Fireside Chat: Creating a Platform for Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania
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From supporting the groundbreaking medical researchers of tomorrow to students embarking on the most formative years of their lives, The University of Pennsylvania is creating a platform for innovation that meets the diverse needs of a community of students, researchers, faculty, administrators, and staff.
Josh Beeman, Associate Vice President of Information Technology (AVP) & Associate Chief Information Officer (ACIO) of The University of Pennsylvania spoke with Build Consulting Partner, Kyle Haines, about meeting the needs of stakeholders and how Josh emphasizes taking a customer-centric approach to his work.
With the weather warming up, we moved our Fireside Chat outside! Some of the best conversations are inspired by sitting around the fire and thinking of possibilities and visions – large and small.
Our Fireside Chats are designed for audiences with varied experiences with technology. In this Fireside Chat learn more about how The University of Pennsylvania creates the space for innovation to be nurtured and accelerated for its community.
Joshua Beeman is the Associate Chief Information Officer and Associate Vice President for IT at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to this role, he was the University of Pennsylvania’s Information Security Officer for eight years. He has been working in IT for over twenty-five years. In addition to Penn, he has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and as an Information Assurance consultant to the federal government in Washington, D.C. Mr. Beeman has served on Amazon Web Services’ Customer Advisory Board and as the co-chair of the EDUCAUSE Higher Education Information Security Council (HEISC) Governance, Risk and Compliance group. In 2018 his Information Security program was awarded a CSO50 award for their work in orchestration and automation. He is a graduate of UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania.
Kyle Haines co-founded Build Consulting in 2015, after working in and with nonprofit organizations to improve their development operations and technology for over 20 years. Kyle’s consulting work at Build touches all nonprofit operational areas—but has a strong focus on using technology to enhance constituent experiences, which leads to improved fundraising and greater mission impact.
Kyle has served as interim CIO for several organizations, where he enjoys tackling deep-seated challenges. Internally, Kyle leads our efforts to create and maintain a strong corporate culture in which staff can grow and flourish.
Kyle Haines’ entire career has been working with nonprofits, and that gives him a unique perspective on what it takes for an organization, at the deepest cultural levels, to have long and fruitful relationships with both donors and program beneficiaries.
Transcript: Fireside Chat with Josh Beeman
Kyle Haines: Welcome to Build’s Consulting fireside chat series. Thank you for joining us. I’m incredibly excited for today’s guest, Josh Beeman, the Associate CIO and VP of IT at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m the less interesting guest. I’m Kyle Haines, a founding Partner at Build, and these chats have been an opportunity for me to have conversations with leaders like Josh, influencers, and experts in the non-profit sector—technology sector rather and beyond. So today, we’re talking to somebody with a lot of higher ed experience. So, I’m fascinated to hear his perspectives and experiences.
So, I thought for today’s chat, what would be interesting, at least for me, would be to learn more about how the University of Pennsylvania creates this platform of innovation. And in getting ready for today’s fireside chat, Josh actually made the comment that Penn is like a small city. And once he said that, my brain got spinning about the complexity of not only the physical infrastructure of a city, but the complexity of the customers that you must have to serve. And I extended the metaphor to think about all of the neighborhoods that you have to serve and so, I’m incredibly excited for today’s conversation. And Josh, thank you so much for making time out of what I presumed to be a very busy time for you.
Josh Beeman: It’s great. Thank you for having me. It’s nice to talk to you about this stuff.
Meet the Presenters
Kyle: Yeah, totally. So, for folks who might not be familiar with what an Associate CIO does, I’m wondering if you could just ground people in what is your role is at Penn? And just as a reminder, I know reasonably small words, so you’re going to have to go slow and with monosyllabic words.
Josh: No problem. One of the things I learned from a prior boss was the value of storytelling. So, I’ll try and include lots of storytelling that usually helps or puts you to sleep. So I mean, ACIOs take different forms. But I think that’s true for CIOs too, right? They’re typically a reflection of whatever the businesses and what the CIO is. So I mean the different models that I’m familiar with—this notion of like an inside CIO versus the outside CIO, which is a way to divide those duties or a chief of staff, somebody that’s sort of keeping things running a deputy, sometimes it’s sort of a technical position versus the political one.
I think one thing in common amongst the people that I’m aware of that have this role is that—so the CIO role, there’s a guy named Peter Metaset—Peter High, sorry, at Meti Strategy. He’s really a smart guy. It’s a podcast worth listening to. He sometimes refers to the CIO now as a CIO plus, and he’s—what he’s trying to acknowledge there is that it’s more than just technology or infrastructure that CIOs are responsible for, they’re C level executives with a lot of different responsibilities. And I think, to be successful, those sort of CIOs or CIO pluses in the modern era, they—what they need is to create space in their calendars. So, they’re looking for a way to sort of offload some of this responsibility. And I think that’s, that’s the sort of commonality between these various duties at Penn. This was part of a discussion about succession planning, which is a whole other complicated situation all by itself.
But a little bit about Penn, I mean, you mentioned that it’s a small city. Penn’s primary goals are teaching research and service. Service meaning like the vet school, or the dental school, or the law school. We’ve got 22,000 students. We got 5,000 faculty. We’ve got 13,000 staff, not including the health system. We got an $11 billion budget. I mean, it is like not a single entity, it’s 12 schools. You know, the Wharton Business School, the law school, and the med school. It’s also 30 cost centers. So, we’ve got a police force. We’ve got a recreation facility that’s putting on sporting events. We are a landlord to all these students, like it’s crazy. And each of those folks runs their own budget, they make their own decisions, and they’ve got their own IT shops. So, that’s why when I sort of talk about the fact that it runs like a city—I get calls from vendors all the time. Like you don’t want to talk to—there are people out there that are making individual decisions with budgets that you want to talk to. But at the same time, you don’t want those 40 schools and centers all making individual decisions about like what payroll system to have, or else that would be chaos, or what network to have, or what security policies to have.
