Monday, March 28, 2016

Foresight Rules, Hindsight Drools

Many IT leaders have experienced the fallout that happens when their schools decide to make changes without adequately considering how those changes will affect the computing environment. 

The beginning of spring quarter is a good time for IT leaders to be on the lookout for imminent problems other administrators may not have seen as changes for the next academic year grow closer to being etched in stone.

A typical example is when schools, particularly multi-divisional schools, want to overhaul schedules. Often, schedule changes will alter those temporal "match points" where the schedule for one division lines up with another. Changing the length and/or frequency of instructional periods can throw these match points out of alignment, thus creating a new level of contention for computing resources -- unless, of course, proactive measures are taken to prevent it.

Another example is when students, counselors, and department chairs are all working on scheduling students for the next academic year. Original course requests made in winter quarter are fluid in many schools, with changes taking place even right up to (and even beyond) the first weeks of school. If there are courses that require specific computing hardware, enrollment numbers in those classes must acknowledge those limitations, or, again, proactively plan to address them if enrollment is to be increased.

As an IT leader, one cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and wait for the inevitable "aha!" moment when others realize in hindsight they've created a problem and come to you to solve it at the last minute. Even a well-resourced IT budget cannot take a large, unplanned hit because there wasn't appropriate foresight; technology has been in schools for a long time and should be part of any administrative change management strategy, regardless of the kind of change being planned. It may be up to you as an IT leader to make sure that happens until such time as others' foresight grows. Ideally, you will be invited to share input on these kinds of changes early on in the planning process. 

If you haven't already done so, take a moment now to take a look at things at your school. If you see any upcoming changes that may affect your budget for the next fiscal year, you'd be wise to investigate them now, and thoroughly so. Otherwise you may be in for one of those surprises no one wants. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Wrights Got It Right

Don’t you just hate airport delays? I was headed back to Chicago last week after visiting family out east when a mechanical issue kept my flight on the ground for an extra three hours. Happily, I’d downloaded David McCullough’s wonderful recounting of the Wright brothers’ quest to fly.

I like non-fiction because I generally find real life more interesting than anything else I can read, and this book did not let me down. As a long-time teacher steeped in the progressive tradition, it thrilled me to see how these talented and driven individuals took command of their own learning in a way that would change the world. Here are some of the traits and habits that led to their eventual success:

They read like crazy and didn’t put much stock in school. Their family loved books and had many of them in the house. When the brothers wanted to learn something, they started reading. 

They were only inspired to work harder when they failed.  And they failed, thousands of times, but they never let their failures discourage them. They were meticulous in documenting what they did so they could better analyze their progress over time. 

They watched birds for hours. They understood that nature could be a powerful teacher. Who knows more about flying than birds? Their ability to observe the different ways birds used their wings opened the door for improvements in their designs. 

They argued passionately for their ideas, but conceded when it was clear one of them made a better case than the other.  They were able to set their ideas aside when convinced to do so; had they let their pride get the better of them, they may never have succeeded. 

They actively sought the best thinkers in their field. Whether writing to Octave Chanute in France, or contacting the head of the Smithsonian to get information about the history of flying machines, they valued what others had done and learned from it. 

I’m not quite done with the book yet, but the kind of powerful affirmation of what makes good learning not only helped me pass the time in the airport but renewed my vigor to keep Lab focused on the traits and habits that develop learners who can change the world.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Talking with "New" Teachers

It was my pleasure to spend an hour talking with our "new" teachers earlier this week. Of course, these highly experienced teachers are only new to Lab, but it is always an enjoyable exercise to find out what they think of Lab and learn more about the remarkable skills and talents they bring to the Schools.

The topic I was assigned -- sharing what I see as the "big picture" at Lab -- was not technology specific, so I took the opportunity to talk about the many hats I've worn here and the kind of work I've done with kids and grown ups in many different places and roles dating back to 1977.

I never much cared for complacency and don't like doing the same thing over and over again, as my resume clearly indicates; no doubt some audience members think I'm a little nuts for changing roles so often. A career like that is not everyone's cup of tea.

My intention was to give one example of the freedom Lab offers for professionally restless people like me to reinvent themselves, their teaching practices, and the relationship they have with the Schools.  It's one of the very best things about Lab, and as we grow, there will only be more such opportunities for finding new, creative ways to keep things fresh and challenging ourselves to reach higher and take more risks. It's an exciting time.

I had no idea if this would be of any help to my audience or not. The good news is that I've gotten some positive feedback on the session and made some personal connections with teachers I don't get to see as often as I'd like. I hope I have a similar opportunity next year!

