Brian Waechter worked at UC Davis’ school of Veterinary Medicine for many years before coming to Berkeley as the College of Letters & Science’s (L&S) Director of Information Technology in 2014. We spoke with him at the Free Speech Movement Café about his experience moving from one UC to another, figuring out what’s going on at Berkeley.
You came to Berkeley from Davis about a year ago. How has that transition been?
Coming from another academic institution, another UC, is a lot different than coming from private industry would have been. In terms of understanding how things work, how long it takes to get stuff done, what groups to market ideas to, I found it to be a pretty comfortable switch. But all the names and faces are new, so learning who to talk to, and learning the history of why things are done the way they are is really important. People are often reacting to something that happened before I got here, and I need to understand that.
All the names and faces are new, so learning who to talk to, and learning the history of why things are done the way they are is really important. People are often reacting to something that happened before I got here, and I need to understand that.
So how do you figure out what you need to know?
For me, it’s mostly about talking to people; I don’t suppose that I can walk in and do my job without knowing this kind of info. I talked to Heidi Hoffman, Assistant Dean of Finance for L&S, who gave me a good first layer, and then I met with the L&S managers. I was fortunate that I was working with a team of folks with vast experience, who were able to fill in a lot of the blanks. It would have been a lot harder to find things out without their help.
Did you meet with the L&S managers individually? That’s a big task.
Yes, it took months. But it was worth it, it was a great source of perspective. At least I know what the issues are. I also went to the Management Development Program (MDP). I thought MDP was well put together. Even though a lot of the content wasn’t new to me, it was valuable to be in a room with 40 managers from different areas around the campus, hearing their perspectives.
In meeting with all those managers, what were some of the things you learned?
The degree to which L&S is de-centralized is kind of startling. There are a lot of commonalities, things almost every department struggles with, such as web sites. And the distance between the haves and the have-nots is pretty great, maybe larger than I hoped it would be. Some of the wealthier departments can afford the IT resources they need, and some of the poorer ones have almost no resources they can bring to bear on IT issues.
Part of your role may be to try to bridge that gap; how can you do that when you don’t control a lot of resources yourself?
Nobody has specifically told me that’s my role, but I do feel compelled to do something about the situation. We can’t accomplish much with the current resource levels, but there are some services we should provide, we need to provide, and moving the organization in that direction is a long-term objective. It may require years of effort. Because of the difference between the haves and have-nots, there’s not going to be a single solution. What’s not known yet is the balancing point; every department that continues to do their own thing hurts the collective because they’re not contributing resources.
In talking with people, what are some of the things you’ve noticed as different about Berkeley?
I feel like Berkeley is a more congenial atmosphere. To me the IT community was more welcome, more open than Davis was. It’s been easier to get cooperation and honest discourse.
It’s very important to know who you’re talking to and what they care about. If you don’t know that, there’s no way you’ll convince them of anything.
Your role here involves exerting influence more than exerting control; what are some of the ways you manage that?
It’s very important to know who you’re talking to and what they care about. If you don’t know that, there’s no way you’ll convince them of anything. You need superior communication skills, especially written, but also speaking. In a university environment, if you don’t have that up to a certain level, your results are not going to be great. Being able to prepare an effective summary in whatever form will work in the situation; that’s at least as much art as it is science. Being able to get pertinent facts across, either subtly or as part of an explicit recommendation.
If you’re meeting with superiors who have a lot of stuff on their agenda that isn’t IT, how do you approach them?
First, you have to recognize that IT isn’t the only or the biggest topic they’re dealing with. Be very brief, boil it down to the absolute simplest nuts and bolts, and make a compelling case. I always have extra pages in the slide deck in case they ask questions, so if something strikes a nerve you can dive into more details, but assume they don’t want to hear it all.
For my own benefit I’m always thinking about talking points; if I don’t have a few of those clear to me, there’s no way I can communicate them to someone else.
Do you work on elevator pitches?
Whenever I’m working on something, for my own benefit I’m always thinking about talking points; if I don’t have a few of those clear to me, there’s no way I can communicate them to someone else. I’m not one to spring a pitch on a person just because I have them in a confined space, but if the opportunity arises I want to be ready to throw an idea out there.
Do you ever find yourself going back to your network from previous jobs?
Yes, all the time. Especially for technical expertise in areas that I don’t have direct access to here; a quick consult with someone I know has the skills can be really useful.
What are some of the things about the way Berkeley works that surprised you when you got here?
The biggest shocker was the apparent lack of project management culture. Taking well-defined strategy and turning it into a managed portfolio of intentionally and skillfully executed projects to change the operating environment seems to be confined to only the largest initiatives on campus. I would like to see more standardization across more of the areas I’m working with so we can develop common terminology and processes to see how resources are being invested toward our goals, not just in IT, but across the organization.
There are some natural trends in IT right now towards delivering less service locally, using aggregated or cloud services more. What are some of the implications of that for a departmental IT units?
Trying to figure out the true cost of anything these days is really hard. Cloud vendors provide amazing bang for buck for their services, but they also tie your hands. You have to assess the risks around policy and data protection, and they don’t necessarily give you the tools to do it. And there are always functionality limitations that you often don’t learn until you’re a year into a project, when you find out you need that last 20% of functionality that they’re not providing. Then the next cloud vendor will claim to provide it for an extra $5/month, and investigating that might take another year.
When you’re trying to build support for a project, how do get people behind it?
I recently saw a presentation on “minimum viable products,” which is part of the Agile world. What’s the smallest thing you can build that people will find useful? Do some surveying, know what kind of questions will excite your audience, and then develop a prototype to demonstrate basic functionality. You’re paving the road a bit at a time. When I make a big announcement, I want to know that I already have two-thirds of the managers behind me; that’s part of the whole change management process.
When I make a big announcement, I want to know that I already have two-thirds of the managers behind me; that’s part of the whole change management process.
Which is probably another thing Berkeley could use some help with.
Yeah, I was disappointed to find out that the change management module of ServiceNow didn’t get implemented yet. We need change management tools; it’s absolutely essential to ongoing operations. It burned us just last week; someone updated a module that broke a web site without notice. I helped to implement change management systems in IT at my last two stops and hope we’ll be able to do so here also.
If you had a colleague who was thinking about taking a job at Berkeley, what advice would you give them?
I’ve already recommended Berkeley jobs to a couple of people; I think this is a great place to work. They were both from UC Davis, so they didn’t need so much advice; the differences between working at a place like Davis and Berkeley aren’t that large. I think if it was someone from industry, there would be more culture shock. They’d need to be prepared for a different decision-making process.