Northeastern University Reflections

Northeastern University is a private R1 institution that operates on a global scale. With campuses spanning from London to Vancouver, Northeastern is known as an epicenter of experiential learning across all academic offerings. We are a large and complex university that focuses primarily on residential instruction, with an expanding set of hybrid and online degree programs. The Boston campus is positioned as the global headquarters, but much of the uniqueness of the institutional culture shines through from our other 13 locations. Northeastern is one of a very few universities that offer a holistic undergraduate experience at multiple locations globally. Each campus focuses on the notion of experiential learning, but borrows from the local communities and contexts to shape the research agendas and programs offered. Northeastern is a dynamic and exciting first mover in the world of higher education.

In the role of CIO, I oversaw Academic Technologies, Enterprise Platforms, Network and Infrastructure, Research Computing, Cloud Center of Excellence, Salesforce Center of Excellence, ServiceNow Center of Excellence, an enterprise Project Management Office, Customer Support, Marketing and Campus Engagement, Information Security, Finance, and Vendor Management. In addition, the information below represents unique differentiators from my time at Northeastern:

Global IT Leadership: Northeastern is a global university with campuses in London, Toronto, Vancouver, Charlotte, Silicon Valley, Oakland, Washington D.C., Miami, Seattle, Burlington, Nahant, and Portland. In addition to managing the IT infrastructure for these campuses, I played a critical partnership role in campuses’ ongoing and unique IT interests. This included models to support campus-specific teaching and research agendas, as well as external partners co-occupying campus spaces. In addition, I led the successful launch of multiple campuses to ensure robust communication, networks, and AV. I led all IT aspects of the merger of Mills College into Northeastern to be our first undergraduate campus outside of Boston. I led a similar integration with Northeastern London to be complete for Fall 2024. This includes transitioning all students, faculty and staff, leading the consolidation of enterprise systems, vastly improved connectivity, and the introduction of digital workflow.

Enterprise Resource Planning: Developed and executing on strategic roadmap to transform every aspect of our ERP environment based on the results of an enterprise review of systems of records that are internal to central computing, academic units, and distributed business units. This roadmap includes the completion of the implementations of the Canvas learning management system, Slate enrollment management platform, and Workday Human Capital Management. I oversaw the initial readiness work and business case development to lead a move from Banner Finance to Workday Finance as well as the implementation of an entirely new, Salesforce advancement platform to support our capital campaign. My roadmap also included the transformation of our student information system, scheduled to begin in 2026 or 2026.

Global Digital Platform: Envisioned and implemented a new model for digital engagement between and amongst the primary audiences of the university community. This platform is a “Platform of platform” strategy that integrates and streamlines access to dozens of existing systems of record to provide a more frictionless way to connect and engage with university digital services built on a robust API-driven event architecture. Both the Student Hub and the Employee Hubs are used thousands of times a day across Northeastern to help students, faculty, and staff to engage in the various tasks related to being a member of our community from a single web and mobile view. The Student Hub includes seamless access to cloud capabilities, learning activities, registration, bill paying, clubs, groups, digital communities, and more. The Employee Hub supports the work of our faculty and staff by offering a single location to access critical work assignments, support tickets, HR information, personalized systems of record, as well as AI-powered training and learning recommendations. The newly released, Parent Hub will bring a one-of-a-kind digital experience to parents designed to alleviate the stress and overhead associated with managing interactions with their student’s university life. This platform will also make intelligent recommendations to bring university events and activities to their fingertips daily. Finally, the Alumni Hub, slated for development in 2025, will integrate across our enterprise giving platforms, provide access to various campaigns, deliver customized news feeds, and make intelligent recommendations to enhance alumni engagement.

Digital Transformation: A key strategic driver of my work at Northeastern is the overall digitalization and optimization of analog practices to decrease costs and increase productivity. From digital dashboards that support and inform operations, an identity and access management modernization that is leading to a password-less future, a next generation data management platform to support university decision making, cloud utilization that is now at 75% of our total enterprise computing investment, to tools designed to support faculty in the classroom like “one button classroom” use and classroom technology health dashboards, to an environment devoid of traditional telephones replaced by Microsoft Teams capabilities built into all offices and collaborative spaces. Since 2018, we have moved hundreds of processes from paper to digital to streamline HR, Finance, Enrollment, the enterprise Call Center, Facilities, and others.

