U of R Chief Information Officer (CIO) Steve Garcia '76 has had his hands full—from ensuring a smooth transition to online instruction to making sure the University’s information is secure. Mika Elizabeth Ono and Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Garcia about challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as timeless topics such as leadership and team-building.
Bulldog Blog: What new demands has the COVID-19 pandemic placed on your department and how are you working to meet them?
Steve Garcia: The most obvious demand over the past several months has been the move to remote instruction and work. Both of those transitions required us to make changes in a short period of time. When we found out in March that we were going to be delivering instruction remotely, our first priority was to make sure our faculty members had the support and the tools to do that effectively. I'm really proud of my team, but I am so proud of our faculty—what an incredible effort our faculty members have made to switch to remote instruction in March and learn how to use new digital tools during the summer.
In addition to offering around 50 workshops, the Instructional Technology Services team spent the summer transforming 45 rooms into telecommunications-ready classrooms. We installed high-end cameras, microphones, speakers, and displays and upgraded the computers at the podiums. This semester, faculty have been coming in and using these classrooms because of the quality of the infrastructure. We ended up with over 60 video conference-enabled classrooms on the main and regional campuses. That has made a huge difference in delivering quality instruction.
We’ve also helped employees work from home. In some ways, that was an even bigger challenge because that isn’t something we've done before. One of the biggest projects over the last several years was to move all of our resources into the cloud, because we believe that it is a more secure and accessible place for our data and applications to live. This was a test of that approach.
Many projects we’ve started in the last five years— moving into the cloud, voice over IP (VoIP), multifactor authentication—were undertaken to provide business continuity in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. A virus wasn’t something we were planning for, but it was something we were ready to face because of all our preparation for other scenarios.
BB: What has been the biggest challenge?
Garcia: The biggest challenge of folks working from home wasn’t hardware—it was security. Employees’ home systems may not be updated with the same frequency as their systems on campus. We had some concern that, as folks went home and were using an older computer or a connection that wasn’t secure, we were exposing ourselves to security risk. So the Enterprise Services team went to work and upgraded a lot of our security protocols, which allowed us to be reasonably assured that there would be a secure connection. But what was a lifesaver was the multifactor authentication system we had already put in place, because it makes it extremely difficult for bad actors to intercept authentication credentials and use them to get into our system.
BB: On top of these demands and challenges, we’ve faced budget cuts. Your department was particularly creative with the challenge of doing more with less—can you talk about your approach?
Garcia: The challenge of Information Technology Services [ITS] is that things change so quickly in technology and it's hard to keep up. That can be a detriment to the operation, but it can also be something that helps us. We can be nimble and look for opportunities to do the same work in ways that are more efficient or cost less money. Our restructuring project was extremely important because it was a response to President Kuncl’s request to find ways to address the University’s structural deficit. In ITS, we discovered we had a structure built to solve the problems of a different time.
Our approach was twofold: move resources into the cloud and transition from a technology-focused organization to a service-focused organization. As we move technology into the cloud, we need fewer people on campus to deal with servers and disc drives—all of the hardware. That allows us to refocus the team’s efforts on services, working with our client community, finding out how they do business, and discovering ways to align process and technology.
That means we're doing more professional development within our team so we're well-positioned to teach other people how to use new tools. Unfortunately, we also had to lay off several people during the recent reduction in force. But we’ve consistently been able to do more with less by teaching people how to do new jobs. I’m absolutely committed to providing professional development opportunities for our team. We don't do anybody any good if we don't stay on top of emerging issues and emerging technologies.
BB: You’ve talked about encouraging your team to lead from where they are. Can you elaborate on that idea?
Garcia: That’s a phrase from the MOR Leadership program, which is a project that has been going on for over 30 years. I belong to an organization called the Southern California Higher Education CIO Alliance, which includes about 50 chief information officers from colleges and universities in Southern California. A couple of years ago we asked MOR Leadership to deliver its program to a cohort of individuals from our universities.
The program is fantastic and one of their catchphrases is “lead from where you are.” And we've encouraged that now for many years. If you look at the Technology Summit, that conference was conceived by mid-level managers Alex Irigoyen and Alton Edenfield. They pitched the concept to our leadership team, and we thought it was a great idea, so we agreed to support and fund it. But they did the rest of the work and made it happen.
BB: How have you been involved in the University’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts?
Garcia: Our department is, racially and ethnically, a very diverse group. Diversity is something we keep top of mind. But we do not have good gender diversity. Out of a department of 34 people, we currently have five women working on our team. That's not acceptable. That’s tough for a lot of ITS departments because we're playing catch up—there are so many insidious societal pressures that discourage bright young women from getting into technology.
Within the department, we're looking at increasing our applicant pools to ensure that we have more women applying for open positions. We've also tried to identify students who want to work with us; I’m so impressed with some of our student workers. We were recently given a grant, as a result of the Inclusive Community and Justice Fund, to fund an information security internship specifically for students of color. They’ll receive a high-end laptop, training, and security certification so they’ll be prepared to enter the job market. Information security, particularly, is not a diverse area, and we need to do our best to help address that issue.
BB: What’s your background? How did you end up in IT?
Garcia: I was a musician. A lot of us in ITS were musicians at some point. I was an undergraduate at the University of Redlands back in the day and decided to pursue a career in music, writing songs and playing in bands. I did that for six or seven years and got tired of making a $100 a month. So, I went back to school and got some more education in business, systems, and information, and got a job early on at the Apple store in Santa Barbara. I parlayed that into a job with a company developing software for water companies; it was a real education learning from people who had been in that industry for a long time.
At some point, I decided I wanted to get back into education, so I responded to a job opening at the University of Redlands. I worked at the University for about 10 years, both as a programmer analyst and as an institutional research analyst. Eventually, I left to work as a consultant in higher education, and for 10 years I worked with about 40 colleges and universities across the United States, helping them with both business intelligence and other kinds of business alignment and training for their IT departments. As a consultant, I came back to the University of Redlands in 2011 to manage a database migration. Fortunately, I didn't mess up the project, and I was asked to stay on.
BB: What’s the best part of your job?
Garcia: My favorite part of my job by far is when I get an email from one of our clients about someone in our department who did something that was outstanding. Those messages mean that, collectively, we've created an organization that values service to our clients.
BB: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Garcia: Being open to listening to all of the voices in the room. There’s a lot of value in that. Listening to the diverse voices in your organization would be probably my number one lesson.
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