A CTO Facilitating Collaboration
Weaving together students, staff, and faculty with communication tools
Denys Lu received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Emory University in Atlanta and now serves as the Chief Technology Officer at Emory’s Goizueta Business School. To say he has a rich personal history with the school is an understatement.
Denys knows he has to not only communicate the technical details to his staff and team, but he also has to present technology to non-technical people in an approachable and understanding fashion. He wants to make sure his department is readily accessible to non-technical faculty, staff and students, to not only help with computer issues but also offer assistance in tackling real business solutions and educational improvements.
He emphasizes with his staff and with students that IT is not about building an application or coding some software. IT is about solving problems for real humans, using technology as a tool to aid in the process. It’s a humanistic approach that is appreciated and gladly accepted by the colleagues and students at Emory University.
Dr. Berger: Denys, it’s nice to be spending some time with you today. We were talking off-air about the differences between a chief technology officer and a chief information officer.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but as the CTO at Emory University you’re in a big spot in really being a navigator in the way in which not only faculty but students interface with technology. And that’s a big responsibility. I know that’s your “every day.”
When you take a step back and you think about the impact that you can have on a student body, what is that like for you as a professional?
Denys Lu: It’s a very rewarding experience. Here at the university, our goal is not to make money but to create and disseminate knowledge. So having the opportunity to innovate and partner with faculty, students, and staff is very rewarding because we’re able to experiment with new technology. One of our main missions is to create knowledge, and that means experimenting. That means innovation.
My responsibility is very broad. I’m working with the traditional tools of IT like servers, networking, application development, and customer service. We also help with supporting faculty research and that means massing data, data acquisition, data analytics, and data science. We even have behavioral apps that are under my purview. And we’re working on investing more in there.
So the different types of research that we perform and the different practices are all stuff that I touch, that we can help staff and faculty facilitate and promote.
It’s a very rewarding experience and never a day goes by that you forget that it’s there. It’s always there. It’s always in front of you.
DB: Denys, let’s talk a little bit about the experimenting that you spoke of. I think there is this public perception that in education we have a fear of failure, especially with technology, and that we think we have to get it right through the first implementation. Failure is not an option. Take us inside that discussion or inside that room when you’re talking about making a decision as a department about how this is where you’re going to go with a technology decision. Tell me about the culture where you give support to your staff and colleagues; how it’s okay that it may need to be altered, you may need to pivot a little bit, and that it’s okay and part of the process.
DL: Because I run the IT department, I try to give as much support to my team as possible to not only try new things but to be okay with– and to be able to learn from– failures or mistakes.
I don’t believe IT owns technology. We help. We support. We facilitate. We create some guard rails, security, and all that type of stuff, but technology is an important and critical asset for everybody ─ staff, students, and faculty ─ in the performance of their work, their education, and their research.
So one of the things I’ve been encouraging is actually to allow innovation to occur not just within the IT department but throughout the entire school so that the entire school is more familiar with “It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to make mistakes.”
But what’s critical about that is our leadership. From the dean’s office and the dean herself down, they support this practice, the idea that we have to try things out, fail quickly… and fail as cheaply as we can… but be okay with trying things out. And that’s the only way we’re going to make a difference.
We could do the same thing over and over again but the speed of technology ─ the speed of business even ─ doesn’t afford us to make perfect decisions. With the amount of research and testing needed to make that perfect decision quickly, they’re just too expensive to make.
So we do try things out and, pretty much, in every project and any operation task, we’ll go in and say, “You know, this is how we’re going to start and these are the things that we’re going to look for to measure whether or not it’s going in a generally correct direction. And if it doesn’t, what can we do to get it back on track?”
We continuously look at that and continuously monitor how things are going in a very general direction.
So we may have a goal in mind but we’re not saying we need to hit exactly 105. What we’re going to say is “We need to hit around one hundred, 110, somewhere in that general range, whatever that is.”
DB: Obviously, in your role, you have to be technically proficient, and that’s putting it lightly. But communicating is a big percentage of what you do. It’s about the soft skills, and it’s about marketing, really. You are a bit of a marketing officer in that regard because technology is personal to people. I may say to you, “Denys, I think this is good” or you might say, “This is really good,” but it could be just based on what technology you or I personally want to engage. Sometimes we have to take a longer view encompassing more perspectives and that takes communication.
