IE11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

College District IT Lead: The Gains, Goals and Opportunities Ahead

Manveer Bola, LRCCD.jpg
As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state and local agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with IT leaders. Responses have been lightly edited.

Manveer Bola is the award-winning vice chancellor of information technology for the Los Rios Community College District. His career spans nearly 20 years in public-sector IT, with time in state government IT for agencies including the Board of Equalization and the California Department of Technology and higher education.

Industry Insider — California: Tell us about your background and how it prepared you for your current role? As associate vice chancellor for IT/CIO at your organization, how do you describe your role?

Bola: I feel all of my prior technology leadership experiences prepared me for this role. I have close to 20 years of experience working in public-sector technology, 16 years of which was with the state of California in various capacities. I was a project manager for the California State Board of Equalization for seven years, and then I moved over to the California Department of Technology, where I spent six years there as the IT policy and strategic planning chief. In that role, I crafted various technology strategic plans as well as developed several key policies for the state; policies like project approval, cloud-first digital accessibility, and various information security policies. After that, my last role with the state was I served as the state’s deputy chief technology innovation officer, where I delivered many large-scale, complex, oftentimes politically sensitive solutions. The last year was very pandemic-focused, where I led the state’s pandemic response from an application development perspective as well as data infrastructure, where we were responsible for all of the statewide pandemic data and reporting.

After I left the state, I joined Los Rios as director of Enterprise Services, and this role rounded out my experience with infrastructure operations and cybersecurity. I think it helped strengthen those areas and prepared me for the job I’m in now. But even with that background, I’m still learning. The role I have now as associate vice chancellor of IT has been both challenging and rewarding. We’re a very large organization, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t know; we have over 65,000 students. That makes us one of the largest higher-education institutions in the state. We have four independently accredited colleges and several outreach centers that span five counties, and we have over 6,500 employees. So we’re pretty large, and what this all equates to is a very large and complex technology footprint. We have multisite networks, several data centers and server rooms, thousands of endpoint devices, and a pretty significant portfolio of large enterprise applications. I describe my role as a CIO as a strategic partner, working very closely with our program areas across the districts with each college and their leadership, as well as our faculty governance groups and labor partners to solve complex problems. I’m fortunate to be in this role because I have the privilege to work under a very supportive Board of Trustees, as well as a chancellor, who really understands the importance of investing in technology and the potential transformation that could come out of it.

IICA: What big IT initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Bola: We’re currently engaged in several strategic initiatives that are aligned with our Los Rios organizational strategic plan. Some of the key initiatives include our Strategic Enrollment Initiative, the goal of which is to increase equitable enrollment at all of our colleges. As you may know, college enrollment significantly decreased over the pandemic, especially impacting underserved communities. We’re working hard to restore that to pre-pandemic levels, and I’m proud to say that we’re very close to achieving that goal. Other initiatives include our Graduation Acceleration Initiative, where we’re trying to provide every student with a clear path toward their educational objectives. This involves a lot of process re-engineering and a lot more automation, utilizing much more data, and sharing a lot more data, and expanding our applications that help students with degree planning and transfer planning. The goal of this is to help students chart out the most direct path to achieving their goals and prevent them from wasting time. And that’s something that we’ve experienced; I’ve seen students taking classes that they don’t necessarily need. This is, especially true for first-generation students, the process is hard for them to navigate because they don’t have the benefit of siblings to help guide them. So that’s really something we’re working towards. On the technology back end, we’re continuing our cloud transformation efforts. A couple of years ago, we embarked upon a multicloud migration strategy, where we started moving several applications to Oracle Cloud, and we also started moving some more infrastructure to AWS. We’re also mapping some stuff to go to Azure. So we’re continuing that effort, but also upskilling our staff and helping them learn how to manage these environments. We're also starting to pivot from a cloud migration standpoint to more of a cloud optimization way of working. Lastly, cybersecurity is always big for us. Higher ed is a significant target for bad actors, due to the data that we have on the next-generation workforce. So we continuously work to improve our cybersecurity architecture and processes. We’re always looking for better ways of staying ahead of cybersecurity threats. As far as projects, we just started an effort to implement Salesforce as our CRM and marketing automation tool. This is something that will greatly improve our strategic outreach efforts and make significant improvements to how we issue financial aid and admissions and records processes. We’re also going to be focusing a lot more on data, improve our data warehouse and data or data pipelines, I’m hoping, to align those efforts with the state’s cradle-to-career initiatives. We’re looking at a lot of opportunities there. And finally, we’re going to start early discussions on some ERP modernization. Right now, we’re a PeopleSoft shop, and over the next five years, we’re going to undertake some ERP modernization, so those conversations are going to be starting up pretty soon.

