Season 2, Episode 2: "Should I abandon the CIO title?" with Gayleen Gray, AVP and CTO at McMaster University
Season 2, Episode 2: "Should I abandon the CIO title?" with Gayleen Gray, AVP and CTO at McMaster University
Today, I’m speaking with Gayleen Gray - the Assistant Vice President and CTO at McMaster University in Canada. On this episode, we explore the evolution of the CIO role and why we’re seeing more people adopting the CTO title today, how Gayleen brought the entire university along in her strategic planning process, how she measures success in her department, what peer communities Gayleen is involved in, and so much more.
She is a brilliant open book and I found so much to take away from this episode - it was hard to pick what elements to cut down in editing, so you’ll certainly enjoy this one.
Let me know what you thought of today’s discussion! You can tweet me at @netwkdisrupted + @awertkin, leave a review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or email me at email@example.com.
Read more about Gayleen on our blog.
Andrew: Hey, it's Andrew. You're listening to season two of Network Disrupted, where I help technology leaders trade notes on navigating disruption in our space. Today, I'm speaking with Gayleen Gray, the AVP and CTO at McMaster University. In this episode, we'll explore the evolution of the CIO role, why we're seeing more people adopting the CTO title today, how Gayleen brought the entire university along in her strategic planning process, plus the outcomes of that, how she measures success in her department, what peer community she's involved with, and so much more. She's a brilliant open book, and I found so much to take away from this episode it was hard to pick what elements to cut down in editing. I certainly hope you enjoy this one. Before we get into that, since we do cover community in this episode, I want to bring up one that I've been so impressed by recently, at least one person in Gayleen's team is part of this one, as am I. For any IT practitioners, especially those who touch network infrastructure, consider joining Network VIP. It's a free open vendor agnostic group that helps IT pros learn from one another, exchange best practices, and just generally connect. You can join at Bitly/ NetworkVIP. Be happy to see you there. Definitely message me if you're a listener and say," Hi." Let me know what your thought of today's discussion. You can tweet me a Network Disrupted, leave review on Apple or Spotify podcast. Actually, please do that. It would mean a lot to me. Or email me at andrew @ networkdisrupted. com.
Speaker 2: Maybe you can give me a sense of the complexity.
Gayleen: We love the pilot proof of concept approach.
Speaker 3: Influences everything. It influences the human experience.
Speaker 4: There were several failures along the way.
Speaker 5: We want to be an early adopter customers.
Speaker 6: You are handling sensitive information.
Speaker 7: Yeah, [inaudible 00:01: 38 ].
Andrew: Welcome, Gayleen. Thank you for joining. You are the AVP and CTO at McMaster, a local, well, a university here in Canada. It intrigued me and I see this more and more in industry now, that people with the job scope that traditionally might've had the title of CIO, now have the title of CTO. Can you give me a sense of how that evolution happened in your career and your perspective on it?
Gayleen: Sure. It is actually an interesting story. I've been at McMaster University now for three years and the title came with a position. I didn't have any input into that title. Ironically, I am the only CTO amongst all of my university peers across Canada. I think part of the thinking was the desire to try and create a level of engagement across the institution around technologies, not just chief information officer, but chief technology officer, because we do have quite an array of individuals who are steeped in technology implementations across campus. This provides people with some clarity that all technology really falls within my purview, even if I'm not the one implementing it all, or my team isn't the source of implementations. The idea of being in that, we're really trying to look at what technology can provide for the institution and our mission.
Andrew: Yeah. I think that's why the title's sort of shifting industry. It's this recognition that technology is part of the mission and whether that mission is education or that mission is creating commercial products or government services, technology is part and parcel of the strategy of the organization. I think it's a good thing, although maybe there's just too much baggage on the CIO title, as it may be more so you think of backend systems or networking and phones or sort of old style project style it as opposed to more engaged with the business on the mission.
Gayleen: Yeah, absolutely. It's quite interesting because the information, the I in the CIO, is really about what's traveling across the technology and that, of course, is a critical component for any organization. However, it has changing who reports to the CIO who reports to the CTO. Depending upon where you sit in which sector, I think those roles are flipping in terms of who's got the ultimate D, as I like to call it, the decision making power, and in higher education, I think that's true as well. Quite often there is a CIO and a CTO in my environment inaudible as far as that goes, but you're starting to see that at other large institutions where they'll have a CIO and a CTO and they work in tandem.