So my group, the central IT group, oversees the—what I’ll call the digital infrastructure that the campus is running on. And we try whenever possible to coordinate those diverse schools and centers and identify opportunities for like efficiency and solutions across the role. So my role—a long answer to my role as a CIO, is focused on internal business activities for that central computing group. So, I’m looking at service management, portfolio and project management, finance, purchasing contracts, internal systems and tools, HR communications, it’s sort of oftentimes called the Office of the CIO. And we use governance, we use strategy, we use like consistency in kind of operations like consistent mode of ops or standard operating procedures, and we use metrics to improve the efficiency, the agility, and the stability of the organization. And if I do all that, right, then I’ve provided my organization with the sort of foundation to be more agile and more stable and be it to be able to grow and finances along. Does that help?
Kyle: It did. I mean, it’s almost like…
Kyle: So, you work in the mayor’s office? You’re the IT contact within the mayor’s office. Is that a fair comparison? Remember, I said, small words for me.
Josh: Yeah, I think it’s in that in those different models, I’m really focused on the internal operations of the business—of our business, the central IT business, and my boss is out there. He’s the CEO, public facing person that set selling, that’s making the relationships and connecting with the rest of the business to all those other customers out in that big city that I talked about.
Kyle: When we—it’s interesting, when we first met, you were the Chief Information Security Officer. And I remember…
Josh: I had more hair.
Kyle: You had more hair. I remember, I tried to do some penetration testing on you and was moderately successful.
Josh: Right, right. It was the Russian accent that gave it away.
Kyle: I was wondering if you like, what was the—what have you learned in transitioning away from just being focused on security? And something where you have to be more strategic? Like, what have you brought along with you and what have you sort of had to learn to set aside?
Josh: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think, for the people that are like listening to this, that are interested in sort of being a CIO, I think it—it speaks kind of to that as well. Before I made that jump, I spoke to a number of people, infosec peers, former bosses, fortune 50 CIOs, consultants, recruiters, I mean, you know this, because I talked to you, right? I knew I wanted to disrupt my career and stretch myself, but I also didn’t want to fail. Like, I wanted to know that I had some chance of being successful. And it was really interesting that there are not a ton of people that have made this shift. And when I was asked around, like, on the infosec side, it was really obvious. One of the reasons why that was the case is because CISOs don’t want that job. They’re sort of like—they’re an entity unto themselves.
It is a distinct culture and a distinct person that goes into that role. I think it was also clear though, that there’s a lot of boards that still have this conception of CISOs as the people come in and tell them a bunch of scary stuff that they don’t want to hear. And like the CISO is a guy that says no a lot, or a woman that says no a lot. So, that archetype is really different than the archetype of a CIO. That’s an innovative, exciting person that is going to come in and tell you how she’s going to transform your business with cutting edge technology and all those stuffs. So, but the upside was, I did hear loud and clear that there were a lot of core competencies that were the same. And that’s like relationships, and networking, the ability to navigate complex politics, to be a translator, you’ve got to execute on a strategic vision, and change management. I mean, change management sort of the thing that underlies everything that we do. And staying calm in a crisis, which I always thought of as a CISO trade, but I realized you need as a CIO too.
Now my boss, Tom Murphy is generally recognized to be one of the best 10 CIOs in the country. He is an amazing person and I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity to learn from him. He believed in me, so in the end, I sort of felt like I could be successful and take the plunge. One subtle thing that I’ve noticed in the last year is that if you’re an information security, and you say—you walk in around people and you say, look, here’s the problem and this is what I believe the solution is, if somebody wants to challenge that solution, what they’re essentially saying is, I’m going to push back on you and in so doing, become partially accountable for the results of that decision.
And most people look at information security problems, which are hard intractable problems, and they don’t want to be anywhere near being responsible for that stuff. Whereas in the—when you’re in a CIO role, there’s much left sort of sense of being deferred to as some kind of SME, like, everyone has an opinion about technology as a phone or as a piece of technology in their house, and their kid is doing this at their college, or how come my wife works at a company where they do this. So, you walk into these meetings and everybody has an opinion, that’s equally valid as yours. So, which is a long way of saying that, that the other skills that we talked about for coming with data, coming with strong relationships, being great at communication, you got to work all those really, really hard and in the end, it’s a lot less about technology, and much more about people and managing change, and communicate. Yeah.
Kyle: The thing that was pinging in my head was like soft skill, soft skill, soft skill, like there’s not a—you can’t go out and become an accredited CIO and be really successful. In some of the things you were talking about being a good change manager, sensing when changes getting overwhelming for people or something’s off track, like that’s such a soft skill, right?
Approaching Technology Governance
Kyle: You mentioned, I think it was not—it was earlier in the conversation. You talked about governance and that comes up a lot in my work. Like, what does governance mean? And I think that oftentimes, I use that too broadly and have to really refine it and say, I’m talking about technology governance. I’m not talking about board governance. I’m talking about specifically about technology governance. When you and I presume at Penn, you interact with people across the spectrum of people familiar with that term. How do you talk about governance with people who are really not familiar with it? How do you introduce it and talk about it?
Josh: Yeah, you know, it’s funny, at Penn, this is no joke, they refer to governance as the G word. Reflecting, I think, the fact that it’s like profane and somewhat taboo, and that’s a representation of this decentralized environment where though the purpose is to let folks down there like that—you do not want—we do not have a lot of mandate and governance, which is about helping to oversee that the right things get done and that they get done right is like, you know, playing in somebody else’s sandbox.
So, I like to tell a story about governance when I’m talking to people and I use this story at work all the time. And it’s a story from the dog park, which you’ll appreciate, because I know you from the dog park. There at our—at our local dog park, we used to arrange park cleanups and we would invite Fairmount Park representatives to come and help us figure out how to plant native species and remove non-native species and all that stuff. And one time we got there in the entire Upper Park was filled with skunk cabbage, just has these sorts of contractile roots that go everywhere. It’s a wildly plant. It’s beautiful, but it really is there—when it when it arrives, it arrives by the thousands. Big picture—in your mind, if you will of like, green plants spreading for as far as the eye can see. And the guy from Fairmount Park said, look, these are non-native, we have two choices, we can dig them all out by hand or I can have somebody spray a pesticide, and that’ll kill them—all of that.
