Ellucian is an education technology company that has been in business for more than 40 years. It serves 2,400 institutions and 18 million students in 40 countries. Unlike a lot of ed tech companies that get a lot of press today, this is an organization that is far from its startup days.
According to Ellucian CIO Lee Congdon, who was previously the CIO at Red Hat, Ellucian is an education company that is increasingly becoming a cloud company. Ellucian believes in “Student success. Tight budgets. Limited IT resources. More and more higher education institutions are looking for answers to these challenges.” In this interview with CIO Insight contributor Peter High, he also highlights that the company must attract new technology talent who will help the company move faster and in a more agile fashion.
Peter High: Can you describe your role as CIO? What is your purview?
Lee Congdon: Very traditional IT organization in terms of accountability: servers, storage, the network, moving to cloud for many of our purpose-built and software-as-a-service applications. We now have software-as-a-service application for everything from infrastructure compute, single sign on and so on, to collaboration for things like email and video conferencing, to our customer success and sales automation applications. So a pretty standard portfolio. On all of the customer and corporate facing applications in IT we partner with our R&D organization to provide infrastructure for them and policies, guidelines and standards for them as they execute the product transition from on-premises products to cloud-based products. We own engagement with the business, strategic planning for IT, information security, business continuity—pretty traditional responsibilities for an IT organization.
High: Can you talk about your current strategic plan? You have been in the role for roughly six months or so. I have to imagine there was a period of getting up to speed on the education space, generally speaking, obviously, Ellucian more specifically. If I may assume that you have the beginnings of that strategic plan, an area of purview that you mentioned, can you talk a bit about some of the priorities going forward?
Congdon: Sure. We are initially focused on four priorities. Enabling the business; great business engagement and leadership; being strong partners to our business counterparts; ensuring that we are leading on data initiatives for the organization; leading cross-functional projects in terms of discovering the requirements and executing the necessary transitions, not only on the technology side, but on the business side; obviously, delivering projects to enable the business and really focusing on identifying the solutions that are going to deliver the most business value.
As is common in IT organizations, particularly in the transition we talked about, growing our team and our capabilities; providing on the job opportunities to engage with the business to deliver new capabilities for the organization. We are investing in agile, so ensuring that our folks are ready to move faster and with more flexibility; bringing on board select new skills to tackle areas that we need to focus on; setting a culture of both education and expectation that our folks are going to be continuous learners and emerging new technologies I talked about; and changing our corporate culture (IT is a part of that) from one of traditional career and performance management to a much more flexible, modern approach there.
Working out our processes and platforms as we grow in scale; making sure we have the right capabilities in place. I mentioned new networks, new co-location facilities will be a part of that as well, enabling us to be faster, continuing the focus on information security that we had traditionally in a challenging security environment. But investing in specific processes, too, like incident management and change management and project management, to give us the ability to scale and to automate. Agility is a big investment area, both in terms of delivering solutions but also in terms of partnering with the business at a higher level and, of course, retiring our legacy platforms as well.
And then starting to invest for the future. Automation is a key point for us as we move away from traditional environments to cloud-based environments, ensuring that we are not doing things manually in our new cloud environment, but that we are really setting up this software-defined and data center concept in the cloud as well as internally. Continuing to exploit the cloud by taking our remaining applications and a disciplined plan for moving them to the cloud. We probably will be a hybrid cloud for a period of time. But we are definitely continuing to move internal capability to the cloud. And then we have recently engaged an enterprise architect who will help us further flesh out our strategies in each of those domains.
One of the areas I expect that we will invest in that we have not committed to yet is a consistent integration platform. We provide a tool called Ethos for our customers that enables them to tie their Ellucian and non-Ellucian applications together from a data and reporting standpoint, and we believe we need a tool of that nature for our internal application portfolio.
High: You have alluded a couple of times to the fact that you hope to provide the sort of technology and the sort of culture to provide life-long learning for your teams. No doubt, coming to a company, an industry that you were not familiar with, at least professionally, there was a real opportunity for you to become a learner. How did you prepare yourself in the weeks before starting at Ellucian learning more about the field, of course, learning more about the company?
Congdon: I have had a passion for education and education topics for some time, so at least I was familiar with some of the issues, but did not know a lot about higher education. I was fortunate that many of the transitions we are going through in terms of becoming a cloud company were things that were occurring at my previous employer. I had a good grasp of the issues of transitioning from an on-premises data center focused organization to a cloud-based organization. But in addition to that, I identified key sources in the industry — publications, websites, blogs, etc. — and identified some of the key CIOs that I know in higher education and ensured that I was following their Twitter accounts, their blogs, getting a sense of the types of information that they had access to.
I certainly benefitted greatly from attending, before I joined the organization, our customer events, called E Live. We had about 8,000 IT decision makers in higher education at that event. Networking, having breakfast and lunch with those folks, ongoing conversations, as well as with folks from across our organization, I thought was a significant advantage in getting me on board. As part of our onboarding process I had a chance to meet the majority of the top 20, 30, 40 folks in the organization and get their perspective in the first two weeks. All of those things put me in good stead to understand what was going on.
