all levels. Passion for the CIO role can grow from seeing how pervasive technology is in higher education, whether academically or administratively. A CIO can help guide and influence the adoption of technologies that affect society and culture as well as education.
If you enjoy technology and love the profession, consider these perks: the CIO title can get you in the door at corporate meetings, research labs, conference demos, executive briefings… You’ll have lots of chances to see new technologies in development, to talk with executives and product managers, and even to give feedback about how information technology can work better for the needs of your campus, your colleagues, and yourself. That’s FUN!
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