Research Computing: In 2018, Northeastern had a total of .5 FTE focused on the growing need for research computing support. Through ongoing collaboration with the Office of the Provost and the Research Computing Committee I was able to grow this to a team of 20+ scientists, engineers, security experts, and consultants who work with faculty to take advantage of computing to power their teaching and research. In addition, Northeastern is a partner in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center that houses our high-performance computing platform, Discovery. We have seen double digital growth in the adoption of research computing resources each of the last four years, with no sign of slowing down.

Customer Service: In my first year, I completed a successful overhaul of our customer experience function with a focus on rapid and accurate closure of tickets across all service areas. I led the introduction of an entirely new service catalog, an evergreen collection of self-service knowledge base articles, walk up support modeled from first-hand learnings from Apple, digital locker lending of equipment, and AI-powered chat bots. Recently introduced a managed service desk model to further reduce costs and enhance support.

Classroom Technology: In 2018, less than 20% of our 300+ classrooms had modern AV functions to support teaching and learning. Today all but a very small number have been upgraded to support lecture recording, hybrid learning, and digital tools to engage in-class and remote learning. As part of the classroom modernization roadmap, established the Global Classroom standard that provides one-touch AV activation, cable-free teaching from any device, multi-site simultaneous section participation, and personalized dashboards for faculty to proactively understand the overall health of their assigned classrooms before arriving to teach. Recently introduced a managed AV service provider model to further reduce costs, enhance support, and to vastly reduce downtime for faculty.

COVID-19 Response: To meet the institutional desire to remain open for the residential population during a period where most universities moved to fully online delivery, I led a series of digital transformations to support that goal. We created dozens of specific, custom applications that allowed students to continue to attend in-class lectures via a dynamic scheduling tool that allowed them to request a seat in de-densified spaces, a COVID-19 test scheduler that allowed us to perform daily health checks and schedule and test each student every three days and faculty and staff every five days, the complete testing center workflow including mobile check-in, lab system integrations, and the secure delivery of results.

Infrastructure Modernization: Currently in the third year of a five-year plan to vastly enhance and modernize the overall connectivity of our campuses. This includes increased speeds to researcher desktops across all locations of the global network to allow faculty and graduate students to take advantage of both our own high performance computing environments and public cloud providers. Additionally, we are replacing thousands of outdated wireless access points to vastly improve wireless connectivity in classrooms, resident halls, study spaces, administrative and faculty offices, as well as public outdoor spaces.

Information Security: Introduced Northeastern’s first information security roadmap, based on the outcomes of an enterprise security review conducted in 2019. This includes the adoption of an industry-standard security framework, new tools, and outsourced managed security operations center. During my tenure, we doubled the size of the information security team so that we can spend more time working directly with end-users to prevent human triggered incidents. We have also established a CMMC practice to secure CUI to maintain our ability to conduct research with defense and government entities. Finally, we established an incident response playbook that provides guidance for responding to security incidents that integrates university police, the office of general council, and our central marketing and communications organizations.

Under my leadership, ITS staff grew from 170 to 245 FTEe + 500 student workers

Making Global Feel Small

The place I work is a “Global University” in that we are not just a Boston-based institution anymore. We have campuses in cities all over the United States, Canada, and even in London. You may say, “lots of schools have campuses in other parts of the World,” but what we are doing feels very different.

We now have three undergraduate locations, and while places like one of my previous employers, Penn State, has undergraduate campuses across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there is something special about the idea that our undergraduate students can start in London, go to Oakland, CA, and then to Boston. We call it mobility.

It also means that we can have classes and experiences that students in all sorts of places can participate in in very synchronous ways. If you are a grad student in Portland, ME you might be interacting with other students who are in a room in Boston. A researcher doing work with an industry partner in Seattle can be actively discussing it with students in Toronto. Believe it or not, it has been really fun finding solutions to make this work in a way that humans can operate. If you’ve been in the technology space for a while you know that this used to be so hard, so expensive, and so low fidelity.

One of the things the work we did during the pandemic made us explore new ways of connecting classrooms across space and time. What was interesting about that exploration is that the technology also improved at a rate that we haven’t seen in quite some time.

Many of our classrooms now allow faculty to have a one tap environment to connect rooms all over the global network. A huge by-product of all of that work is that we can now use those spaces to bring our administration and staff who are spread across the network together to be part of events in real time.

This morning I was taken aback by the fact that as I sat in a room in Boston listening to two of our senior vice presidents talk I could see dozens of people sitting together in spaces stretching from Vancouver to London in real time. I know it sounds so simple, but it is enormously gratifying to see it in action without anyone even thinking that it is special. Maybe it isn’t rocket science, but it still feels like science fiction.

