The Impact of the Cloud on Universities
An Executive Interview with Chris Manriquez, Vice President for Information Technology/CIO at California State University, Dominguez Hills
I’ve been chatting (virtually) with some of the execs I admire—from across a range of industries—to get insights on how they’re using cloud technologies and what it means for their business success—now and in the future.
Chris Manriquez is the Vice President for Information Technology/CIO for California State University, Dominguez Hills. He collaborates with a wide range of stakeholders—including deans, department chairs, faculty, staff, and students—to keep every part of the “small city” that is a university running smoothly. His team develops and deploys strategic IT efforts that support every part of the university, including the physical locations, health center, student services, administration, and finances.
Chris and I spoke about the impact of the cloud in the education sector, the potential of cloud technology, advice for CEOs about keeping pace with emerging tech, and the crucial role of flexibility when meeting the needs of today while looking toward the future.
Q: What do you think the impact of cloud will be on business over the next five years?
A: To answer this, let’s back up a bit. There's been intensive digital transformation over the last five years. Most of that has been SaaS-based platforms, where business users could pull out a credit card and make a purchase, and then say they were in the cloud.
There are advantages and disadvantages to that approach, both from a contract perspective and also in the depth of experience you have with a particular platform, how integrated it can be, and how much it can be customized. But more importantly, on a positive note, this approach got IT into places it hadn’t penetrated previously, and it spread the concept of normalizing and standardizing things so that digitization became easier to make pervasive.
Now step forward to where we are today. The appetite has been whetted with SaaS-based platforms, but the early efforts left people wanting more. People began to understand that for these solutions to work well, you need a common back end.
No matter what industry you're in, there are commonalities in the digital transformation process. Whether you make movies, provide education, or are in the oil industry, you typically need a workflow engine. You need infrastructure, and typically you’re going to need it in a service-based model. There’s a whole set of building blocks that businesses of all types need.
So there’s a need for a platform that allows you to either be hands-on or remove yourself from the hardware infrastructure. There’s a need for tool-based methodologies, which can be developed in AWS or Microsoft or something else. And a need to utilize the tools in a flexible way toward business-facing needs.
That’s what I see as the future, and it’s facilitated by the digital transformation that swept all industries over the last 10 years. I’ll give you an example. I was at an IDC conference, and a CEO stood up and said, “Two years ago I came to this conference and said, ‘I’m an insurance company and I need to have a digital infrastructure.’ But today, I’m realizing that I’m a digital company that happens to sell insurance.”
That foundational shift is the key. It's people realizing that their organizations are all about the capabilities they need. And then asking how to build capacity with today’s tools—and removing components that have become onerous over time or building your own toolsets.
Q: Yes, tooling and the shift from ready-made, one-size-fits-all for any given industry is huge. Cloud providers have realized that to move upstream and sell compute cycles and storage, they have to create tools, not just storage platforms. The reality is that the potential profit from digitization of revenue streams is exponentially greater than any optimization of physical-world activities—anything digital has a huge multiplier.
A: And to add on to that—it used to be when you talked about digitizing, you were talking about e-commerce capability, the ability to come to market and ingest sales. That’s still important, but now it's about collapsing supply chain structure. Those of us who are in this space know that, but we need to expose that understanding to business owners in general.
The other part that’s crucial is developing physical space manufacturing capabilities. Take 3D printers. They are becoming more affordable, with consumer-ready media for printing, and now for larger manufacturing. Go to YouTube and see what people are printing—it is mind-blowing what's happening in that space. The more we're able to show that physical generation out of a digital flow, to collapse that stream, the more traction we're getting.
Of course we don’t know the timeline for that kind of transformation. We could talk about it all day, but we’ll never know.
Q: Yeah, we’re good at predicting what will happen, but the timelines, not so much. Let’s move onto the next question: are there any cloud technologies that you’ve read about or heard about that you find particularly interesting?
A: I'm in the education space. One of the benefits—and challenges—of education is you literally get to run a small city with all kinds of day-to-day activities: a physical plant, a health center, a burgeoning number of students who need services that continue to grow, plus an administrative and financial back end. We’re in all these different spaces.
