Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On teaching

This semester, I was fortunate to teach an online class, CSCI 4609 Processes, Programming, and Languages: Usability of Open Source Software. This was an extension of my Master's degree capstone, where I examined the usability of open source software. I have long wanted to do some teaching, and this was my first opportunity. I learned a lot from this experience, and I wanted to share a few thoughts on how teaching this class helped me become a better IT leader:

Years ago, a mentor helped me realize that an effective leader delegates. I used to struggle with delegation; I always thought I could do it better myself. I feared that someone else might do the task incorrectly, or at least not to my preference. But we can't do everything; we need to pass on assignments to those in our teams, and trust that they will do the right thing.

In teaching, delegation means giving out class assignments: read these articles and summarize them, then apply that knowledge in this other analysis. I always expected my students to do the work. If they had questions, they could ask, but they needed to do the work themselves. This semester, I delegated 22 times to 10 students; that's 220 individual delegations!
Similar to delegation, I developed a new sense of independence. Not independence for myself, but accepting the independence of my students. In most weeks, I gave two assignments (typically an article summary and an analysis) both due at the end of the week. Now, if I were working on the assignments, I would probably read the articles on day 1, then post my summary on day 2, and start work on the analysis on day 3. But that's me. My students work differently than I do, and I had to accept that.

Each "week" opened on Tuesday and closed on Monday night. I quickly learned not to expect anything from students until Sunday night, with the majority of assignments posted on Monday afternoon or evening. That's not how I would do it. I had to adjust my expectations, to accept the independence of my students to get the work done on their own schedule. I also had to accept failure, because sometimes failure is the best learning experience.
When you ask someone to do something for you, how clearly do you set expectations? In setting assignments, I found that different students can interpret the same instructions in any number of ways. If my students misunderstood the assignment, that's sort of my fault. So I learned clarity in my instructions and in my recorded lectures. What articles am I asking you to summarize? How will I grade your submission? Where do the points come from?

Monday, December 21, 2015

On leadership development

In my week break, I find myself reflecting on my experiences in higher ed. One major milestone in my career was leadership development. Many managers may have attended some form of management training, but leading is different than managing.

MOR Associates has a great leadership development program for emerging and current leaders, and I find it helped me develop and hone new skills, and practice those skills to become habits. I was fortunate to be part of the first IT Leaders Program (ITLP) cohort from the University of Minnesota back in 2007, and again in 2010 when we did a special cohort with all the IT Directors from Minnesota. I still use those lessons from ITLP, pretty much every day!

The SWOT exercises are something I use all the time. I'm going through a transition now, leaving the University of Minnesota and joining Ramsey County as the new CIO. In preparing my staff for my departure, I did another SWOT exercise in my last week at Morris.

I also use the three lenses. Are we doing the right thing at the right time? Do I have the right people supporting my idea? What about Cultural? Because Culture really does eat Strategy for breakfast. Change can't always fit within the current culture, but how can I put a new idea into a perspective that people will listen to, that will get past that Culture lens? As Brian says, the art of change management is like the art of politics; it's about disappointing people at a rate they can accept.

And use coaching, both peer coaching with friends and coaching with my staff. Those are really important to me. I like to use those coaching buttons. When I have some time alone with someone, like before a meeting, or walking between buildings after a meeting, I'll ask for little updates from whoever I'm with, like my staff. How's the project going? Did you get a chance to meet with so-and-so? How did that go? And that person will usually tell me where they are struggling, and I'll take that coaching moment to ask a question, to nudge them into thinking about it a different way? “What you're doing is making an argument. That's Rhetoric, right?  We have a Rhetoric department. Have you used your Rhetoric to make that a really strong presentation? Or how you can make that a really compelling case?” And these little breakaway moments usually lead to thinking outside the box.

Anyway, that's a few thoughts on how I use ITLP today. Have a great holiday!
image: MOR Associates (logo)

Thursday, December 17, 2015


As I end my time at Morris, I find myself reflecting on the achievements we have all made, the successes I've witnessed in the last five and a half years. A few highlights:

