Posts Tagged 'IT'

High Tech or High Touch?

I came across the phrase “high tech or high touch” in something I was reading recently, can’t remember what. The expression presumes that there’s a dichotomy between the two — that they are in essence, mutually exclusive. Why can’t we have both?

We tend to think about technology as isolating. We don’t really talk to each other any more. We text, or IM. And it’s not uncommon to see a whole group of people out to eat at a restaurant, and everyone is heads down in their cell phones. So perhaps it is — or can be.

But technology can also bring us closer to each other, and create a sense of community and connectedness.

I have family living in multiple parts of the country, as well as internationally — California, Florida, England — and I’m here in Wisconsin. My three siblings and I have nine children between us. With that many schedules to coordinate, along with the cost of travel, we are only really able get together in person once every 12 to 18 months or so. For most of our adult lives we would call or email each other from time-to-time, but it never felt satisfying.

And then Google Hangouts came along. We scheduled a weekly “family call” — it’s every week, at the same time (depending on time zone), and everyone who is around at that time logs onto the call. For a couple of years now we’ve been able to literally see how everyone is doing, and watch our nieces and nephews grow up. And because they see us weekly, we’re no longer strangers when we all do get together in person. Technology connects us.

It’s worked the same for me in my professional life, too. I travelled to the EDUCAUSE national conference last month, something I do every year. There are literally thousands of IT professionals who attend the conference, which, honestly, can be incredibly overwhelming for an introvert like me. It’s hard to make friends and meet people. It’s easy to feel alone in a crowd of 7,000. Except I’m active on Twitter at these types of conferences, and that has changed my conference experience. Suddenly, I’m part of a community, sharing thoughts and ideas about the experience with other like-minded people. Being “social”. And the social nature doesn’t end online — the community that is formed there helps to connect us to people offline, too. I recognized people who I had interacted with on Twitter, and they recognized me — starting conversations.

The connections don’t end with conversations or community-building, either. Throughout my career I’ve been blessed to have been introduced into a number of different communities, but also have moved around enough to not stay connected to them — and the people in them — regularly, at least not face-to-face. One of these groups are the folks behind EduSoCal. I now count these three musketeers as dear friends because of the relationships we’ve formed primarily through social media — Facebook and Twitter — supplemented with in-person get togethers at EDUCAUSE and other conferences.

Granted, there’s no substitution for a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, and “real life” interactions. But that’s not always possible. The power of technology to connect us — supplementing, supporting, and sometimes enabling those face-to-face connections — proves that we *can* have both “high tech” and “high touch,” at the same time.

Untethered, But Totally Shackled

I got a chance to play with Google Glass today, and wow — how cool is that?!? If you haven’t seen or played with Glass yet, find someone who has one and try it out. Now. Do not pass go, do not collect….well, you know the drill.

Glass frees us. It — along with  smart phones, tablets, phablets, and other mobile devices — enables us to live our lives completely untethered. On my way to EDUCAUSE this year I responded to emails from 30,000 feet in the air, and engaged with other conference goers via Twitter on the van ride to the hotel. These devices create opportunity — any location can be a classroom, every learner can create and engage his or her own personal learning network (PLN), anytime, anywhere.

But these devices also enslave us. I used to read on airplanes — real books, on paper. Or maybe I’d watch a movie. Now, I work. We used to talk to each other in person, or on the (landline) phone. Now people at the same dinner table communicate with each other via Facebook, Twitter, or text. My phone is the first thing I check in the morning, and the last thing I look at before I go to sleep at night. I sleep with it only a few feet away. And every time it buzzes or bings, I get a slight adrenaline rush. I feel compelled to check it, immediately.

I am not nostalgic for the “good old days.” I believe in the power that technology holds to transform our lives. But I do wonder, is being untethered *and* unshackled mutually exclusive, or is there another way?

