Jul 11, 2013 (05:07 AM EDT)
Disruptive Leadership: Bowdoin College CIO Mitch Davis
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
When I met him in April at Consero's Higher Education Technology Forum, an invitation-only event in San Diego I was allowed to audit, he stood out from the crowd by being the person who always seemed ready to say, "I completely disagree."
His opinion might or might not be completely contrary, but it was often off on a significantly different tangent. He espouses a philosophy of leading change by living it.
Davis also has a reputation as a turn-around artist, having rehabilitated a failing IT department at Bowdoin, a liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, where client satisfaction scores from faculty and staff rose from 10% to 95% within two years of his arrival. When he and a couple of other CIOs led a discussion on turnarounds at the Consero event, Davis cited his experience as CIO of Stanford Law School in the late 1990s as the place he made his bones. "I fired everybody," he said. "They were hiring people they liked, rather than people who were competent." (Technically, the people were laid off, not fired, he told me later, but "when I was done it was just me and a temp.")
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The way he took a different tack on every issue was what caught my attention the most. While others sorted through the complexities of bring-your-own-device policies and supporting a variety of mobile operating systems, for example, he suggested it was far simpler to just provide iPads. He dismissed talk about the disruptive potential of massive open online courses as overblown, telling me later that MOOCs are "just an add-on to things we have been doing in the past."
Bowdoin CIO Mitch Davis
The pattern was pronounced enough that, over dinner, one of the other CIOs turned to me and said something to the effect of, "So, have you noticed that in every discussion, we have a pretty good meeting of the minds -- except for this one person who disagrees with all the rest of us?" Of course, she was talking about Davis. The tone was more amused than hostile, but I gathered his comments might be the subject of a certain amount of eye-rolling.
Even so, he was popular enough and in the thick of so many discussions that it wasn't until the last day of the event that I got a few minutes alone with him. When I asked him about his reputation within the group, he insisted he wasn't just trying to be contrary. "The people I argue with, I respect. But if you don't challenge ideas, they're not tested," he said.
Still, Davis does relish his reputation as a change agent. "My president said hiring me was the biggest risk he ever took -- he thought I was going to blow the whole place up," he said.
Getting him to talk about himself was not hard, and over the next few minutes I was treated to such a rapid-fire recital of his accomplishments at Bowdoin, at Stanford, and in a previous gig as an assistant dean in charge of IT at the University of Oregon School of Law that months later the burning questions I had for his references were, "Is he for real?" and "Is this someone with a raging ego?"
"It's a fair question -- there are a lot of people you see out there who have good PR," said Dan Roberts, president of the IT professional development consulting firm Ouellette & Associates, who cited the turnaround Davis executed in Bowdoin in his book Unleashing the Power of IT. There are CIOs who are talented at getting themselves on magazine covers but little else, but Davis is not one of them, said Roberts. His consulting firm helped train Bowdoin staff on delivering better service, but Davis already had the right vision. "I think he had the whole package."
However, on first impressions, people aren't always sure what to make of him, Roberts conceded. "He's a personality -- everyone around him will tell you that."
"People think he's arrogant," said Rebecca Sandlin, who worked with Davis at Bowdoin and has since moved on to a CIO position at Roanoke College. She thought he was arrogant, too, when she first met him. At least, she thought he might be. She wondered, too, if he was purposely contrarian, willing to say the opposite of what others thought just to get a reaction. Because she was willing to give him a chance to prove otherwise, she came to see him as someone "who really believes change is essential in our industry," she said. "It really bothers him when people think, 'This is the status quo, the status quo works, and why would we change?'"
In other words, she recognized there was a method to his madness. Further, it turned out that he was not so arrogant that he didn't listen to what others had to say. "People who are arrogant do not respond well to criticism. They tend to be incredibly thin-skinned. As employees and coworkers, it's very difficult to give them constructive criticism," Sandlin said. "Mitch enjoys it when people go after him and tear apart all of his ideas."