High: Lee, you have been a CIO multiple times over now of tech-centric organizations. I wonder, having also been a tech executive at a number of financial services organizations — obviously many of those are very tech heavy, though not necessarily in the same way that an Ellucian or a Red Hat might be — is there a different level of value required, or even a different way of interacting with one’s customers, colleagues and associates when so many of them have technology backgrounds?
Congdon: It is different, and I suspect this is changing everywhere as more and more enterprises become technology-focused, technology-driven. But, in general, not having to explain the importance of technology, getting beyond the cost center conversation relatively early — does not mean you do not have to watch your cost — in fact you have very astute customers so you have to watch your cost carefully but not having to explain why there is revenue and business value implications, as opposed to just cost implications, of technology, is significant. Across the organization people understand the perspective of technology companies to a greater degree, whether in financial services or in tech companies, so you spend less time and less focus on justifying the technology elements of your strategy. They need to be sound and well thought out, and they need to engage the business and be defensible, but it is not a matter of ‘why do we need this new capability?’, or ‘why do we need to refresh this old system?’. Those things are understood to a greater level of detail than in potentially some other organizations.
Now, the tradeoffs are your internal customers may have very strong ideas and passions about what you should do, or about what they want to do (regardless of you) that you need to accommodate in your plan. Whether it is a passion for a particular platform or a particular technology solution, how to do an implementation, how to manage technology over time, you are going to have to accommodate, perhaps, stronger points of view and well-informed points of view, that you might not in a less technology-centric organization.
A final thought, an observation I make both at Red Hat and here at Ellucian: it provides great opportunity for partnership, learning from each other, and for creating career opportunities for the employees, whether it is moving people from another part of the organization like R&D into IT to get a practitioner’s view, or vice versa, moving people with strong technical skills into the R&D organization to lend a practitioner’s view to the product development side. I think that is a unique synergy that you can realize in a tech company.
High: Your immediately preceding role to this one as CIO of Red Hat, an open source organization, given the length of tenure you had at Red Hat and the extent to which you were naturally in the milieu of open source, the extent to which that has now become part of your way of operating now in a new environment. How do you see a lot of what you were seeing work so well there translating into an environment like Ellucian?
Congdon: Very much as expected. First I will point out that it is interesting to be back in a Microsoft productivity tool environment — something we did not do at Red Hat, and I had not worked in great depth in until Capital One prior to that — but, that said, setting aside open source email servers and open source productivity tools, we are very much invested in server technology, Red Hat and other open source operating systems, management tools, monitoring tools, databases and other infrastructure. The source of tools and platforms one would expect in a large organization in terms of using open source to exploit the benefits of that platform, and, frankly, starting to look at OpenStack and other solutions with the potential for evolving our data center architecture. We expect to have a hybrid quality environment for several years and so as we think about what platforms we want to run our internal applications those remaining in our co-load will likely give a very close look at open source software for that as well. In addition to that, of course, we have the usual collection of user tools and other platforms across the organization that are open-source based and I would say were taking advantage of the strengths of open source, particularly in the area of infrastructure.
High: I also was more curious — a general question for you: what sort of technology trends particularly excite you? You mentioned a number of them actually that you are beginning to leverage as part of your strategic priorities as you were highlighting those. Are there other things that are beginning to make their way onto your roadmap, things either personally or professionally you are beginning to investigate as to their relevance at Ellucian, and beyond?
Congdon: I will mix the two. I am becoming increasingly intrigued by Artificial Intelligence and deep learning and the impacts that it is going to have, not only on our applications, but on our society. We are in very early stages here, but I think it is intriguing some of the capabilities of these platforms — and not just game playing any longer — but some of the capabilities of these platforms going forward and what disruptions those will drive both in terms of occupations and expertise.
My second observation is that everything is networked. Increasingly, all of our devices, applications, data are going to be tightly interlinked, and all sorts of implications from that as well, whether it is smart homes, whether it is access to my data from anywhere, any device, information about me being broadly available, etc. I think this connectivity notion and mobility notion is fascinating with the societal changes that that is going to drive.
Related to both of those two is data and analytics and the ability to do things we never could before in terms of predictive and proactive analytics. Despite the fact that I am not a “drone person,” I find all of the experiments we see going on now in terms of delivery and other uses of drones (I expect they are freeing up that third dimension and taking advantage of that low air space) is going to be an interesting societal impact in the coming years.
And then very rapidly coming at us — hopefully braking as they do! — autonomous vehicles. The disruptions we will see in employment as trucking becomes automated, the disruptions we will see in urban transportation as Uber and others are transitioning their fleets to self-driving vehicles, and some of the impact of autonomous shipping, submarines, and other devices that are only on the horizon now, I think are going to be very interesting.