Digital Squared

From the Archives with Melissa Woo

March 31, 2023 Tom Andriola
From the Archives with Melissa Woo
Digital Squared
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Digital Squared
From the Archives with Melissa Woo
Mar 31, 2023
Tom Andriola

On this episode of Digital Squared: From the Archives, Tom revisits his 2021 conversation with Melissa Woo, Executive Vice President for Administration at Michigan State University, as well as the Chief Information Officer and President of the MSU Foundation. Together they discuss her career, passions, and unique challenges as a technology leader-turned higher education executive. 

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Digital Squared: From the Archives, Tom revisits his 2021 conversation with Melissa Woo, Executive Vice President for Administration at Michigan State University, as well as the Chief Information Officer and President of the MSU Foundation. Together they discuss her career, passions, and unique challenges as a technology leader-turned higher education executive. 

Tom Andriola  00:07

Hello and welcome to Gradually, Gradually, then Suddenly, a blog and interview series with leaders to discuss current issues in how data and technology are shaping our world. My name is Tom Andriola, and I’m the Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Data at University of California Irvine. My guest today is Melissa Woo. Melissa is the Executive Vice President for Administration for Michigan State University, as well as their chief information officer and she is president of the MSU foundation. Previously, Melissa worked as the senior vice president for Information Technology and enterprise Chief Information Officer for Stony Brook University. She has also held IT leadership roles at University of Oregon, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, where she earned her PhD in biophysics. In 2019. Melissa won the inaugural EDUCAUSE DEI Leadership Award for her actions leading to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education IT community. Melissa, thank you for joining us.

Melissa Woo  01:08

Thank you so much, Tom. And I really appreciate this opportunity for being able to chat with you today.

Tom Andriola  01:13

All right. So when I joined University of California in 2013, healthcare was very well known to me, because I came out of the healthcare industry, but higher education was very new. And so my first EDUCAUSE was 2014. And you may not even remember this, but I met you briefly there. And you were walking around with Google Glass on your head, and I asked you, I’m like, you know, what’s up with that? And you’re like, well, I’m wearing it because I want to see people’s reactions. And I walked away. And I thought to myself, this is someone I got to get to know. And so from that day forward, I’ve always known you to be a mover and shaker and innovator. And now I’m going to put a new label on you, I’m going to call you a transcender as well, because you’ve moved into this expanded role of not just being the Chief Information Officer at MSU. You’re also the top executive over administration. So tell us about that journey, and what aspects of leadership has scaled Well, for you, and what new skills have you had to develop as you’ve taken on this expanded role?

Melissa Woo  02:15

Well, the way I look at it, Tom, is that anyone in an executive role really should be able to expand beyond their current executive role, because honestly, this is the way I look at these roles is that we all do essentially the same thing. We’re simply over different parts of the campus portfolio. So for example, as CIO, you’re over the IT portfolio, but you’re still an executive. So the executive that’s over facilities is also an executive, we all do the same thing just happen to have different subject matter expertise. And what’s so great from coming from the CIO role and expanding into other areas, is that CIOs really do see just a little bit of everything that happens on a campus in a way that most other roles don’t. And in fact, beyond that, not only do we see a little bit about everything that’s happening, we also have to understand the business in each one of those areas. So I think that gives us the unique ability to be able to move into other executive roles at the university over other parts of the portfolio. It’s the same skill sets, for the most part, I think it’s just a matter of getting enough understanding of another area that you’re able to help lead the area. That said, I mean, each of the areas that I now oversee, has its own leader who is competent in their subject matter expertise. I trust them to do their jobs.

Tom Andriola  03:33

You might be the head of the technology function, but you have to be a campus executive, right? You know, you have to care about the enrollment numbers, right? You have to care about what’s going on with the cost per student. I mean, there’s all sorts of things that you either decide you’re going to learn about and have relevant comments into the conversation for or you’re just going to be that person who when we want to talk about if we have the right learning management system we do or not, right. So you mean you kind of talk to that? I think IT people really get themselves into trouble in terms of how people perceive them. Because we force people to speak our technobabble, but we don’t like to learn other people’s language. I mean, I what I tell people is I learned that that was really important when I started doing international assignments. And while I never became fluent in those languages, I could speak those languages and I understood cultural nuances, because I’ve learned enough about the language to be relevant in the conversations. That became a huge career, just kind of a you know, kind of a skill that how do you blend into a new environment?

