In this episode, Joe Gottlieb, President and CTO of Higher Digital, sat down with Jack Suess, Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus, to discuss IT organization transformation through the lens of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
transformed: Taking IT Organizations from Good to Great
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Joe Gottlieb: (00:02)
Welcome to transformed a higher digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats and the new hows in higher ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of Higher Ed while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence culture, strategy and tactics planning, and execution people, process and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s, what’s required to truly transform. Hello and welcome to transformed a higher digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats and the new hows in higher ed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President and CTO of higher digital. And today I am joined by Jack Suess, Vice President of IT and CIO at University of Maryland Baltimore campus. Jack, welcome to transformed.
Jack Suess: (00:58)
Thanks Joe. Happy to be here. What do you want to talk about?
Joe Gottlieb: (01:03)
Well, I’d love to talk about taking it organizations from good to great, but before we get into that fun topic, I’d love to hear a little bit about your personal journey, Jack, and how it’s shaped your passions and convictions for what you do in this, in this sector.
Jack Suess: (01:21)
Thanks, Joe. Three things really mean a lot to me. First I’m a first generation college student and I was the only one of my siblings that got to go to college. And I really understand how education changes lives as a result. Student success is one of those areas that is critical to me in thinking how we help it. A second thing is I don’t think I would’ve worked in computing. If I hadn’t gotten an internship and worked as an undergraduate, I was a math major. I was also doing computer science. Didn’t particularly love the computer science, but once I got an internship, it made all the difference. As a result. I love working with students and seeing students have that light bulb go off. And lastly, I love working with faculty. Faculty are amazing and, um, I’ve gotten a chance to teach a few times in my career. And once you teach you really appreciate, um, faculty even more
Joe Gottlieb: (02:27)
Awesome. Well, that’s a good base to work from, and I know Jack, you’re also a fan of the Jim go Collins book. Good to great. I’m a fan too. And I thought we might use that as a little bit of a lens to look at some of the transformation that you’ve been part of at, at UMBC. So just to get rolling with that concept, when, what comes to mind when you think about taking an it organization from good to great.
Jack Suess: (02:54)
So Joe, I would say that it is viewed as a strategic partner and is brought in at the beginning as ideas are being germinated.
Joe Gottlieb: (03:05)
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So that get that overcomes what could happen as an alternative, which is isolated, thinking about why to do stuff and what to do, and then isolated thinking after the, that stuff is thrown over the transom to figure out how right.
Jack Suess: (03:27)
Yes. Most definitely the thing I hate is being brought in when someone has decided every possible thing and says here, implement this. Usually it hasn’t been thought out quite as much as they think they have thought it out. And so, um, getting it start earlier is just a wonderful opportunity.
Joe Gottlieb: (03:51)
Well, and I know you’ve, um, you’ve progressed through that at UBC a bit, and I know you’ve established an environment there where you are getting that opportunity. So let’s set the stage at UBC and what’s going on there before we dive deeper.
Jack Suess: (04:08)
So UBC is an amazing place. Um, we’re roughly 56 years old as of this September. Um, so we’re a young institution by higher ed standpoints. Um, we had a great, um, thing happen this past spring where UBC became, uh, a research one or, or research very high in the Carnegie classification. That’s been something that we’ve been striving for for, um, since our, we began, we began as a research university, but we’ve been relatively small. And mid-sized when I came here in 1976 as a undergraduate, we were about 5,000 students. Um, today we’re a little over 14,000 and we’re really sort of hitting our stride as we, uh, start to move forward. We’ve had an incredible leadership team. Many people on the podcast may have, um, known our president or heard of our president speak Dr. Freeman Robowski Freeman was an incredible leader who just retired July 31st after 31 years as president.
Jack Suess: (05:25)
Um, and so you don’t see many universities have presidents stay for three decades. And so that has really, um, sort of helped UBC create this stable leadership. Um, we just have a new president’s doctor, Valerie shears Ashby, Valerie is, uh, from duke university. She was Dean of the Trinity school of arts and sciences. And I’m thrilled. She’s gonna be a wonderful leader to work with. So UBC is this place that as it has grown, we’ve been able to sort of innovate and try new things because we’re always trying to become better. And I think that culture of always wanting to be better is really been sort of built in and baked into the institution, um, over the years.