Andrew: Got it. Obviously, McMaster was thinking along these lines when they created the job title and they went out and recruited. I know one of the things you did when you came on board was create pretty exciting strategy of what you wanted to accomplish over the first two or three years. Maybe give me a sense of what you came in and saw and how that evolved into the strategy that you've been executing again.
Gayleen: Sure. Really interesting for me coming on board. I think this has been really great. The institution prior to my arrival and one of the reasons the CTO position was created, it was an output from an IT services review that took place. It was a pretty comprehensive review for the full campus, engaging people, both in surveys and one- on- one conversations and focus groups and what have you, peer led. CEOs from other higher education institutions from both Canada and the US participated in this process, provided McMaster with a pretty good and deep look into how its technology and information were being implemented or had been implemented and where some of the gaps were in terms of efficiencies or capabilities or investments or all of the above security, et cetera. When I came on board, I had this wonderful document that had been undertaken prior to my arrival that really outlined where some of the gaps were and some of the challenges and the desires of the institution for what it thought it could or should be from a technology perspective. That was a springboard for me and somewhat jokingly, but probably more seriously say to people now, especially these CIOs who go into institutions, if they haven't had that opportunity, if the institution hasn't been in IT services review, it's a wonderful way to get a benchmark on how things are going, so that you can make really good decisions as you move forward. For myself, that was a real win. I spent close to probably about four months before I started my strategic planning process. Have you listening mode for the first year, trying to validate what I read in the IT services review and what was being told to me by people.
Andrew: Did they do that services review internally, or did they hire a third party to come and do it?
Gayleen: No, it was a pure review, which is probably a more common that to me, that you will hear about within higher education. It happens in a variety of different ways, but for this case, there was three CIO's out in the United States and then two or three who were from Canada plus a team internally. They created this team of individuals that undertook the process and put together the final document.
Andrew: Got it.
Gayleen: Yeah. You had some real experts from within the sector, which makes a huge difference because-
Andrew: Within the sector, but also not within the institution as well.
Gayleen: Correct. You've got a lens from outside. That's right. Yeah, because you don't know what you don't know, and everybody does this a little bit differently and I know we'll touch on that, I'm sure, as we have another conversation. The wonderful world of higher- education IT. My strategic plan was a pretty engaging process as well. Even though they'd gone through the IT services review that happened in 2016, my strategic planning process was in 2019. It was time to validate and level set again. Things have changed, some things have changed and obviously I was new to the institution and we've ended up with this amazing, I like to think, of course I'm a little bias, but it's an IT strategic plan that really encompasses the full institution. Even though it's focused on IT, one of the key pillars, there's three pillars across the strategic plan. One of the key ones is about the connected McMaster community. That really is about galvanizing the institution, not just the IT folks within the institution, but the institution at large, to work together and to embrace the opportunity that technology and systems can provide, to help us achieve the mission of the institution. That is a pretty critical one. The other one is probably not that surprising, seamless foundation. We really do talk about, we need underpinnings both in terms of hardware, infrastructure, but also systems infrastructure to ensure that we can do what we need to do. Then there's transformative technologies, which is about building on top of that to really do my terminology, delightful technology on top of the seamless foundation. We can really achieve and move faster and be more innovative.
Andrew: Right. Yeah. I used to work with the head of products who used to say he wanted a dash of delight in every release and just something for the users.
Gayleen: Yeah. A hundred percent. You get it totally. I don't think a lot of people think about that from an IT perspective, but at the end of it all, it's useless if people aren't using our technology and being able to accomplish what they need to. We're enabling. It's really about what they're doing with the technology and how they're using it that matters.
Andrew: Yeah, no for sure. Delight isn't necessarily something that's measurable.
Andrew: I don't know. It's a qualitative feedback that users are engaged, that they appreciate it, which is good.
Gayleen: I knew when our dean of engineering, Sharp Perry, told me he wanted to steal the word. I thought I landed on the right word there. The engineers can get on board with delight, then everybody else should be able to as well.
Andrew: It is an odd word. I remember thinking that. It's an odd word for engineers. How do I drive delight?
Gayleen: Everybody wants a little sprinkle of magic in whatever they're working on. Why not?
Andrew: Yeah, no, exactly. We talked about when we were talking about before, there's a part to your strategy that are attacking deficiencies in wireless or connectivity or other areas. Then some were process related as well. I remember using the term, I believe something like revolutionary transparency in the way you're dealing with the business. Can you give me a sense of what you meant by that term and what that means to you?
