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Q&A: Jorge Mata, CIO for L.A. community college district

Managing IT for 150,000 students and teachers with only 70 workers can be demanding

June 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Jorge Mata became CIO last year for the Los Angeles Community College District, a federation of nine colleges and several satellite campuses serving 140,000 students and 10,000 staff with an IT shop of 70 workers.

He spoke with Computerworld about meeting the technology needs of young tech-savvy students and learning to find common interests across a diverse group, and described how he has resisted gifts from vendors that want his business.

How can anybody lead such a diverse organization with two-year commuter students and constant changes? Because we're a federation of nine colleges with a CEO on each campus, getting everybody to agree is a difficult matter, even though there may be something in the best interest of the entire organization. So I envision my role as CIO as creating opportunities to come to consensus. The political role is crucial. The people with the trump power are faculty with tenure. They are experts in the instructional field and we in IT have to defer to them in many areas, which makes sense because education is our mission. That concept is really alien to some people, but it compares to the way businesses relate to their salespeople, who bring in the revenues.

What's your biggest IT challenge right now? We have an aging student information system, the equivalent of the ERP for higher ed. It has everything from registration to enrollment and more, and the course schedule is the crown jewel, since that drives our source of revenue. If we don't offer the right courses, people won't take them. The wrong course may incur costs. We can't outsource it, because it's art and skill and politics embodied in one document.

Dossier

Name: Jorge Mata
Title: CIO
Organization: Los Angeles Community College District
Favorite technology: The Internet, absolutely.
Favorite nonwork pastime: Basketball, although I'm not good at it.

Favorite movie of all time: Alien, where the women are heroes.
Favorite vice: Tequila

Role model: The Rev. Martin Luther King

Most interesting thing people don't know about him: I was conceived in the U.S. but born in Mexico, and then my parents moved back to the U.S. three weeks later. My mother took me to Mexico to be born, saying she didn't want me to be confused about my background.

Our technology has automated a lot of the process, but it still takes intimate knowledge of why people take certain courses, something brought by the department chairs and administrators. Our student information system had its beginnings in 1969 when we were part of an L.A. Unified program for students from kindergarten to grade 14. It has Cobol in it, and the system is a challenge because we have so many students -- about 140,000 -- and we track students even if they leave for a semester and come back.

The biggest problem with it is that it's a terminal-based system in a Web world, so there are green screens. We have a lot of soul searching on what to do with it, and changing it will compel employees to retrain, which includes faculty here many years, and an IT shop of about 70 people.

How can you operate with so few in IT? We're probably much lower than a business. But we understand we have to put dollars into classrooms, which are also becoming digital, so our discussion is what is the right balance. We didn't even interact with students 30 years ago.

How can you keep pace with students demanding fast Wi-Fi and other technologies? Students are very savvy, and they'll find the educational institutions that meet their needs. We don't need to be bleeding edge, but we can't delay innovations forever. For example, we don't have wireless access in all areas. We do find students want more online courses and can be frustrated when they take many courses online and find the one they must take is not online.

They want Wi-Fi in more places, too, in lounges, cafes and open areas, not necessarily faster 802.11n. We see that if a classroom is open, they can use it as an ad hoc study area. From an educational standpoint, I agree them, because we know that the longer students are on campus, the greater their chances of success. We're entirely a commuter school. We know that wireless videoconferencing is also coming, and we can put wireless laptops in high schools as a recruiting tool so that a student there can talk to one our college counselors live.

With Wi-Fi and college kids, is security a concern? Have you been hacked? Not that I am aware of. But I know it's not a question of if, but when. It's impossible to protect everything, but it is possible to plan what to do when a breach occurs. We think we're more likely a launch point, the source, with high speed access, for hacks somewhere else.

As your college district grows and changes, how have you developed advantages with technology vendors? We have education discounts, of course, which reduces our management overhead, and we use a contracting alliance to find the lowest prices so that we can evaluate other vendors and negotiate a price so that if there is a competitor, we will know if it's a good price. We also have Microsoft campus agreements, which means we buy a license for the entire campus, which has freed us from being the licensing police.

One thing we'd like from more vendors is that they offer students comparable pricing to what we pay for software or hardware, if we can prove he's a student. We might get a 30% educational discount on hardware and have found savings by standardizing on equipment and recently began using two types of desktops from Dell and HP, instead of formerly using 40 models.

How do you keep your vendors honest? We have actively courted some vendors as strategic partners, such as Microsoft, HP and Cisco, and we have a nondisclosure agreement with them so that they are able to tell us what's coming in technology and we can align our decision-making with their road maps. We know the road maps aren't promises, but it tells where they are focused. We have yearly briefings with them and have rules of engagement. We're brutally honest with them, too. Sometimes I say their technology is great for a four-year college but horrible for a two-year college and here's why, and sometimes they have said, "Oh, we hadn't thought about that."

Is it hard to keep good IT workers, especially since they get lower pay than a business would offer? It's hard to compete on dollars alone. We had trouble finding qualified workers to work in SAP when we went to SAP for human resources and financials. The L.A. Unified district, a K-12 behemoth, had a similar SAP investment and was able to offer 15% more than we could. We're also competing with the entire global market.

On the other hand, if they are hired by us, we note that there's much less stress, and it's more rewarding and the benefits are very hard to beat. Our quality of life is much higher here. In my own case, I have periodically tested the waters, but I believe I'm in the place I need to be. I would make more money outside, but don't know if I'd be happy inside. I tell my team that we change people's lives here. If we do a good job, it might be that tiny thing that pushes a student into success.

Since you are part of an education institution, do you have a tight policy on accepting vendor gifts? I know that in some countries and cultures, expensive gifts by vendors are part of what's expected, but not here. I asked our legal department eight years ago about this and they said gifts under $10 are allowed, but above that you have to fill out a form where you itemize anything over that amount.

Two years ago, I was at a storage conference in Las Vegas where one of the vendor giveaways was actually a Mercedes convertible. I wouldn't put my card into the drawing to win it because if I'd have won it, that would be completely unethical. Taking a lunch is OK, because that's a part of doing business if you discuss matters. But a $500 dinner ... it's better not to get into those situations. I tell people they can make a donation to the college. When we run trials of equipment or software, we are careful that they come with return stickers on the box, which guarantees it is a just a test, not a demo forever.

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