"This is a person with an ego," Bowdoin President Barry Mills confirmed. "To me, he has the ego of a very successful person. To be successful, you have to have an ego. You have to have a sense of accomplishment in what you do. Does he relish this iconoclast sense of himself? Sure. But the trustees have an enormous amount of confidence in him."
Davis questions assumptions in ways that are particularly important at a time of great technological innovation, when every faculty member and department head has ideas about what gadgets and software the college should purchase, Mills said. "He will always ask, how are you going to be a better faculty member or better researcher if you have that. For a while there, people thought it was unusual for the tech guy to be asking why, but I encouraged him to do that. I'm not that rich." Actually, Bowdoin is a fairly wealthy liberal arts school, he acknowledged, but there is never enough money to satisfy all possible demands. "That's why I need a guy like Mitch who is always going to ask why."
When Bowdoin was planning a data center upgrade, Davis "avoided a number of obvious solutions others would have run to because he thought the other solutions were very expensive," Mills said. Instead of collocating servers in a standard commercial facility, Davis discovered an abandoned Navy facility that could serve the purpose and had access to the needed Internet bandwidth. Because the facility was only a couple of miles away, "we saved all kinds of money" on transmission costs, Mills said.
Davis also has an intense focus on getting the basics of IT right, vastly improving the college's help desk operation and the image of the IT organization. "He recognized that all the stuff you take for granted has to work," Mills said. By creating trust in and respect for the IT organization, "when we tried to do more complicated things, people were willing roll with him to a point," knowing that even if something was buggy in the beginning, he would get it right in the end.
"Because all of our technology works, our faculty don't think of us in terms of problems -- they think of us delivering solutions," Davis said.
When he arrived, that was not the case. Having heard his history, the Bowdoin IT staff dreaded him. "Everyone thought he was going to fire everyone in IT," Sandlin said. "At the time, a certain amount of the faculty at the college also wanted to fire everyone in IT." She knows that because she attended a faculty meeting (to which she assumes she was invited by mistake) where getting rid of the horrible IT staff was a central topic of discussion.
"IT kept doing what we thought was good customer service, but it really wasn't," Sandlin recalled. "We kept doing what we thought was good for them, not really understanding that we needed to put on that consulting hat."
While most of the staff avoided Davis (perhaps thinking they needed to hide and hope he didn't notice them), Sandlin booked 14 hours on his calendar in the first week. As a senior member of the staff, she wanted to take his measure and bring him up to speed on what he needed to know. By the end of that week, she was convinced that he wasn't a demon, after all, but someone who cared a lot about higher education and doing a good job. "Everything I cared about, he cared about in the same way," she said.
Davis got his own education at the University of Nevada-Reno, earning a dual BA in English and history. He made his mark in higher education technology at the University of Oregon School of Law, where he instituted what he says was the first law school laptop requirement, aimed at teaching students to use computers productively in the study and practice of law. Reaching out to Apple technology evangelist Guy Kawasaki, he proposed to standardize on Apple laptops, the cost of which would be built into tuition, in return for favorable terms. Kawasaki promised to "run this so far up the chain it will get a nose bleed," Davis recalled, and the deal was done.
Davis said he also championed a modern new building for the law school, working with the architects to create a 3-D fly-through animation that impressed Philip Knight, a founder of Nike and University of Oregon benefactor. Knight wrote the check that led to the construction of the William W. Knight Law Center, named for his father.
After three years at the University of Oregon and a few more as a consultant, Davis came to the Stanford Law School as its first CIO. Part of the reason he was hired: "I wasn't saying the same things everyone else was saying," he said.
He arrived determined to turn IT into a high-performance organization and was frustrated by the inertia he found waiting for him. When he asked employees to polish up their skills, they treated the time away for training as a mini-vacation and failed to follow through on getting the professional certification. So he cleaned house. It was a small staff, and although he can't remember how many people were let go, it was enough that human resources was screaming for him to stop.
By the time he got to Bowdoin, he said he had "grown up a little," enough to value preserving some continuity and to want to keep turnover to a minimum. Still, he is not sure he had a choice at Stanford, given the attitudes of the existing IT staff.