I Think I Broke the Internet (or, Why I Love Student Workers)

We received the following ticket at the Help Desk today, courtesy of a former IT student worker and all-around great guy (apparently, super creative too!):

Subject: I Think I Broke the Internet

Dear Menlo IT badasses,

Today I decided I would be a little reckless. I decided it was a good idea to Google Google. Yes thats right, I Googled Google and now the world is melting down around me. There should be some sort of warning on the page to prevent catastrophic events like this from happening.

Anyway, I was hoping that the amazing people at Menlo OIT could perhaps solve this problem as I am sure the world is very mad at me. There are literally TCP/IP packets just pouring out of my computer and out of the ethernet cables in my room. HELP!

I learned my lesson and I promise that I will never do it again if you guys can get me off the hook this time.

Thank you!

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It was really too good not to share. 🙂


A Focus on Success

I read about new research recently that looks at why some black men succeed in college. As a research question it seemed a little odd and overly vague to me, but after reading a little bit more about it, I was intrigued.

We’ve all heard the stats — black men make up a painfully small percentage of undergraduate students, and (at least in some parts of the country), a young black man is more likely to be in prison than in college. <sigh> But some black men DO go to college, and succeed there. The researcher (Shaun R. Harper, Ph.D.) decided to focus here — on the success stories — to see if there were identifiable and replicable factors in these successes, instead of continuing to perpetuate a black-men-as-college-failures narrative that helps to “shape America’s low expectations for black men.”

I get where Dr. Harper’s coming from. In the IT world, you don’t have to look too closely to realize that there is a serious shortage of women (and minorities) in the profession. And there’s no lack of discussion about the reasons (some valid, some not-so-much)  — women aren’t good at math and science, it’s a pipeline problem, the demands drive women of child-bearing age out, there’s a lot of sexism, it’s an image problem, and so on and so forth. At every conference I’ve been to, groups band together to discuss the situation and talk about how to bring more women into the profession. But tragically, it seems that these conversations all end up at the same place — with women describing, to one degree or another, the obstacles they have faced in their careers.

At the risk of sounding terribly insensitive…I’m tired of hearing about this. I understand and empathize with my colleagues about their experiences, and the obstacles they have faced, and continue to face, in their jobs. I get it, because I’ve lived it. I’ve been invited to sit at the “big boys table” and had vendors treat my (male) subordinates with more deference and respect than me. But much like Dr. Harper, I would rather focus on why I (and others like me) *have* been successful, rather than continue to belabor our negative experiences.

In his research, Dr. Harper found that there were multiple factors that contributed to black men’s success, and I suspect the same would be true for women in IT. I know that a combination of good role models and mentors, an inquisitive nature, and an aversion to being told that I can’t succeed at something, are all ingredients in my recipe for success. What ingredients are in yours?

Mission Critical is *Not* the Same as Core

My favorite quote from the 2011 EDUCAUSE National Conference came from Marty Ringle of Reed College (as tweeted by @stevegoldenberg):

No student will come to our school b/c of our amazing administrative computing environment

True. And yet, we spend an awful lot of time (and money, and resources) focused on our IT infrastructures, enterprise systems, and other “back office” technologies. Why? Because without question, some/most/all of these systems are absolutely critical to running our institutions — without them we have no class schedules, or student records, or…well, you get the picture.

But here’s the thing: while these systems are clearly mission-critical to our operations, they are not *core* to our institutions. They are not technologies/services that we uniquely can provide. They do not differentiate our institutions from one another. And, perhaps most importantly, they do not (significantly) advance our primary mission of educating students. And yet, we *must* provide them.

Or must we??

Virtual Desktops: Persistent, Non-Persistent, or….Both?

Use cases are critically important in virtual desktop implementations. Identifying and understanding your various use cases will help you make more effective decisions about your VDI architecture — the underlying platform and management technologies, broker, clients, communication protocols (RDP, PCoIP, etc), storage requirements, and so on. Some use cases may be better supported by one system design and set of technologies, other use cases may work better with an alternate design and/or technologies. And no matter how badly you want to be 100% virtual, some use cases may not be well suited for VDI at all. At least not yet.

