The Top 10 Issues of 2015 for higher education technology were announced recently at the Educause conference in Orlando. This entry will be my first in a series of ten as I share my thoughts on each of the issues.
Issue #1: Hiring and retaining qualified staff, and updating the knowledge and skills of existing technology staff
I am extremely interested in the topic of staff as it’s a continuous focal point for me as a leader. I believe an IT department is only as strong as its weakest link. I also believe that the mindset of an IT employee needs to embrace – and never fear – the pace of change.
Building and sustaining an enviable technology team is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of my job. It’s also terrifying to reach the apex of ‘awesome team’ and realize that it can almost certainly only go down from here.
How to attract staff? Believe it or not, it’s not all about the money in IT anymore. Of course no one hates buckets of money, but in higher ed it’s nearly a given that you will not be mistaken for a Rockefeller anytime soon. However, it is oftentimes the mission and the energy and the ‘vibe’ of the promised team that will attract the best and brightest. On a shoestring budget? Don’t despair. Play up your positives. Dig deep and sell your position as an enviable and exciting one. Fight with your leadership for the free perks – continuing education, ownership of projects, flex schedules. These all have immense value as the role and the work atmosphere oftentimes complement each other well.
Retaining staff. Manage the way you want to be managed. Empower your managers to manage. Let teams take risk. Heap on praise when you hit the mark and absorb the flack when your team experiences a ‘miss’. Increases, no matter how slight, need to be leveled for a ‘wonder team’. Especially in higher education if you choose to dicker over what equates to a few hundred pre-tax dollars annually, the negative impact on morale will most certainly outweigh any positive impact. Staff need to feel like they are progressing and improving to stay engaged. Even if you need to bring in training and cost-share with other universities and business, don’t stop the training opportunities. Especially in the technology arena. Keeping skills continuously improving can make or break future relevancy.
Case in point, the web developer. Keeping in mind I cut my technology teeth on web/application development, it was about five years ago that I started to notice the decline in the web developer role. With open-source options like WordPress entering the market and the ability of anyone being able to find a cool template and create their own website in literally minutes, it became clear that the typical clunky .php websites of higher education were on a slight path out. Web developers started going one of three ways. One, heading to design roles. After all, creative will always have a niche as an ‘art’. Two, digging in, refusing to learn new skills and ignoring the warning signs of a threatened trade. Three, recognizing integration as an upcoming need to tie ‘all that is online’ together. Creative roles moved to Marketing, those refusing to open their minds to anything new are hanging in there until someone notices they’re not needed and – boom! – integration roles are where it’s at IT staff –wise.
With cloud, virtual, and modular technologies oftentimes combined with internal technologies, every user still wants one entry point, immersive cohesion and absolute single-sign-on. Roles focusing on integration of all systems and the individuals that rock these positions become invaluable.
So, who’s re-allocatable? If you see roles fading, who do you run toward to take the new technology ball and run with it? Look for: willing to learn, excited by technology, respectful of when to play in production, people-people, fearless about new languages, grasping big picture. Thankfully that comes close to describing almost all technology folks, right?
So what’s the declining role I see now? Well, it’s desktop support. The fleet of technicians that run around and service individual classroom and office computers. I’ve thought this for a few years now. Initially I wondered if I envisioned this because I worked in an environment at the time where the technicians were staunchly rigid and even more petulant about learning new, better, faster. Then I realized all upcoming trends and movements bolstered my initial vision. For example, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a major player. No longer are schools outfitting an over-abundance of classrooms with computers. Students come to school with the expectation of using their own device. And their own choice of device – meaning your systems better play nice (integrate) with all of the devices. And why are students bringing their own devices? Well, because it’s 2014 and it’s actually encouraged in many high schools now. Within a few years this will likely be the norm. In addition, devices come with warranties, run better than ever, and rarely have significant issues and, if they blue screen, the kids aren’t going to take them to the in-house techs to save their data in most cases. They’re hitting the Apple store or similar. Personally, I like this trend as it takes the ‘uh-oh what if I destroy this students hard drive?’ fear off the shoulders of my staff. So we have BYOD paving the way to not needing a fleet of techs on the payroll. Of course we’ll always need lab computers to run specialized software, right? Well no. Not if you virtualize those specialized softwares. The SPSS-esque scenarios are decreasing as we virtualize the beefy space-hogging softwares and allowing them to be simply transmitted via a browser to everything from tablets to smartphones. Many schools are leasing desktop computers for staff, virtualizing office applications and allowing employees to bring their own devices as well. So now, we again have two sets of technicians. One, those that disagree with my vision. Two, we have a bunch of desktop technicians freaking out about their jobs. No need to fret. Guess where we need you all? Storage, network, vendor management, integration, planning and security. I look at the tech team we have currently and have confidence that 100% will make that transition, should it occur.
Once again, an IT team is only as strong as its weakest link. The people at the core are defining success and failure. If you as a leader can only focus on one area (aside from uh-oh you need to be able to handle more), make it on your staff. Attracting, hiring, retaining and training your staff is really top priority for technology excellence.