In terms of infrastructure, what used to be known as middleware—now everybody’s going after things like MuleSoft or Boomi for that integration layer. You do it once and then it repurposes itself to various specializations. That's coming out of the growth and development of cloud-based technologies.
The more important thing, to me, is looking at how to approach flexible platforms that have more customizable configuration without creating forks the way open source used to. There's a middle road. I'll use Workday as an example. Workday is a great product if you want to run your business process exactly like x, y, z.
Q: Yes, the ERP was the pinnacle of the last century. Oracle, Microsoft—those companies were born in the 1970s where there was one software to rule them all. Moving from one ERP system to another was a three-year process that could make or break your business if you implemented incorrectly. So what do you see as the new approach to avoid that potential pitfall?
A: I know people use this as a reference all the time, but it’s the “Amazonifcation” of it: shopping on Amazon presents a full-cycle experience that gives you data-rich information and then leaves you wanting more. Like, “Gee, I wish it could answer X question for me,” rather than just targeting me as an end-state user. And then starting to build into that experience customization opportunities based on how you want to interact with the platform.
Now, I haven't seen anything that does this yet. We came out of a web environment that was all HTML coding. It started with everyone getting a page up, adding graphics. And then the attitude was “Ooh, let's do a portal.” And now we've got role-based structures which allow for a little bit of individual customization. Well, where I think we need to go is five or six steps beyond all that. I think integrating things in the UI—even things that we think of as backend currently—is going to be crucial. More and more, what we are teaching our employees—and this applies all over, like to people who want to start their own businesses—is being digitally capable.
No matter what your discipline is, the key is being digitally capable. And you use those skills to engage with whatever you’re doing. For example, if you go to a company that has a lockstep ERP, maybe you hide it behind something so you don't have to do anything high-density with it. But if you have to interact with it on a regular basis—well, nobody wants to go to a bunch of screens day-to-day. So I have not seen that platform I envision yet, but I am hopeful.
Q: That leads into the next question about platforms that you're using and the criteria that you've used in evaluating cloud vendors. How are you making decisions around that?
A: First, we're ensuring security as a baseline. And as a state agency, accessibility is crucial across multiple dimensions. There are financial considerations as well.
I also don't want to go through the iterative, chain-link development model that I did when I was buying software packages: you bought some off the shelf, you did some customization, you went in and the first iteration of the web was there, you bought a huge ERP, then things got modularized.
I'm looking for something that is going to provide flexibility toward future-setting. When we're talking with partners, we’re talking about developing a platform structure, or a set of tools and services, that allow flexibility and are extensible—so you're not buying a shrink-wrapped ERP that requires a massive load. You're purchasing stuff based around extending capacity that allows you to right-align business needs, individual resources, people and skillsets, the development you want to get into, and the capabilities that you want to build for the institution.
As an educational institution, we need to be as flexibly forward as we can. I can’t afford to invest millions in something hoping it will achieve a specific outcome, knowing that our mission is about developing human beings—and human beings are creative. So we have to be flexible, and how we go about doing that is one of the challenges.
Those are some of the things that I'm looking at with platforms. And that's just in the physical plant area. That's the way we're using financials because we can't be in lockstep the way we used to be all the time. Of course we have to follow regs and rules, we have to be legal, we have to ensure audit compliance. But our methodologies don’t necessarily have to be the same each time.
Q: What are you finding with the major cloud vendors, whether it's Google or Azure or AWS, showing up more in the education space? Is there a better toolset or particular dimensions that you see cloud vendors excelling in?
A: All three of them do have a presence, and I see them focused on individual areas where they’re engaged.
Amazon is making larger forays into research. If you want to develop something full-stack, all the way through, they've got that set.
Microsoft has the toolset of Office 365. Their perspective is, if you've got frontend users there, why don't you come and start talking with Microsoft about Cortana data experiences?
Google has a presence, similar to Microsoft, with an entire frontend toolset for MySchool on Google. They have free application sets, and we use those (as well as some of the Microsoft ones)—and of course Google has the UI that people have already gained familiarity with.
So they are all in the space, but they have different approaches. The right tool depends on the approach the institution wants to take.