Changing Inputs

“When we change the input into our minds, we change the output into our lives.” — Zig Ziglar

Even the best jobs are complicated and stressful in various ways. Outside forces are nearly always there and it often feels like many of them are out to get us. And by get us, I mean they are looking to interrupt our work, relationships, leadership, vision, and in many cases, our sanity. We often don’t recognize moments where the outside forces appear to be negative, but In reality, if looked at differently, offers a chance to do a course correct. With that said, sometimes those outside forces are truly out to derail us, but we have more power than we often think.

I recently had a health related incident that knocked me out of action for a period of time. Now that I am back and feel great, I am practicing a different mindset about who I am and how I choose to react to those outside forces. When I heard that quote this morning it really made me reflect on my 25 years of work in higher education and how I have given these forces too much power. At each stop of the way there have been forces that have pushed me to do great work and those that have actively worked against the progress our institutions need to face. Using the mindset above I am learning that we have more control over how we process these signals on the way in and how to convert them into an energy on the way out that allows us to do great work (sanely) and how to treat the people in our lives that are important.

grey and black transistor radio
Photo by Anthony : ) on

Let’s see if this thing still works

Yesterday, my colleague Ryan Bender noted to me that it has been a year since I’ve posted anything here. A year. I can barely remember the last 20 or so months, so I imagine it is fair to say that I have been unavoidably detained dealing with a few other things. With that said, it is probably time to dust off the old blog and see what happens if I do what I used to do with great frequency — write.

For some reason I decided to take a look through a bunch of my old friends’ sites this morning. Yes, people still blog and it was really great to catch up on some old voices from the dawn of the ed tech/Internet boom. One of my all time favorite people is a guy named D’Arcy Norman. He is the Associate Director, Learning Technologies & Design, in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. He is a lot more than that, but that is his current gig. He was one of the first voices I discovered on the Internet back at the dawn of Web 2.0. He wrote about a time back in the day that he sent an email to Steve Jobs and got a response.

It made me reflect on the many opportunities I have had to visit the Fruit Company that D’Arcy speaks about in his post. Back in 1999, Apple was a very different company. They had barely survived being bought by a handful of companies, the stock price was ridiculously low, and innovation was not something that they were known for at the time. Steve had recently come back and was putting his stamp on the place. As a part of that, I believe Steve brought John Couch back to lead up the Apple Higher Education team and he immediately got to work identifying ed tech people to help him think about new strategies. It was an exciting time to be a fan of Apple, watch them get their mojo back, and realize a dream of getting to work with them.

One could imagine that it was a thrill getting to go to Apple at a very early part of my career at Penn State to not just be part of an executive briefing, but to actually get to present things we were building at the IST Solutions Institute. It was even more exciting to get invited back over and over again to work with all sorts of brilliant people both inside and outside of Apple. From the Apple Digital Campus project, the release of the first iTunes U, to getting to actually go into various buildings on their campus to meet with product teams and inform future products. It was always a humbling and amazing experience getting to work with them.

And here is the full circle back to D’Arcy, it was at one of those early Apple dinners that I met D’Arcy in real life for the first time after several years of interacting with him online as a commenter on his blog. He proved to be even smarter and cooler in person, but it is nice to know he is only a URL away.

Cole presenting at Apple

Me setting up to present at Apple (a long time ago).

Cross posted from my Northeastern site.

Back to the iPad (Again)

It is no secret that I have always embraced the iPad and that I have tried over and over again to make it the only portable machine I use with varying degrees of success. I could always get 80% there — even at the earliest examination of what it meant to be iPad only in the mobile space. Each time it got me to that point, but I couldn’t close that gap and always ended up ditching it and going back to some form of MacBook. I doubt this time will be any different, but I am going to give it another try. One thing that dawns on me as I reflect on the last 10 years of trying the iPad as a primary mobile machine is that my own computing needs have vastly changed and the iPad hasn’t kept up with those changes in computing behavior in real time … is now any different?

This is going to sound like hyperbole, but the iPad with the Magic Keyboard is the best mobile computing device I have ever used. Well, maybe not the best, but by far the most enjoyable. The new keyboard case turns the iPad into the machine it always should have been. I still pull it off the dock to use on the treadmill and the couch, but being able to sit and type on a pro grade keyboard with a real pointing device that is so evolved beyond the old school curser on MacOS and Windows is really something. I have to say it is so enjoyable to use … It doesn’t mean that I will use this all day for my work from home sessions (that now are seemingly never ending), that is still reserved for my late 2014 27″ iMac with an external monitor, but I am struggling to find a role for my MBP.

