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Pursuing a One IT @ Pitt Strategy

A Conversation with CIO Mark Henderson

Technology never stands still, and neither does Pitt IT. Adjusting to new innovations, emerging security threats, and evolving user needs is the responsibility of Pitt’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) Mark Henderson. When he came to Pitt in 2019, he couldn’t have known that a global pandemic was on the horizon. Fortunately, a 30-year IT career and a forward-looking team of IT professionals enabled Henderson and Pitt IT to support the University through the challenges. As we move into post-COVID operations, Henderson is focusing on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of IT delivery at Pitt. I sat down with Henderson to talk about the One IT @ Pitt initiative: why he thought it was necessary, how it’s going, and where it’s headed.

When you first became CIO, what were your impressions of how IT at the University functioned?

IT at Pitt is similar to other universities where I’ve worked. IT in higher education tends to be distributed due to the different natures of their schools and departments, which can have wildly divergent IT needs. Pitt was not unique from other institutions in having distributed IT functions, supporting their computing needs by hiring departmental IT personnel.

I was encouraged that Pitt clearly sees technology as an important component of its roadmap for success. When I started as CIO, I was able to review a report about the state of IT at Pitt that had been conducted by Deloitte. It showed that the University embraces and employs technology at a high level. In my view the issue was how technology was delivered and funded.

What are the drawbacks to departments supporting their own IT?

One drawback is we miss opportunities to achieve economy of scale when each department buys services or equipment separately. It really drives up costs. When we obtain IT at an enterprise level, we achieve a lower cost per user and there are more resources available to support those technologies.

There is also a lot of duplication of effort, which is inefficient and can produce waste. For example, when I started, there were 18 or 19 separate help desks, 15 of which used different platforms. Why does that matter? Because users aren’t sure who to call for what. When they call the wrong help desk, they can be transferred multiple times trying to find the right person to help them.

In addition, when systems don’t talk to each other, it limits our data collection for creating reports, analyzing trends, or automating processes. Stand-alone systems can present challenges interfacing with each other, and the workarounds can be extremely labor-, time-, and resource-intensive.

Then there are the less obvious impacts. Fractured service delivery means that there is no one department or person that has access to all the data about our needs, spending, priorities, and challenges. If we had complete data, we could see all the problems that people experience, find more effective solutions, strategize and plan more effectively, and identify services that would benefit more people across the University.

Distributed IT delivery can make it difficult to recruit and retain IT talent. In a very small IT department, there is little to no path for advancement, so people leave the department for new professional opportunities. When a small department loses a person on its IT team, it can be crippling. Not only has it lost the work they do, but it has also lost their institutional memory and expertise. In a larger department, there is greater capacity to weather the departure of talent without impacting service delivery. Additionally, people have room to grow and develop professionally, while remaining part of the organization.

What were your goals for the One IT @ Pitt initiative?

We needed to rethink how IT is organized — technology is evolving too fast for every department to be doing their own thing. Not every computing service can be achieved at scale, nor should it. But there are many areas where we can and should be providing services to the entire university. I see five overarching goals for a more integrated IT environment:

  1. Eliminate duplication of effort and associated waste.
  2. Enhance overall IT services available to all departments, regardless of size.
  3. Lower the overall cost of delivering computing services.
  4. Implement best practices across the entire university.
  5. Ensure maximum security for all data and services.

How is the One IT @ Pitt initiative progressing?

Given the challenges of the pandemic and the University culture, it’s going very well. Financial Information Services, the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Athletics, and more have joined One IT @ Pitt. As other units see the benefits achieved by early adopters, they’ve been more open to working with us. Part of the reason it’s going so well is that it’s voluntary – it’s integration of the willing.

Obviously, there’s a learning curve for everyone, but we approach this process with a flexible, customer-focused perspective. It’s not about integrating departmental IT support into Pitt IT. It’s more about integrating Pitt IT into the units we serve, adjusting how Pitt IT provides services to better meet their needs.

We’re already seeing the impact. We’ve been able to jumpstart initiatives and bring forth resources that weren’t possible before. This initiative has significantly expanded how Pitt IT understands the needs of the community. We’ve learned about new options that are a better fit than what we were using. We’ve developed solutions that address a specific department’s need in ways that can be expanded to help many more groups across campus. It’s been a very positive experience.

What are the new IT challenges that Pitt is facing as we move forward?

IT has moved to the forefront — it is central to achieving a competitive advantage in nearly every industry. We must take advantage of digitization to get to where we want to be. We need to provide advanced analytics for superior decision making. We need to leverage technology for teaching and learning, creating an immersive experience and support individual learning needs. We must support the Internet of Things. Pitt IT is here to make sure we can take advantage of and leverage systems, process, technology, and services to achieve these things.

More specifically, there are several trends that are shaping what we do and how we do it. Many areas of the University continue to support remote work, while others have returned to campus. Supporting both groups and facilitating their coordination is a priority. In addition, we want to support specialized needs that aren’t appropriate for centralized delivery through consultation and project support.

We’re looking not just at how we structure the delivery of IT services, but also at how we budget for them. In the new budget model, departments will pay a technology fee which covers all the core services provided by Pitt IT. Schools that maintain their own IT team or have separate contracts with IT vendors to provide these services may be paying for IT twice. That’s obviously not efficient, and we’re looking forward to working with units to eliminate that duplication.

Finally, we’re adjusting to changes in the IT profession itself. IT is particularly compatible with remote work. As a result, there is a new level of competition for skilled IT pros at the national level and beyond. People don’t need to move to a higher cost-of-living city to make a Silicon Valley salary. This is not a challenge specific to Pitt — it’s a nationwide trend. The University has lost a number of IT professionals to this new competitive reality. Fortunately, while talent sourcing has been a challenge, we can weather it better than smaller IT departments because we have a broader and deeper skill set to draw from while we find the right people for open positions.

The nature of technology is that it’s constantly in flux. I approach it as an opportunity to help us to better delight, inspire, and empower the University of Pittsburgh community to impact education, research, and the broader community.

-- By Karen Beaudway, Pitt IT Blogger