As he rebuilt his organization at Stanford, he noticed that even his new, improved IT staffers could use some self-improvement. Partly to prove that "if we're going to ask others to change, we have to be willing to change ourselves," he decided that the whole staff was going to get in better shape. They started to do their staff meetings as walks around the campus, following a four-mile path. He would take vendors on those walking meetings as well, partly to "get them out of their element" while conducting negotiations, and it's a practice he continues to this day.
"What I try to do is make work a little uncomfortable every day, for everybody," Davis explained. "People are freaking pattern engines. If I can take them out of an element where they're used to injecting patterns, I can get them thinking. It may sound a little crazy, but it works. What I try to create is a thinking organization, not a reacting organization."
After starting in the law school, Davis moved on to roles as director and then executive director of the university-wide organization at Stanford overseeing technology initiatives. By the end of his time there, he was one of four people with that executive director title working on ways to improve university systems.
Bowdoin lured him away with the promise of a true CIO role and a chance to be part of the core leadership team of the college. His nine years at Bowdoin broke a pattern of staying in a job just long enough to make a mark, then moving on. On the advice of a friend, he decided it was time to see what he could accomplish if he stayed in one place for a while, he said.
"Usually, he goes to a place, fixes the problem and moves on, but we've figured out a way at Bowdoin to give him the space to really be a change agent," said Barry Mills, the college president. "He's part of the leadership team and has an understanding, 360 degrees, of what's going on in the college. We haven't put him in his little cubby and said, you support everybody who's here and we'll call you when we need you."
That's how Davis wound up overseeing marketing and social media. "I put him in charge of the guy we have doing it because I wanted him to have a boss who didn't have a lot of boundaries in the way he thought about doing things," Mills said.
Internal communications and marketing are among the biggest keys to success in IT, Davis believes, because knowing whether there is a market for the technology you are introducing and preparing people for the impact it will have are so important. Most organizations make the mistake of pushing technology on people and asking them to adopt it, which often leads to failed programs followed by another push with a different technology. "A little marketing and sales up front can avoid that whole mess," he said.
He tries to get people talking about options up front, over-communicating until they're sick of talking, and ready for something to happen. In this "marketing by deprivation" stage, he's building demand and making sure people know what they're going to be getting, so when they do get it they will be eager to use it, he said.
Mills said one of the things that impressed him about Davis was "he talked about technology in a way that I could understand." And Davis said getting Mills to understand the importance of technology initiatives is important to him. "If I can explain it to my president, I can take my president around and have him explain it to the staff," Davis said. "Having the president say what we want to do changes the communication."
He also insists on having members of the IT team trained in presentation skills so they know how to communicate in jargon-free sentences, speaking in the language of the business and academic groups they serve. "Nobody's allowed to go speak unless they go through the process," he said.
Davis is proud of the role he has played in academic initiatives, such as the creation of a Digital and Computational Studies program and encouraging the use of data analytics in otherwise non-technical fields. One of the ways he has gotten beyond the limits of his budget for technology is by seeking funding for inventive programs that use technology.
"We help the faculty, especially in the humanities, write grants that involve technology," he said. "Previously, for sociology the biggest grant they'd received was about $35,000 and we helped them get a half a million dollar grant."
Roberts believes one of the biggest challenges for many IT organizations is changing the culture and creating a more positive perception of the role of IT. "Mitch has done a particularly good job at that. I find him to be unusual and effective," he said. "Most people are just glad to get the job, but he's been very good at negotiating and carving out the role he wants to have."
Many other IT leaders are good at expressing a vision but weak on the follow through, Roberts said. "Those initiatives often fizzle out over time, and that just creates cynicism. You have to be willing to stay the course, sell the message, and sell the vision."
"The number-one thing I picked up from him is the importance of giving back to the career you've chosen in higher-ed IT," Sandlin said. "It's so important to develop your staff to their highest potential and never take the easy way out."