Melissa Woo  04:39

What’s funny is it’s not just IT professionals, though, that are hung up on their own particular lingo. We all do it. Now that I oversee multiple areas, I can really see it because I do actually have to ask people, what are you talking about? You’re using lingo that is specific to your discipline. And it isn’t just on the administrative side, I’ve certainly been in enough committee meetings with the academic side of the house where they use their own jargon as well. So I’m not sure I’d always point straight to the IT professionals as being the only ones that use jargon. Because we all do it.

Tom Andriola  05:16

I can only imagine the time pressure, right taking on a whole new portfolio equal in size, what you had. You know, what did you have you had to do from a time management perspective?

Melissa Woo  05:26

You know, what’s really interesting is that I’m one of those people that believes that just putting in more time actually makes you less productive. So it’s really it’s just a matter of prioritization, I have some really strict rules that I had in place even before the pandemic hit. That is that I was always telling the people that reported directly to me that I was not going to send email or answer email after five o’clock on weekdays, and I was not going to send anything on weekends. If there’s that large an emergency – and we all know in IT, there are large emergencies – that’s not email, that’s a text or a call. That way, I’m hoping that I set the expectation that I don’t want people watching your email at all times of the day, because I want people to have families, I want people to have lives, I want interesting co workers. People that only do work are really, really boring. So there’s a certain self serving aspect to this. So I do practice this as well, I try to carve out roughly the noon hour every day if I can possibly manage it to work out so that I have a break in the middle of the day. Again, just because you put more time in does not make you more productive, actually reducing your time gives you that focus to be more specific about where you put your time so that it’s more high quality.

Tom Andriola  06:37

That’s a fantastic lesson for anyone in any field, right? Because as you know, as you get up in responsibility, the higher you go, the time management challenge, it doesn’t get easier, it only gets harder.

Melissa Woo  06:49

There’s apparently you know, just thousands of people that are all tugging you at the same time. And it’s just a matter of understanding where the priorities are and what’s urgent, what’s not urgent, and making sure that you actually follow your own priorities that you’ve set.

Tom Andriola  07:02

I’d like to talk a little bit about women in technology and being in leadership, I’ve had the good fortune of working for some amazing female leaders over the course of my career. And I learned a lot from them, you know, as leaders and examples to follow, but I also was able to watch them address the issues of gender equity – diversity, equity inclusion, and how they addressed it. What has that journey been like for you? And could you maybe share some stories with us?

Melissa Woo  07:29

I’ve actually primarily reported to men. And they’ve been pretty much all fantastic, very progressive in their views, willing to provide opportunity. And so I really appreciated all of them. The one woman that I do remember working for was my first IT job when I switched from an entirely different field. And for context, this was a Unix system administration group. So you know what I’d call serious IT, and imagine that the group was led by, you know, a very southern lady, very slight Southern accent, very gracious, and she’s leading a group of Unix system administrators. So I’ve learned a lot from her about how gracious she always was, how tactful but at the same time, she managed that group very well. But since then, the men I’ve reported to, again, I’ve said, have been extremely supportive in my career, to the extent that they’ve given me in some cases, very, very hard feedback. So I’m going to call out one of my favorite mentors ever is Bruce Maas, formerly of the University of Wisconsin Madison, who was also at the Milwaukee campus, who was my boss. And I do remember at one point my approaching him in saying, You know what, ‘I want to start to apply for CIO jobs.’ And he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You’re not ready.’ Which you know, as you can imagine any of us doesn’t take that well, I think on initial blush, the point is, I trusted enough to realize, okay, you’re right. But he also then added, I’m going to help you get to that goal. And I’ll give you opportunities, which he did do. And about a year later, or so he actually brought it up and said, ‘You know what, you’re now ready, I’m going to help you, I’m going to start, you know, putting your name in front of other people. Ask me for help on anything else you need.’ So he was fantastic. And I don’t think that has anything to do with gender really, is because he’s just so good at helping people reach their goals. Now, as far as gender goes, there are real barriers for women in IT, particularly if you come up through infrastructure the way that I did, or parts of IT that are not traditionally ones that women tend to navigate towards or are drawn to. But for me, what’s interesting are the intersectionalities. That is the experience of women of color, the experience of women who perhaps identify differently from a gender basis. So my experience as an Asian woman is certainly different than the experience of some of my colleagues who are black women. Yes, we have the underpinnings of being women, and having that as the issue of not being seen competent in IT. As an Asian woman, you’re not seen as a leader because Asians are often not seen as leaders that there’s this glass ceiling, whether you’re an Asian man or an Asian woman is that, for some reason, an Asian woman is, let’s say, always quiet, shy, not aggressive – that would not be me. However, that is the stereotype. Very similar for Asian men. That said, so the black women CIOs I know fight all kinds of stereotypes, such as the angry black woman, which we’ve all heard about, and other stereotypes like that. So what’s become more interesting to me from a DEI standpoint has been these intersectionalities, and the struggles that everybody has, depending on how they might be more diverse in their background than what we expect.