And there’s like, nine volunteers, who were all there for two hours to clean up the park. And they immediately split into two camps, and half of them were like, we should spray these with pesticide, because we’ve only got two hours. And the other half, were saying like this is our dog park, we don’t want to spray pesticides here. And the bottom-line was there was nobody there to make a decision. It wasn’t the Fairmount Park guys decision. It was nobody’s decision. And both groups wanted exactly the same thing, which was to get rid of these plants and to improve the park, but they couldn’t agree on how to do it. And at the dog park, people can just kind of vote with their feet and we didn’t do anything. You walk down the upper path. There’s a whole bunch of skunk cabbage all the way down at path. It’s still there. But at work, we don’t really have that choice. And so like, the question is, like, how do you get to that decision in a way that respects the voices and the expertise in the room.
And to me, that’s what—that’s the really positive sides of governance. It’s just a tool in the toolkit. But at Penn, you’ve got to have—you’ve got to be able to do it. I find it at Penn, its most successful, sort of it’s a light touch, but doesn’t overreach. You don’t try and move too fast. That’s a really important thing, and it’s been around for 250 years. They do live—they literally do 100-year planning. So, you don’t have to do like, you don’t have to—your governance doesn’t have to make a decision today. But also, if you want to get stuff done, you can’t shy away from being clear about who the final authority is. I mean, so you just mentioned, Kyle, that you do governance. You talk about governance a lot with your clients.
Josh: What does it mean to you?
Kyle: I think there’s a couple of—I mean, I kept thinking as I was listening to you about how governance and I don’t think I’d really made this strong of a connection. It is a big part of change management, right? Because oftentimes, you talked about, people now have such greater familiarity with technology than they did 20 years ago. And so, their willingness to acquire technology, test technology has changed dramatically. The ability to just plop down the departmental credit card for a monthly subscription for a payroll processing. That’s probably not a great example, but for a time management system or project management system, it’s much easier.
So, for our smaller organizations, truthfully what I tried to—what I think everyone has viscerally experienced or been impacted by is when governance doesn’t work or hasn’t worked for them. So, I tried to—what I tried to do with people who are less familiar is come up with an example of when it hasn’t served them well. What I also thought about when you were talking about Penn and all of the different schools, that some ways, an amalgam to that is federated non-profits, where there’s a national organization and different federated non-profits. Some of them have direct influence and some of them, it’s more of a loose affiliation. And it’s really about and maybe this is an oversimplification, when I approach governance, I tend to approach the most baseline understanding of it and try to meet those people where they are, and then build their maturity up to meet their colleagues.
And so that’s usually my approach is take a fairly simplistic approach, and make it resonate with them in a way that they’ve experienced. I think, as a caveat, as a consultant, usually, when you bring a consultant in, it’s because there’s been a recognition that things aren’t working. So, I often have a ready audience. So, I don’t have the challenge of trying to convince people who think everything is working just fine. There’s usually at least at the organizational leadership level, some tacit or even explicit recognition that governance has not worked properly in the past.
Josh: I’d say it’s a great observation. And I think, it rings true for me with what I’ve observed, is you walk into a situation and there’s a problem and it’s—you’re providing a solution, right? But governance can be seen as the problem, when the question is in that environment with those people, how do you help them understand that it’s also the solution? There’s some trust there, you know, once it starts to be successful, I think people get—people loosen up a little bit and start to trust it and start to appreciate it. I don’t know if you have this issue, but like, the two questions that come up in Penn all the time are—who decides and who will pay?
And you have to have some strategy for getting those things answered. You’re never going to get anywhere because people can talk about stuff. Everyone can acknowledge the problems, but if it’s not clear, who decides and who will pay—and so I find that who decides the who will pay problem—there is a problem that nobody has enough money. So, it’s chronic, but it’s not that controversial. But the—who decides, I think people are afraid sometimes to step up and say, you know what, I have the responsibility to make this decision. Then you just want to create a structure around once you can acknowledge who the right person is, create a structure around that, that lets them make that decision without it being abused or if there is a bad decision being made, that there’s some sort of escape valve for that stuff.
Kyle: You talked about this earlier. I mean, this is why I made the link to change management. I think that what it took me a long time to realize as a CIO is, you know, I can say it—and I tend to say it in these ways that everyone gets a voice at the table, not everyone gets a final vote. And I think that’s a big part of—and another way that one of our change management practitioners are Build talks about it is, everyone should be heard, it doesn’t—change management is about making people feel heard. It’s not making about everyone happy. Because you going back to that dog park example and I didn’t happen to be there. If you made everyone happy. There wasn’t a solution by which everyone was going to be happy, right? There wasn’t a middle road. He wasn’t proposing an organic solution, or some other solution.
Josh: That’s right. So, like how you distanced yourself from the volunteer? I was not there at that time.
Kyle: No, no.
Josh: Yeah, I’m sure you would have solved it.
The Decentralized Approach
Kyle: I think that scapegoating others is a big part of being a CIO, but that can be a separate webinar topic. Well, I touched on it. This idea—the challenges of what we’re talking about in a highly decentralized environment and that’s what I hear when you talk about Penn. And I’m wondering given that decentralization is part of the DNA of Penn. What are your strategies for being successful in an organization where you know the things are going to happen outside of your immediate visibility? Like, do you have any practical suggestions for folks about how you manage that and how—what’s acceptable and how you raise a flag and say this is concerning to the places that you might say, this is not where I’m going to focus my energy in terms of being prescriptive about governance or prescriptive about what the role that you might play in a specific technology initiative.