Joe Gottlieb: (06:20)
Excellent context, thanks for sharing that Jack. And so now what I want to get into is we, you know, we, this concept of good to great, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a big concept. There’s a lot that goes with it, right? It, it has to do with, with people it has to do with culture. It has to do with big goals. And so we’re gonna talk about all of that, but what I also wanna sort of set up as the, the framing context for this is the, the recent progress that you’ve had I know was in the works before the pandemic, but really also got accelerated by the pandemic. So I wanna also use that as a, a sort of a lens through which we look at some of your transformation. So tell me a little bit about how you were proceeding along with some pretty progressive efforts in your portfolio and then the pandemic hits, and then what happens?
Jack Suess: (07:16)
Thanks, Joe. So U N C has been an organization that’s been very engaged in the internet two community. And one of the areas that we actually were part of helping to build was the internet two net plus, which is their cloud services portfolio. And so from 2013 on, we have been a cloud first organization. And as such over the last 10 years, we have tried to focus on moving our infrastructure as much as possible to the cloud. So one of the things that I comment on to people is I didn’t have to make one purchase when the pandemic hit in order to be able to scale up and support the infrastructure needs that we had at the university. We had everything in place. We already had a lot of documentation. What we saw happen is usage just accelerate through the roof. And that’s a good thing. We were able to now really drive value out of these cloud purchases that we had made four or five, six years ago. And really now take them to a new level from the fact that, um, as the pandemic hit and we went to remote work, remote instruction, um, we had to be leveraging these things fully to the max.
Joe Gottlieb: (08:55)
So that sounds like a nice combination of really smart and maybe a little bit lucky. Um, and, and, and what I hear you say in that, Jack, just to sort of help our listeners really get the, the sort of what they can from that experience is, you know, you had some things that you had teed up that weren’t being used as super active utilities, but when, when the pandemic hit and remote work became a necessity, they really became go to utilities. And so people got a chance to, um, probably have a better experience than most that hadn’t been thinking about those things. But it sounds to me like, it, it wasn’t that you’d taken the whole, the whole organization to the cloud and everything was running in the cloud. And you were so advanced from that regard, but you wound up with these things that were readily available and you could, you could scale into them quickly. Is that a fair, uh, fair
Jack Suess: (09:54)
It partially fair. Um, I, so I, I think that an example would be, we had already moved our LMS into the cloud. Okay. And so we were fully in the, into the cloud. The LMS was there as part of we were a Blackboard customer. We had Blackboard collaborate as our, uh, video service for Blackboard. The reality is, is we had some usage, but we weren’t a heavy online organization. And so the usage was relatively light. We went up 50 X times when we went to remote. Um, but the benefit that we had is that we had training materials. We had staff that knew how to use these tools. And so scaling from maybe 50 courses to 2000, it’s a lot easier because we had our own capabilities already in place. We had documentation, we had done training for small groups of faculty. We could leverage that to be expanding it to all faculty and moving very quickly in order to help faculty make a difference.
Joe Gottlieb: (11:10)
Well, okay. That, in that case, like LMS is a great example that really, uh, absolutely central to the institution that, that U B C became through the pandemic, meaning, okay. Since we’ve gotta leverage this in, in, in teaching and learning, it’s now we were able to ramp it up. That makes a lot of sense. Um, and so how did your, um, why might you describe this sort of the rhythm of, of how you were able to be there with those services ramp those up, and then you really had an active quote set of customers, maybe even beyond that, what you had before the pandemic, is that a, a reasonable statement as
Jack Suess: (11:52)
Well? So I think that the one way to think about that and a, and a good area that we really made great progress on was working with faculty. And, and so in the, again, back to March 20, 20 pandemic hits were going remote, um, the provost and I, um, we talked in mid-April and what we realized is, is that it was likely going to be remote in the summer. And at that point we were thinking we may still have to be remote in the fall. And it turned out we were quite heavily remote in the fall. So we decided right then and there to allocate money and do a major faculty training activity over the summer. And what that training activity was, was not so much just around how to use tools, but it was working with faculty who we’ve already worked with and thinking about how you actually teach in a different modality.