Tom Andriola  10:54

Let’s stay there with diversity, equity inclusion. And I’m really curious about this. I mean, certainly, as we mentioned earlier, you were recognized by EDUCAUSE in their inaugural leadership award around this topic, you’ve been very, very vocal about in the time that I’ve known you, when you get beyond the accolades and the sound bites, how do you talk to people in real terms about why this topic matters in the world we live in today?

Melissa Woo  11:19

It matters so much, because people from different backgrounds bring something different to the table, different ideas. Innovation is all about bringing different ideas, not all of which are going to be great, right? That’s the nature of innovation, but you have to have people with different backgrounds in order to bring different ideas to the table. And some of what we do is around innovation and CIOs. And I think the another piece of it is just simply just having a balance between the different types of leadership that might be present at the table. If you’re at a table of leaders, or a table of individual contributors. That piece is so important. If everybody thinks exactly the same, you end up working in an echo chamber, which means you don’t always get the best outcomes. That’s why it’s so important. And you can tell I’m starting to get very passionate because my voice is rising.

Tom Andriola  12:06

That’s good. That’s why we’ve got you here. So a quick story. So earlier this week, you know, Jen Stringer, who you know, and she’s now the CIO at UC Berkeley, we did a presentation around some of our diversity equity inclusion initiatives within the University of California. We very much followed the lead that EDUCAUSE started with making the commitment, putting our data on the table, starting to talk about it. And we did an analysis between 2013 and the end of 2018. And across 1000 hires, we almost had a 50/50 split, right. And this, you know, you know, in the grand scheme, it moved us from an 80/20 to 74/26. Right. So the big picture still didn’t move a lot. And I think that’s important to understand how hard it is to move the needle on the percentages, even when you hire 1000 people in an 8,500 person workforce. But I was very proud that we were able to do what we were able to do. And I tell people now but over those six years, we hired about 1000 people in it. I personally hired three. The CIOs, all collectively, this includes our health systems, we probably hired 5% of that total number. So we did something to permeate the mindset and to change the process of recruiting, selection, interviewing and hiring. And I like to talk about it is that you know, this is an important topic for especially someone who my demographic to lean in on, because I’m perceived as really the heart of the problem. And so but we have to lean in, but not it’s not going to be in a way where I’m going to make a lot of hiring decisions. So it’s about setting the example. How do you set the example in your actions and in your words, to try to make a difference in your organization?

Melissa Woo  13:54

Well, I do talk about inherent bias for one thing, which is one of the major things that affects hiring decisions and non-diverse hiring decisions. And by the way, congratulations on those statistics. That’s really impressive. I realize in the bigger picture that only moved the needle a certain amount, but even having 50/50 over six years is something very proud of. Something, though, that I have been actively working on for probably the last two campuses is speaking to the managers or having the HR head speak to managers, not only about inherent bias, but also about rethinking how we shape the roles that we’re recruiting. So for example, I think a lot of people already do this is look at the position descriptions, look at the advertisements for not just gendered wording, but also wording that might be problematic with other minoritized communities, make sure that our wording is appropriate. The other is simply not to have you know what I call the laundry list of requirements for any job which is, you know, just good practice anyway, independent of whether or not you want diverse hires. Because a lot of people, potentially from diverse groups, will look at the laundry list of requirements for a job and decide they’re not qualified and simply not even apply. So you don’t even know who you missed out of your candidate pool, it’s because they’re not applying. But the other is to actually start working on the culture and the hiring managers, because I think we all have experienced with this is that hiring managers are used to wanting to hire that, let’s say developer, who has a very specific programming language knowledge. Well, I think it’s time to think about more broadly, programming languages come and go, but the core aptitude and skill set of people that you’d want to hire is very different than hiring someone on the spot for a particular programming language. And I could stretch into any sub-discipline beyond that one. And it is to get away from our preconceived notions of what kind of people are successful in certain types of roles. And to be more open minded. Something also I think a lot of us are discovering in higher ed is is actually cultivating students at our own institutions with the hope that they’ll stay on and come on as hires, because that in certain disciplines actually has become very effective, I’d say information security that would be one of them, is to train people up from a certain level in hopes that they’ll stay around. And I think there are other sub disciplines that way too. So you can be intentional about bringing people from, say, the student college array that are from diverse backgrounds, something that I can’t take credit for this one at Stony Brook that the chief information security officer did was take a SANS program that gamified problem solving, and used that as a way to identify potential interns into the information security group. And really what this gamified sort of activity does, is doesn’t look for IT knowledge or information security knowledge, it looks for the ability to problem solve, which is the core attribute that you’d want in information security. And so he did actually manage to get some interns out of that. I mean, it helped they were paid internships, but he also was very intentional about making sure that amongst the interns who chose that there was diversity in that group. And so I’m hoping – I haven’t caught up with him – I’m hoping that was successful, and that was either able to retain those students as they graduate, or that they’re being sent off in the world to go and become somebody else’s information security analyst and work their way up.

