Lyle Nevels spent several years as the CIO of the Haas School of Business, and then became the campus’ interim CIO after Shel Waggener’s departure. He’s now the Assistant Vice Chancellor – IT, and IST’s Deputy CIO, working with Larry Conrad (Berkeley’s CIO) at the campus level. We met at Yali’s Café to talk about his transition from Haas to IST, and about the issues surrounding supporting technology on campus.
You filled the role of interim CIO for almost a year, and didn’t wind up getting the position. How was it to go through that process, and then decide to take the deputy CIO role?
Personally I thought the CIO job was a long shot anyway, so I wasn’t expecting to get it. When George Breslauer told me that I hadn’t been selected, he pushed pretty hard to have me stay with IST. I was very appreciative, and interested in doing that, but I told them that it’s really a question for the new CIO (Larry Conrad)—what does Larry think about it? If he didn’t want a deputy, or wanted to pick his own, I’d completely understand that. So I arranged to spend a day with Larry talking and filling him in on Berkeley. That helped start that relationship, and after that he told me he’d like me to stay on as the AVC.
What has your experience of being in that role been?
The experience has been good. We were able to work out a separation of duties. Larry came in focused on the financial situation, the new student information system, and supporting research. Collectively, we’re working on building relationships around the campus, this notion of “One IT.” The operational day-to-day business of running IT comes down to me.
Early in our discussions, Larry said he views me as an extension of himself when he’s not around. If I’m in a meeting and decisions need to be made, he has given me the ball. I give him credit for that, providing that kind of empowerment. We work well together.
I did get some “I wish you had gotten the job” messages, but that lasted about four days, and then it was “OK, time to get onto business.”
You built some credibility within IST as the interim CIO. How has that been brought forward in your new role?
It made the transition easier; people were already comfortable with me when I took on the deputy job. It felt natural. I did get some “I wish you had gotten the job” messages, but that lasted about four days, and then it was “OK, time to get onto business.”
What did you to do build that support from the directors?
I sat down with every single one of them. I gave them my perspective, and talked about going to meet with Larry, and why I thought this was the right way to go.
In central IT, we have limited resources, whether it’s dollars or bodies, and we have to make choices. We can’t be all things to all people; if we tried to, frankly, we’d do a poor job of everything. So how do we pick and choose the things we’re going to work on? Those are conversations we have every single day.
One of the things you said about working at Haas is that if you could make a case for a project, you’d get funding for it. IST must be a lot different.
The transition from Haas was interesting. The scale at IST is significantly larger, but from a resource standpoint, it’s all about prioritizing. In central IT, we have limited resources, whether it’s dollars or bodies, and we have to make choices. We can’t be all things to all people; if we tried to, frankly, we’d do a poor job of everything. So how do we pick and choose the things we’re going to work on?
Those are conversations we have every single day. Sometimes it’s hard; you’re talking with a director who has an idea, and you know it could provide great value to the university, but there are five other things competing for attention, so you may have to put it on the back burner. That’s a tough conversation.
How do you set priorities?
Today it’s a lot of conversation with functional leaders; Harry Le Grande, Jeannine Raymond, Rosemarie Rae. Ask what their priorities are, what’s important for them, how IST can deliver against that. I had a conversation with Ron Coley when he was here; Ron had 25 different things he wanted us to do, and I had about four people to work on them. He had to say what made it above the line; I gave my perception and my advice, but in the end he had to make the call, and the rest had to wait until it bubbled up the priority list.
The working relationship with the executive leadership team has improved immensely in the last two years. That makes it easier to have those conversations.
Our job as IT professionals is to eliminate friction, make it easier for folks to do their job, whether that’s faculty, staff, or students. Understand their pain points, brainstorm ways to address them, be creative.
How do you improve those relationships with functional leaders?
