Boise State University: how the Wild West of IT governance was won
For the most part, the days when an employee would graduate school or college, secure a job, work for 30 years and collect a commemorative watch have gone the way of the stegosaurus, the French Monarchy and Betamax. The US Bureau of Labor found that, in 2018, the median number of years wage and salary workers spent in a single job was just 4.2. Brian Bolt began working at Boise State as a student employee in 1997, and then as a full-time employee in 1999. After leaving for a couple years, Bolt returned and has been with the University's IT organization ever since. He earned his MBA from Boise State in 2006 and became Deputy Chief Information Officer in 2015. His long career in higher-ed IT allows for an increasingly unique perspective as an innovator and solutioner..
“I came to Boise to pursue a Bachelor's Degree. I built on my fondness for computers and joined a pilot program learning something that doesn't exist anymore called Novell NetWare,” he reminisces. “It was basically a file and print service. And that's where I got my start that led to a student employment job on campus.” Bolt’s career with Boise State has long outlived Novell NetWare, which released its final update in 2009. Over the course of his 20-year IT career he has been at the heart of major changes to the campus’ IT governance. We sat down with Bolt to find out about the challenges of effecting technological transformation and change management across an enterprise-scale higher learning institution, and about Boise State’s current plans to implement a campus-wide Customer Relationship Management (CRM) approach to use data analysis to improve and maintain Boise’s university-student relationships.
Located in the West of Idaho, Boise State University was founded in 1932 by the Episcopal Church, becoming an independent junior college two years later. In 2019, it has over 24,000 attendees and was reclassified in 2015 as a Carnegie doctoral research university, as well as placing 45th on the US News and World Report’s 2019 list of Most Innovative Universities. This year is also on track to have the institution’s largest first-year class in the university’s history.
To manage the ever-growing student body, Bolt and the rest of the Boise State’s IT department are working to begin the implementation of their campus-wide CRM over the next year, with incremental rollouts expected to begin in late 2019. “We don’t yet have a CRM for students that are in the K-12 environment. They're our future pipeline if you're looking at it from a strictly sales point of view. And at the other end of the spectrum, we have programs at the university that cater to the retirement community and ongoing education. The lifespan of a customer for us could be 60 years long,” explains Bolt. “But right now, we only have a CRM for the bookends of our lifecycle: applicants and alumni. We have nothing in between that manages the most important part.” Managing IT governance strategy at an enterprise-scale educational institution presents its own unique difficulties, particularly when implementing campus-wide technology transformation. Bolt reflects on the challenges to be faced in order to successfully roll out the CRM: “There’s managing technology change in a very disparate environment, learning how to manage change rollouts, and also being accepting of the fact that some of the technologies we have may have reached the end of their lifecycle.” Over the course of his career at Boise, Bolt has faced each of these challenges and more.
Though his career at Boise State began working with the Novell NetWare operating system, by 2007 Bolt could see that transformation and transition were long overdue. “At one point in time, universities were looked to as leaders with regard to technology and its adoption,” he says, “but I think in the 90s the corporate world started to get ahead.” Technology, Bolt points out, became more entrenched and slower moving in academia. “So, we held onto our Novell infrastructure for a lot longer than the corporate world ever did. Which is fine. It's just kind of the way that universities work, and there's a reason why universities have been around for a long time. They’re typically deliberate about their decision-making process.” Boise’s relationship with Novell came to an end as a result of reduced reliability due to vendors not being able to invest as much money in maintenance updates. “We were probably one of the last schools running Novell’s technology,” he says. “It was a dying technology that wasn’t being maintained as well as it could be.”
Bolt reflects that the transition that followed Boise leaving Novell behind was one of the “big breaks” of his career. “I received an invitation to the Googleplex to learn about Google Apps for Education. This was 2007, remember,” he notes, “the early days.” Bolt attended the Googleplex in 2007 to learn about the work being done to bring Google apps to educational institutions. Excited by the possibilities, Bolt returned to Boise and pitched the idea to management and IT “and that was the first domino of removing Novell from our environment.” He laughs before admitting that “it was kind of the Wild West of IT governance back then. We kind of inflicted change on campus, and the first year afterwards was pretty rocky. We had some people that were very satisfied and some people that were really not. We had rocked their world by taking away their email client and calendaring system they'd been using for ten years.” The fallout from the implementation of Google Apps taught Bolt valuable lessons about the benefits of staggered rollouts and pilot programs. “I learned a lot about what happens after a project goes live in a large, disparate organization such as a higher-ed institution,” he says. “If you're afforded the opportunity to start small and rollout incrementally, that's a good path to take.”
