Empowering Greatness in Others

By Curtis A. Carver, VP & CIO, UAB Information Technology

Curtis A. Carver, VP & CIO, UAB Information Technology

If I could describe my ideal roles as a CIO, it would be to empower greatness in others. My institution wants to change the world fundamentally and if I can empower our faculty, students, and researchers to be successful, they will transform it through truly groundbreaking discoveries and innovation. The three approaches to empower greatness is removing barriers, automating processes, and creating competitive advantages. The remainder of this article explores these approaches using the metaphor of a runner to illustrate how technology can empower our runners (faculty and students) to win races and solve grand challenges.

Mundane barriers to greatness are like running into a gusty wind; it saps your strength over time with acutely painful moments along the way. The genomic scientist trying to change the world is told no—stop changing the world through personalized medicine—you need to manage your email quota. You need to stop transforming medicine and manage your storage. Go get a cup of coffee because the campus network is busy and we will load that groundbreaking, save someone’s life document when we get around to it. How about you change that weak password yet again because 90 days have passed? Don’t pay attention to the fact that it is an 8 character password that can be hacked in about 2 hours and that a university, we work in semesters and years and not on 90-day cycles. The list goes on of mundane barriers that sap the strength and test the patience of our faculty. Each of these barriers has a cumulative effect and is just crazy. We are saving pennies while inhibiting great folks from doing great things. Soon after becoming CIO, we moved to unlimited email, unlimited storage, tenfold increase to bandwidth to the desktop and strong passwords that need only be changed once a year. The changes to email and passwords were free, storage costs $60k more a year, and the network upgrade has an annualized cost of $150-250k a year depending on your replacement cycle. The cumulative result of these actions has received universal acclaim and I continue to receive unsolicited hugs from faculty members and researchers most of whom are complete strangers. From their perspective, someone finally understands their passion for changing the world and not micro-managing technology. This positive emotional connection between customers and technology organizations is achievable if you are empowering greatness in others is more important than IT control.

"The three approaches to empower greatness is removing barriers, automating processes, and creating competitive advantages"

Bureaucratic processes add tar to the running path retarding progress and slowing down faculty, researchers, and students’ intent on transformational changes. As an added benefit, clearing the tar can result in fiery explosions between different constituent groups’ intent on retaining control or actually getting something done. Let me provide some examples. Researchers, we want you to change the world in novel and significant ways and communicate it to the rest of the world. When you return to the university, please submit your receipts using a real fax machine (the only method) and antiquated software system because the state archivists like TIF documents. While we don’t need blood and urine samples from prospective students to visit campus, we do have a 17 step process. We are going to ask you for a lot of information that we will never use. You really need to want to apply here as we are going to start the application process with a lot of technical components and requirements. For faculty, we have a great Learning Management System (LMS). We have a great Student Information System (SIS). We use faculty to integrate these two systems. So if a faculty member is teaching 300 students, they open grades in the LMS in one window and the SIS in another window and then carefully copy and paste 300 times through 600 commands and 600 mouse clicks. This is crazy. World class disciplinary experts are now the most expensive typists on the planet. We approached these issues from the perspective that we have great faculty and students who are dedicated and very overworked. What processes can we rationalize, automate, make self-service or simply eliminate? Fax machines are being minimized and you will be able to submit receipts through modern software. The campus visit process went from 17 steps to 3 steps. We cut 30 minutes off the campus application process. Passwords now last a year but are much more secure and we give you software to securely keep track of all of your passwords. One button instantly migrates your grades from the LMS to the SIS. Intelligent agents based on data-mining the LMS automate certain faculty interactions with students so as to intrusively advise. Much more is coming but the cumulative effect is to free faculty and students from the morass of bureaucratic processes so that they can focus on changing the world.

Finally, creating a competitive advantage for the institution means moving nonlinearly and empowering greatness. Let me give you a couple of examples using high performance computing. One of our researcher, let’s call her Sara because that is her first name, is trying to cure Parkinson’s disease. In June of 2015, her algorithms were going to take 10,950 days (30 years) to run. In March 2017, we had reduced the run time to 18 days and by September it will be 2 days. A reduction from 10,950 days to 2 days in less than 2 years was a result of scientists and technologists working together to solve a problem worthy of solving. The same result occurred in the worldwide brain tumor image segmentation grand challenge, which involves evaluating 118,000 MRI images in less than 48 hours. In 2015, we did not compete as it would have taken our HPC more than a week to run algorithms. In October 2016, the redesigned algorithms on new hardware ran in 12 hours and a UAB scientist won the worldwide grand challenge. There are many examples outside of high performance computing. This is work worth doing as a CIO and technologist. It is not about technology. It is not about control. It is about empowering others to do great things and to change the world.

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