Jack Suess: (13:00)
What are some ways that you should be trying to leverage technology in order to be able to be doing some things that it can do very well, um, in your class. And so we really worked closely with our faculty in doing this training, but we engaged our faculty and each of the colleges to be part of that training, um, instructors to be helping. Because what we find is, is it’s much easier to talk for faculty to talk to other faculty. And so we really had, we’re formed a great partnership with our, our provost and our, our deans around this activity. And that was an example of sort of how we created just an incredible explosion of innovation in using the LMS similar sorts of things happened as we started talking with groups around campus of how to be moving to remote service. So now we’re quickly we’re remote.
Jack Suess: (13:59)
We had gone, um, really, we literally started in fall of 2019 moving away from a legacy telephone environment over towards VoIP. And what we were able to do in March is quickly transition a lot of our service areas around the campus over to soft clients, using the VoIP system, using the tools that we had in terms of creating spaces and being able to do asynchronous communication with one another, to be creating a, a support culture that really thrived once we got people trained on this in April and may for being able to support students. And so these kind of elements, um, we probably, would’ve never moved that fast on moving people to soft clients and moving to this asynchronous environment where we’re using WebEx teams and all of the sort of capabilities that come from that, but that has really played out well.
Joe Gottlieb: (15:09)
And did you, did that, it, it did that aspect of your progress really accelerate the, uh, I’ll just call it the, the productivity and efficiency of departments on the administration side. So one of the big challenges schools have is, is students have to go wait in line at this, for this thing or that thing. And, and people, people need to staff those offices and be present. And, and there seems to be an opportunity. And I’ve seen it confirmed in, in several organizations where yeah, this remote work thing can translate if you’re thoughtful about it, to really making those things more efficient so that a student can achieve three things in an hour, that they might have taken two hours to do one if they were waiting in line at a department.
Jack Suess: (15:56)
So, so two things that I, I think are great examples there. So one is we had been an early internet to net plus customer of DocuSign and DocuSign. Um, we had built out a, over two or three years, an environment that allowed us to integrate DocuSign with some of our enterprise systems, our, um, analytics infrastructure for data. And when the pandemic hit, um, we went from using DocuSign at say, 20,000 envelopes a year to 140,000 envelopes. So literally all of our paper based processes, we were able to easily sort of convert over into DocuSign forms and to create pretty flexible workflows by, um, group in order to be able to move those things. And so that was a benefit both to students and the staff in terms of how we were thinking about things. Another example, though, that gets to your student one is that even to this day, um, we still see that a lot of faculty still prefer office hours virtually. You know, what we found is, is more students were taking advantage of virtual office hours, then they were coming and waiting outside of your office. Another, um, place where video conferencing, uh, really played a part was tutoring. Tutoring was much more widely accepted if you didn’t have to walk over to the location to do tutoring, um, if you could do it from set up an appointment and do it from any place in the world that really benefited the tutoring group,
Joe Gottlieb: (17:37)
Great examples, just like suddenly something is more, you know, it’s a benefit, it’s hard to get students to take advantage, but suddenly this delivery mechanism ends up unlocking more use, which is great. It’s a win-win all around. Okay. So you’ve given some examples on, right at the heart of the value of any institution, the LMS and the pandemic accelerating the use of that. It sounds to me like you at a departmental level found, found comrades in arms, so to speak amongst the faculty that would help you roll this out so that they could be part of the solution. That sounds like a good, good one. Um, but I know also that then, then in the internal administrative stuff, we’ve got a couple examples there. So, but if you zoom out more broadly, I think you’ve shared with me before that, that you were already advancing several of these projects before the pandemic hit. And the institution made a pretty big call to continue pursuing this portfolio of projects, knowing that it would be, um, the, the organization would be, be more fit and not knowing what the pandemic would bring. Um, so maybe we could talk a little bit about that,
Jack Suess: (18:53)
You know, exactly Joe. I mean, we had started really four major projects, uh, before the pandemic had started. Uh, one, we were really looking at revamping our analytics infrastructure, and I could talk more about that later, but that was one that we knew was gonna be strategic for us two. Um, we really, um, have had a, a multi-year effort where we were developing a strategic enrollment plan, and we knew that we were gonna have to be revamping the way that we did, um, recruitment and admissions, and that we wanted to be going to a CRM based model for trying to do that. Um, and so that was absolutely a cer you know, critical for us to move forward. Um, we had also been doing a lot of work with micro credentials, and we knew we needed to build out an infrastructure to be able to scale micro credentials and, and build that type of thing out. And then I mentioned already that we had this, uh, big phone switch over taking place, but at the same time, we were really trying to also be introducing some of the asynchronous tools into this like teams.
