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Techwire One-on-One: University CIO on the Potential of Smaller Transformations

As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Dr. Vince Kellen is chief information officer at the University of California, San Diego, a role he has had since June 2016. Previously, he was senior vice provost, analytics and technologies, at the University of Kentucky from February 2009 to May 2016. Concurrently, he is a fellow, Business Technology Council and senior consultant at the Cutter Consortium, a role he has had since January 2007.

Kellen has a bachelor’s degree in communications; a Master of Science degree in information systems, e-commerce; and a doctorate in computer science, human-computer interaction, all from DePaul University.

Techwire: As CIO of your university, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Kellen: My role as CIO is to provide the information technology vision for UC San Diego and to deliver critical enterprise-wide IT services for the university. These services cover (and) broadly support the following areas: student information and advising systems, student learning management systems, IT support for researchers, housing and dining, facilities management, finance, procurement, research contracts and grants systems, and enterprise-wide data warehousing and analytics, enterprise document management, mobile applications, wired and wireless network infrastructure for campus and cybersecurity services. Over the years, the role of the CIO has shifted from primarily concerned with network and data center infrastructure to front-office applications responsibility and information technology strategy in core mission and strategically differentiating areas. The CIO role (is) now expected to take a larger role in facilitating adoption and superior use of next-generation technologies across the enterprise and in multiple domains. In short, the role is much more tightly integrated with core business strategies.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Kellen: In most universities, the strategic plan is a consolidation of strategic plans created by its various academic divisions. From there, the CIO role is to help shape the university strategic plan so that the plan is accelerated by or enhanced through the use of information technology. As in most things strategy, one has to start with what decisions and actions will ensure the university is vibrant and can continue and extend its mission without faltering along the way. IT becomes helpful in providing ideas and guidance as to how IT will help or not help the institution’s strategy.

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

Kellen: For us, we are completing the conversion of our core enterprise systems (finance, HR, student, data warehousing, contracts and grants, etc.) from on-premise, custom, mainframe applications that have been in place for three decades to modern cloud-based solutions. We are three-quarters of the way complete with one system to go. So we don’t expect any significant RFPs in the next six to 12 months.

Techwire: What term or phrase do you use to refer to what many call “digital transformation”? How far along is your organization in that process and how will you know when it’s finished?

Kellen: Digital transformation, for me, is best described as the application of information technology to enhance in some way business processes and knowledge sharing across the organization and with the community it serves. In universities, digital technology doesn’t so much transform our core model of teaching students and conducting research. Even with the big shift to online learning due to COVID, our core model continues. The types of transformations we expect to see in the future are manifold. While the digital transformation projects might appear to be more humble than something you would read about in a typical industry magazine, over time, these smaller transformations can bring significant advantages to the university. I call this the “last mile of digital transformation.” For us, this will include the following areas: business administration automation through robotic process automation, intelligent, analytically driven workflow, machine learning and advanced analytics to find patterns in data faster and better, more delivery of our educational mission via online technologies, augmentation of the significant on-premise experience students already have with better digital student-to-student and student-to-university collaborations and, of course, the application of the latest technologies in many areas of our very large research portfolio which has hundreds of scientists using cutting edge techniques in advancing science. Since the dawn of the Internet, many companies and certainly universities have digitized a great many processes and artifacts. To a large extent, that work is done. However, maximizing the use of advanced analytics and cloud technologies still lies ahead of us and will, I think, forever be occupying CIOs and the communities they serve.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Kellen: Our university has about $6 billion in budget. My unit has a budget of about $95 million and employs about 375 full-time staff and about 100 student employees.

Techwire: 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?

Kellen: The best way for any vendor in IT to work is to first learn about the university. Look at our IT plans and goals. All university CIOs have much of this on the website. Try to understand the competitive dynamics of the higher education industry. There are ample public materials available. From there, start to work out what you think our problems may be. From there, solve my problem. I appreciate a vendor who is very curious about higher education and is eager to help solve my problem even if it doesn’t involve their company’s solutions. The best way to reach a client university or CIO is through relationships. The more time a vendor spends in the higher education market, the more they learn and the more fellow CIOs share stories about good vendors. FYI, I used to be a vendor, selling to higher education (among other corporate verticals).

Techwire: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Kellen: I am always most proud of the people who I have helped become better in some way. Compared to that, everything else fades away. Why? Technology comes and goes, as it should. It needs to evolve. Wait 10 years and in most places a good chunk of what you may have delivered has been changed. But when you help people, and if you can make a significant difference in their lives, well that is priceless. Perhaps the fondest memory I have as a consultant was a former client who I caught up with years ago, but a full five years after delivering a corporate strategy document. The person let me know that the company was still using that document as a guide. But even ahead of this in my memories is hearing from people I have helped in the industry who have advanced themselves, their families and their lives. IT is a great career with boundless opportunities. It just requires a certain restlessness, quiet perseverance and, more importantly, a kind of frantic curiosity. For those who can tap into these three traits, anything is possible. For me, I have felt like a cat pulling on a ball of string my whole career.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Kellen: I am not sure I would change much in our university, which has a great approach to procurement. Broadly speaking, in the necessary and beneficial tension that exists between buyer and seller, in which the two sides sit across from each other at the table, once the gaining of trust has advanced and the pricing and risk conversations have concluded, the vendors and the university have to sit on the same side of the table with both of them helping each other confront the university’s problems. In many universities and companies, this shift, or pivot, never happens. And this is a shame. It is a waste of precious talent and time. In general, I would wish that IT procurement writ large would learn that the enhancement of trust in a supply chain and shared action toward accomplishing a university problem, still knowing the lines of demarcation for accountability, this enhancement of trust is very critical for superior performance with IT solutions. In our university, I think our chief procurement officer has this dialed in well. I learned so much about supply chain management from older, wiser managers in industry in my past, when I was on the other side of the aisle.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Kellen: The annual federal and state budget cycles matter as well as the news around that, so I try to stay on top of what legislation or budget decisions may come about. I read a plethora of technology websites and, more importantly, take advantage of the conferences in our industry and the access to CIO peers, which is a great source of learning. I also learn a lot talking with vendors, big and small, old and startup, and understanding what is going on in their world. I spend time talking with them to “reverse engineer” a vendor’s business model, its way of trying to make money, which then tells me a lot about what is going on in the industry.

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

Kellen: I am a skier and still ski with my wife (38 years of skiing together!) and our adult children who have been skiing since they could walk. I am also a hobby greenhouse grower and fruit tree orchard farmer (I grew up in horticulture, in a greenhouse) on the weekends, for which I pursue as much automation as I can, and solar-powered cooling and heating. I am a fan of reading about ancient Greek and Roman history, art (currently reading about Van Gogh, I was a studio art major in my undergraduate work) but also cognitive psychology related to visualization and working memory (my Ph.D. work). And, of course, I read a fair bit on different areas of technology (programming languages, data warehousing systems, project management, business and IT strategy).

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.