Q&A with John Lawson, retiring VP of information technology
The vice provost for information technology/chief information officer oversees the use and development of technology at Western. John Lawson currently serves in this position and will retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Greg Smith will fill his position as an interim VPIT/CIO while a search is conducted nationwide for a permanent hire.
Q: Can you describe a highlight or a valuable moment that you’ve had while working as VPIT/CIO?
A: Working with the students on the student technology fee committee. I find that the students participate and give valuable ideas to me. That’s been very pleasant because the fee is very important to Western.
The other highlight is my staff. My people work hard and are very capable. They do good things. There’s nothing better than to have good people who help you get your job done.
Q: What is your typical day like?
A: It varies quite a bit. There are a lot of meetings, because technology is in just about everything we do anymore. Meeting with people to find out how we can help is very important. In a typical day, I’ll have three or four meetings set up.
Beyond that is working with the directors to make sure we’re making progress on projects we’re working on, and doing research on what’s changing in technology. Everything is changing so fast that you really have to work hard to stay up to date.
Q: You supervise Enterprise Infrastructure Services, Administrative Computing Services, and Academic Technology and User Services. Do you have a favorite area or program that you like to work with?
A: No, all three are very important to the institution. They each do much different things. Certainly ATUS is our public face and so working with them is a highlight. They have some great people. The enterprise infrastructure group is responsible for the network, our data center and servers, all of the backend stuff. If that isn’t working it can bring our whole institution to a stop, so working with them is very important.
All three groups are vital to the institution.
Q: Can you talk more about working with ATUS and students on campus?
A: ATUS oversees the student tech center, which is funded by the student technology fee. The folks who work and supervise in that area have a keen focus on students and how to help them use the technology.
We have a new thing coming online very soon. It is the digital media center and will be focused on faculty and students. They can use sophisticated video equipment to produce everything from short movies to projects. We’re pretty excited about that.
Q: What have been some challenges you’ve faced while working in this position that may be difficult for the interim and permanent CIO?
A: Some of the important things on their plate will be governance, which means a way for the CIO to work with all the constituents at the university in a more formal way. We have a few groups, like the academic technology committee, a faculty senate committee, and a senior IT advisory group, but we need to find better ways to include more folks on IT governance. We have significant funding issues. Those groups have to help us prioritize projects.
That’s the second issue: finding ways to develop funding to plan for the future. It’s very difficult for us to do that because the resources are not always available on a yearly basis.
Q: How has the IT department changed since you began in 2006?
A: We have become more sophisticated in our solutions that we offer. I think we have become more collaborative in working with other parts of the institution. We still have work to do in that area, but we have come a long way from when I first came here. During the recession we had to reduce our staffing considerably. We’ve had to become more efficient. … There has been a lot of dramatic change in technology.
Q: What are your hopes for the IT department in the future?
A: I’d like to see a “maker space.” This would be a space for people to develop prototypes and do great stuff for classes and for fun. It would allow students to be more inventive because they’ll have the tools to create physical objects.
I would hope that we’ll continue our efforts to expand mobility. That means more wireless access on campus, perhaps a better way to manage that so that people have a seamless experience. We would have to have a robust infrastructure behind that.
I hope that we will continue to find ways to incorporate teaching and learning with technology and helping faculty develop curriculum that utilizes technology.
Q: You worked at other universities previously. Does serving in this position vary from school to school?
A: It really varies from school to school. At Tulane University I was vice president for technology. That put a little bit different slant on our ability to help the institution. Each school is different. Pepperdine University had a different take on technology than Tulane or Western.
The beauty of being a CIO is that you are so involved in helping all the areas of the institution that you can help the developer maintain the flavor of the institution and be stronger in its mission.
Q: Do you have any plans for the future after your retire?
A: Retirement is a very funny thing. I don’t have definite plans other than traveling with my family, doing some camping and catching up on a lot of work around the house.
I also hope I’ll get involved in some consulting and service work. You often like to think about finding a sunny beach and laying out in the sand, but I think most people find that staying busy is important. Volunteering and consulting will keep me busy, once I spend a little bit of time on that lounge chair.