For us, we've been taking a kind of independent approach. We've dipped our toe into the Amazon experience, we have some things that we've tried with Microsoft, and our students are on the Google Application experience. I do wish there was a more cohesive structure—although I have compatriots at other CSUs who would probably argue that it is cohesive, but I think it’s still a patchwork that requires someone to knit those parts together.
Q: My experience with Amazon is that it is power tools for power users, rather than complete products like Office 365 or Google Classroom. Given all of this complexity, what is the advice you’d give to CEOs about emerging technology?
A: I’d say that the crucial thing we need to do is be future-forward when we’re making decisions, while also being clear about the requirements of where we are today. Because otherwise, you won’t get any traction with what you’re doing right now.
The second part is that all of us are coming from somewhere unique. So my infrastructure is going to create an ecosystem. And it will have gaps in some places, and there are other places that I can't uproot for two to three years. I haven't had a vendor the size and scale of an Amazon or a Microsoft reach out to discuss what we're doing and how we're trying to do it—and really understand my entire ecosystem and then knit itself backwards to support that. And unless we're taking that approach, we're going to continue running the cycles that we're running now with the technologies we employ.
Q: Not ignoring the requirements of today makes a ton of sense, and I think people often lose sight of that when we talk about emerging technology. When you look at the future, do you have a time horizon that you use, or that you think a CEO should use to evaluate things?
A: I use 10 years as a rough guide, but that doesn't necessarily fit across the entire organization. There's some places where we're trying to use a leapfrog approach, and we’re uplifting something that’s a 15-year-old approach. In those cases, you may need something you're going to use for two or three years, just to get everybody re-normalized to the new business approach.
You have to balance that with getting the technology that's way out there and ideally not implementing it a dozen times across the organization. We have to sort out what leading platforms we’re going to drive home because they are key to us. For some organizations that's their CRM, because, without that, they're using yesterday’s stuff to compete with people using tomorrow’s product. For other people, it might be their LMS if you’re in education. The key questions are: what are you doing, and how are you getting it there?
Q: In education, you have a four-year cycle of the student body passing through, and then the cadence to build a curriculum. I imagine that has implications for your core applications.
A: Exactly, there are core cadences at higher education institutions: four-year students, two- year students who are getting a basis for a four-year degree, transfer students, graduate students, etc. And there is a cycle to education that goes beyond technology.
But now we have toolsets, and they give us the capability to turn a student’s four-year experience into three and a half—or maybe even three. Or maybe the experiences within those four years are substantially different than what we thought they had to be. The capacity to do that comes through the cloud development platform. If we get the options in front of faculty and administrators, they can be creative in returning to the cycle and saying, “How do we want to remake this?” It’s that liberation through technology that I think we need to be more focused on.
Q: You're blowing my mind—let’s rethink the four-year cycle!
A: Yes! And of course this isn’t a decision for me to make. We get the faculty involved, the deans, the administrators. If we have these capabilities, the power is in their hands.
Q: What advice would you give to people working in technology on the IT side?
A: Number one, the technology is going to change. No matter what industry you're in, you need to have a perpetual learning mind, and invest in that. We've done 25 years of ERP implementations, and we're at the end of that. Also, expect your employer to do some investment for you, but you should also do it on your own because it’s core to your professional value.
Number two, your creativity needs to come from a discipline other than just technology. Of course you need to know what the tools can do. But in any industry today, they're saying, “I need engineers because I am an engineering firm and I'm building things. But I also need creative thought to come from, for example, people who work in philosophy who can engage with my business because they incubate ideas.” Your discipline, no matter what your field of study is, coupled with technology capabilities set, will make everything gel for you over time.
Number three, it’s really crucial that you know your industry. Let's say you're gonna go to make toys, so you want to go work for Lego. You may already know that it’s a good employer, but make sure you know about the business and how you can add value from the business side. Not just the sales and the components, but the methodology from the cultural standpoint under which the business works. Like we discussed before about higher education—it has its rhythms, and they're not going to change tomorrow. Maybe you want to help change them, but you have to know what they are to work within that context. And knowing that will help you succeed.