Network upgrades
When I came to Morris in 2010, our network was outdated. We had upgraded the campus network some years prior, but mostly using discarded equipment donated from the Twin Cities campus after their upgrade. Immediately upon my arrival, we started planning for the next upgrade, and a year or so later, we partnered with the Twin Cities Office of Information Technology to do an in-place upgrade of our campus network. At a total cost of over $1.5 million, we increased speeds and improved reliability of our wired and wireless networks. Since then, we have focused our network resources to expanding our wireless network. Most recently, we expanded wireless coverage across the Library. We are currently preparing for Spooner Hall, Pine Hall, and Blakely Hall. In Spring, we will continue to expand wireless. Over the summer, we will address the on-campus apartments and other areas.
Media Collaboration Table
In higher ed IT, we need to constantly invest in new experiments, new technologies and new ways of integrating technology into teaching and learning. Last year, we invested in a new Media Collaboration Table in the Library, supporting multiple video connections. This was a successful pilot project. Over the next year, I hope Morris continues this expansion. Prior to my departure, we discussed incorporating similar technology collaboration in meeting rooms and conference rooms.
Process improvement
For a long time, I harped on the topic of "Simplify, Standardize, Automate, and Innovate." This has led us to significant gains, improving our support and backoffice services by automating processes that used to be done by hand. For example, we have implemented process automation for many reports; previously, these were generated on an ad-hoc by-request basis, and required significant person time. Instead, we created scripts and other jobs that automate the data reports; some of the reports are delivered automatically to the people who need them, others are kept in a holding area until they are needed. Recently, we have expanded on the "Simplify, Standardize, Automate, Innovate" and added the question "Why?" to our repertoire. This gives permission to our team and our customers to probe why we do things the way we do them, to take a step back and consider if we still need to do things a certain way. We may have implemented a process or a policy in the 1990s when computers and networks and storage had certain capacities, and people had other duties that limited their time. But in 2015, do we still have these limitations? By asking "Why?" we have uncovered several processes that were obsolete. We removed other obstacles and found ways to do things more efficiently. Consider this important question i your own process improvement.
Disaster recover planning
In a previous role at the Twin Cities Office of Information Technology, my responsibilities included managing the enterprise DR planning team. I applied that experience at Morris, to create our first disaster recovery plans. Our goal was to keep it simple, because most planning goes out the window anyway during an actual disaster. Automate processes as much as possible, including the architecture, to provide flexibility during outages. This may help you avoid an outage altogether. We created an application architecture diagram and swim lane diagram, and performed tabletop exercises. Now, however, most of our critical services have migrated to other providers, many to the Twin Cities campus. This offloads our DR efforts, effectively outsourcing them. So there's not much left at Morris for DR planning, although we participate in annual disaster tabletop exercises with other areas of the campus.
Strategic planning
When I arrived in 2010, I realized our campus IT strategy was years out of date. And the previous strategy was not actionable, it didn't really provide or set direction to help guide our technology efforts. So I formed an IT strategic planning group, where we developed a new IT Masterplan. The new plan identified several key campus technology strategies, including short-term actions to generate momentum towards those goals. Over time, we have maintained the IT Masterplan and maintained it via two IT input cycles: one in spring, and one in fall. We also participate in strategic planning through formal communities of practice, which help us look to the future of the University.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Building relationships

Relationships are currency, no matter what industry you are in. Relationships help to build bridges, resolve conflicts, and generally get things done. You can't get far without building relationships with others.

I've talked about building relationships in other coaching buttons. You should remember the 4 I's of building relationships:
  1. Initiate
  2. Inquire
  3. Invest
  4. Influence
I sometimes refer to #4 as "Inspire" rather than "Influence." It depends on how you use the relationship.

Along the lines of building relationships, I found an interesting short video from BuzzFeed about How to make friends (according to science). The video lists a few tips on making yourself more approachable, including:

Keep your torso open and face the person you're talking to.
People will feel you are mentally open.When I converse with others, I want to give my full attention to the person I am with, so I tend to place myself directly in front of them. But I find many people, at least in the Midwest, prefer to have conversations with their bodies at an "angle" to the person they are talking to. So we may find ourselves in a bit of a "dance" as they keep trying to go back to the "angle" and I then move to face them.
Keep your hands visible to others.
This will create trust.We use body language to create more expressive conversations. Our body language can include tilting our heads or defining shapes with our hands to help in visualizing a concept. If you remove body language, you remove part of what makes a conversation more personal.
Create a time constraint.
The other person won't feel they are trapped in a conversation.We've all experienced the co-worker who suddenly appears in our door or cubicle, and wants to chat. Perhaps the person is bored or waiting for their software build to compile, or just killing time before going out to lunch, and decides to drop in for a visit. The sudden visit and forever conversation is a real interruption to your productivity. Don't be that person. If you need to visit with someone at the office, try to put a time limit on your stay, and make sure the other person knows you need to leave soon.
Other tips from the video include:

Ask for small favors.
Being needed will make others feel close to you.
Speak slowly and clearly.
You'll appear more confident.
Maintain eye contact.
This can strengthen the connection in a conversation.
Avoid butting-in or correcting others.
Don't make it about you.
Share some personal information, when appropriate.
Avoid becoming impersonal.
Take two minutes to watch this brief video and find ways to practice their tips. Build your relationships!
photo: Astro

Friday, December 11, 2015

Classroom computing gets smaller

It's no secret that I follow technology and computing trends. As an IT leader, I need to watch for new ways that technology changes the landscape. Our standard computing model today may change in only a few years. We need to be ready.

Over the last few years, we've all seen the increasing trend to smaller computing devices. With more computing load transitioned to "The Cloud," our desktop computers no longer need to be CPU workhorses. They can be simpler, relying on Cloud systems with web interfaces to support the major office workloads.

The Google Chromebook is one such example of new computing models. The device itself stores very little data, which means a narrow opportunity for data loss in the event of a lost or stolen computer. (Chromebook also encrypts local data, but I'll leave that for now.) Chromebook achieves this by moving all applications to the Cloud; rather than a local copy of Office, users access Google Apps. The first major success for Chromebook was arguably the Samsung Chromebook, which implemented a low-cost ARM CPU, similar to that in the Raspberry Pi (also an interesting entry in new computing.)