Gayleen: Yeah, for sure. I should let you and your listeners know that I have an honors degree in English literature. II tend to use more creative language maybe than most people would in a technology realm. Yeah. Revolutionary transparency, this started with my arrival on campus and part of this is very cultural, but it's also very personal. I'm a real open book person and I'm a relationship builder and I'm pretty, what you see is what you get as far as how I engage in all interactions with people. My strategic planning process was very much that as well. It was a very engaging, bringing people together, have really big open conversations and ensure that people have an opportunity to weigh in, provide input. Then as we move into the implementation, similarly, that transparency, I really believe it's important that people understand how are decisions getting made? Who's involved in them? What's the cost of this implementation? How is it going to serve me and heavy laden with communication over top of all of that so people stay informed.
Andrew: Do you find that there are times where those sorts of processes can lead to a, I don't know... Sometimes if you try to meet everybody's requirements, you end up meeting nobody's requirements. You meet 80% of everybody's requirements, but maybe you haven't delighted anybody. Sometimes, the heavier those processes are, the less likely you are to take a bet on something that might be more transformative.
Gayleen: I don't think transparency has to mean consensus necessarily. I think helping people to understand the why behind things is really important. It doesn't mean that everybody's necessarily going to drive the why in their direction only because you are dealing with a large number of people. There's some really good reasons why we would choose a particular direction. It might have to do with the analysis that we went through in helping to boil down what the needs are across campus. You have to pick the 80/ 20 rule sometimes. We're not going to be everybody's favorite flavor of everything. In my environment, that can work really well because there are opportunities for us to deliver something from a central it perspective, but people have the agency to go out and do some of their unique things that maybe aren't going to fit into that. We do have that flexibility. It's not an all- in only approach to delivering technology.
Andrew: Yeah. That's really intriguing and I think very important. We talked about this before this idea that centralized IT and centralized governance doesn't necessarily mean that everything is done this way. It can leave room for federated solutions or people doing their own thing when their own thing meets the general security requirements or governance requirements, and more specifically meets what they need to get their job done.
Gayleen: Yeah, absolutely. I think examples would be well right now, it's quite fascinating. We offer some tool sets for education. Obviously, McMaster is one of the institutions that decided pretty early in that we weren't bringing everybody back to campus. We've moved 95% of our course delivery to online, which was not the norm. We've provided tool sets like Zoom is an example or Microsoft teams and for some individuals that works for them and for others in our faculty of health sciences, they have a particular platform that they use. That's fine. Web hosting is another really great example. We are currently working on a web strategy for the campus. It's very desegregated in terms of how people have undertaken web delivery across the board, but from a web hosting, which we're going to try and create a central opportunity. If that doesn't fit everybody's needs, as long as some of the key tenets of brand security, accessibility are met, fine. I think you have to pick. In our environment, we have to be really aware that it's so diverse in terms of what people are doing and who they're delivering to, whether it's a researcher, it's faculty or instructors, students, staff. We have so many constituency groups trying to do it all this way or forget about it. I would be the person that people would be saying, forget about it to, because it's just too diverse and environment. We have to find the guidelines and try and help people stay within those guidelines. There will be deviations from them.
Andrew: I think you said, you think along foundation, connectedness and delight. Do you have specific measures as you execute against the strategy both internally where you want to be, but also I'm assuming you're transparent in sharing those measurements with the organization?
Gayleen: Yeah. I do struggle a little bit. People love the KPI mentality. How are we going to know that we're doing all those right things? I think it's an interesting dialogue with the institution. What do you want to know? How do you want us to measure success? I can throw lots of numbers of people about uptime and how many tickets. I don't know that that's effective. It's back to that trust piece. When I have faculty or researchers coming to me saying," Hey, we want to do this thing. Can you help us?" That's a huge success factor in my books because it means people think that we can actually help them to achieve what they need to when I can partner and we can do pilots and try things on. Then it moves into your production system. I think that's a great measurement of success. We're trying to do a lot of our success show back, if you will, through storytelling and trying to create the story around the way in which we're supporting the institution. One individual researcher, faculty, dean, whomever at a time, and yet do it all. We're trying to spread ourselves across all of those areas. There's lots of really great stories. I had a faculty member who came forward and struggling with an issue of trying to deliver a virtual lab environment to his students that allowed him to have a little bit more control over how they engage, because he found that part of the time to teach was being taken up with this really prolonged process of how do you do this and where do you go here? He wanted to create an environment that was a little bit more structured. We partnered with him and put together some technology and went through two semesters of back and forth engagement around that. Now, we've implemented something using the Microsoft virtual environments too and spun that up this year. What a great opportunity working it out with him. We've got something in production now that allowed us to ensure a students had lab environments that they could log into that's being used more broadly. Exactly. Beyond just his courses works for him, but gave us some opportunity to try something that the team hadn't tried before. There's a win- win on both sides.
