CIO Spotlight: Link Alander, Lone Star College

CIO Spotlight: Link Alander, Lone Star College

Name: Link Alander

Company: Lone Star College

Job title: CIO, Vice Chancellor, College Services

Date started current role: January 2012

Location: The Woodlands, TX

Link Alander has over 25 years' experience in higher education technology management. In his current capacity he works with all aspects of technology and analytics for the delivery of core services to Lone Star College System's six colleges, ten resource centres, and two university centres. He is responsible for the Office of Technology Services and The Office of Analytics and Institutional Reporting. His team goals are simple, provide exemplary services that align with the organisation's goals. Alander has presented at EDUCAUSE (national, regional, and security), Service Now, Knowledge, 15 to 18, Cisco, ITsmf, VMworld, EMC World, Campus Technology, and League of Innovation. He is a current member of the Campus Technology Magazine editorial advisory board and has published articles focusing on improving service delivery to faculty, staff and students. The Lone Star College System's Office of Technology Services has received the following recognition: Campus Technology Innovator Award 2012, Center for Digital Government - Best in Texas 2012, Digital Education Achievement Award 2012, Computer World Laureate Class of 2012, Center for Digital Education - large community college class 1st -2012, 2nd - 2011, EMC Journey to the Cloud Award 2011, and the Symantec Visionary Award 2010.

What was your first job? I was the manager of a shoe store. Working in customer service taught me a lot about working with people - life was commission, as I like to say. I was incentivised to hone my people skills. I'm a firm believer everyone should work in a service role at some point in their lives, and I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat wait staff, cashiers and other service employees.

Did you always want to work in IT? The short answer - no. I took a non-traditional route right out of high school. Instead of heading straight to a four-year college, I joined the Army. IT was not mainstream when I was growing up, so the military was my introduction to computers. I started on a Commodore Plus 4 (not to date myself here) and I loved it. After the military, I continued down the path to IT and eventually, to my role as CIO of an educational institution - a great blend of two of my passions.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a bachelor's degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) and an MBA. I have held many certifications over the years, in all areas of IT. I keep my ITIL certification up-to-date.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I had a lot of detours before I started full-time in IT. I initially wanted to be a programmer, but that was short-lived. I then shifted to business process, then networks, then servers and databases, with many twists and turns along the way. It was when I landed at Western Illinois University that my love for higher education was born. It was when I realised that I could translate the IT skills I'd gained to do some good. I could see first-hand the students I was helping and the lives I was touching. To this day, that continues to be my biggest source of motivation.

I came to Lone Star College, where I'm now Vice Chancellor and CIO, to further my expertise and understanding of higher education and technology's role in academics. To this day, some of my biggest career highlights are attending graduation ceremonies. It motivates me to know that I've played some small role in students getting their degrees and having a strong foundation on which to build their careers and lives. I'm now in a position where I'm helping tech bring value and business efficiency. That's the part I now enjoy most and feel most challenged by - having discussions at the C-level about how to effectively leverage technology to drive real change and value at the business level, while not losing site of our core mission as an academic institution.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? One of the programmes I am most excited about is our Guided Programmes of Study project, laddering nicely to Lone Star's core mission of student success. This project connects the dots from the students' academic planning to the technology. This will assist our students and advisors to stay on track and graduate in a timely manner.

We are also driving a complete redesign of our enterprise systems with an eye for user experience. The goal is simple: enhance our customers' experience across all platforms. This also includes a seamless transition between all applications in our portfolio, whether they are on-prem or in the cloud.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The challenge of leadership today isn't the technology and tools - it's changing employee behaviour and company culture. Our role as CIOs has evolved from "We need to keep systems up" to "We need to change behaviour to drive digital transformation". The conversations I'm having with our president and chancellors aren't about IT or specific tech initiatives, they're about business priorities and how technology can be best leveraged towards those goals. Today - as a CIO - you have to be talking at the business level to be effective.

No more is ‘employee experience' relegated to just the HR department, it's a C-suite priority that we all need to have a stake in. And done right, the outcome extends well beyond "engaged employees" - it impacts the bottom line in ways that CEOs and Boards care about. I work closely with our college teams, presidents and vice presidents of student success, as well as system office resources to evaluate our processes, look for efficiencies and enhance the student experience. Student success is first and foremost our priority from a leadership perspective at Lone Star.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Information technology historically has been an inward, back-office function that was fairly siloed. CIOs are now being asked to play a very different role than even 5-10 years ago - they are being tasked with driving digital transformation across the enterprise, a far more fundamental and strategic role than their predecessors. The role of the CIO evolves into delivering exceptional employee and customer experiences and driving cross-functional change management - while also doing their ‘day jobs' to deliver productivity and efficiency. To be this multi-faceted leader, who now wears many hats, the CIO skillset must evolve (and likely will continue to evolve as digital transformation continues to take hold and spiderweb through organisations).

Here's what hasn't changed: CIOs still set the strategic technology vision. We are still are relied on to determine what's real and what's hype. The technologist part of the role doesn't go away. What's new: we need to expand our purview and vision to go beyond IT and think through the technologies and processes that will best support the entire enterprise. Additionally, we need to be better communicators and collaborators, working cross-functionality with our counterparts across the business to bring about meaningful and lasting business transformation.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? As my team and I have refined the delivery of IT services, we're starting to build systems and processes for other college functions including financial aid grants, a veterans' benefits service and potentially a unified recruitment model for Lone Star's six colleges. Most notably, we built a legal module in ServiceNow for our college's new general counsel who was looking for a better way to manage legal affairs. With ServiceNow, we're creating digital workflows that create great experiences - changing the culture of work, enhancing productivity and improving how employees feel about their work environments.

