Stranger in a Strange Land: An Entrepreneur’s Sojourn in the Academy
Keynote Address: Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges Conference April 10, 2015
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
I want to thank Dr. Gabriel Ferrer and CCSC, for allowing me to share a small portion of my professional journey, and how - quite improbably - I found myself in the role as an senior administrator at a residential liberal arts college.
Welcome to the Academy
When I came to Hendrix as their first Chief Information Officer in 2011, unschooled in the ways of how Colleges actually worked… I knew that I had to come up to speed - and up to speed, fast. I sought out advice from one of my new colleagues, who had spent his entire lifetime in service to higher education.
I asked him: What is it that academics want?
He said it’s simple: Academics just want to be left the hell alone.
My topic tonight is an Entrepreneur’s Sojourn in the Academy. My choice of the word sojourn, in relating my experience in higher education, is quite intentional.
According to that invaluable academic resource, Wikipedia, a sojourner is a person who resides temporarily in a place. That’s how I see myself. A sojourner, someone who doesn’t stay in one place for very long.
It is In this spirit of being an nonacademic, itinerant, dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur - and with sincere apologies to Robert Heinlein - that I relate my journey, as an entrepreneurial stranger in a strange academic land.
Before going further, I want to freely admit my bias as an administrator, having served the “Dark Side”, in the telling of my “life among the academics”; the overwhelming bulk of my professional experience has been spent in the company of creatives, designers, developers and startups. I will endeavor to be as honest as I can - sometimes even painfully so- in the telling of my sojourn in the academy.
With those caveats in place, let’s begin, with…
My Entrepreneurial Origin Story
I grew up in a company town, Old Hickory, TN. My father, uncles, aunts, and grandfathers on both sides of the family all worked their entire lives for the DuPont Company. We jokingly called Old Hickory the “Land that Time Forgot.” And, in many ways, it was, and even still is today.
It was a town that, until 1954, had no private ownership of homes - everything was built and owned by the company. It had it’s own company owned police force and company fire brigade, it’s own recreation center, movie house, and post office. Even geographically, it was isolated on a Bend of the Cumberland River (Hadley’s Bend); it was a world of its own. The insulation and isolation of the community, while affording what was in retrospect an idyllic childhood, was also intellectually and economically a gravity well to be escaped, for those wanting something - something more.
I am who I am today because of that caring, loving community; and, I have many friends and family still living there today. Without Old Hickory, there would be no David Hinson.
But, watching how hard my friends and relatives struggled, just to get by, made me decide two things very early on in life: one, that I would never work in a factory, and two, that I would do everything I could to have control over my destiny.
My mom is the single person in my life who nurtured my nascent entrepreneurial leanings. A talented artist, she found ways to make money that would impress Barnum. She created costumes. She painted signs for small businesses. She worked on floats for the Orange Parade. She did piece work as a seamstress. And, ultimately, she started her own small monogramming business, where I helped on weekends.
She did all of this while raising three hellion children, and with no formalized training, other than the lessons life had taught her.
Let me tell you - loading up a 200 pound commercial monogramming machine into the back of a 1978 Monte Carlo and driving it all across the South to monogram purses at shopping malls every Sunday doesn’t sound like the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneurial success story. Because it isn’t. But, it is my story.
As a teenager, I spent much of the free time I wasn’t engaged in sports or working with my mom by hanging around the local Radio Shack. I was a nerd before they were called nerds I just knew I loved all things technical. I took apart television sets, bicycles, radios you name it. I wanted to see how stuff worked. Admittedly, I broke a lot more than I fixed in those days.
But soon, I was fixing more things than I broke. I learned how to solder, without burning myself, or my house down. I taught myself how to read electronic diagrams. I could even decode resistor color codes on sight (don’t test me I’ve long since forgotten). I built Heathkit radios. I built a strobe lights. I even built a Theremin (one of those devices that made spooky SciFi noises in 1950s Flying Saucer Movies).
And so, with these formative experiences in electronic creation in tow, I went off to college.
Where I knew - I JUST KNEW - that I was destined to be an electrical engineer.
I dove into my studies, made good grades… and after a few years realized - I hated what I was doing. I hated the labs. Hated slogging through the course work.
It was my first existential crisis - the one thing I thought I knew I wanted to do for all my life, with 100% certainty, was actually something I hated.
Was my “crisis” caused by laziness? Boredom? I didn’t know. I didn’t really have the intellectual tools at the time to critically examine it. What I did do, however, was look at my coursework and ask “what the heck do I need to take to get out of here, with a college degree?”
I realized that I had taken a metric ton of math through my engineering coursework, had somehow managed to keep a solid A average, and needed only a handful of senior level classes to graduate.
