15 minutes with Yale Chief Information Officer John Barden

By William Smith
Yale University’s Chief Information Officer runs us through the ins and outs of his role and how it has changed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic...

Could you give me an overview of your position and what it entails?

Yale, like many large and complex research extensive educational institutions, is an organization with multiple missions – academic delivery, research, clinical care, and cultural heritage (Yale runs several museums and galleries that are open to the public). We deliver academics to students through 15 divisions from Architecture to Theology. As a research institution we advance these fields of study, often with faculty peers globally. Our clinical practice is our fastest growing segment and operates in partnership with our affiliated hospitals of Yale New Haven Health. Cultural heritage makes our collections available to the public and supports scholarly work through the Art Gallery, Center for British Arts, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Beinecke Rare Books Library, and more. These missions have a central theme as described in our mission statement – “improving the world today and for future generations”. It is a privilege to work in an environment that defines its goals around multi-generational human interests. It is also true that from an operational perspective, these goals can cause conflicts that make information technology policy and operations incredibly stimulating - such as the juxtaposition of managing the openness of access required for global institutional research projects and the critical privacy considerations of clinical care that is regulated by HIPAA.

Yale’s faculty, students, and staff are keenly aware of the importance of technology to their daily work. Whether in the context of online learning tools or simulation software for academic delivery, specialized analytics and high performance computing that support research, high availability telephony and secure network connectivity solutions required in a clinical context, or in novel context search requirements across our collections - each aspect of our mission is enabled through a technology landscape that is ever evolving. As our IT practices are maturing, these discussions are shifting more toward strategy, process, and organization to clarify more holistically considered opportunities, a natural and positive progression that is accelerating the return on investment.  

Information technology at Yale consists of approximately 450 personnel in central, and about half as many more out in distributed units. That balance reflects how we think about decision rights at Yale. Specifically, there are many aspects of technology that are shared, for example networking, telephony, administrative systems, and these are generally centralized. That co-exists with local specialization that is segmented by both mission and academic units to assure the unique needs of our vastly differing faculty and student needs are met. So, while one facet of my role is assuring the strategic direction, operational precision, and guidance of the central unit, it is equally important to manage the ongoing collaboration and governance functions holistically for the institution. In combination, these assure that we act as “One IT” in the interests of Yale’s faculty, staff, and students.  

How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe a leader’s style must meet the contextual need, but values must be unchanging. Values are the basis of trust, and if you want people to follow you, they need to be able to predict how you will behave. My values weigh heavily toward being direct, taking informed risks, being transparent, fact-based, and valuing high integrity above all else. Every value also creates blind spots. Being conscious of them and surrounding yourself with team members who complement those risks creates a balanced leadership team, and I have been extraordinarily fortunate in that regard.  

As for leadership style, Yale’s contextual need at this time has demanded a leader who can frame a clear, consistent, and concise vision. That has settled into a three-pronged strategy: 

1) “One IT” - which recognizes that faculty and students often receive support from many IT units and has placed emphasis on building the governance and process that support that.  

2) Service Quality - assuring we are applying best practices to IT operations that result in service levels that fully meet expectations.  

3) Reinforcing the best aspects of our culture to create a Workplace of Choice - recognizing that IT is not so much about servers and software, it is about our professionals, and how they engage with their colleagues.  

Creating a sustainable culture that respects the whole person and their diverse talents because only in that environment can team members do their best work.

That said, every day is different, and every team member may need something different from their leader on a given day or in a different situational context. From my perspective the challenge is holding true to your values while being what that individual most needs from you to be their best in that moment – be that visionary, affirming, commanding, democratic, or any one of a number of styles that may be needed in a specific situation.

How have you reacted to the new normal of COVID-19?

Early on, back in January of 2019, several of our public health leaders were beginning to express concern about what might be coming. We heeded that advanced warning and hardened core infrastructure supporting distance learning and remote work immediately. Over the months that followed, we had a series of institutional discussions – how would we arm faculty to teach from anywhere? How would we assure preparations for the worst-case scenarios of infection in the local community? How could we best support COVID related research? What public health measures needed to be put in place on campus? Many of these answers required a level of coordination across our units that was unprecedented and has continued to this day, reshaping our operational methods. Virtually all implied policy, process, and technology changes. 