Andrew: Yeah. I love stories like that because I think too often we focus top down and then you go into requirements, gathering mode and define these big projects and big budgets are necessary and it's uncertain if it's going to work or not. You sort of go bottoms up like that, start with a well- defined problem, that smaller set of stakeholders, it's easier to solve that problem. Then the best case scenario is that problem is shared across other stakeholders. Now, you've got a solution to go with, sort of an experimentation model as opposed to a heavy analysis model.
Gayleen: Yeah. We love the pilot proof of concept approach. It's really great for me because again, keeping my mind on delight, I'm trying to think about where are those little moments where we can do something a little bit different than isn't standard IT that are going to create these opportunities to say," Look, we can do this, or we can support something." It could be that we had a pilot to initiative with one of our professors out of our anatomy area, in the faculty of health sciences doing virtual reality. we've created this really cool little virtual reality app for our nuclear reactor. We were looking for a use case and it's a very cool little project. It's probably not something that we're going to be able to leverage into something bigger for the campus, not from a central IT perspective anyway, but what it's done is open up the whole conversation about virtual reality and virtual reality labs. How can we build something that more people can tap into or have access to?
Andrew: Meanwhile, I think I just heard you're playing around with new technology and nuclear reactor in the same sentence.
Gayleen: Yeah. I know. It's always my mic drop moment was my [inaudible 00: 17: 49 ]. We have a nuclear reactor. We're going to talk about your complexity. Let me talk about a nuclear reactor.
Andrew: Seamless foundations. What do you mean by that?
Gayleen: Well, the intention around that was the foundation piece being a network that really works well. Yes, we've got the wired network for McMaster. When I arrived there, wireless was not ubiquitous across campus. We're making that happen so that it's not, everybody's being their own network facility. We'd had all sorts of rogue networks that were popping up here, there and everywhere because that's the way things work in a world where people have the skill sets that they can do that. If it's not available to me, I'll just make my own. Seamless is we're all on the same network. We're trying to create foundational systems and technologies that people can use if they choose to and that are consistent across campus. Everybody gets it. It's kind of like a benchmark or a bar that above this could be more customized. Maybe there's different things, but we want everybody consistently to have access, to elevate their ability to do the things that they need to do. It's also our ERPs. We are a PeopleSoft institution and that was one of the big projects before my arrival. That seamless foundation, again, having that environment is really important, but what we're looking at now, when we're looking for innovation or to enhance digital experiences, isn't about building more PeopleSoft. It's now about integrating systems with PeopleSoft. We're looking for systems that will leverage the data, which is the authoritative source and information can flow in and out of that. It's actually creating a completely different interface.
Andrew: Yeah. Well, it's that whole idea of system of engagement versus system of record. It's interesting, just from an industry standpoint, you watch the large ERP vendors, there's all these small startups that create way better and way more engaging systems for users to interact with the data that ultimately this gigantic system is authoritative for. I've used plenty of those. Some of them are great and some of them are seeming just as cloogy, but regardless I won't name names. Then the large ERP companies go and buy those companies. Regardless, yeah, those systems, most of those large systems were built in a day when certainly delight was so far away from what they were trying to.
Gayleen: Yeah. It's hard. These are large scale implementations and trying to upgrade and improve them takes a long time. As an example, we have two new admission systems that we're implementing one for graduate and one for undergraduate, and they are going to tie into this, but they are going to create a completely different workflow and experience for both the people on campus who have to use them, but also for the students that will engage with them, the prospective students that will engage with them. I love those stories and that's really part of that. That's that transformative technology piece. Let's keep that foundation, continue to improve it, upgraded, do what we need to do there, let's bring these new and where it makes sense so that we are much more rapidly able to address the challenges people have experienced with that.
Andrew: Most of the large networking companies are either acquiring or building wifi six, next generation wifi type capabilities. Is this an area where you over- invested or you looked for something that was bleeding edge future- wise or was it just mostly cleaning up what you had today? Or how did you look at the wifi problem?