And so, that was how I came to graduate with a Math degree. Now - I hesitate to admit my choice of degree was simply by default - though, that’s really the truth of it.
I received my Bachelors of Science in Mathematics from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, TN, in 1985. I was the first person in my family to receive a college degree.
This was my first - and perhaps most important - professional life lesson: you don’t always wind up where you thought you were going.
One may reasonably ask ”how in the heck does a redneck boy from Old Hickory, TN, get to be a CIO in Toad Suck, Arkansas?”
With my freshly minted degree in my pocket, I took a job as an actuarial student with a local insurance company (now AIG). For those that don’t know, an Actuary is like an accountant, but without the sense of humor.
In reality, an Actuary is a business professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty. As I said - like an accountant, but without the sense of humor.
And what happened next was another data point in a recurring pattern in my short professional life: I became bored.
My first “real” boss recognized this, and was smart enough to give a project to keep my idle hands from becoming the Devil’s workshop. He gave me an assignment to work with a couple of consultants from McKinsey and Company, to model our company’s product mix to determine (a) why we weren’t making the money we should have been making and to (b) project what this meant for the future of our company if we continued on our then current path.
Man, oh man. Did THIS cure my boredom. We created a Lotus 123 financial model for the ages (remember this was 1985, Visicalc was still a thing, and Lotus 123 was the new hotness). The model itself took HOURS to run on an IBM AT (Advanced Technology <snicker>).
The consultants and I came up with our answer (we were compensating agents to pull our customers out of long term, persistent, profitable products into low persist, low margin, unpredictable interest sensitive products, and they were “churning” commissions) and I discovered that my real passion wasn’t technology per se; it was problem solving. I became hooked on the consulting lifestyle.
Another you don’t always wind up where you thought you were going milestone.
I soon left my life as an Actuary Student and I started my first startup. On day 2 of our existence, the Stock Market dropped 500 points, and I got to operate a small business through my first major recession. I learned more in that eighteen months, managing a new business in an adverse business environment, than I had learned in all my experiences prior. It was in retrospect, a great education. But much more fantastic in retrospect than in the actual living of it.
For the next several years, I worked with a handful of other startups, going from founder stage to going concern. Some I left out of wanderlust and boredom; some I left because the business had gone as far as it could go. Some were bought. And some, I simply got tired of getting projects solely because I had a unique knack for “fixing” problem projects.
I didn’t want to clean up other people’s messes. I wanted to make my own messes.
And so, after finding myself “acquihired” in a second company in two years, I decided it was time not to spend another moment proving myself to yet another set of owners, for their benefit and profit. It was time to go solo again.
I started Sumner Systems Management in 1996, a contract programming agency, timed perfectly with the birth of the internet. I triple booked myself to get things off the ground. My wife and I quit our jobs. And the business took off.
We started out developing back office and desktop applications for large companies like Hospital Corporation of America. When overseas developers began driving contracted programing rates into the dirt, we began specializing in telecommunications, so that we could keep our hourly rates and margins up. We engaged Bank of America to develop engineering software to design and rollout hundreds of new bank branches in bulk software still in use today. When the inevitable cycle of “insourcing vs outsourcing” began working against us, we started creating social media applications for Facebook, for organizations like Sears, the Detroit Red Wings, and Intel. Facebook eventually phased out their app platform, and we looked for new markets.
In 2007, the Apple iPhone was introduced, and I recognized that this new platform meant another opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves, and to maintain high billing margins.
It was through our reputation for creating mobile applications, like Cheap Gas! (two million downloads and counting!) that we were contacted by Hendrix College in the Spring of 2010, to come and advise the College on the need to create one or more mobile applications for the school.
To be entirely transparent, I had also known then President Tim Cloyd since adolescence. We had lost touch for the previous fifteen years, so it was nice to be able to reconnect professionally.
I spent a week on campus at Hendrix, talking with anyone and everyone that I could, to try and get a sense of what the actual needs of the College were, and to attempt to get a handle on whether they really needed a mobile app developed at all.
My report turned out to be rather straightforward the school didn’t need a mobile app, nor the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars to create such an app. The school had many needs, to be sure but the primary need was to simply make the existing web content more mobile accessible, and that could be done with a responsive, mobile first design, using their existing staff.
I submitted my report, which was met with thunderous… silence.
I subsequently spent the next six months, in the firm knowledge that I had talked myself out of a lucrative consulting gig, had insulted a lifelong friend, and had perhaps made my one and only trip to Conway, Arkansas.
You don’t always wind up where you thought you were going.
January 2nd of 2011, I received an email from President Cloyd. It said that Hendrix College was looking to create a new Chief Information Officer position, and that they wanted to talk to me about my interest in the job. I looked at the timestamp of the email - written in the wee hours of the new year - and archived the message without comment. This was clearly not a serious offer.