Mainly by listening. Our job as IT professionals is to eliminate friction, make it easier for folks to do their job, whether that’s faculty, staff, or students. Understand their pain points, brainstorm ways to address them, be creative. You have to get to the point where they’ll come to you with a problem, and trust you to take it seriously and do your best to solve it. When you solve a few of those problems, trust grows, and they start to look at you as a partner.
I never approach things from a technology standpoint; I’m not a technologist. My job is to help identify potential solutions; maybe that’s through technology, maybe it’s not.
For our project teams, it’s all about helping them understand: This is the situation, here’s why we’re rolling out this technology, and it’s going to affect the way everyone does their job. That’s hard for people.
IST often winds up being a lightning rod for the campus energy about any new system being rolled out. You may have limited control of what the situation is and what technology is being used. How do you address that energy?
You have to recognize that comes with the territory. For our project teams, it’s about helping them understand: This is the situation, here’s why we’re rolling out this technology, and it’s going to affect the way everyone does their job. That’s hard for people. You have to exercise patience; again, it comes back to listening. We may know that we’re going to go in a particular direction, but we have to work with people to help guide them there. We have to be careful to not come across as being defensive; just explain how things are going to be. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s not the technology that creates the pain, it’s the change process.
IT is more than just keeping the lights on; we need to remain strategic. You can’t just focus on cost.
One of the things that seems to be a trend in technology in education is to move it down the ladder. The CIO is now reporting to the CFO; IT is becoming more of a business function. Why would you say that’s happening, and what are some of the implications of it?
The CIO needs to have a seat at the table, so we’re having the right types of discussions around technology investment. IT is more than just keeping the lights on; we need to remain strategic, regardless of where we sit in the organization. You can’t just focus on cost.
The way I put it is that when we started out in technology, we were like Thomas Edison, imagining this new future, and now we’re sometimes like Con Edison, delivering utility service at the lowest possible cost, and trying to make sure it doesn’t catch on fire. So how do you keep that strategic focus?
Figure out who’s in that leadership spine, and engage with them, create partnerships. Whether that’s faculty or administrative leadership, find the folks who have a strong voice on campus. You need to share your message in a way that they see the value.
I talk a lot with departmental IT leaders. It’s clear that there are lots of unique and interesting things being done at the edge; it’s also clear that there are lots of commodity services that anybody could be doing. The conversation I have with those folks is, where do you want to spend your time and money? You have to make choices.
Let’s talk a bit about One IT. Part of your role, and Larry’s, is managing your relationships with technology leaders in departments across campus. How do you improve those relationships and figure out shared and separate responsibilities?
I went and spoke at a town hall at Student Affairs IT, and I talked about this notion that the people we serve ultimately don’t care who they are served by. They just want things to work.
We have started a “One IT” initiative, with six meetings a year, and they’ve gotten fantastic engagement, they’re helping build relationships.
I talk a lot with departmental IT leaders. It’s clear that there are lots of unique and interesting things being done at the edge; there are ways that EECS is different than Haas, and they need to do things in the way that makes sense in their environment. It’s also clear that there are lots of commodity services that anybody could be doing, whether that’s central IT, or someone in the cloud. The conversation I have with those folks is, where do you want to spend your time and money? You have to make choices.
I’m able to have that conversation partly because I had that background, I worked as a departmental IT leader. That gives me credibility, and people trust that I’m not trying to take everything over.
Larry Conrad has said (and I agree) that efficiency is not the organizing principle of a major research institution. It’s not why the faculty are here. So how do you deal with the persistent pressure to be efficient in IT?
We have brilliant faculty, and you can appeal to that. Take Berkeley Research Computing (BRC), our computing condo for research. Some researchers are fine with having a fast computer sitting under their desk; they wouldn’t try to buy cycles from something like BRC. But for others, having that resource gives them the ability to do more and better research, and not have to worry about security issues and other IT issues. Some were skeptical, but others jumped on it right away, and now it’s quite successful. Build a case in a way that makes sense to the audience. Find the areas where you can move the needle.