Bolt has worked with Boise State’s current Chief Information Officer, Max Davis-Johnson, since he joined the university from Arizona State in 2010. “Max was a game changer in terms of how the university viewed technology as more of a strategic partner rather than just a cost center,” says Bolt. Davis-Johnson was responsible for implementing the university’s Roadmap series of transformational projects across campus. Excitedly, Bolt says, “As a result of that, we got a data warehouse off the ground, and we implemented our first student and faculty portal.” Then, he explains, the IT department used these large projects as a base on which to build up its governance structure.
With either large-scale projects or gradual transformation of IT governance strategies, Bolt reasserts the fact that technological transformation across universities is about managing the expectations and response of diverse user groups. “Thankfully we're in 2019 now, and not in 2008,” he says, reflecting on the overall level of technological literacy. “Our faculty and staff have become more adept at using technology. I think ten years has made a lot of difference.” On the other hand, the expectations of students have changed, influenced by a generation of social media users and online consumers. “Some of our applications and systems had more of a legacy look and feel,” didn’t provoke positive responses from the student body. “They want to see the stuff that provides convenience more than anything else,” explains Bolt. “And that takes us into the current generation of thinking, which uses data to provide that,” which is at the heart of Boise’s new CRM.
“Right now, we have a task force in place. We have a charge that's been given to us by three of the University’s six Vice Presidents,” says Bolt. The task force is exploring a unique approach to the process, which took shape during the department’s exploration of the solutions offered by Amazon Web Services. “We decided to go down the AWS route,” says Bolt, reflecting that it took a year-and-a-half to unite the IT, purchasing and legal departments in support of “buying a commodity as a service, not a capital investment.” He laughs, “no kidding. So after eighteen months, we had a signed contract with AWS, which provided us a suite of tools to use for new projects.” Once the department had access to AWS, their governance strategy took a note from the academia playbook: “we work a lot with faculty members that seek out grant opportunities. Granting agencies, such as National Institute of Health, will put out a call for proposals along the lines of ‘we have a need. Write your response, and we may or may not give you money to do the research’. We decided to do something similar within our own organization and call it a ‘call for participation’.” The team drafted up a call for participation, asking for applications and solutions for AWS machine learning and data lake storage. “The response was interesting,” chuckles Bolt. “We have seven participants from our technology office, and the person who wanted to be our project manager was actually our solutions architect, so he really decided to stretch his skills.” He reflects that, “one of the reasons why this worked is that we had the business unit say they wanted to be part of it as well. They actually brought the problem to us. They wanted to forecast demand for the Summer sessions so that they would know how many classes to schedule and how many adjunct professors to hire.” Regardless of the level of success the project achieves, Bolt is excited to both broaden the horizons and skillsets of the participants, and to use it as a springboard for the next initiative: exploring applications for Amazon Alexa. “It’s going to be done by our Director of Development,” Bolt says. “He wants to invest in Alexa skills and figure out where those fit in our environment, because smart speakers are everywhere in our personal lives. Trying to figure out where they best fit in an educational environment is definitely an interest.”
Of course, finding applications for AWS and planning the rollout of a campus-wide CRM are just two of the many projects on Bolt’s desk. He reflects that, “one of the biggest things I've been involved with the past year has been restarting our IT governance structure. There's not necessarily a command and control model in the university. So, when it comes to a finite resource such as IT, we have a lot of demands placed on us to deliver x, y and z, and without structure as to which large projects we should be working on and where we're going, the gap in stakeholder support creates a fair amount of chaos.” To solve this, over the past year Bolt and his committee co-chair, Boise’s Dean of Extended Studies, have put together a list of large development projects. The system has added structure, Bolt explains that “getting that framework put into place has been a good thing. It’s been a year-long process to get that set up and I think we'll benefit from that. So will the university. Because we're working on their goals. Not necessarily our goals. And that's hugely beneficial to all parties.”
“It's great that we have a scope for what we want to deliver, an area we want to deliver to, and a partner in a particular school on campus that's willing to work with us,” he says. Bolt’s team is currently in the procurement phase. Hoping to learn from their experiences with AWS, Bolt estimates “we'll shorten that process from 18 months down to a four-or-five-month process. We've learned a lot, and I think we've learned how to partner better with areas on campus to expedite things like this. So, we're hoping to have a technology and a path chosen by early summer.
“This has a chance of being a transformational project for us because it essentially creates a CRM with a very long lifecycle.” The Boise State CRM will manage student data, allowing the university to “know how to best advise its students by pulling information from its systems of record. That can really help us understand the entire makeup of the individual,” says Bolt. Looking back on a career of large technological changes, incremental progress and unique challenges, Bolt looks forward to another exciting chapter in the history of an institution he knows like the back of his hand. “Our challenges and successes over the past ten years have put us in a spot where we can be successful with something as large as a campus-wide CRM.”