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Conversations, Small Bets on Road Trips, and Test Drives: Utah State University CIO Eric Hawley’s Success Strategy

In this four-part series, CampusLogic CEO Gregg Scoresby and Utah State University CIO Eric Hawley continue their discussion about tech in higher education, from a CIO’s perspective. Hawley explains USU’s early adopter mentality, gives insights on how IT departments work to partner with business units, offers tips for technology vendors, and shares his top 5 vendors. Read on for part two: conversations, small bets, and test drives.

CampusLogic CEO Gregg ScoresbyGregg: As Chief Information Officer at Utah State University, you’ve got a big role. Your office represents the technology interests of the University as a whole, but you need to partner with a multitude of business users. What’s your strategy for success?

Eric: Conversations, small bets on road trips, and test drives. 

Gregg: Interesting. When do the conversations happen?

Utah State University Chief Information Officer Eric HawleyEric: Usually when a business partner has found a technology tool they want to invest in. They’ll reach out to the technology team and want help with implementation. Starting with the tool and what it can do is a miss, but we love the enthusiasm of teams who are proactive. We also respect that they’ve found a tool that they feel is useful to solving a problem. That’s where we want to have conversations. Though ideally, we work to be involved and  understand the business need much earlier than the selection phase.

Gregg: What do those conversations look like?

Eric: They’re very collaborative, and we really try to take the intimidation factor out of it. I ask some very specific questions:

  • Who do we serve, and what do they need to do? Starting with this takes the discussion away from a technical conversation and makes it a conversation about business strategy and purpose. This question helps me understand what you, as a buyer, are trying to get done with a tool. Think: audience, outcome, challenges.
  • What services exist on campus/in the cloud/ with vendors/with SaaS already that might help accomplish that? We don’t want to reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to. Finding existing solutions is oftentimes faster than building a solution from scratch, so due diligence is key.
  • What does success look like for you? This drives to the end goal, and how we’ll measure success. It’s important to write it all down, so that later when we’re test-driving a solution we all remember what we said was important. A tool might have a ton of shiny bells and whistles, but if it doesn’t do what we said was most important we’ll need to reevaluate.

Gregg: I noticed none of these questions are about budget.

Eric: No, they’re not. And that’s by design. People can put a dollar amount on a problem, but they have a really tough time putting a dollar amount on a solution. Knowing that, we don’t ever start conversations with budget discussions. We’ll talk about funding later on, but in the early stages we really want to get at the idea of what’s at the heart of the search. And honestly, if we find a solution that meets their goals and needs, funding often surfaces.

Gregg: I’m intrigued by the small bets on road trips aspects. Sounds like a Vegas trip.

Eric: It is, in a way. It’s a philosophy from Josh Coates, the CEO of Instructure. If you were going to Vegas, no one would recommend that you drop $10,000 on your first trip at the first table you see. Drop $5 and see if you enjoy the game. Try another game, and spend another $5. Keep your losses low, and find what you like. It’s a philosophy that works well for IT: Find low-risk ways to look at new things, new software, new products. Don’t sink your whole budget into one  solution right off the bat, because if you do, you’re more likely to hang on to it even when it’s not working.

Gregg: The test drives analogy feels intuitive. Make sure it does what it says it’ll do.

Eric: Right. It’s important to try things out first. To test drive them. It’s also important to not let fear take hold first. Let form and function take hold. When you take a car for a test drive, you know what you expected it to do. Did that happen? Think of technology solutions the same. Did the test drive do what you wanted? If yes, what’s holding you back from the next step? If no, why are you still considering it?

Gregg: Thanks! And of course, I’m going to ask you what your favorite item on Tandoori Oven’s menu is. I’ll be ready for Indian food the next time I’m in Logan!

Eric: Saag Paneer, baby. Saag Paneer!

Read part 1 of this series: SaaS, Early Adoption, & Simplicity >