The IT work has been expansive and required building out a cadre of new services.  

In the area of public health, we needed to define an effective way to identify and manage outbreaks to safely continue on-campus activities. The IT team jumped in with our public health experts and clinical teams to codify essential works and a phased return program matching state guidelines, develop tools to support a rigorous viral testing program, built density monitoring tools, established a process for daily health checks and access controls, constructed an entirely new system for managing contact tracing, and a build a robust reporting infrastructure.  

We also had to send most of the 15,000-person organization home to work while continuing the essential business of the university. We expanded the help desk hours and guidelines for new set of questions coming in, deployed the end-user support teams helped package and distribute thousands of existing and new workstations, refined our faculty and staff equipment and support approach, and launched a softphone service to redirect critical office and call center lines to create the expanded virtual campus.

Finally, we had to assure faculty and student readiness for online learning. Here, across campus each team stepped in to assure the needs of their respective faculty and students were met and extended a number of services previously only available on campus to a virtualized environment. The pandemic also highlighted the digital divide globally, and where we can, have been working to aid students to resolve limitations that have adversely impacted their participation.

It is an understatement to say that COVID has further amplified the University’s dependency on technology. This event has been seismic for the higher education industry and has upended literally centuries of tradition and methods. And while early adoption of technologies has always been a major part of research institutions, there is no doubt that the pace and criticality of broad-based adoption has never had more significant consequence to the very lifeblood of what we do. I am incredibly impressed with how faculty, staff, and students have worked through all these changes. Our workforce has hardly missed a beat while dealing with an entirely new way of working.  

The IT team feels the weight of this new dependence. The people who are drawn to work in information technology at Yale get that what we do as an institution matters in the world. You wake up every day knowing that the people you support are accelerating understanding of COVID itself, testing therapies, training doctors, educating citizens to shape the future of our environment and economy, and exploring conditions that give rise to polarized politics. These are the very things that shape our world and citizenry. When the stakes are this high, the hardest part during this pandemic has been getting my team to recognize the ongoing strain on themselves and take the downtime they need to stay healthy. While there is optimism on the horizon, we must remember this pandemic is a marathon and we still have many miles left to run. 


To what extent has the pandemic impacted existing projects?

Essentially, the entire institution has been operating under a large-scale business continuity plan since this began. From an IT perspective, we consciously reforecast and acknowledged some delays in our planned activities, particularly those programs impacted by the limited physical campus access in the early stages, and the redeployment of team members who have been building out the responses supporting public health, remote work, and online learning. Many of our colleagues are dealing with their own set of COVID impacts and have been willing partners in rethinking priorities in the context of the pandemic.  

That said, this team is incredibly aligned to our strategic plan, and has put in a herculean amount of effort and time to keep us on track with our long-range goals. The impact has also not been evenly distributed across the team, so many planned activities are moving along well, and I expect we will achieve the majority of what we set out to do this fiscal year.

What are your priorities going forwards?

In the short term, the pressures of managing through the pandemic remain. The global health crisis is deeper as we now start our spring semester than it was in the fall. It will take diligence to maintain operations and keep everyone safe.

Our core IT strategies – One IT, Service Quality, and Workplace of Choice – remain. They are foundational to our long-term capability and functioning at the high level that Yale requires. Through this progress we are establishing the building blocks for being increasingly responsive to rapidly accelerating technology needs across all facets of our mission.  

However, the pandemic does introduce some new considerations. Having now exposed the entire faculty and student population to online tools, how do we best align their use with our educational strategies and goals? Having exposed our workforce to working from home, how do we leverage these learnings to rethink working at Yale, and how do we envision the future culture of the institution that will be influenced by these choices? In our globally connected world, should some aspects of our public health measures stay? These are all new strategy questions for the institution that have been enabled by an urgent technology response. I don’t want the tail wagging the dog and we will make no assumptions. Like most organizations with a 320-year history, Yale is thoughtful and deliberate in weighing these kinds of major choices. Just because we have proven we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Strategy first.


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