Tom Andriola  17:26

Let’s talk a little bit about long term workforce effects of this pandemic, you know, the once-in-a-hundred-year effect. And we were talking last week, we started talking a little bit about the workforce, some of the differential effect on women. What are the challenges that you see for our higher education workforce as we move past a pandemic, in whatever the new normal might look like?

Melissa Woo  17:48

I look at them as both challenges and opportunities. I can say right now, in the middle of the pandemic, I am seeing interesting challenges with recruitment for higher level positions we aren’t getting as many women applying is, as I thought we might mean with the understanding is there not a lot of women that are applying to these positions in the first place. And just anecdotally and talking to people, I understand that there is a real resistance to moving now because of the pandemic because of traditional roles and families that women still do primarily have childcare roles, and housebound roles. And so I’m a little disappointed, we’re not seeing more women apply, but I understand some of the reasons they may not be during the pandemic. I think after the pandemic, there’s both challenges and opportunities, I’d rather look at opportunities because I’m positive person, I think there are opportunities going forward for remote work that will allow more flexibility for families to be able to be with their children more be able to care for aging parents, because they’re actually on premise at home with their families. It can also be of benefit to the employer side, because we might be able to offer more flexible scheduling for support for our constituencies. So it could be a win-win. I’d rather look at it as a win-win. I know that we have people on our staff that fall on both sides of this issue. Some would love to come back and to work they want to get away from the family, to be honest. Others have been saying this is the best thing ever, because they’ve been able to spend more time with their families, and get to know their children better and take part in their education, as painful as it’s been for them to be doing remote education for their children and remote work at the same time. I’ve gotten lots of feedback, there are some parents that absolutely love it. So that’s the opportunity I’m looking at. And going beyond that if we have more remote work, whether it be permanent remote work or hybrid where we might ask people back on occasion, we could really free up real estate on campus, particularly the prime real estate I would say you know within walking distance for students to get from class to class, really free that up for teaching, learning and research which are really the core missions of the university, and that will not only free that up towards the mission, it could also help save us money speaking with my hat on that happens to oversee facilities, is that we may be able to actually conserve on money and resources for maintaining all the buildings because MSU has a gigantic physical plant – it is a very large campus. So it’s something we think about all the time.

Tom Andriola  20:23

Okay, last question for today. And this is one that all of my guests get, because we have this unique opportunity to have such accomplished leaders with us and our listeners, many of them are IT professionals who are still coming up in their career and trying to build their careers make their impact. So my last question, Melissa, is, what advice would you give to an up-and-comer to say, here are the things that really helped me become the leader I am today?

Melissa Woo  20:51

I think one of them would be empathy – is understanding the feelings of their stakeholders, your coworkers, the people you report to, and that leads to focusing on experience. In order to focus on say, your.. your clients’ experience, you do have to have a certain amount of empathy, understanding where they’re coming from, but also the experience of your coworkers. So I’ve talked very broadly about experience. And it’s not just support, because people mix up customer experience with customer support. Support is part of experience, but for me experience is: How do people feel before during and after they interact with you or your services or your products? And that does require a lot of empathy. And the other of course, for up-and-comers is understand the entire business of the vertical you’re in. In our case, it’s higher education. I remember being one of the mentors for a program in New York where I asked the group I said, ‘so if you were talking to someone from enrollment, they talked about melt, would you know what they were talking about?’ And there’s just dead silence. Well, we’re in higher ed, you have to understand terms like that, that enrollment management might use. Now to be fair, one person started going “ooh, ooh” and it was Jackie Malcolm, who’s the CIO at Buffalo State University, who I’ll also point out is VP for communications and marketing, and VP for enrollment management, which is why she knew the answer. And I said, That’s not fair. But so she knew, but I was trying to make a point is you have to understand the vertical that you’re in and the business and the terminology as well. It’s really hard to be an effective IT leader if you don’t understand a little bit of what everyone’s talking about.

Tom Andriola  22:30

That’s fantastic. Thank you, Melissa, thank you for joining us.

Melissa Woo  22:33

Thank you so much, Tom. I really, really appreciated this opportunity and it’s been great chatting with you.