All these transformations are in service of the employee/customer experience, as well as operational efficiency and revenue growth. Balancing these sometimes-conflicting priorities is not easy. But at its core, the efficiencies found by leveraging the Now platform add to the bottom line: We've consolidated the number of vendors and platforms we're leveraging, reducing overall IT costs. And IT workers now spend less time on the mundane (tasks which have been largely automated) and are able to focus on more impactful and strategic work. This helps with business growth and health, and up-levels the work IT staff is doing, making their day-to-day work more meaningful.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We use Gartner's Maturity Assessments for all aspects of IT initiatives, where we regularly score high in IT maturity. Our digital business model is currently middle-of-the road, but we are accelerating fast as we move into more enterprise and customer service practices. Though we don't have specific KPIs set for digital transformation. It's a tough thing to measure and we understand that we have a long way to go still, but we're happy with the progress made. We look at YoY improvement and alignment.

And, we understand that technology adoption and adjustment is just half the battle - for digital transformation to really take hold and reap all the benefits, there has to be a business process transformation as well as behavioural change as the organisation and end-user level. We continue to make great strides and are moving forward - with sprints and slow-downs sprinkled throughout the journey.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? I have an amazing team and collectively, we have a strong culture. I credit this to many things over the years. In terms of my contribution to culture: I practice leadership by example, management by objectives and clear, concise communications. I see my biggest responsibility of a C-level leader is to empower my teams to do their jobs, to support them and to guide them. This includes professional development and leadership training at all levels. This creates successions plans and career ladders - ingredients critical to a healthy team and a thriving, motivated staff.

The IT team's culture is different - but not wholly disparate - to that of Lone Star's culture at-large. IT formulated our culture a long time ago. We were one of the first team's to truly understand our role within the organisation - technology in support of the business - and live through and through that a service-centred mindset. At the time of our culture inception, we'd remind ourselves: "We all can be outsourced." While it may sound dismal, it helped remind us of the importance of our jobs and delivering on that transformation in service of business value. And this gave way to high-quality products and services (24/7/365 always-on approach to IT).

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate ) to be the most difficult to fill? The industry is in short supply of the deep technical skill areas like networking, operating systems, DBAs, etc. and we're no exception. Additionally, IT security positions are in high demand.

For me, it's about finding employees with a strong mix of technical and soft skills, along with a deep understanding of the business (in this case, higher education). Those soft skills are areas that a lot of my staff need help developing - communications, presentation skills, working cross-functionally - but they are so important to a well-rounded and lasting employee.

What's the best career advice you ever received? I have received a lot of advice from many mentors over the years. The ones that stick out the most are: 1) Is this the hill to die for? 2) Listen and talk softly. 3) Build and trust your team.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. A succession plan is incredibly important, especially in today's technology/IT world where systems need to be up all the time and you must deliver 24/7/365 always-on support. We can't have lags or downtimes because of staffing change. So that means we have clear succession plans in place, not only for personnel departures but also promotions and shifts within the organisation. As noted in a previous question, I'm a firm believer in promoting from within and arming my staff with the tools needed to advance their careers. This sometimes mean we lose great people to other offers, but it's par for the course. Higher education doesn't come with the biggest price tag, which is why during the hiring process, we try to find people that are passionate about the industry. That brings it closer to home and gives us a better chance for retention.

I also joke that I'm a breeding ground for network people. A lot of these people establish their expertise on my team at Lone Star and move on. We hate to see them go, but ultimately, I want the people on my teams to want to be here. And those that need to move on, I wish them the best. This is where culture becomes so critical. And it's a big focus for me as CIO and team lead. I understand the importance culture and employee experience play in retaining great talent and cultivating the leaders of tomorrow.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? 1) Learn the business. 2) IT is not the business, it supports the business. 3) Build a strong team and trust them.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Establishing a strong, engaged team at Lone Star College that understands and has internalised our mission. Furthermore, we've collectively raised funding for 18 scholarships (and counting), underscoring our deep passion not only for IT and technology, but for education. We've been keeping at a steady pace of five scholarships a year. And we're building on our partnerships; next year, we'll be giving full rides to students in underserved areas looking to enter the cybersecurity space. Not only is this a feel-good initiative, but it points back to an earlier question about talent. We recognise the talent shortage and are doing our part to build the funnel and arm future generations with the skills needed to thrive in this new world.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have started my career in IT earlier. I was nearly 30 years old when I landed my first IT job. While I'm proud and grateful for the success I've found, I likely would have had an easier go at it had I started sooner. I've made both good and bad decisions along my career journey, but all in all, I'm very lucky to be working in a field I love and an industry - higher education - that I have a deep passion for.

What are you reading now? I typically have four books going at a time: 1) a book on finance/investing as it's something I do in my spare time; 2) a thriller as my entertainment/escape from reality; 3) an autobiography on someone I either have a personal interest in or not; and 4) a leadership book that helps me with people management and in my role as CIO. My current list is as follows: i. Crush IT ii. Daughter of War iii. Richard Branson - Losing my Virginity iv. Great at Work

In terms of the autobiography note, this is something I started in college as part of the curriculum and have continued on with the tradition. It helps me gain perspective from someone totally different than me, and I've learned a ton of valuable lessons as a result. If nothing else, that we all come to a situation with a history, and that history impacts how we see the world and operate within it. And that gives you a level of compassion for humankind. And empathy and compassion have their place in all aspects of life, business included.

Most people don't know that I… Work with stained glass. It was a hobby born out of necessity when I had to do some renovating at my house. But it's a great creative outlet and opportunity to work with my hands, given my many years behind a computer screen.

In my spare time, I like to…Travel and play golf.

Ask me to do anything but… I'm a glutton for new experiences and I can't think of anything I've ventured to try that I've absolutely hated. I aim to keep an open mind and embrace new experiences/opportunities when they present themselves.


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