A CIO Conversation: Florida Community College's Rob Rennie

Florida Community College CIO Rob Rennie has his work cut out for him. He recently spoke to SearchCIO.com to share how he successfully works with business partners -- and how he aligns the constant changing IT industry with his curriculum.

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As the CIO of Florida Community College in Jacksonville, and the dean of its IT Leadership Academy, Rob Rennie has his work cut out for him. He recently spoke to SearchCIO.com to share how he successfully works with business partners - and how he aligns the constant changing IT industry with his curriculum.

Tell me about the IT Leadership Academy. How did it start?

Rennie: The IT Leadership Academy is a program that was an initiative of a network of IT professionals, CIOs and CTOs of companies around country. We decided to put it together and house it in one place. We found a sponsor, which happens to be a college in Florida [Florida Community College]. We've been able to incorporate this professional network and the vendors in the field to work on developing the next generation of IT leaders. This isn't necessarily the ones who have just started out either. These are folks who are second and third level, preparing to be CIOs, CTOs, associate CIOs and directors of larger enterprises.

How do you try to get new business partners?

Rennie: If you look in the IT news, you will read about major technology implementations that people spent millions on and failed. Vendors are better served by having better leaders making better decisions and doing better implementations of their solutions. The vendors, the IT practitioners and the business leaders are all in this together, so we had a common goal to start with. That's an easy pitch to make.

The second part is that companies already spend a tremendous amount of money trying to get people to buy their stuff. We decided that for a small percentage of that amount of money, we could create a lasting network and relationship model where people feel comfortable. It's not very hard to get folks who are already spending money to achieve a desired end, to spend it a little wiser.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing CIOs today?

Rennie: I think the biggest single challenge facing CIOs today is the overall complexity of the environment. I don't mean the technical complexity; I mean the business, financial and political complexity. For a long time, IT folks have been involved in very complex system implementations, but they seem to forget that it's really all about the carbonware -- it's about the people, the politics and the relationships. Until you have a trust relationship with the other C-level executives in an organization, it's very difficult to have the opportunity to do difficult projects.

How does the academy address that issue?

Rennie: It helps an individual IT leader's professional network to help them make difficult decisions. This built-in network includes people that have been successful in the variety of areas and can help navigate a little bit.

It also helps them develop individual strategies for how to approach different problems, not just from a technical context, or a project management or leadership context, but from a political context as well. A big part of the ITLA is to actually put long term, successful CIOs, CEOs and CFOs in a room with these nascent IT leaders so they talk about the issues or problems from multiple perspectives.

What qualities do you think make up a good CIO?

Rennie: I don't think where you started your career is as critical as the mindset that you approach problem solving with. If you understand your organization and if you understand your business, those are the two most important things. The technology landscape changes so much, that to succeed, it takes people who are confident and intelligent enough to be able to work in different tool sets and to be able to solve problems. CIOs need to be able to do that in a creative way, but they also need to be able to do that in very pragmatic ways.

Do you have a formal governance initiative?

Rennie: We do, but our governance is a little different because we're a college. Basically we have a college-wide committee structure. Our governance structure isn't as formalized as you might have in some kinds of businesses. We have faculty who chair our college wide technology committee and then we have subcommittees that all work on specific governance issues. In terms of the management of priorities, ultimately those are decisions that are made in my office. I have to allocate the resources and adjust on the fly if we have budget considerations.

How else does being the CIO of a college differ from being the CIO of a company?

Rennie: Although I don't have a profit motive, that's a double-edged sword. The one side of it is that you can do things because you opt to do them, not because they will make money, but on the other side, we are very driven by ROI. We do run on a business model, and it's very difficult to make a business case when you don't have a profit motive. I cannot go out there and explain that the improved value is explained by an increased revenue share. I can in some cases, because we're going to add new programs or add new people. But on the other side, it's very hard to assign a value ROI to for a registration system that is easier for students to use. We have to use other tools and other means that were developed for other things. Sometimes you just have to say, "You know what? We can't calculate ROI in a purely financial way. " What we can say is, "we will improve our customer service and it's going to cost this amount."

Has the curriculum at Florida Community College changed since outsourcing has become an issue?

Rennie: The curriculum hasn't changed a whole lot just because of that, but in the past few years, we've eliminated close to 200 programs, and we've added slightly more than that because we have a very strong organizational commitment to relevance. As our curriculum is refined over time, it typically reflects current business trends and issues. We try to remain relevant to what's going on in the business world.

Do you worry about a decline in interest amongst students wanting to make a career out of IT?

Rennie: Yes. I worry a little bit when I see our registrations go down. On the professional side, I worry about it a different way. I'm more concerned with the general overall competency in math and science. The most difficult problems require the kinds of thinking and discipline that it takes to become good at math and science. What I find now, is that although they're not IT specific anymore, the same kinds of master problem-solving skills that it takes to become a really good systems developer are necessary to become successful in other areas of the business as well.

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