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Seattle University

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Talking Tech

Written by Mike Thee
April 23, 2012

This past fall, Chuck Porter was named Seattle University's first chief information officer. At the time of his appointment, Bob Dullea, vice provost and vice president for university planning, wrote: "I am very excited by the opportunity to bring Chuck on board in this new capacity as CIO. I believe the experience and technology management sophistication he brings will serve the university very well as we move forward developing an IT infrastructure that best serves our mission and goals, the work of our faculty and staff, and the growing technology expectations of our students."

Exactly six months into his time as CIO, Porter sat down with The Commons to assess the state of technology at Seattle University, new initiatives already underway and some plans and aspirations for the future. He also talked about how his love for technology began when he was eight years old and shared a bit about what he likes to do in his spare time.

The Commons:  Can you describe your role as the university's chief information officer?

Chuck Porter:  The great thing about being the inaugural CIO is that we can make the role mean whatever we choose. About 10 years ago the university outsourced information technology operations to Sungard Higher Education. (As an aside, Sungard was recently combined with Datatel and their new name is Ellucian.) So they take care of running our technology machine - they do application maintenance and server administration; they operate the phone system, our e-mail system and so on. We've chosen to make the CIO role more strategic than tactical. My view is that it's important for the university to have an executive who can think strategically about how technology can best support and further the mission of the university. It's helpful to have an executive who can guide SunGard to improve operational reliability, create the greatest value from our technology investments, and administer the Sungard contract.

In the past, Bob Dullea (vice provost and vice president for university planning) looked after the Sungard contract, but he's got a job and a half, so this is additive in the sense that I can devote my full attention to this and it allows Bob to devote his full attention to his day job, if you will. I think that's a tremendous add to the university's leadership team-to be able to think strategically about IT and better administer the contract.

The Commons:  What's it been like stepping into a completely new role at the university?

Chuck Porter: I've been a CIO before, so I understand the nature of the work very well. And I've been involved with Seattle U for many years. I sit on the Albers School's Entrepreneurship Center advisory board. I serve on several of the school's committees. I taught in their graduate program (the class that I've been teaching is "New Venture Consulting") and I lecture in a number of other Albers classes. So for me, the chance to do a job that I really like for a university I feel very close to is terrific. It's almost a dream job. And since the university has never had that role before, it's an opportunity for me to describe that role in terms of responsibility, authority and leadership for the first time.

The role of CIO is a challenging one anywhere. Statistically the "life expectancy" of a CIO is about 14 months in the job. And being the CIO at Seattle University is certainly challenging.

I don't come out of higher ed, I come out of the corporate world.  So I need to adapt myself to the rhythm of the university, to its academic sensibilities. I also need to educate myself about best practices in higher ed, so that we're not missing out on things that other institutions are doing well. But I also want to adopt what works in terms of managing and deploying IT in the corporate world. I'm trying to bring vision, ideas and best practices to the university. So it's a learning process for me, and it's a learning a process for the institution.

The Commons:  How would you assess the state of technology at Seattle University in 2012?

Chuck Porter:  One of the things I did when I got here-and, in fact, even before that-was take a pass through all the technology that we use to try to get a handle on how good it is. We have some elements of our technology that are really pretty terrific. I won't try to be exhaustive, but a simple little service like e-mail works pretty darn well. The reliability of the service is good and the timeliness of delivery is good. We block about 70 percent of the e-mail traffic that comes to campus as spam, and so we're protecting our users from a tremendous volume of spam.

We've got a bunch of services that are sort of in the middle (in terms of quality and effectiveness) and we've got some that I'm disappointed with and our users are disappointed with. On that end of the scale, our network services are not as good as they need to be. We have wireless throughout campus but we don't have adequate wireless capacity for all our users who would like to be using their wireless devices. We're working on that-we're working on an analysis of our network capacity with Cisco, which is our primary network provider, and that will surface the things we need to do and the sequence we need to do them to make them better.

The Commons:  When we talk about improving the university's information infrastructure, what do you see as some of the immediate priorities?

Chuck Porter:  Our first priority is to make sure our IT estate runs reliably and in a secure manner. We have to keep the lights on. (We run about 50 applications on behalf of the campus.) But beyond the operational integrity of what we've got, we have about five or six big things teed up for the next few years.

Right now, we're replacing the campus card system, and the reason is that it has become so unreliable that we can't count on it. Students count on it to accurately reflect the balances in their accounts. The campus card also runs our physical security system, and when it rains we have door readers that go offline. It's running on a set of servers that are old and need to be replaced. This work will be done more or less by the first of July, so that will be a terrific improvement.

Right after the first of the fiscal year, we will start on two major new systems. One is replacement for ANGEL, so we will be spinning up a new teaching and learning system. We've been doing the work to get ready for that with faculty and the Academic Assembly. A new system has been chosen and we are in the last stages of getting approval.

Second, Enrollment Services is working with IT to spin up a new CRM (customer relationship management) system to use in recruiting and retention, and that will also serve University Advancement and the Executive Team. We're working right now on a request for proposal to choose the software, and if we stay with our current schedule, we should know around the beginning of the fiscal year what system we are going to use, and we'll spin up that system between July 1 and late fall. That's going to be absolutely fantastic. Enrollment Services currently does their work largely by hand with not very much automation. So this will remake the way they sell and market the university to the applicant pool, and once students enroll, it will improve our ability to counsel students who are at-risk. We're hopeful it will improve retention and graduation rates. We're also looking at this to better manage the relationship between the university and its donors. This is a great example of a strategic technology investment.

