DePaul's Vince Kellen says the secret to success in academic IT is getting buy-in from a much larger community than would be required in the corporate world.

Feb 09 2007

Culture Shock

Moving from the private sector to academia can be a challenging transition for IT professionals.

Moving from the private sector to academia can be a challenging transition for IT professionals.

At first glance, taking a college information technology job after working in the highspeed, hypercompetitive environment that is corporate America might seem like an opportunity to skate a little bit. Don't count on it.

“People coming in are going to find a vastly different culture than what they're used to in the corporate world,” says Stephen Lightcap, vice president for finance and administration at Cabrini College, Radnor, Pa. “They've got to be prepared for those differences if they're going to cope and be effective.”

Academic IT is typically decentralized in every conceivable way, from management to funding, and it has to support a range of missions, including complex research activities. IT staffers must accommodate more diversity, develop collaborative communication skills and cope with a slower decision cycle than is typical in the corporate world.

The vibrant, cerebral world of higher education, however, can be invigorating for IT professionals who thrive on new challenges and are willing to adjust to a different way of doing things.

These are the stories of three IT specialists who've made the transition successfully.

Vince Kellen, CIO DePaul University

In higher education, unlike the corporate world, IT administrators 38 aren't necessarily impressed by a colleague's title and position.

Power lies in one's ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships and leverage hard-earned influence to facilitate change, says Kellen.

“There's a much more bottom-up, communal approach to decisionmaking at universities,” he explains. “You have to find ways to accommodate all the differences in the organization and you've got to deal with pockets of the organization much lower than you would do in a corporate setting. It's definitely harder to mandate one specific thing.”

Kellen was a partner in a large consulting firm that provided advice on customer relationship management (CRM) applications and data warehousing.

He worked as an adjunct professor for several years before he decided to make the move to academia full time. He became familiar with the environment and learned to enjoy quick successes, such as standardizing at the desktop level and on a core enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform – or using CRM techniques to manage students' computing issues.

He came to understand that, at the university level, the responsibility for driving IT change tends to fall largely on the CIO's shoulders.

“In the corporate world, you can usually get one or two business people to throw their support behind you,” Kellen says, “but in the academic world, because of its fragmented nature, it's harder to get a true business partner to subscribe.”

“As a result,” he adds “many times it looks like central IT is the only one pushing something through, and so you have a big bull's eye on your chest.”

Kellen's primo piece of advice: Drop the corporate-speak, learn the language that educators speak and speak to them in that language. Otherwise, he says, “they'll immediately dismiss you as not understanding higher education.”

Virginia Tech's Karl Larson says the academic culture doesn't allow IT directors to rein in the faculty, even if you think they're on the wrong track. “You have to work with them.”

Photo Credit: DAVID DUNCAN

Karl Larson, Senior IT Auditor, Virginia Tech

Larson has made the trek from corporate America to higher education more than once during his career as an IT administrator, but his more recent move to Virginia Tech still proved to be a “bit of a culture shock.”

He worked at the University of Basel in Switzerland between corporate IT stints at Starwood Hotels and Kaiser Permanente, but he was still surprised at the slow pace and highly decentralized environment at Virginia Tech.

“It took a lot longer to learn where everything was and who to call in order to solve problems outside of my control,” he explains, noting that moving from IT operations to IT auditing made his transition especially difficult.

But the differences are very real, and IT administrators need to be prepared to accept the quirks of their new environment, Larson says. The faculty, which he calls “the third rail of university IT,” has no counterpart in the corporate world.

“You're supposed to let them do pretty much their own thing, which definitely runs counterintuitive to the way things are done in the corporate world, where you pretty much have dominion over everyone,” says Larson. “Here you have the responsibility to support the faculty, but if they're doing something really different or even wrong, the culture doesn't allow you to really rein them in. You just have to work with them.”

The faculty's sense of ownership of computers and applications can block any attempt at a homogeneous environment, which is frustrating for an IT pro who has worked in a highly standardized corporate shop and is used to the idea of “fix one problem, fix them all,” says Larson.

Life in an academic setting certainly has benefits that outweigh any difficulties, stresses Larson. He can take classes, travel to IT conferences and sit in on presentations by world-class speakers. He also enjoys a more laid-back lifestyle that gets him home every day by 6 p.m. and never requires him to deal with emergencies at 3 a.m.

Robin Beck CIO at the University of Pennsylvania, advises job switchers to examine a school's culture and try to find a comfortable match.


Robin Beck, CIO University of Pennsylvania

Making the move from General Electric to the University of Pennsylvania 16 years ago was surprisingly easy. That's because Beck anticipated the challenges and made sure to take a job with a university that closely mirrored the large-scale, decentralized environment at GE.

“It's important to realize that there is no one single university culture, just as there is no single corporate culture,” she says. “I don't think I would have been as successful or as satisfied at a small campus or in a culture less complex than Penn's. I liked that decentralized environment. I like the idea of bringing together an organization with multiple moving parts.”

Beck's smooth transition offers a number of “lessons learned” for other in a higher education setting. First, she advises job switchers to be deliberate and take the time to analyze their own skills, but also to fully investigate the culture of any potential academic employer. She advises asking some key questions: What are you really looking for? What satisfies you in your job? What's the culture like, and is there a match there?

“You've got to do the same due diligence that you would if you were thinking about moving to another corporate job.”

New IT administrators must recognize that an academic setting is complex and challenging, as are its end users – many of them techsavvy Millennials with over-the-top expectations.

“It is a fact that you cannot be complacent here: You're going to be pushed,” she says, noting that the IT department at Penn is already making use of blogs and wikis, and they're preparing to offer text messaging to deliver course grades to students. “It's not for everyone, but if you like that constant challenge, then higher education is a wonderful place for an IT specialist to work.”

Stephen Lightcap, Vice president for finance and administration at Cabrini College, says, “expect students to be hyper tech-savvy.”


The Right Attitude for the Job

Information technology skills often transfer seamlessly from corporate to academic environments. Attitude does not. Stephen Lightcap, vice president for finance and administration at Cabrini College, Radnor, Pa., says that's why he looks for personal traits when evaluating an IT staff candidate who's coming from corporate. Key qualities: flexibility, patience and an open mind. “You need someone who is able to change his or her spots to fit into a culture that is worlds apart from the corporate environment – a culture that can be suspicious of people who like to charge in fast and make decisions based largely on personal and professional perspectives,” says Lightcap. Advice for newcomers from the corporate world:

  • Be a willing and enthusiastic student of the higher education culture, because the more you understand, the more effective you'll be in your job.
  • Give up the corporate lingo and learn to speak the language of academic IT. Demonstrate your willingness to adapt to your new environment.
  • Understand that process and stakeholder relationships – while difficult to establish and maintain – are critical to the success of an IT enterprise.
  • Don't be surprised to find that the administrative assistant down the hall has as much clout in major IT decisions as a high-level director from another building.
  • Be patient – the pace of decision-making is painstakingly slow, even when you're in crisis mode.

One more thing, says Lightcap: Your students may be more tech-savvy than you are. They approach IT services with a demanding, consumeroriented mind-set. Maintain confidence in your background and experience, but be prepared to work like a mad professor to keep your IT skills and knowledge on the leading edge.