John answers questions from Town Hall and more

October 18, 2019

Yale’s Chief Information Officer, John Barden answers a few questions submitted at the recent IT Town Hall meeting.  

Why is Yale not one of the four schools being targeted for undergraduate recruiting?

Undergraduate recruiting is a new program this year, and to keep it simple we are limiting the scope on campus marketing and interviews to just four schools to start: Quinnipiac, Southern, University of Connecticut, and Holberton. That approach does not preclude students from other schools (including Yale) from applying. Students at Yale already have a more direct path to get to know us through the Student Technology Collaborative which has led to the employment of a number of our current team. I expect we will expand the program in future years to include additional institutions.

Will ITS be moving towards Open Source Technology whenever possible? Are we being sure to seek out and consider Open Source solutions before moving on to commercial closed-source options? Open source also allows Yale to contribute to the project and have a hand in the collaborative process. What is ITS’s current uses of Open Source(specific software; percentage OSS vs Closed Source?

Open source solutions are in use at Yale today with some frequency. When we evaluate solutions, we need to carefully consider all factors that make up Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). This includes accounting for ongoing development expectations and an appropriate level of support in alignment with our service level requirements. Somewhat counterintuitively, because commercial offerings tend to have a broader support system and methods in place, commercial products are often more cost effective when all factors are considered. However, as Susan Gibbons and Dan Powell stated, particularly in some of the unique aspects of what we do as an industry, we take a collaborative open source approach based on the lack of commercial investment and innovation aligning to our needs. In recent years, this has been particularly prevalent in the cultural heritage and research IT pillars.

How does ITS communicate what we are doing every day in operations and with Projects to the community as a whole? Can we be doing more?

Members of the Yale community often express that they feel a bit overwhelmed with the volume of messaging from all aspects of the university. Increasingly, we are trying to assure that IT messages are targeted through opt-in subscription, self-service webpages, or through named functional leaders we are supporting in initiatives. We have been reducing our broad messaging to improve readership for when it is needed most (i.e. security issues). Lastly, it is my opinion that our best and most genuine messaging comes from high quality service experience and daily interactions. The ease, relevance, and quality of our daily work is our most important communication.

With the college recruitment initiative, how do you in the future plan to deal with career advancement for those workers when culturally and historically ITS places a high value on years of service for promotions?

Experience, often developed through years of service, will remain a critically important aspect of our promotion process. However, we are also intentionally moving toward a more meritocracy-based model, allowing for pacing of growth and promotion better aligned to when individuals are able to demonstrate success with organizational and role-specific competencies. This problem is particularly prevalent in the early stages of IT careers, where experience and training are often gathered quickly. This tends to create tension between a relatively steady compensation progression typical in higher education, and the kind of accelerated short term financial gains that can be accomplished in some technology companies. In introducing the college recruiting initiative, we have carefully designed a promotion path and compensation model to attempt to lessen this tension. Specifically, it is likely these candidates will start at a compensation range that reflects their limited experience and will see faster relative compensation growth as they are able to demonstrate readiness for increasingly complex assignments.

Is IT ever going to get a nicer place to work? Like a building that isn’t crumbling on a street without gun violence. Can you give us an update on repairs to 25SP? There was a letter from EHS in the lobby over the summer that said they would start in August, but that clearly did not happen.

In our space update communication dated October 7, I shared that University leadership is engaged in the early stages of considering our long-term office space needs across Yale. There is increasing interest in giving thought to a broader set of goals and design concepts. At least at this early stage, we remain committed to an administrative office complex on Science Park, and there is interest in seeing if we can define a more connected feel for this part of campus. As for specific repairs to the exterior of 25 Science Park, I understand the work is now expected to start in the next few weeks with completion anticipated by the end of November.

How will you temper the culture of fear building around the mandates and demands of the CCI task force? I’m a firm believer in being kind to one another and treating my coworkers equally and with respect. Unfortunately, many of us are fearful to say anything that could be overheard or misinterpreted. We want to build a “workplace of choice” but we will end up only doing that for a very small minority and the rest of us will have to leave or sit down and shut up. Training after training only exacerbates the issue. We should all be treated as adults and treat each other as adults.

We formed Climate, Culture, and Inclusion (CCI) to focus attention on our organizational culture, sanctioning time and effort by passionate team members who want to help work on these critical and challenging topics. It is my perspective that while we all want to work in a healthy and supportive environment, our expectations about what that means and how we are doing vary greatly based on our individual backgrounds and experiences. Research shows that even the most well-intentioned individual may not be as effective at treating everyone equally and with respect as they hope, and often that is true for reasons we are not even conscious of – myself included. I believe that establishing the conditions to encourage all our diverse experiences to shine through in our daily interactions is a critical catalyst for us doing our best work in the years ahead.