Josh: Yeah. And I mean, I think I probably have lots of small tactical things. And we can explore that if that’s, if that ends up being interesting, but I think when people first talk to me about decentralization, like at Penn and ask me about Penn specifically, like I love when they use this term, that it’s in the DNA. Because I think it’s like, really easy to say that, like Denali is a big mountain, but like, until you’re standing at the base of Denali, I’ve never—I don’t know, maybe it’s a small mountain. But imagine a big mountain, it’s a big mountain. And I—people say that Penn is decentralized, but I don’t think they truly understand how decentralized it is. And that is, Penn uses a budgeting framework called responsibility entered management. And that is how we do our finances, which is to say that every department has its own budget. And you’re either—you either cost the university money, like my department, I’m not, you know, we don’t have any students that we’re collecting revenue from. We’re not doing any grants for the most part that are bringing money. We have a few businesses that earn revenue, but it’s a small portion of our budget.
And so, you’re either sort of a tax on the University, or you’re part of the people that are bringing in stuff and either way, you’re managing down to your bottom-line. And so, it really is in the DNA. And so, one of my key lessons from that is, if your goal is to try and make it centralized, you’re probably not going to be successful. Now, I will say that like in the spectrum of wacko decentralized to sort of rational decentralized, like, I would say IT being decentralized is a little bit closer on the wacko side, like, there are certainly aspects of the decentralization that maybe like all of our HR folks are embedded in the organization, but they also report back up to core HR.
There are examples like that, where maybe we want to move that—it’s a continuum and maybe we want to move some things more into the core, just because it’s so hard. But I don’t want to push too hard on it, because what Wharton needs, you know, Penn is the fifth, depending on the year, the fifth or sixth highest ranked university in the United States, and it’s got these impressive numbers in its incredible history. And that is like—that business is working for them at this moment. And what Wharton needs isn’t what the law school needs, which isn’t what athletics needs or ISC needs, or this—Annenberg needs.
There’s always somebody that’s ahead, you know, maybe that has some more money, they’re driving towards some solution. There’s always somebody that’s behind and that’s by design, I guess. And that means that there is a whole bunch of—there are certainly downsides that everybody can point to about that model. But there are also some amazing upsides. And again, the downsides are relatively easy to identify, when you’ve identified them. And I think that your example of these sort of federated non-profits is a perfect one. We—I think of tend to think of it as sort of states and federal government, like I’m part of the federal government and the schools and centers are part of the state governments. And we try and push as much power to the states, but sometimes you need sort of universal stuff.
So, there are 40 technology conversations happening all the time, and nobody’s in the same place. There are coalitions that form and fall apart, depending on individual needs. And in the meantime, I see sort of in the middle, trying to bring—trying to represent the broader University. And moving all of those pieces around is all about coordination and communication. But if you’ll indulge—I’m going to tell you another story, I know you like stories. I wish we were in-person. I would draw a picture. But decentralization is the thing. I think that when I look at things like what happened with COVID that led to like incredible innovation, like the whole reason we are set up with RCM with this model, is that so each school and center can focus on what’s important to them, which means that there are these like small, medium, large, even experiments going on, like innovation experiments going on in technology all over the place and they’re completely different.
So, when COVID hit we had redundancy in our teleconferencing solution. We had people who knew about, how to set up 24-hour support desks and call centers like instantly. We had all of the expertise. There is this evolutionary biologist, famous guy named Stephen Jay Gould, he was challenging the idea of sort of—and before Stephen Jay Gould, the idea was that evolution occurred in like this line, there’s this inevitable line, and you went from kind of lower left to upper right with constant improvements until you got to the eye—just like this steady thing?
Well, he looked at the record, and he said, well, that’s not really how evolution works, it looks like everything stays the same, and then there’s this dramatic shift, and then everything stays the same, and then there’s a dramatic shift. And what he was pointing out is that we adapt to an environment. We all adapt to an environment. And there’s the center of that environment is where the best sort of adaptive traits take place, but at the edges of that environment, there are all these mutations going on, that are kind of appearing and disappearing and dying out instantaneously all the time.
Well, when the environment shifts to over here, then suddenly, this sort of minor mutation becomes the dominant and most well adapted thing. And I saw that in real time with, with COVID, that we had this sort of flourishing of ideas. And as the environment change, Penn was already positioned to take care of it. So, it’s easy to sort of look at the downsides of decentralization, but I would say that that, you look at like our ability to transform our entire business in three weeks to online teaching and I say like, there’s some really great things about it as well.
Adapting technology and governance during a pandemic
Kyle: So going back to, perhaps an earlier question. Did you allow some of that—some of those mutations to play out for a period of time before you begin to say, some of this stuff—the familiarity with video conferencing, Zoom is now ubiquitous, those sorts of things. How did you make the decision about when you needed to insert governance to the—or attempt to insert governance, because you had been able to do a proof-of-concept rather around the mutation? If that makes sense? I’m building upon your metaphor; I don’t know its fully—but trying to build upon the metaphor.
Josh: Yeah, it’s good. It’s very good. I mean, yeah, it was, I don’t know what other people’s experience like, but everybody was running flat out at that moment to the kind of stay ahead of the way. So, I’m mixing metaphors to stay in the adaptive part of the environment. And we did do—we ran towards some of those solutions in ways that like we have never been able to do before. So we like—we found the governance religion really quickly, in some places. We had all this innovation taking place, but we knew that there was an what we called an academic toolkit that we had to put in place. That’s Sophie, by the way. She’ll be guest appearing throughout the lecture today.
Kyle: It’s very good to see her.
Josh: Yeah, yeah.
Kyle: She’s going after the skunk cabbage. Is that where she just was?
Josh: She’s checking in on it. She’s checking in on it. Am I—in a prior call earlier in the week, she did me a great favor of walking into the Zoom meeting and throwing up right on the carpet over there.
Josh: That’s great. It was one of the—the pros that someone was literally saying at that time, what are the pros and cons of working from home? I said, well, the pro is I’m here and I can deal with it. But the con is I have to go right now. So, I have to go. So, where were we before the Sophie vomiting. So, we did in fact, put in place governance immediately to develop this thing called the academic toolkit, which was you don’t just need Zoom, you need transcription services, you need to be able to record those things for asynchronous education.