A third thing we're going to do, beginning in July, is we're replacing some of the worst parts of our network, so we've got some access control devices and some firewall software that we'll be installing.

The other thing we'll be doing related to our network is installing software that will help ensure quality of service software. This allows us to manage the data that our network carries and to devote network capacity to the most important parts of that data. It is to network operations what conservation is to electric power. It allows us to better use our network capacity and ensures it's used for the most important needs. That will buy us some time to get the physical network improved. It also is a weapon we can use in the event we have outside parties trying to intrude into the university's technology, and it gives us a tool to defeat viruses and worms.

The Commons:  Looking out onto the horizon a little more, what are some of the longer term things on the university's technology to-do list?

Chuck Porter:  Along with teaching and learning, the university is moving more toward the notion of hybrid education models-online education and distance learning-and so we're going to be making some investments not only through the learning management systems but also classroom infrastructure to allow us to move more toward that model. That's going to take us a while because the degree programs and the curricula of the university need to adapt to that model first, so we're doing what we can do from a technology standpoint to make sure we're ready for it when the time comes.

Longer term, it's my personal belief that we need to upgrade our ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. We currently use Datatel's Colleague system, and it needs to be enhanced to improve the financial management of the university, to improve the scheduling of classes and rooms, to be able to further automate the administration of HR benefits-basically to run the university better. The system we have is old and it works pretty much, but it's not a modern ERP system. So longer term, probably in the FY '15-ish timeframe, we'll probably be replacing the main enterprise resource planning system for the university. It's too early to be looking at software, but we're already doing some strategic thinking on this.

We do have a five-year technology plan for what we need to do and the sequence we need to do things. We've definitely got a lot of heavy lifting to do.

The Commons:  So how did you become so immersed in technology?

Chuck Porter:  I don't know quite where to start. I guess I'm a geek at heart. When I was a kid, I remember designing and building model rockets at a time when the U.S. space program was launching Mercury and Gemini and so on. At age eight I could run a slide rule, and I would compute the physics of a rocket's performance to try to predict how high my rockets would go. I would change the design to try to get them to go higher and higher.

When I was in high school, I had a chance to take some computer classes, and I learned how to program big, mainframe computers, and really loved it-the notion that through my own intellect, I could control what this machine did and I could make it do things that nobody had ever thought of before.

So fast forward, I got a degree in math and computer science from Gonzaga, I got a highly quantitative MBA from the University of Michigan, and then I went to work for the company that was known at the time as Arthur Andersen. I was in the first class of recruits that joined Arthur Andersen that never had to be an auditor, never had to be an accountant because I was hired directly into their consulting practice. So I started my professional life at Arthur Andersen as a programmer. I don't know if it's literally true, but I probably wrote a million lines of code. I ran teams of programmers. I became an analyst and a systems designer before graduating to project manager. Over the years, I ran various parts of Andersen Consulting, which became Accenture's practice throughout the world, and for the last four years I was there, I was the CIO for Accenture. So from an age of eight, I've been involved in technology all my life, and it's great fun.

I've had clients all over the world, on six continents, doing all kinds of things from healthcare to financial services to energy to communications. I treasure the experience I've had to live and work all over the world. One of my personal goals is to visit more countries than I am years old, and I've gotten a couple countries behind, but I'm going to pick up two more this summer. In some ways, I feel as much a citizen of the world as I feel a citizen of any place. Another part of this experience is that it's taught me to adapt myself to whatever culture I'm in, and I think that's part of my DNA. So when I come into Seattle U and the higher ed environment, I recognize it's up to me to adapt to this culture.

The Commons:  What do you like to do in your free time?

Chuck Porter:  My wife and I have been married nearly 40 years. We have two kids in the area, and my son and daughter-in-law two years ago had their first child so I'm a grandfather for the first time. One of the things that is great fun is playing with our grandkids and enjoying the opportunity that my wife and I have to have an adult relationship with our kids-that is really fantastic.

I do a bunch of things for fun. I've always been drawn to activities that require you to pay close attention. I chose those words carefully because sometimes when I tell people what they are, they say, "Gee, you're a risk-taker," and maybe I am. My wife and I both enjoy scuba diving and we've had the good fortune to dive all over the world. I'm a pilot, so learning to fly might be the second most fun thing a person can do sitting down. I ride motorcycles for grins. The bike I ride right now is a big BMW 1.3-liter bike.

The Commons:  What do you like to read?

Chuck Porter:  I'm a voracious reader. I read The Wall Street Journal pretty much cover to cover every day, I read The Seattle Times, I read The Economist pretty much cover to cover every week, I read Wired every month, and anything else that's within reach. I've started to pay attention to The Spectator and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and whenever I get an e-mail "Today in The Commons," I read that.

I've usually got two or three books going. Right now I'm reading Ethics for the Information Age by Mike Quinn, dean of our College of Science and Engineering. It's really an interesting and timely book, and being at a Jesuit university and in IT, it's perfect for me right now. I also like reading fiction. I recently finished Neal Stephenson's last book that he called REAMDE. If you look at the title, it looks like "README," but then if you look at the way it's spelled, no, it isn't. It's really an incredible story. I like what I would call technical fiction, so I like Tom Clancy stories. I like John Grisham; he writes a good story. I like Lee Child…I read a lot.