CXO

Oregon CIO never unplugs, loves Glass, has unique perspective on IT emergencies

Melissa Woo, CIO for the University of Oregon, opens up about leading IT in higher-ed, all things Google, and her food photos.

 
Melissa Woo
Melissa Woo is the CIO and Vice-Provost for Information Services at the University of Oregon.
Image: University of Oregon
 "I wear it just about everywhere except the public restroom."

Through the slightly-blurry lens of a Google Hangout chat, I see Melissa Woo's five-foot frame shake with laughter as she describes her Google Glass obsession. She isn't kidding about wearing it almost constantly, either. Hiking. Dining. Working. Meeting. And apparently, video interviews with journalists.

Woo is the Chief Information Officer and Vice Provost for Information Services at the University of Oregon, located in Eugene, Oregon. The serious tone of those titles and the plain white walls of her office are a stark contrast to her vibrant personality, which she loves to share through social media. Executive leaders in higher institutions are usually not so open about their personal lives, but Woo is determined to change that fact.

One look at her Google+ page or Twitter stream will give you a glimpse of her charisma. For anything else, simply ask. She's remarkably transparent about the details of her life.

For example: She just turned down the volume of this morning's musical selection: celtic ballads. That's pretty calm, considering she usually starts the day with symphonic metal. Several nights this week, she made mouth-watering stir fries, the most recent one being a tempeh dish with fennel, green onion, and bok choy in a black bean chili sauce. She went hiking last weekend in a beautiful arboretum and enjoyed the winter sunshine. If she's MIA, look for her at Espresso Roma in Eugene, her second office. She loves their Mexican hot chocolate.

"I have a fascination for things on the edge of societal norms," she said. "In my role, it does matter for me to understand how people react to new technology, so I like to watch how people react."

If it seems like Woo never unplugs, it's because she doesn't. As CIO, she is technically always on call, so she sleeps with her phone. When she reads, it's on a tablet, and when she has the time to unwind after work, she video chats with a friend. She is connected the majority of the time through these devices, but she doesn't let technology distract her if she doesn't want it to.

Context is everything, she tells me.

Then she gives me her somewhat-gory mantra for IT emergencies. "No one is going to die of radiation-induced cancer, or burn an extremity from an x-ray beam, or go blind from a laser beam," she said. "I always say that once upon a time I had a job where all three of those things were possible." Before getting started in IT, Woo worked as a health physicist for six years after receiving a PhD in biophysics. After switching careers, she started from scratch as a UNIX server administrator and worked her way up to the CIO position at the University of Oregon in 2012.  

Woo was a Frye Leadership Institute Fellow and a recipient of the EDUCAUSE 2012 Rising Star Award for higher education IT leaders. But her career isn't about the technology, she tells me. It's about people. She is passionate about inspiring technology leaders to be original and untraditional, and her primary goal is to show people that technology is easy to seamlessly integrate into daily life. On a personal level, this is easy. But her privacy boundaries are quite different from most people, so Woo's challenge is inspiring others to share information and utilize cutting-edge innovations, even if they are intimidating.

In this sense, her job is much bigger than CIO. I ask what she wants to leave behind if she moves on from this position, and Woo doubles over in laughter again. Didn't I know that CIO stands for "Career is Over?"

Woo doesn't take herself too seriously. With punch lines like that, she is sure to leave her mark on the IT world as an executive and as a woman.

In her own words:

What are you reading right now?

I just finished "The Drunken Botanist," about all the different botanicals that go into making alcoholic drinks. I'm sure that's going to go over really well.

What philosophy do you live by?

Okay, this is going to sound really cynical. I actually just took this off my whiteboard recently. "There are no technology problems, just people problems."

What is your biggest advice for aspiring tech leaders?

Especially for women in IT: Be fearless.

What is your favorite tech tool right now?

This is hysterical. My Google Plus app on my phone and tablet. And Google Glass, because it has almost entirely replaced looking at my smartphone. But these could all change tomorrow. Who knows?

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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