Of course, I couldn't help sneaking in a few pieces of advice. Some of them may be obvious (I have been told by people who love me that I've redefined the art of stating the obvious), but I couldn't resist having a bully pulpit for a few minutes.  Here's what I ended with:

  • Lab needs people who have the chops to say when the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Don't hesitate to be one, because sometimes we need a constructive kick in the pants. Challenge the status quo and bring your best thinking to it; lean into discomfort, have no fear of being direct and challenge each other to be better no matter how good you are. 
  • Keep a focus outside Lab to fuel your teaching. A certain insularity can creep up on you here, and you have to watch out for it. 
  • Let the kids lead. You get great kids to work with here. The unplanned things that happen are often the best.
  • We tend to think things to death before acting, and occasionally get more caught up in adult process issues than is good for kids. You'll know it's happening when you feel like you are swimming upstream, or riding a tricycle through a pool of molasses.  It's OK to call shenanigans when we are overthinking things. Bringing clarity and candor to our conversations is always a good thing.
  • Administrators are here to help. We really do care and work hard to be responsive to all. We often have to swim upstream to get things done, too, and the current is usually stronger for us than it is for you. That's because we are responsible for all parts of the school and have to consider the bigger picture. We're also more directly accountable to the University. Don’t assume we don’t care if it takes longer than you would like to address your concerns or meet your expectations. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015: The IS Year in Review

It’s hard to know where to begin in reflecting on this tumultuous year for IS.  The Schools accomplished many great things, but none of them was easy or simple. The year was an extraordinary test of flexibility, teamwork, patience, and grit. I’m proud to say that the IS team performed like the thoroughbreds they are. 

So many tasks and projects took place over the course of the year that it would take time I don’t have to note them all, so I’ll keep the list to only the most significant milestones, which included:
  • opening the Gordon Parks Arts Hall, a new 95,000 square foot facility with an assembly hall, the Sherry Lansing Theater, the Markovitz Family Drama Studio, and many spacious and beautiful classrooms for music, art, and drama programs.  
  • preparing for the renovation of Judd Hall, which meant relocating 83 people (including the IS team) from administrative offices and classroom spaces to either temporary or new locations elsewhere on the Historic Campus. Renovation is currently in progress and is slated to be complete for the opening of school next fall, at which time we’ll have an additional 38,000 square feet of space. 
  • event support in these new spaces, which posed a plethora of challenges; while we are all thrilled to have these kinds of facilities available, there is a lot to do in managing space reservations, sophisticated audiovisual systems, and developing policies and practices for their use. 
  • IS’ hiring excellent candidates to replace two departing team members. An additional tech support specialist joined the team. 
  • Schoology’s selection as a the Schools’ learning management system in October. A soft launch was prepared as the fall quarter ended. 
Keeping a team (and myself) focused and steady when the workload is 200-300% of normal was challenging, to be sure. But it’s a good example of what can happen if you’ve developed a high level of trust and candor among your team members over time. A team with those attributes and skills prevails in a pressure-packed situation; a team that doesn’t just implodes. 

We take pride in looking back on the year and at the scope and scale of what we accomplished together. There are many more challenges ahead as construction continues through next fall, but we know after the events of 2015 that we can handle pretty much anything the Schools throw our way. 

More soon…in the meantime, Semper Gumby!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Leadership 101: Avoiding the Bermuda Triangle

One of the most basic skills any leader with any hope of success needs to master is avoiding triangulation. You know the scenario: an issue arises between Party A and Party B. Party A goes to a third party to complain about Party B.

The third party intervenes and talks to Party B, often with good intentions, or because they think it's their job, or they don't realize what's about to happen. Party B then complains about Party A to the third party, and things deteriorate rapidly as all three parties enter the Bermuda Triangle where effective communication goes to die.

The only way to avoid triangulation is to ask a simple question when Party A wants to involve you as the third party: "Have you talked with Party B about these concerns? I suggest you do so, honestly and candidly, and then let me know how that turns out." Then you smile, turn, and walk away.

That's it. So simple, yet over and over again, I see smart, talented people walk right into the Bermuda Triangle time and again, and I really can't understand why. My best guess is that they are just not comfortable thinking about the potentially uncomfortable conversation Party A and Party B might have when they sit down together, so they try to grease the wheels so the uncomfortable conversation never happens. That's a shame, for it's most often the case that getting to the bottom of an issue requires people to be uncomfortable while they figure things out.

if you are party A, don't go to a third party. Go the source. Stop the game before it starts, and begin with a "help me understand" approach. You may have to do this a couple of times before you start to get results. If your repeated efforts are ignored or otherwise unsuccessful, then you may need to engage a third party (more on this below).

If you are party B, and a third party tries to engage you on behalf of Party A, refuse to play the game. Simply say, "I'm sorry to hear Party A is having a problem that may involve me. I would like to speak with them directly and will contact them promptly to address this. Would you like me to let you know how that turned out?"

Are there times when a third party should get involved in resolving an issue? Of course. If Parties A and B have made a genuine effort to resolve an issue but haven't been successful, then by all means intervene, but only to facilitate, preferably with both parties in the same room. Don't get caught running back and forth between the two parties; it implies an adversarial relationship between the parties that isn't healthy for the institution.

You may also find recurring patterns of poor performance, unclear expectations, or institutional constraints that create conditions conducive to conflict. The right third party can bring a different perspective to such situations and help both parties understand the larger context that may be making communication difficult.

