Evolving Role of the Chief Information Officer

After serving seven years as the Chief Information Officer at The University of Texas at Austin, I’m often asked about the experience and the evolving role of the CIO. Here are some thoughts:

Information Security Leadership

Own it. Lead by example. Set high IT staff expectations and accountability, and communicate to your constituents the urgent need to be continually vigilant and uncompromising. Information security threats are 24×7. Someone is always trying to break in and many times you don’t know what you don’t know.

State sponsored hacking has skyrocketed over the past few years. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and eastern European criminal cartels are always probing for weaknesses. The rapid shift to distance learning and remote work has increased the attack surface. Phishing and ransomware attacks have dramatically increased since March 2020 according to the FBI.

Ask your Chief Information Security Officer to test your IT staff, practices, and physical facilities to verify that you are leading by example.

Focus on IT Workforce Retention

In academia, we can truly commit to a real work/life balance for our IT workforce. Being able to offer work/life balance is a definite competitive edge in a booming high-tech city like Austin, Texas. Serving 52,000 students, 4,000 faculty members, and 21,000 staff at one of the top 25 public universities in the world is meaningful work, a winning proposition which speaks to all generations of workers.

You get to work in a fun environment with cool colleagues, learn about the latest technologies, experience stretch opportunities to build skills, and enjoy flexible work schedules and telecommuting.

Transition to the Cloud

Focus has shifted dramatically from buying and managing technical infrastructure to managing vendors and the services offered.  Since 2011, UT Austin has moved to  many industrial-strength cloud services: UT branded Gmail for students and alumni, Canvas learning management system, Box for file sharing, Qualtrics survey tool, Microsoft 365 and Teams for staff email and collaboration, Zoom video conferencing, Amazon Web Services, Azure, ServiceNow, Workday HR/Payroll, and Sailpoint (an Austin Technology Council member).

UT Austin was able to quickly transition to 100% online instruction and research in March 2020 because of this transition to cloud services several years earlier.

Changing IT Roles

Given the cloud transition, we now have highly skilled vendor managers, contract negotiators, and IT service managers. We also have more specialists in data integration, identity and access management, and security. Enterprise architects are necessary to determine how to best leverage cloud services. In the future, we will need fewer systems administrators and application developers.  We will always need experienced and skilled project managers.

Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence—How and When?

How can we employ data analytics to best support executive decision-making in order to achieve institutional priorities? Since the late 1990’s, there were a number of tools to make this happen. But these tools were cumbersome, expensive, and typically required costly, expert staff resources. Big data and artificial intelligence portend greater insights, yet many universities are not yet exploiting the opportunity. How and when will we break through?

Relationships Really Do Matter

In addition to working with campus constituencies to create and update IT strategies, a key role for the CIO is to build strong, trusted working relationships at many levels. This can never change. You must build authentic business relationships with those you serve: executive leadership, your boss, direct reports, your staff, peer colleagues, customers (students, faculty, administrators, and staff), influencers, and strategic vendors.

Best advice I followed was from a crusty and brilliant 40+ year faculty veteran soon after being named the CIO at UT Austin: “Get out of the office and let them know that you give a damn!”

Parting Thoughts

The CIO role is very rewarding and challenging. The average CIO tenure is only three to six years. CIOs get fired IMHO for one of three reasons: information security breach (even if it’s not their fault), email system failure, or troubled HR/Payroll/Finance implementations. Executive leadership change is the other most common reason for a CIO to leave. You must recognize that when it is time to move on, don’t hesitate to move on.

Brad Englert is an author, advisor, and technologist. Brad worked for Accenture for 22 years, including 10 years as a partner. He then served The University of Texas at Austin for eight years, including seven years as the Chief Information Officer (CIO). He founded Brad Englert Advisory in 2017. www.bradenglert.com