We have—there a bunch of classroom polls and things to help grading and that kind of stuff. So, there was a whole sort of toolkit that we needed, and we had solutions all over campus on this stuff and we needed to quickly come together. And a contracting process at a place like Penn, which is large, and has a fair amount of due diligence—includes not only the finances, but a privacy review, a security review, all that other stuff, and we found ways, you know, we adapted our existing processes to sort of do that much more quickly in response to the needs of the pandemic. And which is, again, I think the main point to emphasize in the question, that’s Kyle, I was like, you’ve got to do this in the right cadence to your business. So, if your business doesn’t have any money, it’s easy. It’s—you’re going to have one solution; you’re going to go to that. If your business doesn’t have any time, you’re going to like do something that maybe you’re going to do things as quickly as you can.
Kyle: Do you think that I mean, I talked about—it’s interesting, because I can point to other examples where the pandemic became a positive forcing mechanism for a lot of us not certainly—not everyone, but maybe in our work just narrowly focus. Overall, have you seen it be a positive forcing mechanism around how technology is used and technology decisions are made, and how people seek out your guidance and expertise?
Josh: I hope, yeah, I hope so. I mean, I hear what you’re saying, like, you know, we can’t look at COVID and say it was a net positive thing. But it for—there’s this great cartoon, which has this conference room of people saying, we think digital transformation is going to take about five to 10 years. And outside is this wrecking ball that’s moving towards the conference room building with that just says COVID-19 on it. And I think that there were a lot of things that I was saying, knowing our culture, knowing the sort of how long these things take that, we were saying we’re going to take a really long time and they happen very, very quickly.
I don’t know how often my boss got a call from the President of the University. I mean, he’s a Vice President. He’s an Officer at the University, but I don’t know how often she was calling to say thank you. During COVID, that happened a lot. You know—and IT was at the table for not just the Zoom conversations, but we were there for…
Kyle: Josh, I lose you.
Josh: …when we get our students. Hi, did I freeze on you?
Kyle: You froze on us? I figured that Sophie had tripped over the Cat5 or Cat6 cable or something like that. So, I think the last thing that we heard—that you were asking the question, how often Tom heard from the President before COVID. But you know, COVID, all of a sudden, they were thanking Tom all the time for just the rapid deployment of solutions and meeting the business where it needed to be, where it needed to go, rather.
Josh: And do we think that’ll last, like, I hope that, you know, that IT is seen as a more integral part of the business. It was heading that way before anyway, right? It’s not—I don’t think it’s a change in type as much as it’s a change in degree.
Kyle Haines: So we had a question from Regina, and she would — she was wondering if you were confused, because skunk cabbage is native. And she was wondering if you in fact, are referring to garlic mustard.
Josh: This is a really important question. And I will try and find my—I have a photo of this stuff. So, I don’t know. And maybe the guy from Fairmount Park was like, wrong, maybe he was wrong. Maybe we did the right thing. We can also provide a location for Regina to go look at.
Josh: She wants to go look and report back.
Kyle: Yeah, just as a reminder for Regina, I wasn’t there that day. So, I don’t know whether it was sunk cabbage or garlic mustard, and I had nothing to do with that decision.
Have you found ways of—I’m just thinking about, that you’re so often at a point of intersection. How do you bring together you use as an example, I think Annenberg and Wharton, have you found ways to bring those people together? Has their interest increased in, in coming together to say like, I want to hear how other folks are solving for this or was that already in place?
Josh: Yeah. And I mean, if I yeah, this and this is a broader question, right? For you and the people that you support, like, how do you do that, right? I mean, this is it. I think this is the work, right? Like the job of the—of everyone in that in a decentralized environment, but certainly the job of the central IT organization and the decentralized IT environment, is to figure out how to get people together and get them communicating. And it’s an information flow, like I, I presume that even in top-down companies that have 40,000 people, the communication is an issue. I mean, you know, like I, even people that I’m in meetings with, once or twice a day, don’t have all the information sometimes that they need. So, there at Penn, you know, we have a lot of structure. The old joke is like, we don’t hate standards, we love standards, we have thousands of standards.
You know, we’ve got lots of groups and committees, we’ve got something called Common Solutions that sort of tries to orient people towards common technologies. We have IT Roundtable, which is the senior most IT leaders getting together for strategic alignment conversations. We have relationship managers whose job it is, is to kind of go out into the field and talk to the clients and trying to be a person to individually knit those things together. But so much of it is also just elbow grease and effort and I’m really curious, I mean, if there’s another way right but like you know, have an open door like have lunches, you know, Slack and Teams. We can throw tools at this a little bit, but you know, it’s never about the tool.
But the one thing that I did find interesting about this problem is that COVID like, again, we went from like quarterly all staff meetings to these big heavy meetings. They were like two to three hours long and you had a meal. You know, there’s a whole bunch of presentations about administrative changes. Now we get together on Zoom, Teams, whatever, 30 minutes every other Friday. The CIO talks to staff a little bit, and then we connect them to other parts of the University and work that’s taking place. It’s far more agile. And it’s, you know, we have, we’re very specific about the intention of those meetings. So, and I guess that sort of speaks to like, one of the things that I’ve learned about the CIO role—in the CIO role, it’s like, huge part of my job is just figuring out a way to get information out to all these folks, and to let, you know, people know what I’m thinking in real time.
Kyle: I mean, it just said, I mean, I said this earlier, like, I mean, it’s interesting for me, because the more that I am in the CIO role, the less familiar I am with the ins and outs of the technology, because it’s a full-time job, just doing what you’re talking about, right? Like and it’s really about creating connections and seeing connections that perhaps other people don’t see or just simply aren’t aware of, because obviously, Wharton can’t keep tabs on what someone else is doing in an area of innovation, or just even in operations in another part of the University. And so, we’re going to be obsolete eventually because it’s going to come to be known that that’s all we do, is really just go from meeting to meeting and we don’t have any technology depth any longer.
Josh: Maybe you need an Associate CIO, maybe you need someone to help you, free up time to make those connections.
Kyle: That sounds lovely. It sounds lovely.