With all that said, I do wonder if Apple would have released this accessory from the beginning, like Microsoft did with the Surface Pro and Go, would we have the range of apps that really differentiate iPadOS from MacOS? Looking at it through that lens, it might be good that the iPad started the way as it did — a blown up iPod Touch. The evolution of the iPad and iPadOS is what has gotten us to the point where a piece of glass is the most powerful computer I own that is just as comfortable on the couch navigating with my finger as it is (finally) sitting on my table in the backyard floating above a “real” keyboard and pointing device. So maybe Steve was onto something all those years ago and this was the evolution he saw?

I have the 11″ 2018 iPad Pro and just got the Magic Keyboard and I am back to loving the iPad. That’s it, I just wanted to share some thoughts and see if the old blog still works. Nothing earth shattering, just a reminder that I am still here and going back to the iPad until I discover that last 20% that will drag me back to a “real” computer.

RIP Tumblr?

Tumblr’s users and creators have been caught in the middle of a series of corporate decisions that have left them out in the cold. Finally, after a decade online, it seems the quirky social network won’t be left to its own devices, and it will have to find its own way forward. The other question, however, remains: is this the end of an era, or the end of Tumblr itself?

I can’t defend Tumblr if they are allowing people to break the law. Now that I’ve said that, I am concerned that this is the end of Tumblr. Back in the day I felt it was an amazing view of the future — easy republishing of content from all sorts of sources, one button sharing of content, and all of it wrapped in a bizarre social network. In so many ways it was the anti-facebook. You got a blog and a network to browse, follow, and repost. Comments were less important as getting reposted. To this day I don’t know of a platform that is as interesting as Tumblr.

I remember seeing the founder of Tumblr speak at SXSW and listening to his vision for Tumblr. And then Yahoo bought it … I sort of felt it was over then, but I kept publishing on my personal Tumblr because it was so easy and it connected with people.

Honestly this makes me very afraid of what comes next for Flickr. Perhaps it is time to move a bunch of content to yet another service … again.

10 Years

Turns out that 10 years ago today I moved my blog to the domain. I don’t write here as much as I should, but having this space has been a pleasure. I have a living history of many of the things I have done and thought about for well over a decade. I stared blogging long before I moved to this domain and have lived on multiple platforms through the years — blogger, moveabletype, typepad, and WordPress to name the ones I can remember.

I have been thinking of writing more, especially with all that I have going on at Northeastern. Like today, I am heading off to speak to our Audit Committee about multiple topics including information security, digital governance, and various other risk factors. Not that those topics are generally interesting, but it always felt good to work ideas out here. At any rate, happy birthday to my domain.

MOOC Gone Ivy

I remember being bitten by the MOOC bug years ago at Penn State, not because I was enamored by the delivery model, but because I was curious about teaching and learning at scale and the idea that we should be taking risks with how we deliver it. The MOOC bubble did come and go, but while few people have been looking, Coursera, Udacity, and edX have moved forward with all sorts of interesting things.

I would say the announcement of a fully online Computer Science degree from an Ivy League school is an interesting development. From, Inside Higher Ed

The new master’s degree in computer and information technology from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science will be the engineering school’s first fully online degree. The program is aimed at working adults who are unable or unwilling to enroll in Penn’s established, on-campus version of the master’s, and who want to work in software development or high-demand fields like bioinformatics, medicine, finance and telecommunications. “This is a meaningful expansion of what we can do,” said Wendell Pritchett, the university’s provost. He said the new online degree is designed to appeal to nontraditional students “who are talented but can’t get to us on campus.”

I applaude UPenn for making this bold move and while it doesn’t justify the original hype in the MOOC crazed world of a few years ago, it does justify the notion that it is important to place a few bets here and there to see what can happen if you ignore the naysayers and just do something. In this case, what Coursera and UPenn have done is open up an Ivy League degree to so many more people — people who probably couldn’t otherwise step onto the campus in Philly because of time, location, cost, or other factors.

“This degree represents the democratization of computer science,” Jeff Maggioncalda, Coursera’s CEO, said in a written statement. “It brings a world-class, Ivy League degree within reach of people of all backgrounds, from anywhere in the world.”

This makes me happy. I like the Internet. A lot.