So what has that been like for you in your own professional growth as a communicator, as a bridge to not only technology but between the different populations on campus?
DL: That’s a great question. What I learned in the last year; I was going through this wonderful program that we have here at Emory called “Excellence Through Leadership.” One of the things I took away from it was: “What got you to where you are today is not enough to get you where you want to go tomorrow.”
And that’s absolutely true in my role. I’ve learned a lot through technology. I’m very proficient, as you say, and I’ve done customer service. I’ve done direct support. I’ve done application development. I’ve done business intelligence.
That’s all great! And I can talk very well and communicate well with my team, all very technical people. But that changes in my role when I communicate with the non-technical folks.
So I’ve really pushed myself very hard to communicate effectively because this is just not one of my skills. I’m very introverted. I try to overcompensate for that introversion and end up over-communicating.
Once I took over this role a couple of years ago, one of my mantras was essentially “democratize the information.” And I say this to my team a lot because I don’t want to choose whether or not you have this information. You can make that decision whether or not it’s important to you, so I’m just going to put it out there for you with no filters.
I’m going to put things out there very early, so I may not have all the answers. In fact, it’s very unlikely I have all the answers once I communicate things out. But I want to let you know, “Hey, there’s this thing coming that you might be interested in. And if it’s not, let me know.” But I’m letting that decision come from you.
Like I said, my practice now is over-communicating. I’m not choosing whether or not you’re going to consider it important because it might be important to you or someone else. You might have heard something else two degrees down from me that “Oh, well, that guy should play very well with this guy’s project” or “They have a problem they’re trying to solve and this technology can fit really well in there.”
So, that way, I can capture a lot more innovation and more ideas. I’ve really been trying with the team to practice communication and awareness. I find that it’s not that the technology is there and we’re having issues communicating how to use the technology, but the general problem is that they don’t even realize the stuff exists or that we even have it, much less be ready even to have that conversation of “How do you use it?”
What we’ve been driving at is awareness and ─ to your point ─ marketing our services, our wares, if you will.
But the next level is “Hey, come to us not when you necessarily have a problem but when you just want to talk about a business issue. Don’t only come to us when the computer is broken but also come to us when you’re like ‘Well, we have this business process and we’re trying to figure out how to make it more efficient and effective.’”
We’ll say, “Oh, great! We can probably put this tool together” or “We have this asset” or “We can go purchase this thing” or “We can help you evaluate.”
Because IT has a lot of frameworks and a lot of capabilities that can be applied to solutions that the businesses need, but they just don’t necessarily know how to do that type of stuff in accounting or customer service.
But we do. So we’re really trying to partner with our business units and work together on solving business problems. And that’s been working very well.
DB: Denys, I wonder about young people now. They’re going to be developing technical skills that I can only dream of. Are we doing a good job of balancing it out so that there’s a holistic approach where they understand the relationships between humans and technology? Can they understand it in a way that is much more meaningful for whatever it is that we can’t even think of designing at this point of time but will come down the pike? As you think about your education journey, do you think we need to do a better job of preparing the next generation of CTOs and CIOs so that the seat that they have at the table is much more comprehensive in bringing in the communication side of it? In other words, how can we do a better job of integrating into some of those skills that you had to learn the hard way ─ and not have them feel like they’ve been dropped in from ten thousand feet?
DL: We do this in business school where we drop them into hypothetical situations and scenarios. Coming from a science background and an engineering background, a lot of the work that you do academically is going to become a big part of that… but in school you’re really just looking at the computer, you’re writing up the program, you’re submitting it, and it works. It validates, it passes the tests, the outcomes all work out really well or you come up with this reporting and then you take it from there.
But what you’re missing is the people element. I think more and more what we’re seeing is that some of the computer science application development is focusing a little bit more on that user experience and design.
And I think it’s important and that kind of starts forming the philosophy that “Hey, you’re not working on application development, you’re not working on application, you’re not building software. You’re building something to solve a person’s problem.”
