Emerging Tech

A day in the life of a small college CIO

Scott Lowe, the CIO at a small college, is often asked the question "What actually do you do?" Here's his answer.

In writing my blog here at TechRepublic, I share with readers a lot of information about what's going on, but in general terms. I'm frequently asked this simple question: "So... what do you actually do?" I thought I'd take a stab at answering this relatively basic question.

My daily duties certainly vary wildly from day to day as well as throughout the year. As a small college without a residential summer session, summertime is very different than winter when we have students wandering around campus. That doesn't mean that summer is easy; quite the contrary, in fact. Summertime can actually be crazier than the school year since that's our catch-up time.

Management and direction

I hope it's obvious that I spend at least some of my time managing people, and the variety of needs here is pretty amazing sometimes. Some days, I don't have much formal interaction with my staff. Other days, I sit with individuals or teams and we plan work or projects down to minute details.

On the management front, I sometimes also become the IT "point person" whenever someone on campus has a problem. In our small environment, processes are often built on relationships, which has major pros and cons. On the pro side, it's great to get to know the people you're supporting, but on the other hand, I can't be the IT traffic cop for every single issue or exception that arises. To this end, I've put into place an escalation mechanism on campus that starts with members of my staff and ends with me rather than starting with me. This way, I end up involved only when all else has failed and my staff doesn't feel like people are constantly going over their heads. This has been surprisingly difficult to get into place as the "we've always done it this way" mentality is pervasive. I'm trying to put some order on chaos. This is tough and has resulted in push back as there is a perception that we don't care as much when nothing could be further from the truth.

I meet with my full staff (a grand total of 8) once per week as a group and require that each person submit to the whole group a weekly report that outlines any significant support efforts that were undertaken, project task/goal status, and anything else that I or the group may need to know about. This full team communication tool helps everyone to see what everyone else is doing so that we can better help one another. My staff is not all housed in the same building, so any communications tool is a bonus.

And, although we have a help desk manager, it's worth remembering that we're a staff of 8 -- we all have significant responsibilities. So, I spend time each day reviewing open requests to see if there is anything sensitive or particularly important that might still be outstanding.

I'm also responsible for outlining a technology vision for the campus and working toward that vision. As such, I've been involved in the development of the campus strategic plan and wrote a section of the plan that outlines a technology plan that supports the rest of the strategic plan.

Meetings, meetings, and more meetings

Believe it or not, I have fewer and different meetings now than I did a couple of years ago. In my desire to ensure that IT/process is included in campus governance, I've successfully championed getting IT participation on a number of different committees. This has helped the IT department be more involved in campus culture while ensuring that we have fewer "Ooops... no one talked to IT" moments, and we can make certain to do our part in ensuring organizational success.

So, after getting IT involved in stuff, I quickly started assigning members of my staff to represent me and my department in many of these initiatives. After each meeting that a member of my staff attends, he or she comes back and sends a note to the entire IT staff -- myself included -- outlining the discussion items at the meeting, decision points, schedules, and any actions items for which we're responsible.

I never want to be a single point of failure. If I sat on every committee on campus and I left the organization, a major point of communication would fail. I also want my people to work outside IT in campus business, and I can't think of a better way to accomplish this goal than making sure they're involved in the business.

Of course, I still have my own meetings, including meetings of the executive team (I'm also a Vice President, so I sit on the President's Cabinet), individual meetings with other VPs to discuss new initiatives or ideas, and meetings with individual departments when a project is getting under way.

More often, I tend to chat more informally with people.

Project management/portfolio management

I'm not going to say much here about this since you'll be reading a lot from me about project and portfolio management over the next few weeks right here in IT Leadership at TechRepublic. I'm beefing up my own skills in these areas and implementing new (to me) methodologies at Westminster so that we can enjoy greater project success.

Budget

I spend a lot of time each year carefully developing the College's IT budget and spend even more time throughout the year managing that budget even as that same budget undergoes unexpected twists and turns. As a part of this process, I also negotiate directly with the leasing company that we use to lease all of our IT equipment. As a part of this and related to the project/portfolio management item, I align IT budget resources against priorities, including equipment/software acquisition and consulting support.

