The Grill: Robin Beck

This IT exec keeps pace with the technology demands of a dynamic Ivy League campus.

As vice president for information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania, Robin Beck oversees an extensive IT operation that must serve the computing needs of thousands of people in varying roles, from faculty and researchers to administrative staff and students. To do this, Beck relies on more than 300 employees who, she says, are as diverse as the individuals her department serves. Previously, she spent 18 years at General Electric Co., where she gained extensive experience in project management, business process design, organizational design and technological innovation. That background, along with her experience at Penn, has given her insight into today's IT environment.

What's the most unique aspect of running the IT department at a university? First, it's the wonderful energy that students bring. They are certainly users of technology, and their expectations continue to evolve. So you can never feel like you're in a rut, because the environment's always being pushed. The second has to do with diversity. We consider ourselves a global university. It's a very dynamic kind of place, so we don't have one culture that says, "This is how you do it."

Your department's goal is to provide "anytime, anywhere" access to information. What's the biggest challenge for an always-on IT shop? It's selecting the tools that help us to do that. It's the redundancy you have to build in, because after all, this is about technology, and failures can occur. And it's balancing those things with the cost of providing that always-on, anytime, anywhere. And [then] there's our mobile society. It all makes for interesting challenges for people who have to provide that infrastructure.

According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 72 breaches at universities and colleges across 30 states were reported in the past 12 months. Is IT security at a university any more challenging than it is at a business? I don't think there's any difference, in that our job is to protect information, protect access to that information. But openness and availability is absolutely emphasized in universities. And all the principles of openness and collaboration that universities operate under can be different than in some businesses. The other thing is that we have in some respects a very mobile population [of students] coming into a campus environment every year. At Penn, it's 2,500 new students, and they bring in all sorts of equipment that will be attached to the network.

So, how do you tackle these security challenges? You begin with training and awareness, and peer-to-peer training and support. We all like to learn from our peers. And we put the support right where people are getting their first interaction with the university.

Can you give an example? We have ITAs, information technology advisers, kind of like RAs [resident advisers in dorms]. These are students. We interact with them to first and foremost make sure they understand how important security and privacy of information is and that they themselves are helping incoming students. And they do this throughout the year. If you're having trouble retrieving your paper at 2 a.m., it's the ITA, someone on your floor, who is there to help you.

You serve a variety of "clients" as a university IT shop -- faculty, administrative staff and students. How do you learn about and then address their varying needs? It comes down to formal and informal mechanisms. I believe an important part of anyone's job is listening, so if we put a project team together, for example, there will always be a wide variety of advisory groups representing different environments across the university. So if you're doing something for the division of finance, a new system of some kind, you'll not just be working with finance, but with users of the system and potential influencers of the system. So you learn to listen to different perspectives and the different ways people express their needs and suggestions.

As an IT leader who has more access than most to the younger generation, what do you think IT departments will have to do to capture these young people as employees? I don't think this is generational. I think if you're attracted to IT, you like to be challenged. You like an inclusive management style. You like an environment where there's flexibility in how you approach things. I have difficulty believing that an IT organization that Gen X or Gen Y is interested in is any different from one that is attractive to a boomer. I believe that the things that appeal to younger workers are the same kinds of things that keep boomers content in their work environment, if we're talking about IT. People want to work in an energetic, committed environment. They want to be challenged, they want flexibility, they want to be listened to.

You said in a past interview that leadership is "50% or more about listening." What's the other 50%? It's making sure that people understand their contributions are valued and that they're valued as individuals. The more you do that and listen to people, the more that encourages their creativity, their innovation, and it encourages them working with other people because they know it's based on respect and trust. To bring out the best in people, you have to recognize what they have achieved and what they're capable of achieving.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net).

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