We purchased a Chromebook several years ago that we still loan out to those who want to try it. The Chromebook is a great little laptop that's easy to carry around to meetings.

For those who need a desktop machine, there's the similar Chromebox. Basically the same as Chromebook but in a desktop configuration, you add your own keyboard, mouse, and display to get to work. As our campus computing needs shift to more Cloud-based options, I anticipate our classroom computers may one day be fulfilled by a Chromebox. That is, if we continue to use instructor workstations.

An interesting twist is the recent addition of the Chromebit. At around $85, the Chromebit is basically the Chromebox "on a stick." Plug the Chromebit into an HDMI display, add a keyboard and a mouse, and you are ready to go!

I foresee many interesting options for the Chromebit. While I am leaving higher ed, I can still comment on higher ed technology. Imagine replacing our classroom computers with Chromebit devices, connected directly to the projector or Smartboard in each classroom. A remote keyboard and mouse allows the instructor to use the Chromebit to access Google Apps, including presentations via Google Docs.

Higher ed faces continuing funding issues. Every university and college across the US is challenged to reduce the cost of education while expanding opportunities and investing in academic technology. This is a difficult challenge that requires creative problem-solving. The Chromebit may provide the flexibility and leverage that this campus needs to do this.

It will be interesting to follow this trend of shrinking computing, low-cost technology as ways to supplement and even enhance instructional technology. Classroom computing gets smaller, and we should embrace that.
image: Google

Friday, December 4, 2015

New horizons

It is with mixed emotion that I announce I am leaving the University of Minnesota system.

I have been part of the University of Minnesota for a long time. I joined the University in 1998, managing the web production team in the Office of Information's recently formed "Web Team." In Web, we created the University's first web registration for the new PeopleSoft Student system. We also created an electronic portfolio system that allowed students to share their work with companies that might want to hire them (the system was named simply "Portfolio," then "e-Portfolio," then later "Open Source Portfolio Initiative" as it was released under a collaborative open source license). And we unified the web "front door" for students to access their account information; the "OneStop" concept provided a single view for course information, class schedule, web registration, update personal information, fees, and graduation plans.

Over time, I took on larger responsibilities at the University of Minnesota. As a manager in OIT's Central Computing Operations, I unified several enterprise systems administrations teams. Under this initiative, I worked with my Windows team to simplify our customer support, providing a sort of "menu" of hosting services that later grew into the Virtual Hosting service many colleges and system campuses continue to rely on. Later, as Senior Manager for Enterprise Operations and Infrastructure, I consolidated all of OIT's enterprise systems administrations teams under a single organization. And I created new initiatives such as enterprise Web Hosting and enterprise Database Hosting and enterprise Server Hosting that lowered costs and enhanced services across the University.

In 2010, I stepped into a new role as Campus IT Director at the University of Minnesota Morris. This was a major change for me; rather than supporting all of the University's 65,000+ systemwide students, I focused on just the Morris campus. The trade-off was I got to work more closely with the campus. Every day, I engage with faculty and students, something I was unable to do while working in the enterprise IT unit.

Morris didn't have someone in my role for the three years prior to my arrival. My first challenge was clearing an IT audit delivered in 2007, resolving most issues in the first three months, and demonstrating resolution (and closing) all issues within six months. Together, we transitioned the campus from a legacy email and calendaring system to Google Apps for Education, and migrated our desktops to a new Active Directory implementation. And I led a team to create our first long-range IT strategy, which we continue to maintain and use as a guide for technology projects.

Technology at Morris isn't unified under a single director; I work in partnership with two of my peers as Technology Partners. Our accomplishments are too numerous to list here. Together we have lowered costs and simplified technology maintenance at Morris. We also leverage more technology services available via Cloud providers and through the Twin Cities Office of Information Technology, again lowering our costs. It has been an interesting experience as customer to the same services I directed the creation when I was in my previous role.

I am now moving to a new leadership role, as the Chief Information Officer at Ramsey County. I start on Monday, December 28. My last effective day at Morris will be Friday, December 18, although I will technically remain until December 23 as I wrap up an online computer science class I am teaching this semester.

It will be difficult to leave my friends and colleagues across the University of Minnesota. Over five years at Morris and seventeen years with the University of Minnesota system is a long time to make friends, build relationships, and set down roots. I feel a deep connection with everyone; I have been fortunate to work alongside all of you.

I am working over the next few weeks to transition my responsibilities to the new interim Campus IT Director. I am proud to see Matt grow into this new role; I know he will do well. Everyone in our campus technology units is well placed and supportive of IT, and I trust in everyone's ability to take on new challenges as responsibilities and duties shift during this transition.

Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to serve the University of Minnesota Morris, and the University of Minnesota system. As a colleague of mine relates in a personal story, "it is my pleasure to serve." And it truly has been my pleasure to serve at the University of Minnesota.

I plan to continue writing in this Coaching Buttons blog. Expect to see new posts, although there may be a drop in productivity as I settle into my new role at Ramsey County. I plan to (eventually) go back to a once-a-week schedule.
image: Ramsey County website