While the specific details of each use case will vary, all use cases can generally be distilled down to two types — persistent or non-persistent. Non-persistent desktops refresh themselves to their original state on shutdown/startup; they don’t maintain user data, personalization settings, or any other changes. Persistent desktops do, and therefore can be more complicated to work with, often requiring more storage, a potentially different backup structure, and a host of other considerations ranging from how to handle access to local USB devices and printers to user needs for installing personal software and administrative rights. Which is why many institutions focus their VDI projects on non-persistent desktops.

At Menlo, we are rolling out both types of virtual desktops, but decided to start with our simpler non-persistent ones. Or so we thought. It turns out that while our lab and learning space *do* refresh themselves on shutdown/start up (we use a software called Deep Freeze to maintain a steady state in our physical environment), and *do not* maintain user data or other personalization/changes the user makes, they have persistent attributes nonetheless. So they’re *both* persistent and non-persistent at the same time. Oy.

What makes our environment both? While we do expect our desktops to return to their original state, that original state includes a customized desktop background and specific positioning of icons on the desktop, among other things. This isn’t that difficult to do with a physical image, but in a VDI environment this spans both persistent and non-persistent attributes. To make matters even more challenging, some of the software we’re using on our presumably non-persistent desktops requires level of persistence to, well, work properly. Or at all.

These challenges are all solvable — but possibly not in the ways that you think. To manage icons we found a program called RocketDock, so instead of ordering the actual desktop icons we get rid of these with an AD script on log in and replace them with an application that serves up icons in a configuration we set at the application level. Scripting at various levels has also helped address some of our persistent/non-persistent issues. (For the record, and in the interest of full disclosure: our VDI solution is a combination of VMWare View and Unidesk, and we’ve been working with Rob Zylowski and the folks at @UnideskCorp to solve these problems. Their creativeness and brilliance in finding solutions to these challenges cannot be overstated.)

The key, in my opinion, to addressing at least some of these issues is understanding what need you’re actually trying to address, and then figuring out the best way to solve that problem. And I don’t mean the need for ordered icons or specific desktop background — those were just solutions that were designed to meet the need in your current environment. There might be different, possibly even better, ways to solve it in a new virtual environment. Or you may find that because of the differences in the environment, the need simply no longer exists.

Which brings me right back to….yep, you guessed it….use cases. Knowing and understanding them is *key*. Once you’ve figure out “how” you do things for each use case, don’t forget to ask “why”. And when you think you’ve got them all figured out, go back to the drawing board and take a look at them again. And again.

Want Better IT Service Design? Make CIOs Teach…

A little background for this post…I was recently accepted as a mentor in the Technovation Challenge program, which kicked off this week. The program’s goals are near and dear to my heart: promote women in technology. It’s an exciting 9-week program where teams of high school girls develop a business plan for, and actually build, a fully functioning prototype Android app — and then pitch it at the end of the program to a panel of outside experts. Totally cool! But I digress…

Tonight we discussed a five-step design process that the girls are going to use when developing their apps — Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Feedback. The steps aren’t anything revolutionary or new — they just represent a good solid design process. But sometimes it’s good to get reminded about the basics.

So I got to thinking about “empathy” in the context of what we in IT do every day. Empathy, of course, is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” ( Or, as one of our girls said tonight, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

I think we’d all like to believe that we’re empathetic to our users. We try really, really hard to understand the needs of our users; to identify with their experiences using the technology we provide. We can — and do — ask questions, watch interactions and behavior, and make careful *observations* — not *interpretations* about what we see. But is that enough to impact the design of our technical services in a meaningful way?

