The Evolution of the "I" in CIO

Cynthia Herrera Lindstrom, CIO, University of Illinois at Chicago
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Cynthia Herrera Lindstrom, CIO, University of Illinois at Chicago

It seems it was not that long ago that I started as a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and we did our all our computing via terminals on mainframes. These machines were tightly controlled by central computing and largely a mystery to everyone else. Mainframes were the opposite of user friendly—working on them required being tethered to a cable, looking through a giant manual to figure out how to use them, and sometimes walking half a mile to pick up your printed output. They were difficult and confusing, and users had little say in how things were done.

Eventually, personal computers came out, and everything changed. Users could control their own machines and essentially do whatever they wanted. In the early days, IT central units lost much of the control they had in regulating what end users could do with their new-found “freedom,” and there was a significant need for user training and support. While PCs made work more flexible, they also made it more complicated— users had to learn how to deal with operating systems and software, not to mention connecting peripherals with their idiosyncratic device drivers.

This early and more primitive environment has been evolving to the present day, where technology and technology services have become very consumer friendly. With devices such as smart phones and tablets, which have a simple and more seamless customer experience, users’ expectations have significantly changed. They do relish this new environment where they have control, yet management is simpler and more straightforward. Instant access, consistency, no tethering through wires, no device drivers, no command line, and ease of use (no manuals please!) are expected.

  ‚ÄčSeveral factors affect our job now, and we must work to find the most efficient and effective way to deliver services in a way that is integrated, seamless, and intuitive to the user  

Today, all of the colleges and units on campus are looking to us to supply these seamless, centralized, and easy to use services but, we no longer house many of them ourselves in a tangible “center.” With the advent of the “cloud,” the physical infrastructure could be thousands of miles away—but to the user, it is still centrally provided and easily accessible from their devices. The role of the central IT unit has changed from being the physical center and provider of solutions to a hub, a broker, and distributer of services supplied by ____ (fill in the blank).

a. Central IT
b. Other IT units on campus
c. Cloud providers
d. Any of the above

Several factors affect our job now, and we must work to find the most efficient and effective way to deliver services in a way that is integrated, seamless, and intuitive to the user.

First, our customers have gained a great level of knowledge and influence by themselves. Faculty and staff bring solutions to the table by name, and it is not uncommon that several groups may bring forward different solutions to the same problem. Finding the best answer is a balancing act between the competing solutions available or preferred with usability, funding, and security.

In addition, this generation of students has grown up with technology, they do not know a world without the Internet. These CAOS (Connected and Always On Students) expect technology on campus, in and out of the classroom, to be on par with the devices and apps they use in their personal lives. This means stepping up our infrastructure and services such as Wi-Fi, addressing the “Internet of Things,” and trying to keep up as connectedness increases exponentially. We must provide the training, tools, and services necessary to support our faculty so they are prepared to meet the expectations of this new generation.

But as a public institution, we also face the challenge of ever dwindling state funding, just like many other colleges and universities across the country. At the same time, we need to keep tuition dollars down to be competitive. As a consequence, we are left to compete for available funds to provide an ever-increasing amount of critical technology for every aspect of our business, from administrative to educational to research. This requires a constant need to demonstrate the strategic asset that IT represents, rather than the cost center that it is often seen as.

We have gone from a very physical and tangible “center” in the era of the mainframe, to a decentralized, more difficult to control environment, to now, where we are coming back in a different way, to a less physical, almost intangible distributed “center.” And for this less tangible center to happen and to be successful, I see my role as CIO to have the “I” not only be Information and Innovator, but also to be “I” for Influencer, influence through relationships at all levels:

Influence to determine the technology to bring to campus; the decisions users make in the technology they choose to use; user choices to keep them (and us) secure; the administration in funding the solutions needed; faculty to adopt new ways to engage students and help them succeed; and the staff to be productive in an ever increasing, demanding, and constantly changing environment. 

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