CIO’s role in change management
When you talk about change management, that’s something that I hear a lot of people talking about, we certainly talked about it at Build. How did you—when did the light bulb go off for you around change management? Like, I’m sure you engage with vendors, and they bring change management expertise to the project. And you know, in some ways, have frameworks or models or even maybe are insistent upon it, but given the scale of change, when did you—do you think it’s fair when I say you are a change manager? And when did—if that is fair, when did you realize you’re a change manager?
Josh: Yeah. And as you were talking, you had a big pause. And I realized that, I had no way to know if you had frozen, or if I froze again or not.
Kyle: I do that all at the time.
Josh: So, this is the fun game. Can we play this game? Yeah.
Kyle: Yeah, no, it happens all the time, yeah.
Josh: Good, good, good.
Kyle Haines: People do that when they’re tired of listening to me. My entire team just can freeze on demand.
Josh: They have a signal. They have a secret signal.
Kyle: Yeah. You know, they just disable the Wi-Fi, or have a hot key on their keyboard.
Josh: You know, I mean, I’ll say, I’ll say this, like, maybe this is like, well understood, but it wasn’t to me. It’s all about change in management, I think. I think that’s the whole job. I mean, we can give it lots of other names. But I think like, it’s, it’s a discipline. And I mean, one of the things I recognize is that the being good at it at Penn might not make me good at it at, you know, at Build or one of your clients—that there’s sort of a specific approach for a company or a group or a project that might not work for the next company group or project, which means that you got to know your business really well.
And you got to know, your customers and the technology, you know. And I think that you have to be pretty creative, but I do I mean, I think this is—I think this is all about change management and also project management. I had a huge overhaul of a security program a couple of years ago and 18 projects all moving at the same time, like you know, a three-year, million dollars—multi-million-dollar program and could not have done it without the person who was the at the time the Deputy CISO, who was a really effective project and program manager. And I so, I know all that is about like, and I think when you talk about change management, we can explore what that means to you.
But like, you know, it’s like, how do you design plans? How do you be purposeful and planful, about accomplishing the work in a style and pace that the organization can absorb? And you got to find those people in your organization, and you have to give them the support they need, and then you need to get the heck out of the way, because that is when real transformation happened. I walked into Ezekiel Emanuel is a famous guy, he’s one of the three Emanuel brothers. The other one is Rahm in Chicago and the third one is—the brother—the guy who was like an agent in LA, who…
Kyle: Classic underachievers?
Josh: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And he had done this amazing thing about remote learning and the international program at Penn. And I was going to ask how do you be successful in a decentralized environment? And the last piece of advice that he gave me—he gave me a bunch of great advice about, you know, all the some of the things that we’re talking about right now. But he said at the end, he’s like, just get stuff done. Just get stuff done, whatever it takes. And he didn’t say stuff. Actually, he said something else, but…
Kyle: I think, I’ve heard that expression.
Josh: You need to find those people in your organization who understand, you know, how to get stuff done and don’t leave a trail of bodies behind, or at least at Penn, that’s not going to fit our culture because people stick around at Penn for a long, long time, and they will remember it.
Kyle: Yeah. Yeah, that’s an interesting dynamic of Penn. I think it’s an interesting dynamic, just in general, when you’re sort of one of the preeminent employers in a location, what the—you know, we could probably spend an entire fireside chat talking about what that does to the DNA of an organization and its willingness to take on change. That’s our next fireside chat is being the number one—the number one employer in your region, what does it mean for the organizational DNA?
Josh: Well, the number one employer in the region and with very low turnover, right?
Josh: So I mean, one of my closest colleagues—the person that hired me, as the CISO, announced that he’s retiring, and I think he’s been there for like over four decades. And that is awesome and amazing, but also, when you’re trying to enact other types of change, like, you know, diversity, equity, inclusion is an important conversation right now. And there are things that you know—IT is a difficult, can be a difficult place to accomplish some of those diversity goals. And it’s even harder when your turnover rate is like 1% or less than, you know, a quarter of a percent or something. Nobody leaves.
Kyle: Yeah, the DNA is not how did you describe it earlier, there’s not mutations happening on the edge at quite the same rate, when you have that lack—of a lack of influx of new parts of the DNA as it were. We got a question from Jennifer Keller Jackson. She wants to know what the best and worst aspects of the job are? And if you give specific examples, not colleagues, examples.
Josh: I mean, you know, and I’m going to try because I don’t know if she means my specific job working at Penn. But I’ll try and do both, you know, I’m far and away, the best aspect of my job is that I love where I work and it’s a plug for Penn. It’s just an amazing, it’s an amazing place and a plug for ISC, which is this place where, you know, every person on every exit interview from ISC says the same thing, which is that they love their colleagues, and they just, you know how great it is. And I get to participate in that and have like, a very professional environment with people that care about each other, and that really are looking, you know, to do great things with technology. I’ll also say like, it’s great to be—I work at a university, but I work in a technology part of the organization. I have also worked in places where technology is just a support to the organization.
So that, you know, if you’re going to work in a law firm, it’s great to be a lawyer. If you’re going to work in a hospital, it’s great to be a doctor or nurse. You know, if you’re, if you’re working at a university, it’s great to be a student, but I’m at a university, but I am also a member of an IT organization. So, I’m surrounded by people who are all IT people, and you understand the value of IT. So that is wonderful and more specifically to the ACIO role, I had to make this list of like, what made me happy at work when I left, what I thought was my sort of calling which was information security.
And I realized that yes, I loved information security. I love how it changes. I love those problems. They’re hard problems. I also love justice, like, I like catching bad guys. But I also love building and maintaining high performing teams. And I love creating a work environment and a culture where people are able to be compassionate to one another and able to feel supported and loved. I mean, I know that’s kind of a weird word to use at work. But that’s, you know, that’s kind of where I’m coming from.
