CIO Bob Owen: The Vendor Spiel, Tech and Comedic Emails
Bob Owen is the tech guy. As Chief Information Officer and Vice Provost, Owen oversees all forms of technology at the university, from the internet to phones to special research equipment. Around campus, Owen is known for his creative and witty emails about normally-bland topics such as unexpected internet outages.
In this interview, we cover how Owen found a career path combining his passions for technology and people, the secret behind his “perfect” dissertation, and what new technologies he’s looking into for the next five years at Santa Clara. We also deconstruct his philosophy for writing campus-wide emails as well as the responses he gets from students and faculty.
Selected Interview Highlights
GC: When people hear “chief information officer,” they probably imagine you doing something important related to technology, but what do you actually do?
BO: There’s always something new every day. My calendar is rarely unfilled, but when it is, I never worry that I won’t have something to do because inevitably something is going on.
My job is to advocate for technology at the institution. I do that by talking with people, talking with groups. Part of it is what I call “management by walking around,” making sure people have the resources they need to do their jobs. To use a football analogy, I’m kind of like a blocker clearing the path for the running back behind me.
GC: Last year sent a campus wide email with the subject line: “Waiting for Godot, the Search for the Holy Grail, and Email for Life,” and you haven’t been shy about throwing some jabs at companies like AT&T and Cisco when the internet goes down. What is your philosophy for sending campus-wide emails?
BO: When I came here and started talking to folks, one thing I heard loud and clear was a desire for more communication. But come on, who wants to read an email from the CIO? Let’s get real. Everyone has so many other things going on in their lives.
I have to communicate some things because technology touches every part of this organization. And, I have to get it out there in a way so that you’ll read it.
When I first got here, my emails were pretty formal and straight up. People might stop me and say, “just give me the quick low-down,” which is basically like an FAQ section. What are the main questions that people want to know? So, I just started doing an FAQ section hoping people would read it.
The humor just kind of crept in… I just decided, what the heck, I’m gonna go for it. And I’ll tell you what, people actually read my emails. I know because they reply to them.
About taking jabs at AT&T or Cisco, I refuse to accept anything less than the best service from our vendors. I don’t really care. A lot of vendors look at education as “oh, we’re a bunch of warm fuzzies, and you can do anything to us, we don’t really care.” Forget it.
This is my vendor spiel… Cisco, Apple, they all hear the same thing: “I’m really easy to work with. I want great service all the time. If I get it, I’ll sing your praises to high heavens. If I don’t, I’ll go right up the chain until I get that service. Nobody’s perfect, so if you make a mistake, raise your hand and say, ‘We screwed up, we learned from it and we won’t do it again.’”
AT&T is a four-letter word to me though; they leave a lot to be desired.
GC: What kinds of things do people reply to you after those emails?
BO: After the AT&T one, a student posted about me on his Facebook page and said, “Go get ‘em, Bob!” I got a real charge out of that.
The other thing is that, on my FAQ’s for staff, there are wine recommendations. The faculty and staff will stop me and ask what wine they should get. That’s been kind of fun.
GC: When thinking about the future of technology of Santa Clara, what types of things are you interested in looking into for the next five years?
BO: One big thing that everyone will see in about three-and-a-half years is a new ERP, enterprise resource program. Right now we use PeopleSoft for grades and classes, and it’s archaic. We’re going to be transitioning to a new ERP called Workday. The student module is built for mobile and built in the cloud. It’s going to be easier to support and look and operate better on mobile devices.
We’ve got different projects here and there relating to Artificial intelligence and visualization. More and more types of technology will be fused into learning spaces. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality along with AI and machine learning is going to drive a lot of what we’re doing, but I would be a fool to try to predict exactly what that will look like.
GC: What did you learn in your first few jobs out of college?
BO: My dad had always told me that all a college degree does is certify that you’re a trainable person. I learned that right away on my first job. I was a programmer-analyst for the State of Wisconsin Department of Development. When I got there, they sent me off to learn a programming language that I had never heard of before. One of the first things I learned was that you can have all the preparation you want but they’re going to have you operate the way they want.
Another thing I learned is that you can’t sit and wait for people to make things happen for your career. If you see things that are of interest, you need to reach out and communicate that you’re interested.
GC: Why did you go back to school to get your doctoral degree?
BO: One of the things that I believe is that you’re always in a state of becoming. You never actually reach a place. The moment you think you’ve reached it, you’re dead. At that point, skills start to atrophy, like the old saying, “you get fat dumb and happy.” That’s not how I’m constructed.
In education, if you want to move up, you stand a better chance of doing so with advanced degrees. I never took time off work. I worked full time while in my masters program then full time while in my doctoral program. It would have been nice to just concentrate on school but I never had that luxury.