Ultimately, what we want is for people to develop sufficient trust to enjoy healthy working relationships. That's not possible without a commitment to candor in our conversations with one another, even when it means agreeing to disagree or being uncomfortable while we work together to solve problems and clarify expectations. Most of the time, you can't and shouldn't outsource these conversations. We should all know by now what happens when you do.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Semper Gumby

Last time I outlined what was ahead of us as the new school year draws ever closer. As of this writing, we are kind of in this situation:

We're making headway, and it's all uphill, but at least we cans see the crest of the wave. We're almost done packing for our move next week, when we will also be moving lots of other people. We had a staff meeting this week where we agreed not to talk about moving and construction and focus instead on all the tasks we would normally do to prepare for a new school year. That turned out to be a good idea. 

From a leadership and management perspective, being part of a massive building project is one of the best tests of one's ability to stay focused on what you can control and let go of what you can't. The venerable 7 Habits literature does a good job of helping delineate the two. 

If you're not able to do that very well, a project like this will absolutely throw you and your work group into a kind of disarray that's hard to escape. You must confirm regularly and clearly with your team what your priorities are and are not, and you must also expect and model a high level of flexibility and resilience when carefully crafted plans inevitably get turned upside down by external events beyond your control. It is a master class in "adapt, improvise, and improve" as the Marines say, and encapsulate even better with "Semper Gumby" (for younger DITBits readers, here's who Gumby is). 

More reports from the belly of the construction beast next time. In the meantime, "Semper Gumby!"

Friday, July 31, 2015

Pedal to the Metal Time

Last time, I promised a look at what's ahead for your friendly neighborhood Lab IT team in the next few months. All I can say is: it's prodigious. The IS team and I are up for the challenge, but I would be hard pressed to imagine that any future span of time will see the level of furious activity just ahead.

Here's what we're looking at:

  • As of this afternoon, we just finished supporting 1,000 summer school students and their teachers at Earl Shapiro Hall and the Historic Campus while doing the same for an expanded number of High Jump classrooms.

  • This week, we took delivery of 70 iMacs, 30 printers, 251 laptops, 75 chromebooks, and 8 new carts for housing the mobile laptops. That means that we also have to remove about 240 laptops going out of service after 5 years, wipe all those hard drives, and get them to a reseller.  Then we have to build, test, and then install a software image on all the new hardware in the next four weeks. We also have to figure out how to dispose of the old carts, which are about the size and weight of a Volkswagen. Who needs a health club?

  • Print and copy services are also seeing upgrades. At long last, we'll be able to replace the more than 30 of the last remaining Xerox printers on site with new Kyocera units. Of course, there are print drivers to install and communication to be done. More importantly, we have started the roll out of Uniflow, a print management software package that should give our users some good new options for getting things done on our large MultiFunction Devices while also giving IS some great new tools for managing print and copy services. 

  • Starting Monday, we begin the process of overseeing the temporary relocation of more than 80 employees as renovations begin in Judd. This means moving computers, making sure people have data and power lines where they're needed, and removing installed audiovisual systems from ceilings, walls, and closets. Many of these moves involve the core administrative teams in the school: Admissions, Alumni/Development, Auxiliary Programs, the Director, and the Office of Educational Programs. This will involve a lot of time outside normal business hours. The hardest part of these moves is that the IS group is among them. The amount of equipment, accessories, and supplies we have to move is formidable and we will need to do this while we are moving others and preparing for the start of the school year. These must all be done in a particular sequence and must be completed on time as there is no margin for error and no room for surprises. 

  • When we get access to the nearly-done Gordon Parks Arts Hall, we will need to move a significant amount of new and existing equipment into the new spaces as quickly as possible given that there will not be many days between occupancy and the start of school. In that same time span, we will be expected to learn enough about the sophisticated new audiovisual system in the Assembly Hall to host opening day festivities and a host of other activities already booked for that new space. We will also be working with UC IT to make sure connectivity is working as planned, and doing the same with the Moore Group, our audiovisual contractor on this phase of the project. 
  • Renovations in portions of the High School are also under way, taking many spaces offline and forcing more temporary shifts of people and equipment. 

  • We are also deeply involved with the academic divisions in selecting and implementing a Learning Management System to ease communication with parents and students. Haiku and Schoology are our two finalists, and while the choice is not up to IS to make (and properly so), we will have a tight timeline between the October decision date and the rollout over winter break. 

  • And finally (there's way more than what I've written so far, but this post is too long already), we have to hire for three positions: an added position for tech support and vacant spots for a  Database Analyst and Technology Integration Specialist for the World Language Lab. These hires are in process and at least two should be filled in time for school to be open.       
As if this wasn't enough, I should probably mention that I agreed to serve the Schools as the interim director of operations after a staff departure in that area. This will be in addition to my normal duties as the IT director. In this capacity, I'll be overseeing the activities of our Facilities team during this remarkable time in the history of the Schools.  I'm thankful to have such a good IT team and solid working relationships with our terrific Facilities team, otherwise I would not have considered this additional role. Maybe I'm crazy, but it seemed like a good fit for someone like me who'd been around a long time and knows the school really well.  Wish me and the IS team lots of luck in the busy months ahead!