Vendor management

I am generally -- but not always -- the point of contact for IT vendors on campus. I've written here before about the vendors that I consider true partners at Westminster and actually spend quite a lot of time with them as I see them as keys to our success. I also like to see what's new. With the exception of the constant cold calls, I really enjoy this aspect of my job as our partner vendors have been truly exceptional.

Licensing

Software licensing is a... bear. I can't begin to tell you how much time I spend annually simply managing this aspect of our operations. I have gotten good at it and can navigate the morass, but with each vendor having vastly different requirements, this is a never-ending battle.

Rolling up my sleeves

Although I'm placing this item last on my list, I actually spend a lot of time helping -- and sometimes, "helping" -- my staff achieve our goals. Most of the time, the assistance is welcomed by my staff since we can't do it all with just 8 people. Sometimes, of course, I get a bit too eager and dive too deep, resulting in generally gentle push back from my folks at which point I say, "Well, darn it... that looks like fun" and back off.

That said, here are some items I've worked on personally:

  • I generally manage and support our virtual environment, which includes our Xiotech SAN and VMware servers. Why? Because this is one of my strengths and my network guy (singular) already has a really full plate. He's ok with this.
  • I've generally implemented a number of our new services and then transitioned daily operations to a member of my staff. For example, I architected and implemented our Exchange 2007 and 2010 and SharePoint 2007 and 2010 implementations (all virtual!) and then asked my network guy to handle ongoing support. Again, he's ok with this, and it also plays to my strengths and allows me to contribute where it makes sense.
  • I've written a number of reports against our ERP. Some were part of larger projects that I was directly managing.
  • I back up members of my staff when they're away on vacation, sick, or otherwise not available. If my web person is out, I do updates for which we're responsible. If my DBA is away, I (try) to handle ongoing tasks, although we're training a junior DBA now due to the importance of this work.

Summary

Obviously, I can't list every single thing I've ever done, but these broad categories are pretty representative. In a larger environment, I'd be spending much less time on the "rolling up my sleeves" part and more on vision and strategy. However, in our small environment, I tend to bounce pretty seamlessly between the items above and work as much as possible on keeping the trains running.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

5 comments
WaimairiIT
WaimairiIT

An interesting read and I think the responsibility sections represent what any IT Manager, Director or CIO would do / see / carry out with a team of 10 or less staff (as an IT Manager for a small retailer this is definetly a similar breakdown to my day).

Professor8
Professor8

I have a relative in a similar post. He seems to spend a lot of time on (1) worrying over software/system purchases, (2) customization, (3) retaining the good tech workers he has at the low compensation levels the institution can afford/wants to spend, and (4) dealing with academia's turf wars/politics. Another relative is CTO at a start-up (well, a series of start-ups over time). I've almost always worked with super-computers in an academic or scientific/engineering environment. Two of us have worked in defense/aerospace, one did some consulting, one some recruiting/placement, one at a regulatory agency, one for a state legislature. The 3 of us are the designated family "computer people" so the rest seem to herd us together at family gatherings, but we do such different work that we can't even talk shop. We don't use the same operating systems, the same kinds of apps, the same programming languages or frame-works, the same terminology for data storage... It's like we're in 3 totally separate industries.

caroseed
caroseed

Hi Scott, I'm interested in how much of your time is spent dealing with licensing issues. I manage Microsoft's cloud computing group on LinkedIn and I plan to get their resident licensing expert (Samantha Bramwell) into the group to answer questions on this topic. Do you have any you'd like me to ask her? BTW the group is at http://linkd.in/nAX9S4 if you're interested in joining. Quite a few members have similar jobs to yours.... Cheers, Caroline White (http://www.white-write.co.uk)

jtjenkins213
jtjenkins213

As an IT pro who used to work at a college that is a similar size of Westminster, I can see that the processes and activities are very similar. Where I worked, there was only 5 of us, and the IT Director (not CIO because he doesn't want that "Chief" in his title) rolls his sleeves up seemingly as an escape (as well as the lack of personnel) from the meetings, committees, and paper work that takes up a majority of his day. It's important for the managers to stay up on current tech and what's inside, else you end up with a director similar to that seen on The IT Crowd.

maclovin
maclovin

Isn't that the way most of them are already? :D THIS, is the Internet! I kid, I kid!

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