IICA: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Bola: As a community college district, I consider ourselves to be a local organization, so we need to do much more data sharing. When you look at K-12, school districts, counties, cities and universities, so many of our constituents are shared. By sharing data, we can significantly improve the outcomes and user experiences. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity there to partner and to take action to help solve very similar problems.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget and is there a strategic plan we may hyperlink to?

Bola: I manage over 75 staff and contractors, that’s the size of our IT team. Our budget is approximately $20 million in operating budget a year. As far as a strategic plan, we are currently developing our multiyear technology strategic plan for the district. This should be released by the summer. The plan itself outlines our IT vision or strategic priorities for the next six years and establishes our goals, around security, reliability, innovation, accessibility, digital equity, helping foster and improve our technology workforce, and then really driving and building a data-driven culture.

IICA: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Bola: I’m very accessible — email, phone, LinkedIn, any one of those channels is fine. So feel free to reach out and schedule a time with me. What I find most helpful when engaging with vendors is having them bring good examples of how their products or services are being used by others, preferably higher-education organizations. Higher ed is a very tight-knit community, and so we look to each other when trying to solve similar problems. So bringing examples of organizations you have successfully worked with into the conversations goes a long way in helping me understand how the products can be beneficial to us.

IICA: Which IT project or implementation do you consider the most influential, in this role or in a previous position?

Bola: I couldn’t really pick one. We have a great team in our Los Rios IT organization who have delivered so many large and impactful projects over the last few years. So I’ll just name a few we’ve delivered. Our migration of on-prem data centers to the cloud, using the multicloud strategy, was a big initiative for us. We also did a major overhaul of our district network, which across all four of our colleges and outreach centers, was close to 1,000 wireless access points, spread over five counties. So it’s a pretty big initiative. We also, during the pandemic, did a rapid pivot to remote working and also remote learning. We deployed thousands of laptops and also implemented some endpoint management tools and security tools to help keep it all secure and manageable. Another large initiative that we recently completed was our upgrade of the district’s telecommunication systems: We went from a Skype-based system to a Teams-based system. And not only was that a pretty significant back-end upgrade, but we also had to replace over 22,800 phones across the district. We implemented ServiceNow as our centralized IT service management solution. We also made several application enhancements, focusing a lot more on digital services and self-service for students. All of that, plus strengthening our security posture. We recently implemented Okta as our comprehensive identity and access management solution for the district. And we made some pretty significant changes in our network security and endpoint protections.

IICA: What has surprised you most in government technology during the past 12 months?

Bola: What surprised me most was how quickly generative AI has grown and made itself into so many products and industries. There’s a lot of potential there, and I’m really excited about the potential it has, but also, there’s a lot of risks. It’s something that we really need to prepare for. One of our goals in our soon-to-be-released technology strategic plan is the responsible use of AI. So we’re really going to focus on making sure that we have all the right safeguards in place to make sure that when we do adopt the technology, that it is secure and our students' privacy is protected.

IICA: What would you consider the most important takeaway on the district’s work in IT, i.e., is it cloud-first/migrating to the cloud, looking at opportunities in generative artificial intelligence, heavily focused on cybersecurity, etc.?

Bola: Over the last two to three years, we’ve been focused on modernization in terms of our cloud migrations, security upgrades, end-user devices, and network and telecom systems. So I’m proud of those accomplishments. The pandemic required us to rethink how our technology environments were designed. The reality is that our legacy networks and applications were designed based on the assumption that people were physically present on our campuses. We've had to step back and rethink how things are set up. After all, the modernization that we’ve done, we’re much more agile now and we’re much better prepared for future opportunities that may present themselves. But we’re shifting now; we’re going more from a modernization mindset to a transformation mindset. We’re going to be focusing much more on student experience, making sure students and faculty have the tools that they need to be successful. This pivot is going to require us to take a much deeper look at our application stack and what improvements can be made so they could be more efficient, how they could deliver more data insights that we need out of them, and also enable future use cases like AI as that presents itself — but with the understanding that this all needs to be done right, and very secure for our students. Privacy and data need to be protected.

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Bola: I have two young children whose sports and activities consume most of my time, so hobbies are hard to balance. But when I do have time for it, spending time with family is kind of what I love to do the most, as well as hiking, and jogging. As far as reading, nothing too terribly interesting there. I try to stay up to date on technology research articles. Some of my go-tos there are InfoTech for research and other research subscriptions.
Eyragon is the Managing Editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the Daily News Editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.