Gayleen: When undertaking an enhancement project, you're kind of plopping things into place within an environment that's already in place. We were a Cisco shop. We worked with our colleagues at Cisco to determine what the best access points were. We did try to push that to the newest, greatest, which anybody implementing on a large scale knows. Newest, greatest sometimes means there's little challenges that come with being on the bleeding edge, but things are going really well now. That's going in place. I think from an exploration, one of the things that's really needed for a campus environment is you have researchers. A lot of people were really quite keen about understanding the whole 5G environment and what does that look like? We're having some conversations to see if we can help to build some innovation opportunities on campus around that. I don't think that that's really, it's not in a place where we would want to make a big investment from a business, if you will, environment status. I do think it's important to understand the technology and look at what those innovation capabilities are. For me, that's always about working with a researcher or bringing somebody in so that we'll get two sides of the benefit. One is going to be exploring it and being able to learn more about the technology, the other might be some innovation or research that can get built on that as well. It is true that evaluation of technology, because the funding, we're on our refresh cycle now, which helps a lot. That was something that we implemented is really creating a reserve fund. We were trying to plan 10 years out, what needs to continue to be refreshed, so that we can contain that seamless foundation ongoing? The challenge is really trying to think ahead. It takes a long time for us to get through a full refresh cycle on the whole campus. You're always trying to implement new, but it's got to work well with what you already have and the skill sets of the people who support that also need to be at a par with that. They're going to learn something from the new technology. You've got to maintain technologies here. The constant churn of new developments.
Andrew: Right. Good. One last topic. You mentioned it a couple of times, and I would imagine there's industry consortiums in almost every industry I work with in my customer base for sure. It sounds like you leverage your peers in higher education in more than a rudimentary, let's get together once a quarter and have a couple cocktails way. It seems like it's something foundational in your role.
Gayleen: Absolutely. Yeah, it is. In Canada, we have something called the council of university, a CIOs, Canadian CIOs. I think there's 67 CIOs from across Canada now that are part of that. It's national. Then in Ontario, there is an Ontario version of that. The subset of CIO's in Ontario who also come together regularly, and it probably is part of what brings me joy in my job overall because it can be somewhat isolated in the type of role that I have within the campus. I'm doing something quite different and I'm very supported in my environment, but that breadth of knowledge, experience wisdom from across my CIOs, they're very trusted relationships and it's not only at the CIO level, we have an IT security, special interest group that shares information. Then we have started to push that out across a bunch of other special interest groups as well, communicators and network and data. What have you in there's a lot of things that we deal with that have some idiosyncrasies that are very higher education and specifically university focused, that it's helpful to have people who've gone through it. A lot of times, well, on a daily basis, I am talking to you or emailing with one or all of those CIOs. We have a very active list and we're sharing a lot of information. That transpires into, I have relationships with colleagues in the United States as well. Somewhat similar, not quite as coordinated, but it's really important. It's across all subjects, including our careers, career aspirations, how we're developing a CIO's, what our strategies are and how we're building out the sector in terms of experience and knowledge as well. It's been absolutely fundamental. For myself, it's been really a big part of why I love what I do.
Andrew: Right. Universities are constantly working together. Not just IT, but research and everywhere else. Collaboration is core part of it.
Andrew: It's not surprising to hear, but it must be something that sounds like leveraging brings a lot of value.
Gayleen: Yeah. It brings a huge amount of value for us. It's a lot of good truth telling.
Andrew: No, for sure. Super. It was delightful talking to you. The best of luck going forward. It sounds like you've handled the, you were prepared for and handled the switch to virtual learning well. I'm sure there was moments of chaos throughout, but...
Gayleen: It's been exciting. It's been exciting. It's also been a great way of rapid adoption implementation for a number of things that we were going to try to move forward with anyway. Now, we've brought people along a heck of a lot faster than we would have elsewise use every good opportunity to advance your cause, I guess.
Andrew: Yeah. No, right compelling events or compelling events. This is one nobody wanted obviously, but it's a compelling event.
Gayleen: It will change. I think it's going to change everything for everyone and in many different ways, but certainly from a higher education perspective, lots of change, remote working. You and your colleagues are no doubt feeling that too. Yeah. Lots of things will be different as a result this, so I think we take the best of it and hopefully get to pack away the things that didn't go so well and go back to the good things that we had before in some cases.
Andrew: Right. For sure. Wonderful. Okay. Well, thank you very much.
Gayleen: Thanks, Andrew. Great talking to you.