C-Level View | Feature

CIO on the Sidelines

A Q&A with Brian D. Voss

It's generally understood that the CIO role in higher education is extremely demanding. Can former CIOs help their on-field colleagues, coaching them from the sidelines? We asked Brian Voss.

Voss has held high-level IT leadership roles throughout his career. His past positions have included (among other earlier posts) Vice President for Information Technology at the University of Maryland (2011-2014); Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and CIO for Louisiana State University (2005-2011); and prior to that, a variety of positions at Indiana University culminating in Associate Vice President, Telecommunications. His IT posts, paired with an impressive log of service to the community on national advisory councils, steering committees and boards, and in professional associations, sum up to a lifetime of experience in higher education IT and a great understanding of the CIO's perspective.

Retiring at a relatively young age from the University of Maryland in 2014, Voss quips that he enjoys being called a "youngster" in the buffet line for early bird dinners at family restaurants in his hometown of Naples, Florida. But along with many other higher education retired CIOs, he's a rich resource to be tapped. Just try to retire from the higher education CIO role: You'll find yourself as the "CIO on the sidelines".

Mary Grush: You've been talking about the "CIO on the sidelines" — former CIOs who coach their on-the-job peers from the sidelines.

Brian Voss: Yes, I've started to think about and reflect on this more and more. Even when I recently saw the movie Interstellar, which has a plot thread around some explorers who go through a worm hole to another galaxy, I identified with them: I've entered this new, and previously unknown to me, retirement world and I feel like those intrepid explorers sending reports back to earth!

Grush: Have you really retired? You are early on this, aren't you?

Voss: I am retired now, and I've done so at an age that has led some people to either question my sanity or think that there's something more to it than me deciding to live my life differently. But to anyone worried about me, rest assured it was my choice.

Grush: Still, like many retired CIOs, you have kept a hand in your profession…

Voss: Right. In the first several months I participated in the Internet2 CIO group and MC-ed a track at the I2 Global Summit; did some speaking engagements and keynoted a couple of conferences; did some consulting at the board level on the role of IT in the online learning world; and for two and a half months took the interim CIO role at Case Western Reserve University. All this and particularly the interim role at Case gave me a chance to crystallize a lot of my thoughts about the CIO role in general.

Grush: Case Western Reserve University — a prestigious private university— is a little different from the large, public institutions you've worked at… did you find similar challenges?

Voss: I did. One of the things I learned is that the grass isn't greener: At a public institution, you are concerned with the rules and regulations of the state and how they affect your ability to procure things, but private universities have their own constraints put in place by their boards or executive administration.

Grush: So in general do you, as a retired CIO, find that your experience and perspectives apply well across different types of institutions?

Voss: Yes. I found that higher education institutions aren't such unique snowflakes as we might think.

Grush: In particular, is IT relatively important at all types of institutions?

Voss: Across the board, IT is increasingly critical to our institutions.

But there's a huge caveat: I found that institutional executive leadership and boards are not quite fully grasping the critical nature of IT, and all the implications of that. I sense a belief that, now that we have the cloud and SaaS, everything is almost commodity in nature, and that's it for IT — almost a "one size fits all" approach.

Actually, the commodity elements of IT are not the most important to focus on — instead, they should be considered a means to free up the CIO's mind and his or her ability to get involved with broader issues that are facing universities today, such as updating the teaching, learning, and research missions for their community.

This is not a new observation, certainly, but I think the challenge remains.

Grush: So getting back to the "CIO on the sidelines", how can they help?

Voss: For CIOs, retired or otherwise, to spend more time talking with each other about all this is fine, but still, that's preaching not only to the choir, but to the clergy. Where I think these messages have got to get through, is to institutional leadership, particularly on the academic side, whether that be provosts, presidents, or, ultimately the board. We need to help them grasp the relevance that IT plays.

Grush: Do CIOs need to offer examples from the field of security to gain attention to the value of IT?

Voss: Certainly when you look at the risk that institutions face with regards to their data and their technology portfolios, that is reason alone to increase the value of IT and the CIO.

But looking beyond that, the role that technology plays in 21st century education and its role in research are truly the key reasons why institutions should be increasing their IT investment — in hardware, software, and the ever-more important area of humanware: of people. For me, now, I see with more clarity — without having the day-to-day pressure of the CIO job, that these things are really important for the future of higher education.

Grush: Are there any other perspectives you've gained since retirement, that you might have missed when you were in the thick of things as a CIO?

Voss: One of the questions that occurred to me a bit when I was on the job as a CIO, but that strikes me now as a much more important issue is: When you are on the job, are you on your guard about having the job and keeping the job? Of course, you are! You need to keep that job; it's only natural. But as a result, as a CIO, you probably don't push back hard enough on your leadership, in certain areas. And most of the people sitting in the CIO seat are not protected by a tenured faculty position. They are hesitant to push back, even when they really should.

Grush: What do you wish those CIOs would do? What would you advise them?

Voss: You should keep aware of this and try to put yourself in a good position so that when something comes up, you will be able to say what you really need to say. So you can address issues you feel would truly advance your institution. There are a lot of hard messages that presidents, CFOs, boards, and others need to hear. But too many of our messengers are afraid of being shot.

Of course, do remain concerned about the politics of your particular campus and institutional environment. But don't paint yourself in a corner, either.

Grush: Is there a role here for the "CIO on the sidelines"?

Voss: Certainly, former CIOs should speak up for the community, whether it be through our advisory committees, through publications, or through our own consultancies.

Grush: From your perspective as a retired CIO, what's another of the more important issues that should be addressed?

Voss: Decentralization is a big one. I've seen this at a variety of institutions. Higher education institutions tend to be, by nature, very decentralized. In some areas, like intellectual freedom, that's generally a good value. The idea is that the central administration shouldn't become overbearing in the academic culture. But in some elements of the IT infrastructure and organization, decentralization can introduce problems.

When it comes to IT, wherever you have a decentralized power play, then there are a lot of things in place that are beyond what the CIO knows about. One time I had a colleague in university administration ask me, "How much storage is the university buying from outside sources?" I had to reply, "How do you think I would know that?" Of course, I heard back: "Well you are the CIO, aren't you?" Well I was, and as the head of Central IT, I reported to the president. But that didn't mean I had omniscience into how much storage individual departments were springing for. In fact, many times decentralized IT and departmental administration didn't want me to know how much storage (or other IT components) they were acquiring. In earlier times, maybe that was okay. But times have changed, for this and other types of IT infrastructure. We don't let departments negotiate their own rate for gas or electricity. But storage, cloud applications, e-mail — why are universities still allowing these to be purchased or outsourced by the departments? It's just inefficient. And in light of the aforementioned security and data risk concerns, it can also be downright dangerous.

Grush: Finally, do you see a need for exited or retired CIOs to get more involved with succession planning and help more with the CIO pipeline?

Voss: Historically for the CIO pipeline, I think that in general we have not done a good job grooming next generations. Having said that, if I look at some of the more significant hires this last round, and the people available at the time, I notice that there were a lot more people who weren't already sitting CIOs who were able to get into the chair for the first time. So that's a good thing for this academic year — even though we haven't been very good in the past at recruiting academics into the CIO role, we've made some progress recently.

Still, as a profession, there has to be more thought given to who's going to take our seat when we leave. I think what soon-to-retire or already retired CIOs can do is to get involved in leadership training and to stay involved in their profession at some level, to be a resource for upcoming and active CIOs. It would certainly be a pity if all the expertise of all the CIOs that move on is lost to the golf course.



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