And so, with that attitude, you remember that there’s actually a person on the other side interacting with your technology. But how do you communicate with that person and really understand their experience and really understand what they’re trying to do?
What they’re trying to do is not just push these buttons on your applications screen; what they’re trying to do is put an order through or allow the students to take this class or find that student’s missing credits.
Those tasks are what they’re trying to accomplish. How they get there ─ we can make it as easy and as organic as possible. I mean, we can just put the functionality out there but we want to make it a little bit nicer, more comfortable for the person.
I think that kind of focus on user experience really helps. There’s no other way to do that except to communicate with that person.
So you learn to communicate with a human about technology, and that’s really what’s going to carry you forward especially as you move up in the ranks of IT because less and less as you go up you’re going to work directly with the technology. But you’re going to need to have that street cred and the ability to communicate with your team.
But in the end, the success has to be the business’s success. IT being successful doesn’t mean anything. It’s that IT helps make the business successful.
So as you move up, you’re working on presenting solutions to a larger crowd and if you’re presenting to a crowd of technical people, having the street cred is helpful, certainly, but as you move up in higher ed or as you’re going through a computer science or an IT degree, it’s being able to present to non-IT people that’s important.
We do some things here where we’ll actually put business school students with law school students and put them together to work on a project. So I’d love to see business school students working with CES masters students and put them together and say, “Build a solution. Here’s the product to marketing. How do we communicate this and actually put the two together and actually pack them together?”
DB: Then, you really see what skills we might need to strengthen from an educational perspective as well.
Let’s close with this, Denys. What big project is hanging out there that you would love to be able to start or that you see on the horizon where we can all step back and learn from? Whether there’s clamoring from the students side of it or faculty or it’s just your contemporaries discussing the needs of higher ed in providing technology that synthesizes the experience either on campus or off campus? What is that one project?
DL: The one project that will fit really well is the idea of the student lifecycle and communication. And that means “let’s see more collaboration.”
Going back to what I just said, how do we connect students with each other? How do we connect faculty with each other?
Let’s say you focus on a very niched piece of research. You might be working with somebody halfway across the globe but you have other faculty that is sitting right next door to you or across campus.
So how do we get a collaboration happening and really put together because I think there’s just so much potential in putting minds together.
And it’s not just faculty to faculty! I’m talking faculty to students, students to student, student to staff and get some better collaborative work out there.
So communication has been tough because there’s no shortage of communication tools. Some are using Zoom. In our university we use Skype. The students are using WeChat. There’s a proliferation of those tools between the different generations and even generations between cohorts! Between the 2018 and the 2019 class, they’ll be using different tools because they’re just constantly adopting. They’re constantly adopting ever-changing solutions and different things that come up.
And that’s been a tough one because they’re communicating with themselves but it kind of kills diversity and we prize diversity… especially here at Emory.
And the business school, we’ve got to leverage it. So you ask, “Okay, how do you get this together?”
It’s an interesting one because it’s not lack of technology. It’s a lack of consensus. Or it’s just so much technology, in a way.
That’s why Facebook is so successful; everybody is on a single platform. There’s just a lot of people on it. You know where you can go to find somebody.
But within the collaborative tools ─ there’s so many of them it’s hard to pick.
And there’s not one perfect one. But as you get more and more people on it, the value just keeps going up and probably not linearly even. It’s almost exponential. Until you hit critical mass. Then it just becomes invaluable.
In my conversations between faculty to faculty and student to student and student to faculty and staff to staff, email is not going to cut it.
DB: Definitely! It’s about connecting the dots, right?
DB: Thanks and continued success, Denys. It was great to catch up with you and it sounds like you always have exciting days in the department. There’s a lot to do.
DL: Absolutely! Thank you.
About Denys Lu:
Denys Lu is currently the Chief Technology Officer and Director, IT Operations at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Denys has been at the Goizueta Business School since 2008, serving as Lead Applications Developer, Business Relationship Manager, Director of the Office of Business Relationship Management, and Deputy CIO before becoming CTO Denys earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and an MBA in finance, both from Emory University.
This article was originally posted in the Huffington Post
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