A week later, I received a call from President Cloyd. Yes, the offer was real.
I now had many things to consider: a move across country, from a city with three million people (Orlando, FL) to a state with two million people; moving children 1,000 miles away from friends and familiar places; taking on a role in an industry that I knew virtually nothing about, aside from my time as a student in the 1980s, and from a brief stint as an adjunct faculty member in the 1990s.
And so - like the typical entrepreneur - I took a leap of faith.
In May of 2011, I became Hendrix College’s first ever CIO.
You don’t always wind up where you thought you were going.
In all jobs, there is a natural disconnect between your preconceptions about what you think a job will be like, and the actual reality on the ground once you begin work in earnest. My beginnings at Hendrix were no different.
As an entrepreneur, I was used to working twelve hour work days, weekends, and having people respond promptly when I reached out to them, at any and all hours. I was used to decision making on the fly, independent action, and freedom of expression on social media and in the press.
I now had to learn to work within the confines of shared governance - real, and imagined. I had to work under strict institutional rules and procedures. I had to adjust my expectations of working within a budget, where the income comes only once a year, where needs are identified in increments of months and years, not days and hours. I was now working in an environment where our customers and clients - our students - were with us 24/7, with the requisite expectations of continuous uptime, trying to serve steak service on baloney budgets.
The truth is, my experience as an entrepreneur was my biggest asset in learning how to live, work, and thrive in a higher education setting. To use a sports metaphor, “the ball slowed down so I could see it.” I was used to dealing with a demanding private sector clientele, in real time… in internet time - dealing with those same issue in academic time? A luxury. Expectations and timeframes are protracted. There’s much more soak time to consider strategies. There’s time to anticipate. Time to be proactive. Time to think about, what you really need to think about.
It was important as CIO that I led the institutional conversation about technology to the President, the Board, and to the Leadership of the College. At many schools, the CIO (if a school even has one) often reports to the Provost, or to the CFO - and as a result, technology at those schools is usually subservient to all other institutional priorities. To their credit, President Cloyd and the Board were quite forward thinking, recognizing the importance of having the CIO present as an equal partner at the leadership table, in order to be an effective institutional advocate for technology, and to be an effective institutional clearinghouse for technology.
This foresight allowed us to invest $450,000 in normalizing over fifty teaching spaces with uniform technology software, hardware, projectors, and podiums. It enabled us to build two new computer labs, and to rebrand our department’s name from “Information Technology” to “Technology Services”, in order to emphasize a systemic focus on service above all else.
We consolidated our media center, IT operation, and classroom support into a single area, so that we were able to leverage and share staff and a common knowledge-base, rather than silo staff and responsibilities. We moved our Help Desk to the Student Life and Technology Center, extended our service hours, and vastly improved technical access to faculty and students, affording a much more convenient service point for everyone.
When I arrived at Hendrix, we had a 100Mbit internet circuit, serving 1,400 students, 125 faculty, and 300 staff members. It was woefully inadequate and under supplying the community. In my final year, we installed a 1Gbit circuit that now comfortably services campus, and rarely has been more than 60% utilized since being turned up.
If I had one thing that I was most proud of during my tenure at Hendrix, it was that we were able to “move the needle” with regard to changing the perception of the IT area, from being viewed as largely nonresponsive and opaque, to being seen as communicative, transparent, and customerservice driven.
When I departed Hendrix, the Technology Services area had approval ratings in the high 80 percentile range. Quite the improvement from where we started. We didn’t get 100% of the way to where we needed to be - be we did get significantly closer.
Now, I don’t want to falsely portray my time at Hendrix as an unmitigated, unbroken string of successes. Because it wasn’t. This isn’t intended to be a hagiography.
I came to understand that I was hired at the end of a long - and sometimes contentious - Presidential term, with significant faculty unrest, fatigue, and distrust. There were some who questioned my hire, simply by virtue of who had hired me. And, serving under three presidents in three years, came with its own sets of challenges and evershifting priorities.
But all one can reasonably do, is the best that they can, with the tools, talents and circumstances that they find at their disposal. To be a Mensch. To be a Professional.
Even with all of this - being CIO at Hendrix was hands down the best job that I have ever had. I gave Hendrix my professional - and personal - best. And I’m sincerely grateful that I had the opportunity.
I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my deep appreciation to the colleagues who gave me the benefit of their experience and wisdom during my time here at Hendrix. We certainly spent a lot of time in the foxhole together. Sometimes, laughing… Sometimes, praying… Sometimes, cursing. But always supporting one another. I couldn’t have asked to work with a finer group of people.