In the fall, I got the chance to truly put myself into our faculty’s shoes when I taught a semester-long course on Web Design. I’ve given a lot of presentations, conducted numerous trainings, and talk extensively to faculty about their experiences with and use of technology in the classroom. And *none* of that compared to the first-hand experience I gained teaching in the classroom.

There were a number of issues I experienced that I would have considered minor had I heard about them from faculty, prior to my own experiences. My first day of class the printer was out of paper. Another day the YouTube streaming was somewhat halted, buffering every so often for a second or two. And then there was the issue with the plug-ins, the sound dial, and so on — and all, truthfully, were minor from a technical perspective.

I’ve seen help desk tickets like these before, and have been empathetic to them. But I’ll admit, a little, teeny, tiny part of me has felt like you have to expect some level of…je ne sais quoi…when it comes to technology, and you just have to be flexible and, well, deal with it. Not that I’d ever tell someone to just deal with it, mind you. I swear.

While these little issues became quite large issues when I was standing in front of a class trying to teach, what surprised me most about my experience was my ability — or lack thereof — to use the technology in place for me. Quite simply, I couldn’t. I’m a highly technical user, but when it came to using our technology in a real-world setting I couldn’t do much more than use the most basic of tools — the computer and projector. The classroom is nicely equipped with software to allow faculty to show their screen to students, or show one student’s screen to the class — both of which would have been helpful in my class. While I’ve actually pitched the benefits of this program to our faculty, and conducted some of the training on it, I couldn’t work it “on the fly” when I was trying to also teach on a different subject matter.

So what does this have to do with empathy? We can *vicariously* experience what our users do and gain some level of empathy, but nothing compares to the real thing. I look at our classrooms and our instructional support tools in an entirely new way because of my experiences last semester.

If institutions want to build better relationships between their faculty and IT — a connection that is generally presumed to be shaky, at best — I believe they can do no better thing than put their CIOs and senior IT managers into the classrooms to teach. Having that experience did not make me an expert in teaching or in the needs of faculty — far from it — but it did provide me with a much better framework for asking questions, observing behavior, and intellectually identifying with our faculty. And that’s the goal, right?

Death of the Computer Lab?

Question: What are the most popular buzzwords in IT?

Answer: Last year, the “cloud”. This year (so far), “VCL” and “VDI”. As in, if you can build a virtual computing lab (VCL) using virtual desktop infrastructire (VDI), you can shut down at least some of your computing labs and save money as a result.


Everything we know about computing labs indicates that lab usage has *increased*, even as the number of student-owned computers/laptops has risen to near universal levels. Let me rephrase that. Other options exist, but usage has increased. And yet we believe that the introduction of another option (ie, VCL/VDI) will now decrease usage/need?

Ummm….remember when computers and email were supposed to help us move to the “paperless” office? Yeah, I’m getting more paper than *ever* these days, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of VDI. We have a virtualization strategy at Menlo that extends far beyond the lab (more on that later), and are very excited about VDI’s potential — as a change agent for how we deploy desktops across the institution, and as an extension of the physical lab. But not as a replacement for it.

Here’s how I see it…

Today we have specialized labs that each run a different set of software. So to teach a Photoshop class, you have to reserve lab #1, and to teach an accounting class with Quickbooks or another accounting application, you have to reserve lab #2.

A VCL/VDI solution changes this, because you can virtualize your Photoshop desktop or accounting desktop, and then allow access to that desktop from any lab, or really, any location. This enables your faculty to reserve any lab they want, but unless you have dozens of underutilized labs, doesn’t change the fact that faculty will still want to teach their classes using the software, which generally means, in a lab somewhere.

And keeping in mind that virtually everything we do is computer dependent these days, and more and more disciplines/professions are using specialized software, the instructional usage of labs is only bound to increase. In fact, we built another instructional computing lab at Menlo last summer, and it’s already nearing max capacity (and usage in our other labs has not decreased).

Does that mean you shouldn’t explore VCL/VDI? No!!