Creating broader awareness that not everyone experiences the workplace in the same way has been a necessary starting point. I have asked the CCI team to help give voice to aspects of our culture that otherwise may be underrepresented and help to reduce our organizational blind spots. They are helping to shepherd ideas with the intention to improve our conversancy and sharpen our skills. In that process, they research and recommend ideas, and look to the senior leadership team to help weave these concepts into our organization, process, and policy. That may indeed result in some activities becoming required (i.e. unconscious bias training for managers we are currently conducting). The goal here is for everyone to be able to be at their best, and for no one to suppress or silence themselves out of fear. While these efforts are raising new and at times uncomfortable discussions on our path to new organizational norms, I am proud of what I have seen so far from this work and the reaction by the majority of the team.

Can you talk about how you can call Yale a workplace of choice with the current “merit” increase program? Many of us feel worthless to Yale given that most people I have spoken with received a 2% raise for a 3+ review. The value you put on our work is very low. Unlike other departments at Yale you put a very low value on training and conferences and you rate our monetary value as employees lower than any place I have ever worked. Are you aware that the federal cost of living adjustment was 2.8% this year which is significantly higher than most people in ITS got as a merit increase.

We are making enormous progress towards our strategic goals, and I really do want to thank all of you for how you are contributing to our progress. I do wish that everyone in the organization received large raises as a course of our regular work, but unfortunately that isn’t our current reality – here at Yale, or just about anywhere in the economy right now.

The annual salary pool needs to account for essentially all annual compensation changes, with promotions, reclassifications, and merit draw from the same funding source. As a senior leadership team, we began working together on this in 2018, and established our approach for distribution. Annually, we review all our highest paid and lowest paid employees in each job classification, all team members under consideration for promotion and reclassification, and all team members where we have concern regarding alignment to market compensation and internal equity. These adjustments are made together as a senior leadership team, collaborating on the handling of each individual case. Once those cases are handled, we then can look the remaining merit pool and distribution. Across ITS, the average distribution was 2.75%. There were some individuals that received zero increase, some received a non base building merit, and some who received increases substantially above the average. The variability in merit is based on a combination of all the factors above and individual performance ratings. Training dollars are also being handled through coordinated discussion with the senior leadership team, with emphasis on strategic programs (i.e. information security, next generation network). I hope this brief explanation helps to some extent and clarifies the alignment with our goals.

I had a question for Jack Callahan: A number of the items in Jack’s update require significant, multi-year financial investments to accomplish. What strategies have been considered, or what approaches might we need to take to ensure we can meet these commitments in the increasingly-likely event of an economic downturn? Thank you.

Jack Callahan’s response - A timely question. I along with our Provost, CFO and Investment Committee discuss this risk frequently and are identifying actions that we could take if necessary. We stress test the long-range plan based on different investment return assumptions to help us quantify the potential impact. Keep in mind that the endowment spending rule adjusts revenue from the endowment over a five-year basis which gives the university time to react in case of a downturn. We could also decide to delay a project or two. In addition, several of the current projects like the Schwarzman Center and Tsai City are largely gift funded.

Question for Mr. Callahan: Global Warming is probably the biggest global issue. Why are sustainability issues not in the forefront of his presentations about university projects and expenditures? Also, why is not Yale doing more to encourage fewer petrol-powered vehicles, at the very least, providing more places to charge EVs?

Jack Callahan’s response - We are investing in sustainability both in new construction and as we renovate older buildings. For example, I should have discussed this with regards to the new Yale Science Building that opened this fall. One of the biggest drivers of energy usage on campus is scientific research, and the new building has been designed to use significantly less energy than similar facilities. With regards to reducing vehicles on the road, we run an extensive transit system that is targeted on that very goal. In addition, most of our buses run on alternative bio-fuels, and we are currently evaluating the purchase of our first electric bus. Similarly, we do need to provide more places to charge electronic vehicles, and we have a team working for John Mayes, Associate VP for Administration, to lead implementation.

John Bollier, the University’s VP for Campus Development and Facilities, has recently been charged by Peter Salovey to chair a committee to evaluate an acceleration of the University’s goal of carbon neutrality. Perhaps, we will update the team on the Committee’s work in future meetings.

Something on your mind? Take a moment to share questions and ideas you might have with Yale’s Chief Information Officer, John Barden.