Joe Gottlieb: (20:09)
Got it. Okay. So those, those, this portfolio, um, really the institution stayed, the course kept investing and, and, and I have to believe that
Joe Gottlieb: (20:22)
Part of the way that was, that the way that that could, um, just there’s some psychology to this, right? I mean, that’s a gutsy call and everyone’s gonna have opinions about such things. And it, I imagine it had to do with the fact that you had, you, you were in a good position to scale up this, these remote work capabilities that felt good to the organization. And therefore might have, if that hadn’t have happened, people might have been more desperate or feeling more impacted and less confident to stay the course, and that that’s not just people and departments, but even leadership. Right. So was that part of the context for this that helped you to proceed?
Jack Suess: (21:02)
Well, yes. And what I would say, and through this is historically, we have had a culture of delivering great service. You know, when you talk to people on campus, it is sort of viewed as really the, the exemplar when it comes to service delivery and, and, you know, I get, uh, we do survey tracking of every ticket that we close. We’re able to be seeing that roughly 97% are very good or excellent. And, you know, we really are sort of setting a bar that, um, people recognize us for. But back to the point of thinking about the pandemic in may, in March through may of 2020, no one knew what the future was gonna look like in the pandemic. And what we knew is that, um, UBC needed to make these kinds of investments because it was going to be absolutely critical that we were as strong as possible, and that we had an infrastructure that could support and sustain the kind of institution that we wanted to be.
Jack Suess: (22:15)
And so it was critical to be making investments, even in a difficult situation, cuz thinking back in may of 2020, we were cutting our budgets by almost 10%. Um, the state was not sure what the funding was going to be. You were seeing the pandemic, you know, create a recession. And at that point, um, we just really didn’t know what the future was going to be, but we said we have to be making investment in order to be able to come out of the pandemic as a stronger institution. And so that’s one where I think it was sort of viewed as part of the solution by the leadership in being the institution of the future, that technology was gonna play, um, a greater role, not a less role.
Joe Gottlieb: (23:07)
Well, that’s a, that’s a really good segue into what I’d like to you to talk about next. Um, so the whole concept of technology being part of the solution, but not because it’s pushed, but because it’s pulled because there’s a, there’s a recognition because the work’s been done ahead of time about, you know, the role of it. It’s good at what it does. You’re invited to the conversation early. We’ve gotta challenge here. How are we gonna work through this? Okay. It’s part of the solution and it can be pulled and collaborated upon, um, that allows an organization to be more confident about investments. So we’ve already, we’ve already mentioned that, so this, these four things that you were working on, you were gonna stay the course and you found ways to cut elsewhere. I imagine so that you can continue that investment because the, the numbers were what the numbers were.
Joe Gottlieb: (23:57)
And you wanted to be careful about that. I, I know to me, I know your analytics project, maybe even as a very illustrative point within that group is, is, is maybe even, um, more exemplary in terms of, wow. Talk about a betting on the future. Right? So here, I believe, you know, you were making a bet that data was going to be the key to continuing, to pursue your mission, to be the best public university. Right. And so talk to me a little bit about how that took shape and, and, and how it illustrates, um, some of these concepts about good to great.