So – What did I learn during my Sojourn in the Academy? These are my personal observations and opinions, and may not reflect reality as actually experienced by real academics.
That there is a vast difference between Internet Time, and Academic Time.
- Shared governance, as practiced in higher education, is complex; to practice effectively within the academy, it takes time. The time it takes, is the time it takes.
- Does that mean that every project and initiative at colleges and universities has to happen at an “academic time” pace?
- Absolutely not. There are any number of projects and initiatives that can be executed at whatever pace administrators and campus leaders desire to drive them (within the constraints of their budgets and institutional priorities, naturally). I daresay that a lot of innovation on campuses isn’t deterred so much by budgetary restraint or priorities or governance as it is by the lack of incentives to perform any better. “Atta boy / girl” only goes so far.
- Even with all that said, one of the favorite parts of being a CIO at a small liberal arts college was that it was my job to think and act innovatively. By coming to realize precisely where shared governance began and ended, I was able to be effective, by owning all the agency my position permitted me to have.
- This carried with it the quite serious responsibility of balancing actions and perceptions of inclusiveness in my decision making, being careful not break faith with the intended purpose of shared governance; By not sacrificing trust and faculty amity, solely for the urgent pull of delivering projects in accelerated time (at least, accelerated as perceived by the academy).
- Besides: Urgency is entirely dictated by the beholder.
- In my life as an entrepreneur, my urgent need to be paid on time was not felt as strongly by the accounts payable clerk on whose desk my check had sat for two weeks, unsent. In my “role” as a job seeker, my urgent desire to be in a new job isn’t the same urgency shared by those considering my candidacy.
- The time it takes, is the time it takes.
- Find a way to be effective in whatever system of governance you find yourself. Or, work as hard as you can to change the system entirely.
- Either way, your mastery over the perception of time will influence how effectively you perform on the job, and how satisfied you will be – personally and professionally.
That Academics have tremendous governance power that remains largely unexercised, either through choice, through workload, or through predetermined outcomes presented as “options.”
- Sadly, faculty exercise too little voice in setting institutional priorities. Too often they are disengaged from the process of governance, until decisions are already far down the road to being made. Faculty workloads – advising, teaching, research – have significant impact on their levels of participation in the process of governance.
- And yet it is vitally important that faculty remain engaged at the institutional level, if a true semblance of shared governance is to be maintained – and believed. Truth be told Faculty can wield a tremendous amount of power and responsibility in helping set institutional priorities, but their influence currently remains largely underrepresented, unactualized, and unacted upon. Faculty disengagement effectively abdicates their role in the institutional governance process. I say this not as an indictment of Administration or Faculty, but simply a recognition of a serious challenge to effective and inclusive governance.
That Influencing and maintaining engagement in the strategic planning process of colleges and universities is hard work, and presents an ongoing challenge for establishing trust among all college stakeholders.
- By their very nature, strategic initiatives are long-lived in scope and execution. Needless to say, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain focus, when projects span multiple funding years, experience drastic changes in leadership, or undergo significant changes to scope over their lifetimes. Missed enrollments or surprise drops in retention only add stress to an already stressful process of budgeting and planning.
- And yet, reacting to such stresses presents a key risk; that poor decision making may creep in, when tactical expediency overrides institutional planning and strategy, thoughtfully put into place over many months and years. But, worse than that, a pattern of this type of cyclical disintermediation may sabotage all future efforts at getting broad based institutional buyin for long range objectives. Keeping the main thing, the main thing, is a lot harder than it looks.
And - finally - That the academy is full of people of goodwill, with the common aim of having their institution succeed, but challenged at finding the best way forward, together - transparently and honestly.
- It seems to be complicated. But it’s not, really. The key to fully realized institutional agency, is to maintain high levels of engagement at all stages of the institutional decision making process. Without prolonged and intentional exercise of shared governance by everyone most importantly faculty lasting and sustainable strategic efforts will be seen as dictatorial, rather than collaborative – and will ultimately lead only to further disengagement.
It’s a Wrap
In the end, we are all but sojourners in our professional journeys; constantly moving from one waystation to another - intellectually, professionally, spiritually, personally. For some of us, this time stopped along the way is measured in decades. For others, months. But, eventually, we all move on; for we are all sojourners here.
If you will allow me this small bit of additional indulgence, I’d like to offer the following advice; whether you are an academic, an entrepreneur, or somewhere inbetween in your professional journey:
- Be open to new opportunities, in whatever guise they present themselves;
- Be willing to put yourself at some risk, for personal and professional growth;
- Be open to personal reinvention; and remember,
- You don’t always wind up where you thought you were going.
Thank you for your time, your patience - and your perseverance - this evening.