In my view, there are a good number of benefits that VDI can provide your constituents, and your staff. Better access to software, increased life of hardware (you can run a virtual desktop on the equipment in your physical labs, too, not just in the ether), easier image/desktop management, greater flexibility, simplified support, and so on. Presumably lower costs too.

So is there a strong case for virtualizing your desktops? I believe so, yes. But as for those reports about the death of the computer lab as a result? Ehhhh, not so much.

My Elevator Pitch

When I was in sales and marketing, oh so many years ago, we spent hours and days, months even, perfecting the perfect 30-second “elevator” pitch. You know, the one that you use when someone asks you “so what do you do?” and you have a 30-second elevator ride to tell them? It usually goes something like…”I’m a [job title] for [company], the global leader in [some industry jargon]”.

In education it may be called something different, but we still have elevator pitches, generally speaking — some key points and messaging that’s important to get across when talking to a prospective student, faculty member, or donor.

What’s important about the elevator pitch is the description of who you work for, not really what you do for them. Usually. This past weekend, however, I realized that an elevator pitch might be in order for what I actually do, too.

You see, I went to a family event and saw distant relatives — the kind you only run into once every 5 to 10 years or so. The conversation that ensued went something like this:

Them: “It’s great to see you, how have you been? And what are you doing these days?”

Me: “I’m the CIO at Menlo College; been there about  a year and a half.”

Them: “Menlo is a great school, congratulations! So….what’s a CIO?”

Me: “Chief information officer.”

Them: [looking a little glassy-eyed] “Information officer? So you handle information requests for the college? Or PR? Or…?”

Me: “Um, no…actually I manage the college’s technology. Like servers, and network, and computers…things like that.”

Them: [even more glass-eyed, but feeling compelled to ask the obligatory follow-up question] “Wow, sounds exciting! So what are you working on these days?”

And here’s where I need that elevator pitch. The truth is we’re working on bringing up a learning management system, moving some of our servers to the cloud, and rolling out virtual desktops (VDI). Really exciting stuff! But nearly *everyone* I know gets more than a little glassy-eyed when we start talking cloud computing or VDI. It’s conceptual stuff, with no clear definitions — even within the profession.

So explaining it to a non-techie…fugetaboutit. Except, of course, I can’t. I won’t. I think this stuff is waaaay too cool to *not* explain. 🙂

Diversity in Desktop Support, The Sequel

On February 5, I launched a job search for two, part-time technical support specialists to join our user support team (see 2/9 post, below). Two weeks later the search is completed, technicians hired, and the gender diversity results are in — over 115 applicants and fewer than 10 women in the pool, total (as low as 6, with a few not clearly identifiable as male or female). That’s less than 9%, folks.

Our search netted some amazing candidates, and we were lucky enough to hire two of them. No surprise — both new hires are men.

It saddens me that there were so few women in the pool to begin with, and even fewer who came anywhere close to meeting the minimum qualifications. But diversity comes in numerous forms, and gender is only one of them. This hiring experience has caused me to reflect on the overall diversity of my team, including direct staff, student workers, and the extended team we outsource our infrastructure services to.

  • 4 staff members (including me): 3 men and 1 woman; 3 Caucasian and 1 African American
  • 6 student workers: 4 men and 2 women; 3 Caucasian, 1 African American, and 2 Asian
  • 4 extend team members: 3 men and 1 woman; 2 Caucasian and 2 Asian

So, in total, my team consists of 14 people, of which 4 are women (29%) and 6 are non-white (43%). Not great, but all things considered, not terrible either. When I think about the diversity trends in IT, I feel proud that we’ve been able to pull together as diverse of a team as this in such a short period of time (I’ve been here 6 months, and at the time of my joining there were no women on the team and only one non-white).

There’s more we can (and *will*) do, of course, but isn’t there always?

@rclemmons on Twitter

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 27 other followers