Your Career :: The New CIO
First Year Shock and Awe
- By Dian Schaffhauser
How one new CIO faced the challenges of his first year on the job.
PATRICK MASSON remembers clearly that moment during the first full round of interviews for the CIO position at the State University of New York-Delhi when he thought to himself, "How long do I have to be here before I no longer have to be polite?"
He'd already met earlier that day with the search committee, where he'd shared his excitement about the work he'd been involved with at the SUNY Learning Network, the online learning arm for the 64-institution, state university system. But now he was having lunch with members of the IT staff he'd potentially be at least indirectly managing as CIO. "I was going on and on about something IMS [IMS Global Learning Consortium] had just come out with," recalls Masson, "when one guy looked at me and said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. And no one else here knows what you're talking about either.'"
That's when Masson questioned how committed he was to becoming a CIO for the first time-particularly for a campus that had never had one before. "I understand that there are always different operational aspects," he now concedes, "but I was interested in finding a place where the staff had an interest in exploring. If there's one department on campus filled with people always tweaking stuff, that should be the IT department."
Fortunately, another IT staffer at the table spoke up. "It's true," he told Masson. "We don't know what you're talking about. But we all want to. The scary thing is, what happens if we don't understand it; if we can't do it?" Masson then realized that two critical admissions had just taken place. One staff member had been brave enough to admit that no one knew what the new CIO candidate was talking about, and another had confessed a basic fear: "What if we fail?"
Suddenly, the position was back in play for Masson. "This is really a good group," he told himself. "A group that recognizes it has deficiencies-not with its members personally, but in the fact that the IT department just was not where it should have been."
After another set of interviews, Masson accepted the post. That was a little over a year ago.
Minting a New CIO
Masson believes that few would have predicted he would eventually end up as a CIO anywhere. After all, he launched his professional career as a medical illustrator for UCLA in 1992. But as faculty and students at UCLA began asking for visualization of medical data, he audited programming classes to learn how to generate images. He set up the department's first FTP and websites in 1993, so that faculty could access the images, and then in 2000 expanded that into an early learning management system by adding supplemental information, including case studies and radiographs. Along the way, in 1996, his job was reclassified as a programmer analyst. And by 2004, Masson had risen to the position of director of the UCLA media lab. "We provided a variety of services," he explains: "programming, software development, graphic design, medical illustration, custom printing for large posters, and photography. We ran the website and a lot of systems."
Then, late in 2004, Masson accepted a position as director of technology for SUNY Learning Environments in Albany, where a major effort was underway to migrate the distance learning system off of IBM/Lotus Notes and Domino. "The project we were working on received quite a bit of national and international attention," he says. "Unfortunately, it didn't receive much support from the [SUNY] system itself. Our plan wasn't readily understood; it didn't fit into the norm of what distance learning was at the time."
Disillusioned, several project participants, including Masson, looked around for new jobs. Masson's hope was to find a post that emphasized his newly gained skills as a systems architect experienced in service-oriented architecture and agile software development, particularly using open source tools and platforms.
Masson found the SUNY-Delhi CIO job posted on HigherEdJobs.com. One of the things that struck him about the ad was that it spelled out little about what the applicant was expected to have in the way of experience. His impression after talking with the campus executives, however, was that they were seeking a candidate who could take "down-in-the-weeds technical explanations and translate them into something that can be understood by non-technical staff." In addition, there was a desire to know "what it's going to cost next year, what our annual expenses are...and on top of that, projections for growth." In other words, there was little appreciation of his enthusiasm for topics such as open source, tool integration, and system interoperability.
The gap between everyone's expectations for the job and what could actually be achieved hit home, says Masson, shortly after taking the job, when he sat in on a discussion about some phone issues-which fell into the domain of IT. "The manager of one IT unit said, 'OK, so I talked to the [telecommunications] company and so-and-so is coming out and doing that on Wednesday.' Another IT staffer said, 'Well, I talked to another person [at the company], and we're not going to do that.' A third said, 'So-and-so from that company was here last week and already did it.'"
The new CIO quickly dampened any expectations campus administrators had that he would conduct a major shake-up during his first year on the job. "I think they thought, 'Oh, this new guy is going to come and do all these things.' But I told them, 'We're not going to do anything for a year.' That was a bit of a shock to the school." What Masson had come to realize was that he and everyone else involved needed to understand precisely where the IT department was in terms of organizational structure, staff abilities, and campus IT priorities. "We weren't in position yet to enact things I had in my initial vision," he recalls.
Administrators and staffers were shocked when the new CIO declared, 'We're not going to do anything for a year.'
During his first year, Masson has focused on a few key areas. The first: establishing an operational budget, which hadn't existed before. "We went through the last three years of purchases," he says, explaining, "If we paid for something, it must be for some reason." From that budget, his team devised a list of the services IT was delivering, which were then organized into five business units: central systems for managing enterprise software; infrastructure to handle the data center, network, and telecommunications; campus technical services for user and desktop support; distance learning; and the print shop.
The redefinition continues. "We're looking at [the help desk], and whether it should be its own entity," he says. "Moving that out might provide an opportunity for project management and IT governance. If we can use that as a tactical resource for identifying needs based on call volumes, we can roll that up as a metric for determining project prioritization."
The goal, Masson says, is to provide a structure that allows people to have authority and autonomy. Along the way, he hopes to engender a collaborative environment with bottomup decision-making and iterative design methods.
He concedes the staff is probably frustrated with the slow pace of change. "I think some people were expecting me to come in and say, 'OK, do it this way.' They wanted quick results," he admits, but adds, "I'm really interested in creating an environment where people understand how the decisions are made, and feel a part of [the process].... It's not a top-down approach."
-Dian Schaffhauser writes about higher ed technology for online and print publications. Share your career stories and advice with her at firstname.lastname@example.org (mark your subject line "Career").