Len Peters: Preparing for Yale's technological future
In a recent Town Hall meeting with staff in Information Technology Services (ITS) and IT partners from across campus, Yale’s Chief Information Officer Len Peters pointed out some of the technological changes that have taken place in the past 10 years — listing facts that might make some of today’s students think he was talking about an ancient world.
Just a decade ago, he noted, text messaging and smart phones weren’t being used on campuses (although nearly 70% of students had cell phones), and less than 30% of students had some form of wireless computer setup.
He then presented some figures to illustrate how much will change in coming years: In just five years from now, for example, the number of computer tablets shipped (such as iPads or electronic reading devices) will grow by 865 million.
Since coming to Yale last May, Peters has been assessing Yale’s IT unit and developing a long-term strategy that takes into account such rapid and transformative technological change.
Formerly associate dean and chief information officer at Columbia Business School, Peters recently shared with YaleNews his thoughts and ideas about the University’s current IT capabilities and about leading the campus into the technological future. An edited version of that conversation follows.
How would you rate Yale overall in terms of its information technology?
Yale has both an impressive collection of technologies and a fantastic group of people who are talented and eager to contribute to the mission of the institution. The people in ITS support our campus community by handling thousands of service calls per month, aiding faculty in the use of technology for research and teaching, and providing a fantastic technology service for students. In addition, ITS staff supports a set of foundational technologies that include everything from a high-performance computer cluster to over 4,600 wireless access points across the campus. On campus, we have seven data centers and support more than 500 applications and over 8,500 websites. Again, all this technology doesn’t happen without dedicated, talented staff.
There is always room for improvement, and we are setting some clear goals for IT staff members aimed at improving customer satisfaction and meeting the demands that such quickly changing technological advances present us with.
What specific improvements are necessary?
During my first five months I have been assessing our organization, processes, and technology. Within each of these three areas, there are different levels of need. I am turning my highest level of attention to these areas: enhancing academic IT solutions and organization; creating a business intelligence and reporting strategy; simplifying the budget; putting greater focus on donor management and fundraising; reducing bureaucracy; creating a more effective organization by improving our enterprise resource planning systems (tying together business systems and workflow processes); improving service management and customer satisfaction; better managing our IT project portfolio; enhancing research enterprise technology; improving our security; and preparing for technology innovations related to the web and mobile devices.
You have introduced the concept of PIT crews. Can you describe what they are and how they improve IT services on campus?
A PIT crew is a Performance Improvement Team, a concept I have taken from my interest in car racing. In car racing, the pit crew jumps over the wall and quickly changes a tire, adds fuel, and the car gets back in the race. Our PIT crews have the same general goal: get in and quickly make changes that are going to improve performance for a very specific need. The objectives of the PIT crews are identified in an approved charter; the team has a crew leader and a communications leader. The challenge is never to let PIT crews go beyond six months. The three initial PIT crews created will have a direct impact on IT services by improving our focus on needs, priorities, communication, and staff development.
The current PIT crews are a Voice of the Community crew, which is focused on obtaining client feedback; Research Computing crew, which is reviewing and verifying the services we offer to researchers; and Best Place to Work crew, which is focused on improving staff satisfaction within ITS. The work of these teams is now wrapping up, and our next set of crews will begin work.
What is being done to improve staff satisfaction within ITS?
During my time here so far, it has become clear that we need to clarify ITS staff members’ roles and responsibilities; improve communication (between managers and staff and between different teams); and promote staff development. We’ve begun work, supported by Human Resources, to develop Individual Development Plans for all ITS staff members, with the goal of having this complete by the end of January.
To improve customer satisfaction and celebrate the hard work of particular staff members, we are introducing CIO Spot Awards — which will recognize those who get “spotted” delivering world-class service or going beyond the call of duty. We all agree that at an incredible institution such as Yale, our employees should feel happy and satisfied to be working here. I am going to work very hard with other ITS leaders to make sure that they do.
How much is cyber security a concern for you, and is enough being done to prevent spam and phishing?
Security is the only thing that keeps me up at night. We cannot afford to be reactive to the increased and complex types of attacks. Nor can we approach the problem by accepting sub-standard solutions. We must and will have a new strategy that takes a 360-degree approach to risk management. We have already hired the University’s first chief information security officer (CISO) — Rich Mikelinich. We have completed an internal security self-assessment and have identified a highly reputable external security company to give us an unbiased view of our technology, processes and policies. We will also be forming a University-wide team to collaborate and drive security programs across campus. As for spam specifically, our new CISO is addressing the issue and a recommendation will be made in short order. I know we can do better in dealing with this issue.
Are there greater demands on your department as the University is increasingly digitizing its collections?
ITS’ role in digitization has mainly focused on the support of the Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure’s strategy. As the University broadens its strategy, we will need to assess the demand. I don’t anticipate the growth to be unsupportable. Just the opposite: ITS is well positioned and prepared.
Generally speaking, there is always more demand for IT services than there is time, people, and funding. Yale is not unique in this regard. This has been my experience everywhere I have been. In response to this, what I ascribe to is what I call the “ART” of IT: Alignment, Rationalization, and Transparency. Align your team and projects with what is the highest priority; rationalize your use of resources so that you can do what you say you are going to do; and be as transparent as possible with what is being done and why and how the priorities were set.
Are there any new trends in technology that you find especially exciting?
In my recent Town Hall meeting I discussed several major trends that will significantly change the way IT supports Yale. These trends include Cloud computing [a service where shared resources, software, and information are provided over a network to computers and other devices]; embedded social media [allowing social networking capabilities to be embedded in technology]; mobile technology [smart phones and tablets]; context-aware devices; big data technologies [for analyzing, recording, and storing vast amounts of unstructured data]; and semantic web [machines with the ability to “understand” meaning in transactions with other machines].
There is also the trend of faculty and staff, along with students, coming to campus with their own devices, and I’m interested in the impact this has on perceptions and expectations. You can expect ITS to refocus and provide the leadership necessary to leverage all of these in new ways to support the mission of the University and improve operating efficiencies.
What aspect of your job do you most enjoy?
I most enjoy working with people to achieve and accomplish a collective set of goals. I look forward to providing innovative and problem-solving solutions that help advance the mission of the University and make it operate more efficiently. I also look forward to helping Yale become recognized as having the best IT organization across universities everywhere. If we are innovative, offer superb services and technology, and have thoughtful leadership and satisfied customers, there is no reason why Yale ITS cannot be as highly regarded as the institution that is its home.