DENVER—On the final morning of last week’s Educause conference here, a surprisingly large group of die-hards gathered for a panel discussion entitled “CIO or No: Not All IT Leadership Roles Lead to the Chief Information Officer.”
The powerhouse group of five panelists included two longtime campus CIOs, one newly appointed CIO, one vice president for digital innovation at a liberal arts college and one émigré from higher ed who now works for Amazon Web Services. They shared compelling stories about roads taken and not, advice they’d received (helpful and less so), work-life balance, and a slew of other topics, gobbled up by the scores of would-be future leaders in the audience.
It was only in the waning minutes of the session, after the panelists had been talking for most of an hour, that an audience member, introducing her question, explicitly stated what had almost certainly occurred to most of the attendees but gone unmentioned: that all five of the panelists were women.
“It’s so refreshing that this session wasn’t targeted to women—it was just framed as about the [pros and cons of] being in these roles,” the audience member said. “Yay, that’s progress!”
In a profession still heavily dominated by men, who make up about three-quarters of all college and university chief information and technology officers, a conversation about leadership involving only women but almost entirely not about gender was indeed striking.
The discussion probably still differed from how it might have gone had it involved men: in describing their career arcs, the speakers frequently mentioned how their choices had been influenced by consideration of their children and families, as another audience member noted near the end of the session. “I wonder, if we had a panel of all men, whether children would have been mentioned at all,” she said. “Not that they don’t love them,” she quickly added.
The conversation was compelling in part because it captured so many of the issues reverberating today through broader societal debates about the role of work in our lives. In fact, while some of the issues discussed were specific to the technology field—about the importance of technical acumen, for instance, as opposed to good leadership and strategy skills—most of the discussion would be just as relevant to an audience of academic department chairs at a scholarly meeting or of would-be admissions directors.
Among the key takeaways:
Career paths aren’t linear or predictable and can take different forms at different stages of life. One of the panelists, Sherri Braxton, started her career working for a defense contractor, got a doctorate in computer science and tenure at Bowie State University, and then left that coveted position to oversee distance education at Johns Hopkins University.
Another panelist, Jenn Stringer, applied after college to be a Lutheran pastor and spent the early part of her career as a librarian at Stanford University’s engineering school. While she was pregnant with her second child, a mentor there took her aside and suggested she apply for a more senior position at the medical school.
“I’m going to work for you someday,” he told her. “You are going to run a library, and you need to start taking a job and your career path seriously.”
Stringer did, she said, and “never looked back.” She’s now CIO at the University of California, Berkeley.
Liv Gjestvang remembers listening to a similar panel of chief information officers talking about their roles at a conference earlier in her career. “Watching them talk about this job, it seemed like it demanded that a majority of your life be given to this work. That seemed like not the right thing to do” for me, she said.
Later a mentor at Ohio State University suggested she consider a CIO role. “I’m interested in the work, but I have a life,” she remembers thinking. “I don’t know this is the right time for me to overgive at work.”
Last year, after a stint in the corporate world at AWS, a CIO opportunity at Denison University presented itself, and Gjestvang grabbed it.
“As we move into the next roles in our careers, the ways that we give [can] shift,” she said. “We can move up to roles that give us more opportunities to be at the table. But that doesn’t mean you have to work 6 days a week, 10 hours a day.”
Roles themselves can evolve—and be transformed by the people doing them. Jane Livingston worked hybrid before it was cool. She had been working for six years at Vassar College, a small private college in upstate New York where people used to joke, she said, that the “flag had to go to half-mast” before anyone got a promotion.
One day, while she was “elbow-deep” in stuffing preparing Thanksgiving dinner, she got the surprising call that Yale University had offered her a job. Though her children were 12 and 3 at the time, she said, it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up, and she spent the next several years working Monday and Friday in Poughkeepsie and Tuesday through Thursday in New Haven. (She is now CIO at the University of Notre Dame.)
Gjestvang said colleges and universities need to be more open to leaders who are “passionate, not just about work, but about their communities.”
Taking a work-first approach probably overly “limits who can be in those roles … We cannot open the doors fully if we are asking people to do it only if they are able to give and not contribute at home,” she said to nods from many of the attendees.
Big picture versus the granular. At several points in the conversation, panelists fessed up that at various times in their careers, they’d been uninterested in the more technical side of the higher ed IT role.
“I don’t care about infrastructure,” said Braxton, who has two computer science degrees and worked heavily technical jobs in the defense industry. But she has spent most of her postsecondary career thus far involved in teaching and learning; she is now director of digital innovation at Bowdoin College.
Stringer of Berkeley, the former librarian, acknowledged that she lacked a technical background and used to be the kind of person who would say, “Networking—how boring!”
But now that she’s a CIO, “I’m engaged in the technical issues, too. Who would have thought that I would say, ‘I love infrastructure’? I love making the connection between the technology and the mission.”
She added, “I ask hard questions, try to connect dots around the technical piece and how it fits in with the larger mission.” Just what you’d expect someone trained through a liberal arts education would do.
While the Educause conference focused understandably on whether IT leadership roles might focus excessively on technical matters at the expense of more strategic decision-making, the same set of questions would apply in other domains: Will I drown in the minutiae of the discipline or be able to engage on the big picture?
Gjestvang sought to reassure the potential leaders in the audience that they didn’t have to choose.
“I love this job because I’m at the table for all the really important conversations happening here,” she said. “It’s been a bit of a surprise, but I get to focus on strategy.”