In Defense of Central IT

3 observations.

July 31, 2014

At the end of this post you will find the full text of a comment from “Alamo", made in response to my piece The Edge and the Center: How is Central IT Evolving on Your Campus.

Maybe you should jump down and read Alamo’s thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about Alamo’s charges for a few days now.  Mostly because Alamo's claims feel so alien to my experience.   At points in my career I have worked for Central IT organizations, although not now, and have had the opportunity to observe these organizations closely from the inside.  

Here is what I have observed:

Observation 1:  The professionals who choose to work in higher ed IT are choosing first to work in higher education, and only second in IT.  Believe me, they could get jobs elsewhere. The market is really pretty good for IT folks.  They choose to work in higher ed IT because they believe that they can contribute to the mission of the school.  They care about education.  They care about research.  They like the idea of working in an institution with long time horizons, and often a long history.  They enjoy collaborating with a diverse set of colleagues.  Higher ed IT people believe in the power of technology to improve things.  They are motivated to help the institution achieve excellence. Alamo’s description of the Central IT leaders (below) does not sound like anyone in Central IT that I have ever met.  You?

Observation 2:  Central IT cares deeply, perhaps too deeply, about what faculty think.  My observation is that faculty actually under-estimate their ability to influence the services offered and the behaviors of Central IT.  The last thing any CIO or Director (or really anyone in the IT organization) wants is a faculty member unhappy with the IT group.  Central IT groups are service organizations.  They may struggle at times to communicate, and there is always room for more openness and transparency, but nobody in leadership positions in Central IT organizations that I know (across many different campuses) would disagree with the goals of being open, transparent, and communicative.  IT leaders may report to the CFO or the Provost or the President, but they have many important stakeholders on every campus.  What Alamo is describing below seems like an outlier to me, an extreme case of a breakdown in communication.

Observation 3:  Alamo talks about Central IT as if it is a monolithic organization.  I have never found this to be the case.  Large IT organizations, like any large organization, are better characterized by their diversity than any uniformity.  In every Central IT organization there are debates about culture, policy, and priorities.   It may be that Alamo’s relationship with particular IT people have broken down, but I would bet that there are many people in Central IT on Alamo’s campus who would make terrific partners.   Just as academic departments are made up of a diverse set of faculty, Central IT organizations are constituted by a diverse set of IT professionals.  This diversity is a strength of academic IT, as talented people with non-linear career narratives often find their way to higher ed IT.  

This is not to say that every Central IT organization is perfect.  Central IT at every campus that I know face an enormous and growing set of demands and pressures.  These demands have increased just as budgets have become most constrained.  Nowadays, our campuses operate 24/7/365.  Any unplanned downtime (and sometimes planned downtime) is seen as unacceptable.  IT leaders never get any of the credit when the IT operations that the institution depends on to run are running smoothly, but you can bet that they will get all the blame when any system goes down.  All of these daily operational pressures make it difficult to spend the sort of time communicating, listening, and relationship building that every IT leader would like. Finding ways to build relationships, even (particularly?) relationships with faculty such as Alamo, should be the number one job of every Central IT leader.  I hope that Alamo’s comment will help contribute to the meeting of that goal.

I'm hoping that both faculty and Central IT folks will weigh in with your observations and experiences.

Alamo’s comment from 7/24/14:

Thanks for bringing this topic forward for consideration. Also note my comments are in no way directed at the author - I'm not shooting the messenger here. My Central IT group is bloated, inflexible, slow-to-respond (sometimes never), and generally alienates the very user base that pays their salaries via NIH and NSF grant monies. As a funded researcher I contribute to their already massive budget yet, in return, they actually slow down the pace of my work. Out of necessity I've become an avid user of utility computing (e.g. Amazon), Google Apps, and external e-mail. Why should I be forced to finance a dinosaur of an organization that has contempt for its users and refuses to share its budget with those who are better prepared to apply it funded research?

Like many I leverage open source and run things like MySQL yet they tell me that I MUST use their central Oracle instance. I run my own Linux boxes, (or use Amazon), yet they tell me I MUST use their central boxes (even though it takes weeks to get packages installed and their configurations have less RAM than my laptop). I have no choice if I wish to remain comeptitive - Central IT has neither the interest or expertise to help me so I have to do it on my own. They don't host web-enabled databases for us and their "programming support" is worse than some first year programming students I have. The problem is that they claim broadly to do things like research computing and are happy to gobble up the budget for that with no intent on doing it. So I, and researchers such as myself, have had to become our own IT experts out of necessity.

And common IT "governance" committees are created by the central IT group and loaded with IT personnel to out vote users who actually want to contain spending instead of encourage needless expenditures such as "new HelpDesk software" or "training for the project management group". We don't use their Helpdesk and we sure don't use their project managers. As far as I can determine the CIO's primary job is to manage the relationship with Microsoft and execute the will of the CFO whose only goal, it seems, is to reduce IT costs though any money they have saved seems to back to the hire of more IT managers or "deputies" which is incredibly odd since many things are now being outsourced to the cloud. So... Central IT is a money sink and is more about making the CFO feel good that he/she has it "all under control" than it is to benefit the community.


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