Brad Wheeler: Accidental CIO. IU VP. Fitness buff.

Brad Wheeler, Indiana University's vice president for information technology and CIO, spoke with TechRepublic about his career in ed tech and how the echo effect plays into IT.

Indiana University CIO Brad Wheeler giving a presentation.
Image: Indiana University

Brad Wheeler grew up in a small town with 1,200 people and one flashing red light. His family owned some farmland and cattle, and he was expected to contribute.

"I learned work at a very early age," he said. Wheeler was driving a tractor by the time he was ten years old and fixing things around the house. He's had, at least, a part time job for as long as he can remember.

Knowing how to work hard was an important value and one that would eventually lead him to his current position as Indiana University's vice president for information technology and CIO. His work there recently earned him TechPoint's CTO of the Year award.

Wheeler's exposure to and interest in technology also began at a young age. His father's car dealership had a Wang PC that Wheeler taught himself to program sometime around the 8th grade. Eventually he wrote a payroll system for the dealership and that led to an even deeper interest in computers.

He became more fluent in programming in middle school and high school, but he found his true interest when he got to university. Wheeler was fascinated not only with technology, but it's intersection with business.

Given his rural upbringing, Wheeler had a background in 4-H which led him to Oklahoma State University. After programming an election tabulation system for the local 4-H as a volunteer, Wheeler went to work at the organization part time for $5 an hour. He worked as a part time programmer there for three years.

It was the time of the TRS 80 and the birth of Apple. As the technology kept advancing, Wheeler got even more deeply interested in the economics and psychology around technology. After receiving his MBA, he went to Indiana University to pursue a Ph.D.

"I think that was probably one of the most seminal experiences of my life," Wheeler said.

Upon completing his four-year Ph.D. program in a little less than three years, Wheeler took a job at the University of Maryland at College Park teaching the MBA program. Two years later, Indiana University gave him a call and said "come back," and he's been there since 1996.

In the late 1990s, he became involved in executive education and corporate governance around the internet and e-commerce. This took him across six continents and 30 countries in five years. Wheeler said exposure to that variety of cultural experiences at that time had a huge impact on his future work as a CIO.

Wheeler considers himself an "accidental CIO," but the path was fortuitous in his background converging around business and technology. His advice is that it's all about the blend.

Indiana University has more than 1,000 full time staff and 650 part time staff running IT services for eight campuses. Wheeler describes his role as CIO in three tenets:

"My principal job is strategy, politics, and money," he said.

A large part of his work, he said, is hiring and building up leaders in IT that he doesn't need to manage too much. Having so many campuses and students, there's a broad surface area of inputs to account for when making decisions. Wheeler focuses on narrow decision rights and high accountability to balance against that broad surface area.

Another part of his career has been building economies of scale in higher education. Because of this, he became involved with open source early on to offset the costs of CRMs and ERPs within the university. To help other schools, he organizes consortia around the technology and encourages participating schools to share code and work together.

When it comes to the current state and direction of enterprise IT, even in education, Wheeler's two-decade career has given him unique insight into the trends he's seen in the workplace.

"I think the most compelling publication on this is a little bit dated," he said. "It was King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes when he wrote 'there's nothing new under the sun.' That's really what I think about a lot of this."

Wheeler admits that sounds shocking in today's IT environment, but he thinks there is a major echo effect at play. It's always a result of the interplay of economics, technology, and behavior, he said.

For example, big conversations on mobility and empowering end users are happening now, but he said we've been through eras of end user computing before. Also, the modern idea of cloud as a path to scale is reminiscent of the outsourcing boom that started in the late 1980s with companies like Kodak.

As his career progressed and trends came and went, one thing remained central -- people. He credits this to his upbringing in a small town, in that you never really see anyone as disposable. And, that informed his thinking in large organizations as well.

"You really learn how to make things work with people rather than just moving on," he said.

In his own words...

What do you do to unplug?

"The moments of not being 'on' are certainly becoming fewer and fewer in life. I do think that's one of the challenges. I always tell folks I have a really really great boss but a lousy supervisor -- boss being my president and me being my own supervisor. I try to play tennis some. I run, hit the gym very regularly. Mostly fitness-oriented activities.

"I do read a lot of current events.I think that may gum my mind up more than it frees it. I keep myself very well-informed on international matters and national matters in terms of current events and business trends. I find great interest in that. Reading The Economist every week is small therapy for sure."

What's the best thing you've read lately?

"Lately is the real qualifier on that. I can't say that anything pops to front of mind most recently. I tend to still favor a lot of things that are pretty classic out there and reviewing them from time to time. I'm constantly talking with folks about the book IT Governance. It's probably almost ten years old now, but it's one of those books that I think is the best blueprint for CIOs and business leaders in sorting out some of the challenges of IT and interactions with business."

What kind of movies or TV shows do you enjoy?

"Movies are big commitments, you know, that whole two hour thing. So, I find myself burning through about three hours of watching a series 45 minutes at a time, more often than not. I do like law shows, I like police shows, huge Game of Thrones fan even though the last season was a little weak. It has to be original in some way, not just Hollywood redoing something yet again. I think that's why I find Game of Thrones just so extraordinary, the depth of characters, the intrigue, and all that happens there."

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