Jack Suess: (24:36)
Sure. I appreciate that, Joe. And so U N C created, um, a data warehouse in 2006 and, and we did this in partnership with a company that was called I strategy. Now I strategy had a really innovative solution that was built on sort of the Microsoft, Microsoft OAP technology. Um, it was cube based. It had fact tables. Um, it worked well with PeopleSoft, uh, and this was a technology that frankly we had leveraged to the max. Um, we had also brought in not just all of our E R P data, we do all of our reporting, literally all of our reporting out of the data warehouse. And so, um, I have a thousand reports that are generated out of the data warehouse. We had built Microsoft reports, services over top of this for transactional kinds of reports that’s that people needed. So it was a key resource here to the campus.
Jack Suess: (25:42)
But as we looked at this in 20 18, 20 19, we realized it was getting long in the tooth from a technology standpoint that it was hard to move up into the cloud environment, um, because of some of the CAPA, some of the, the, the technologies that underpin it, we couldn’t necessarily be leveraging some of the newer visualization tools that we wanted to be able to use like Tableau. And so we also weren’t sure where the vendor was gonna go. I strategy had been bought, it was now part of another vendor’s product portfolio, and we just weren’t sure where they were taking it. And so under that situation, we said, well, we can continue running this ourselves, but at some point it’s gonna come back to be technical debt that is really gonna cost us 5, 6, 7 years in the future. And what we decided to do is, um, we were gonna go with a new vendor.
Jack Suess: (26:42)
So we went with Helio campus. Um, even though we had a, an operating analytics operating environment that was working pretty well in 20 18, 20 19, we made the decision in 2020. No, we have to be starting to make this shift to go to Helio campus because we wanted to be in an Amazon environment. We wanted to be able to be taking advantage of some of the newer tools that were there. And we knew that in 20 24, 20, 25 and beyond, if we don’t have this environment up and fully running, it’s going to be holding us back in being able to do the things that we we may wanna do as an institution. And so we made the decision that we still have to go forward with this project because it was absolutely essential to moving forward. So that was one of the ways that we thought about that we’re making really great progress. Um, we, we had built out a lot of custom functionality in the, um, the old analytics environment. We’re cleaning some of that up, but we’re working with Helio to also be expanding their product. And so, um, some of the things that we did as a mature customer, I think will now benefit other customers as they start to roll this out, um, in other functionality that they can take advantage of.
Joe Gottlieb: (28:09)
Excellent. Uh, yeah. So you, you, it sounds to me like you, you were so far ahead in those earlier days, you couldn’t help, but customize and, and build out some of your own technology, which probably became a bit hard to manage over time, given, given what, what tends to happen there relative to what vendors are shipping. Um, and it sounds like, uh, as we, as we like to talk about, um, getting off the customization reflex and getting into that, that strategic supplier engagement, uh, you know, exchange, we’re like, look, we’ve picked you, we need to stay with you and we can’t get too far ahead of you. And so here’s what you need to do to keep earning that role, right?
Jack Suess: (28:55)
No, that’s a, I, I, I, we completely agree with you on that. And, and we’ve, we’ve had that kind of discipline in our, in our E R P environment, um, with PeopleSoft. And so in our student and in our, um, financials, um, we’re fully up to date with patches and bundles. We have limited modifications that are there and we keep them going. Um, and that’s worked exceptionally well for us. Um, what we noticed in the analytics space is that as we added more and more data, that wasn’t part of the E R P um, we just got a bigger and bigger sort of footprint and the stack itself was not gonna be there. Should we decide to go to different E R P systems? So we had built all the ETL to be able to keep things going, but if we went to a different E R P environment, at some point in the future, we couldn’t replicate all that. Right. And so we knew we had to be with a vendor that was going to be working with multiple E R P vendors, so that at some point when we do upgrade, um, it’ll just be a matter of shifting out the plumbing for the E R P, but our analytics environment will be able to continue to be operational.