And so, I have the ability to do that. And you know, you if you don’t have the ability to do it, you unanimously and maybe that gets to the sort of hard parts of the job. The hardest part of the job—one of the hardest parts of the job for me is I’m not the boss. I’m the guy that helps the boss achieve his vision. And fortunately for me, my boss has got a great vision. And he is very good at his job. And he also wants to create an environment where people feel supported, compassion, all other stuff, but I have to be careful. You know, ultimately, my job is to make him, and the rest of the organization look good. And that’s just, it’s just a different dynamic, because the nature of the job is that sort of support stuff. When I was doing information security, my job was to do the information security. But in this job, sometimes I’m coming in and I’m sort of asking people to do things on behalf of my boss, and they’re like, well, why didn’t he come in? So, yeah, I hope that’s a good answer. Thank you for the question, Jennifer.
Kyle: Yeah, one of the things I wanted to, I really wanted to get to this question, because I thought it was so provocative and I enjoy being provocative.
Josh: It’s my shirt, isn’t it? You’re going to ask me about?
Kyle Haines: Yeah, yeah.
Josh: Yeah, I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.
Successful digital transformation for your organization
Kyle: Yeah. What, you said a lot of times digital transformation fails and of course, like, as a consultant, I can never say that out loud. It’s always successful, especially when we’re involved. But I think it’s the truth, right? What—I don’t even know where to start with the questions about that, because I think it’s just so authentic and honest.
Kyle: What are the things—maybe what I could ask is, what is the first thing that you see when something at Penn—that you’re like, this is not going to be successful? What is the first warning sign that you see?
Josh: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. I think digital transformation—a good way to answer that question is to talk about digital transformation. Because I think, I said that in our conversation, because I had spent like a year at the—so my boss said, there’s this business trend called digital transformation, it’s happening. It’s going to hit Penn eventually, what should we do about it? He wasn’t saying go transform Penn because like, I’m not even sure which lever we pull in this decentralized environment to make transformation, but he was sort of saying, I know this is coming, I know this disruption is coming. What is the Penn version of it look like? And even he said, he moved away from the name digital transformation and just said, we’re going to call it Penn’s digital ambition. Like, what is our ambition digitally?
And it was because—and so I spent a year, I spent a year reading up all the stuff and it turns out, like, most of the digital transformation stories, something like 70 or 80% of this—I’m not making this up, I got this, I think, from Harvard Business Review or McKinsey—did a study that found like 70% or more of digital transformations fail. Digital transformation is actually not new, right? It dates back maybe almost up to a decade ago. But I think that it really started clicking in the last three to four years for many companies that were making significant investments. And I’m going to get to your question about sort of, like, how do you know when something’s not right? And, you know, I think it was about understanding what is digital transformation? What is its role in your business? And what are the things that allow it to be successful?
And I think you can do that same—you can apply that same logic to other activities, and say, why are we doing this? What is the purpose? And what are the things that look like this that would make it successful? And you know, there are a ton of themes in successful digital transformations. There’s like, I think of it like a stack, like a technology stack. You know, there’s a that sort of base level stuff that people—actually, maybe we should stop for a second. I’ll just say like, what I think digital transformation is because I don’t want to have this conversation. Sort of, I know that you like the small words, I don’t want to lose it. In fact, like a…
Kyle: I’m Googling it furiously, right now.
Josh: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Yeah. He said something about—you know, I was in Washington, DC and I had my dog with me, and I was commuting back and forth from DC to Philadelphia, and I got a new laptop, and I didn’t have a charger. It was an Apple laptop. I got home and I had like enough battery life to get back on the train. But I’m like, I’m going to need this for the weekend. And so, I had my iPhone, I was walking the dog and I Google mapped Apple Store. And it turns out there was one like a couple blocks like a mile from where I was, so I hit like, directions because I didn’t want to think about it. I’m walking with the dog, listen to podcasts, every once in a while, I wait, it comes on tells me turn left and right. And I like suddenly, I’m standing outside of an Apple Store. It’s also now starting to drizzle and I’m with a dog and it’s like five o’clock and this was in Georgetown, and it was kind of bonkers, crazy busy.
And I’m standing outside the Apple Store. Have you ever seen the Apple Store? It’s like a glass front and I’m looking at the promised land. Yeah. Okay. So, there’s like people inside and I’m sort of standing in there like I’m a sad, you know, Charlie, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, just sort of looking inside like, do I really want to do this. It’s like five o’clock and this person inside the store comes out and says, Hey, did you want to come in? I said, well, I’m thinking about I was like, but I got the dog and it started to rain. I don’t really want to tie her up and he said, no you can bring the dog in the store. And I was like, yeah, I just need a charger. He’s like, you just need a charger. Do you need a charger for a MacBook? I was like, yeah. He’s like, I can get you out of here in five minutes. I was like, okay.
And he walked me inside with the dog, thank you. And went two steps grab something off the shelf, handed it to me, that’s what I needed. He asked me, do I want like a three foot or six foot or something like that. He took my credit card which he had a portable sales unit, you know point of sale unit, swipe my credit card, some something in their database link my credit card to my email address, which linked it to my Apple ID. He asked me if you want to be emailed a receipt, like 45 seconds later, I was like standing on the street, my head was spinning, every single obstacle along that path, that could have been there, had been removed from it, right? From looking it up and having it accurately displayed in Google Maps from like, needing to know if I could take my dog in. If they had said it was a 15-minute wait to do it, I would’ve come back Saturday morning when it was more convenient.
But some algorithm that they have told them, what are the most likely things that people are going to want to buy off of the floor and this MacBook charger was one of them. You know, if I had to go stand in the line with a MacBook charger to wait to check out with the dog, I would have been like, this is a hassle and the dogs muddy. Every single part of that journey was made as seamless as possible, and they did that using technology and they did it using data. And that to me is digital transformation sort of at its best. And I sort of understood that story and I was looking at Penn and thinking like, okay, well how do I do that? How do I do that for the Penn experience. And that the first thing I realized, is Penn does is a big city, we don’t have a single customer. There isn’t like one person that buys Mac stuff. There’s a—the police department has a customer, and the Annenberg School has a customer, and the student financial aid has a customer and ISC has customers.
