Challenges on connected campuses

In this wide-ranging conversation ranging from smart campuses to shadow IT, Pulse CTO and cofounder Anand Thaker talks to interim CIO Midhat Asghar of Praire View A&M University on his journey and the challenges of IT on campus.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.”

Anand Thaker: Hi everyone, CTO of Pulse here. I’m talking to Midhat Asghar. He’s the Assistant Vice President and interim CIO at Prairie View A&M University. Thanks Midhat for joining us.

Midhat Asghar: Thanks Anand. Thanks for having me.

Thaker: Pulse is all about empowering decisions and making sure executives feel like they have the right information from the right sources to make the right decisions. So how do you and your team today make the decisions you make in leadership strategy or even the technical choices you make?

Asghar: The data that is available to us, that’s what assists us in making those decisions. So I believe in not reinventing the wheel. This has been done somewhere else better. So why not lean on other experiences and get feedback from there? So we have several groups, particularly in the Higher Ed. Educauses are somewhat of my go-to place. And then there’s EAB are other resources that we lean on. Then we have a state CIOs, Educause, CIO, certain listservs where we can lean on and get some information as well. That helps you devise those decisions. I think one of the most important things is what’s going on across campus. And I believe that most of the universities are facing the same problems. We are in the same situations. So if one university has done better in resolving it, there’s lessons for us to learn from there.

And that’s what we have done. We have learned lessons from others and implemented on campus.

Thaker: We love to know how folks make their decisions, whether through traditional sources or peer groups or new forms of research. And it seems like you definitely trust your peer groups. Do you have a peer network that you resort to?

Asghar: It’s a combination. There are several. At the end of the day, for ourselves, we propose a decision and the executive cabinet will make the actual decision. But look at us as the SMEs who can bring the right advice to them. And for that we lean towards some of the listservs that we have, some of the groups that we have within the state. There’s a CIO group within the state. We belong to a Texas A&M system and there is a CIO group as well within the system. So all the CIOs are with the 19 educational universities and agencies. We’ve pooled together our resources in terms of what other universities are doing, how they are handling their issues. We rely on other research as well. EAB is one. Educauses another one. So we rely on other research available out there as well. We have used Gartner in the past.

Thaker: Do you, do you find Gartner to be especially useful in this regard in keeping up with technology trends? 

Asghar: Well, absolutely. There is a price tag to it. But we were lucky that the state of Texas picked up some of that price tag, so it didn’t cost us as much and their assessment that was done was very thorough. It was very professional, so it was very helpful.

“The security landscape changes every week. There are new abilities that you have to deal with every day, but it’s the education that you can keep up with.”

Thaker: what are some of the challenges of your role that you didn’t anticipate when you started as an interim CIO or rather what has been a surprise to you?

Asghar: There was nothing as a surprise. I’ve been in the industry for 12-plus years, so I’ve kind of seen it all. But every day you can see a new challenge. But the challenges we face were the same challenges that others have. I mean security being the number one issue. How do we make sure that we are prepared for the future? We’re making sure that we are addressing our needs. Where are our customers? So some of the top challenges I have to say would be security. It still stays a number-one priority. But I think one of the most important ones is a student user, a student experience. Our students are coming with the experience of Amazon and Google and they expect the same level of service, same level of experience when they get to the campus. And it is challenging when you don’t have the resources or the manpower that the Amazons or the Googles have to meet those expectations. So managing those expectations and making sure that, on an efficient budget, you’re delivering an efficient platform, that is still a challenging course for us.

Thaker: It’s very interesting to hear something I hadn’t expected. The world has definitely changed in that regard. In so far as what exposure students have to these high-flying companies, you mentioned security remains your number one challenge. How do you think about that and what especially is something that keeps you up at night?

Asghar: For security there’s several. I mean, you have to do the firewalls. You have to do the infrastructure requirements. The one thing you keep hearing about is that the user is the weakest link. Although that’s true, I think we blame the user too much. We need to make sure that we are doing everything on our side to make sure that the user is exposed to minimum risk to begin with. The security landscape changes every week. There are new abilities that you have to deal with every day, but it’s the education that you can keep up with. One of the challenges with security is having qualified people to deal with those security related incidents. So Higher Ed we do. And we are pretty close to Houston and Houston is a hot job market right now. So it’s hard to attract challenge. We’ve been great and we have had some excellent people that have joined the team, but to retain them and to keep them on board has not been easy.

Thaker: I think that’s a challenge all companies today face with the shortage of talent out there. I was curious how your role in the educational space differs from the role you might play if you were a corporate CIO, say in a tech company or in a traditional industry such as manufacturing.

Asghar: So one of the top ones, if I have to pick, is that this is an academic world and there’s a lot more decision-making and is a lot more democratic.If the CIO or the IT committee decides that this isn how we’re going to do stuff, that’s not always the case with higher Eds. You’re working with different researchers, faculty and the students and so forth. So you have to manage a whole slew of different solutions. In a corporate environment, if you put out a policy, it is a lot easier to execute compared to Ed and Higher Ed. You have to make sure that you have the buy-in of all of your constituents and all of your payments. Also have to make sure that it has the buy in and you have the executive push behind to get some of those initiatives taken care of. So that would be one of my top ones. The nature of the beast is completely different.

Thaker: Let me ask you a question that was asked by someone in our community. Is Shadow IT is becoming a big problem for many organizations. What are some of the things that your organization is doing to identify and manage it?

Asghar: Within academia it is relatively hard to completely eliminate a shadow IT. With the SaaS solutions that are made available everyday now and when your sales reps are bypassing the IT staff and straight going to these departments and telling them that you don’t really need an IT staff to go with this purchase. “You go with the product and then later you find out, no you didn’t need IT, you need it for several other things. With that phenomenon still being out there, there is no way you are going to escape out of this. So what we’re doing is that we’re trying to do is make them as partners– shadow IT as partners and assist us so that we share the same policies. If you want to do certain things, do it this way. Although, we don’t have that big of a shadow IT presence on campus.

Most of the commodity services that are being done through centralized IT like the network services, desktop and a majority of the VRP systems. All of those are being run to our central IT. But some of the departments still do have their own system admin or their own IT that continues to support their areas. And we’ve asked how you can make sure that you’re all on the same platform. We’re all following the same policies and they’re doing the same things to make sure there’s the security and the usability.

How does your company deal with shadow IT? Let us know by joining Pulse Q&A’s community of verified IT leaders

Thaker: While a consensus consensus building is probably a bit more of a challenging educational space, seems like you guys have handled it well.

Asghar: We have been fortunate. It’s an uphill task and we do it everyday, but we are fortunate to work with some very good people.

Thaker: At the state level, is there more centralized coordination across different universities in terms of IT or are you on your own?

Asghar: It is a pretty autonomous system. We have certain policies that come from the state. One thing with academia is that we have policy there at the federal level. Then we have policy at state level. We have policies from the system as well. So there are quite a bit of those. But with those comes some resources as well. For example, in the state of Texas, they have a IRM/CIO group that if you have any questions you can pose to them and it works for the community. The same thing for our system as well. That is a more closed net system. Then we have quite a few other resources that we can lean to, to get more feedback. Educause is one and it has a CIO listserv. It has several other lists there that you can go to and ask your questions and get feedback from others on dealing with it.

Thaker: Thank you so much Midhat, really appreciate it and it was great to hear your insights, especially in education.

Asghar: Thank you very much.

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