Joe Gottlieb: (30:13)
Makes good sense. All right, Jack, last topic. I wanna shift some gears here and, um, you know, part of the good, great book was about, um, pointing out the, one of the things Jim Collins observed was the presence of level five leadership. And, um, I know that, that I don’t, I know I don’t want to, you know, make you feel too uncomfortable, but I know that you’re very, um, disciplined about how you stay personally fit to be an effective leader. And I I’d love for you to share some of those, uh, disciplines that you’ve, uh, you’ve accumulated over your years, uh, with some of our listeners. Would you mind sharing those?
Jack Suess: (30:49)
Uh, no. Thanks, Jeff. And, and let me preface this by saying I had an incredible opportunity to report to Dr. Robowski for 21 years. So, you know, watching him, who I think is really the penultimate level five leader, um, sort of gave me some insights. And so one of the things that he sort of always sort of highlighted was, um, you know, leaders always have to lead. And one of the things that he also sort of highlighted is, is that, um, leadership is taxing and so it’s really important to stay healthy. And so one of the key elements that I’ve had to sort of adopt over the last 25 years is just a pretty rigorous exercise program, making sure I prioritize my health. You get your doctor’s appointments, you do the things you need to do, because if you’re not healthy, you’re not gonna be able to be effective as a leader.
Jack Suess: (31:46)
I think the other things that, you know, he highlighted to me and that I’ve sort of taken in is things like learning to manage your calendar, um, at, at the end of the day, um, your calendar either controls you, or you control your calendar and it’s much better for your life. If you control your calendar than letting it control you. And that gets to some of the other elements, which are, um, no matter what you’re doing at work at the end of the day, family is the most important thing. And so if you’re not supporting your spouse, if you’re not supporting your kids, if you’re not a part, you know, that’s not gonna be a fulfilling life. And so, you know, prioritizing your family, using your calendar to make time. So you can do those things, um, is really key. Um, lastly, the last two things I’ll just sort of say is, is that I think what has really helped me personally, is this incredible it community we have in higher ed.
Jack Suess: (32:46)
And if you’re not taking advantage of this community to interact with other people to reach out, to learn from, to ask questions, um, you’re just missing an opportunity to leverage so much knowledge. And so I would go to internet two meetings or ed calls, meetings, make connections, hear presentations. And I realize, yeah, we should be doing that too. This would really add value. And so these kinds of things, um, really are helpful. And then, you know, lastly I’ll just say, and I think the pandemic is teaching. This is that, um, you know, don’t be afraid to ask for more time, you know, sometimes you’re given a problem and you just, or a project and you just can’t finish it in the timeframe that was allotted. Once you realize that, talk to the team and, and figure out how you can fit it in at the same time, others are gonna potentially need some grace from you and give that grace. And I think that if you go into a culture where you’re asking and giving grace, um, it creates a lower stress environment. That’s just better for everyone all around. And those have been the five things that I sort of take with me, um, as I try to work, um, both here at UBC and nationally.
Joe Gottlieb: (34:07)
Oh, great stuff, Jack, thank you very much for sharing that. So let’s bring it home. Um, let’s give our listeners three things to keep in mind on the topic of taking it organizations from good degree. You’ve got the mic here for a close.
Jack Suess: (34:23)
So the first one is you’ve gotta build trust with your campus. If you’re not connecting up and down the organization with people, especially faculty, you’re not gonna be building the kind of trust that you need to be able to do big things. And so build trust second, you really need to be taking this idea of being active in our it community to heart. This is absolutely essential for identifying what the best ideas are and figuring out how you can bring them back and do them at your own institution. And then lastly, um, no single leader is going to make that in and of him or herself. The difference it’s about a leadership team. If you’re not building the strongest team that you have, where everyone is leaders and their part and parcel of the organization, you’re really not creating all the value that your organization can be creating.
Joe Gottlieb: (35:32)
Great summary points to end on Jack. Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Jack Suess: (35:37)
Thank you, Joe.
Joe Gottlieb: (35:39)
And thanks to our guest for joining us as well. I hope you have a great day and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.
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