So, I had to sort of, I had to reframe how companies think about digital transformation and try and figure out how I could knit stuff together. And the only other thing I’ll say, because I know we’re running low on time, but just in terms of identifying when something’s not going to be successful. It was clear to me, when I underwent that self-education about what digital transformation was and wasn’t, that it’s not an IT thing. Like I said, it’s technology and it’s data, but it’s a business thing. That is a business thing that’s about doing all that so that you can make a bunch of money. And if you’re—if the head of your business doesn’t say, this is how I want to operate, the IT nerds are not going to be the ones to sort of be able to enact that change. And that was the really big lesson that I learned is that I can do a whole bunch of stuff to prepare for digital transformation at the bottom of the stack. I can make sure we’re using cloud technologies, and that we’ve got a strong data platform, but ultimately, leadership has to say, I want a seamless digital experience for every customer.
Kyle: Yeah, and Carol Katzman made the comment, she said frictionless processes—it’s both idealistic and possible, if it’s done with an agile mindset. And what I might add to that is, my aunt, actually talks about standing on other people’s rocks. And I think about that in IT, that there’s a rock I stand on, but it’s really about being customer-centric and getting down off of my rock onto their rock.
And when you think about that Apple Store experience, which it’s really funny that you have a Georgetown Apple Store experience, because I have one that I’ll have to tell you at some point that relates not to our topic today, but it’s an IT story. But what they really did in that process is they figured out what do customers want, and they reimagined the entire retail experience that now everyone tries to emulate, right? Like, they created a place for people to browse. They created a place who wanted for people who want to explore the space or just do something very transactional and get in and out with their wet dog, before it vomits on the Apple Store floor.
Josh: Probably, right.
Kyle: Yeah, I mean, we all know Sophie’s reputation is probably well understood by most folks.
Josh: Yeah, I love that you talked about the customer there, because I do think if somebody needed a shortcut to understanding digital transformation to being successful, and I think this is part of what Carol is referring to in her comment. Carol, who by the way, is the great CIO from higher education, who actually taught me the value of storytelling. So, hats off to her, and actually she got to hear some of mine. I didn’t steal any of hers that day, which is good. But yeah, you know, it is a sort of shortcut is to just focus on the customer, it will lead you to those other those other things.
Kyle: And I think that idea of standing on someone’s rock, that’s the, take it back to people asking questions about—and my questions about your role. That’s a unique set of skills, right? That really transcend IT to be able to—and to be able to bring that skill set to IT is an enormous asset to organizations like Penn to say, I’m going to take a customer-centric thing to this and it’s really not important that I know how to reboot a Cisco Meraki wireless access point, right? Like, that’s not where you’re really adding value, it’s really being taking a customer-centric approach to IT and it not just being a service bureau, or a business service. It’s actually an acceleration, or customer retention and acquisition proposition as well, to throw a bunch of buzzwords. I know a couple buzzwords.
Yeah, I have to see if you’re awake. Well, Josh, we only have about four minutes left. I wanted to see if there’s anything that you feel like we should’ve have talked about today that we didn’t get to, or if you want to know where I got my shirt? Or you really want to hear my Apple story. I mean, any of those—any of those in the last four minutes.
Josh: I presume that your Apple story involves like you going in and asking them if they would fix your Microsoft Zune that you loved.
Kyle: No, I mean, it’s actually relates to our work in some ways, in that I went in really wanting an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil, but I was really concerned that it was just buying a giga and a gadget and that was going to transform me. And that’s what I’m thinking about when you’re talking about digital transformation, and how much I love—what was the phrase they use—that Penn uses digital…
Josh: Digital ambition, yeah.
Kyle: I think, there’s a misnomer in digital transformation, that by undertaking it will actually transform the DNA of your organization. There are so many things that need to take place to transform DNA. So, the story is that I’m also really cheap. So, I went in and I saw the price tag, I was like, I don’t need that, and I can walk out. So, what I ultimately did was, I stood outside the store, and I said, how do you envision using this device? And I took on the Explorer mindset and I went in and I downloaded, I think it was from Harvard Business Review. I access them on the iPad. I use the pencil to highlight and take notes. And I was like, this is awesome. But we’re going to leave the store and if tomorrow morning, I wake up still thinking about this device, I’ll buy it. And that’s how I ended up buying it. But it was for me one of the first times that I used all of the philosophy around technology, acquisition selections that I use in my work life and in my professional life, like, what are you really hoping to get from this? And I think that small example, you can extrapolate and take much broader to how organizations acquire technology? Are you really expecting the technology to be the transformative lever or what else needs to transform as well?
Josh: That’s wonderful and I think, because we are getting to the end, I mean, I think I’d like to add on that and say it’s easy to focus on the technology. And I think people outside of technology think that a call like this is going to be all about, you know, the latest gadget. But if, COVID taught me anything—it’s like, it’s all about our people. It’s the same, it’s the same as it ever was, like trying to figure out how to get 300 souls like through, you know, the weirdest year ever, and depression and anxiety and fear for their jobs and their loved ones. And still focus, you know, on delivering the goods. And I think that I love the idea that that we close this not by talking about technology, but about process and people.
Kyle: Yeah. I really appreciate you making time outside of being the Mayor of the Penn IT ecosystem.
Josh: Deputy Mayor.
Kyle: Deputy Mayor, sorry.
Josh: Yeah, yeah. Well, Sophie would like to thank you for giving her more airtime today. She really appreciates it.
Kyle: Absolutely, absolutely. I don’t know why my dog didn’t come in, but she’s probably off doing important things.
So just for everyone, we’re going to take a break from fireside chats for the summer. I think everybody is taking all of their vacation time in the next five weeks after a long year. Josh, again, thank you for joining me today. And thanks to everyone for listening in. There’ll be a transcript available afterwards, so that you can copy and paste all of the salient points that Josh made, including what I’m really interested in Josh is the podcast that you talked about earlier in listening to that, because that sounded fascinating. So, I’m looking forward to diving into that a little bit more.
Josh: I’m glad to share some links to some of the things, I talked about as well.
Kyle: Perfect. Thank you, Josh.
Josh: Thank you.