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Vision, Focus, and Execution

John Camp reflects on his career in IT and on CIO leadership in higher education.

Retired this past January, John Camp was deputy CIO and then CIO at Wayne State University (MI) for the past 10 years and in IT leadership positions there since 1985. Active professionally and now chair of the Educause Current Issues Committee, Camp thinks hard about the leadership role of the CIO and the strategic impact CIOs can have at their institutions. CT asked this veteran CIO about his career and perspectives on leadership.

John Camp

Just retired, John Camp comments on CIO leadership: "The role of the CIO is not about technology, but how you achieve important goals and objectives through technology."

What brought you to your career in IT? I did my degree work [in mathematics and mathematics education] at Columbia University [NY] in the ’60s, where I was interested in experimenting with how computing technology could promote the learning of mathematics. An interesting phenomenon was that people who had to write computer simulations for mathematics learned the mathematics better. I was then recruited to [a faculty position at] Wayne State, where I worked for 14 years to discover how computing technology could impact the learning of mathematics and science. In 1985, I left my faculty role to promote the growth of academic computing at the university; I never went back to the faculty role, because IT was so interesting.

What was the most significant change that took place within IT during your 22 years in IT leadership? Beginning in the mid- ’80s, with the growth of personal computing, desktop computing, and then local area networks, we moved from having a single, large data center as the “center of the universe,” to the rapid expansion of computing resources almost everywhere. This was a pendulum swing from a monolithic computing environment to a distribution of computing power—a quantum change that introduced a lot of complexity.

At one time, we had a central organization managing and providing computing resources and, for a while, that changed to just about everyone “doing it for themselves” in small constellations of local networks. That progressed for almost a decade. Then, the realization struck that we had all of these islands and had to bring order to that. The pendulum began to swing back. We’ll never go back to a completely centralized data center environment again, but we now realize that the network infrastructure that brings distributed resources together is the enabling foundation of everything we do.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity in the next five to 10 years for your successor at Wayne State? This continues to be a very exciting time for IT leaders. Information technology really is a leadership opportunity. IT is so pervasive; it touches everything that happens in higher education— in teaching, learning, and research. You can’t have downtime anymore; people don’t tolerate it. So in terms of opportunity, the question becomes: How do you continue to deploy the technology solutions that are needed to advance higher education in ways that are highly reliable and cost-effective as well? I like being in places where we have to be really smart because we don’t have buckets of gold.

The fact of life about IT is that even as the resources need to grow—for example, when you have to upgrade to a new course management system—the IT costs are increasing more rapidly than budget increases. That’s a reality that CIOs have to deal with.

So what can CIOs do to reduce the gap between IT costs and budgets? CIOs are going to have to collaborate more. For example, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State needed massive bandwidth to enable research that these institutions were conducting together, or were seeking support from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health to undertake. So the three universities signed a collaboration agreement to build a regional optical network in Michigan. Result: The Michigan LambdaRail lit up 770 miles of acquired dark fiber. None of us could have done this alone, but the research demand was dramatic so, together, we invested in the future. By sharing the costs of an expensive resource, we were able to reduce costs for each of us. There’s going to be a lot more collaboration going on, to reduce IT costs as well as share expertise.

The CIO must have a vision about how IT can have a positive impact on teaching, learning, and research, plus the ability to focus on that vision and translate it into effective action within the IT organization.

Leaving your CIO position after so many years was certainly a big transition for the university, as well as for you. What did you do to ease the transition for the university? First, I established a Strategic Planning Commission and kicked off the group before I left. Because nothing is strategic unless it gives you a competitive advantage, the commission is looking at the ways that IT can “leapfrog” and provide Wayne State with that competitive advantage. Technology can advance strategic goals, but a CIO is going to have to be smart about it, and he or she does not do this alone. So I wrote to my president about what to look for in a CIO. The role of the CIO is not about technology, but about how you achieve important goals and objectives through technology. The CIO must have a vision about how IT can have a positive impact on teaching, learning, and research, plus the ability to focus on that vision and translate it into effective action within the IT organization. A successful CIO has a vision, can focus on it, and can execute.

In general, how can universities help CIOs be successful? The CIO role is so important and so strategic for a university, that this individual must have a seat on the president’s cabinet and be a key part of strategy activities at a university. If you look at the Educause Core Data Service study [], you’ll see that across colleges and universities, about 50 percent of senior IT leaders are included in the president’s cabinet and 50 percent aren’t. You’ve got a 50/50 split right now, but I believe that’s going to change because it must. What CIOs do— vis à vis their responsibilities and their influence across the campus, schools, and colleges—is so important, they need to be tied in at the highest level of senior management. Universities that do this are advantaged; universities that don’t are disadvantaged.

If I were not retired—if I were looking for a CIO position today, to leave Wayne State and take on this role elsewhere— I probably wouldn’t accept a position unless it sat at the highest level, the president’s cabinet, and was strategic. That’s the only way a CIO is going to be successful.

John Camp will present ‘The CIO in the New IT Organization: Vision, Focus, and Execution’ at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2.

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