Looking Back on 25 Years at Wharton

At the end of June, Wharton Associate Dean and Chief Information Officer Deirdre Woods will step down from that position after 25 years at Wharton. For 22 of those years, she served in leadership roles in Wharton Computing, the School’s IT organization. That’s a long tenure in any field and is particularly noteworthy in the rapidly changing world of IT.

Kendall Whitehouse, director of new media at the Wharton School, recently sat down with Woods to discuss how information technology has changed during that time and what the future holds for her and other CIOs. Whitehouse and Woods have been colleagues for more than 20 years, and they have worked on many technology initiatives together. An edited version of that conversation follows.

Q: You’ve been at Wharton for nearly 25 years. What are the most significant advancements in information technology during that period?

DEIRDRE WOODS: Computing power is increasingly in the hands of consumers of the technology, as opposed to behind-the-curtain “geekdom.” IT has been completely transformed because one can acquire services in the open marketplace, and modern IT organizations need to be enablers of that technology.

Deirdre Woods, associate dean and CIO at the Wharton School.

For example, we’re in our second year of rolling out iPads for our Executive MBA students. It recently struck me that most of the services we recommend for our students—DropBox, Skype, GoodReader, iAnnotate, etc.—are not services we provide. Increasingly, our role is that of curation—fast curation—because the set of tools appropriate for management education changes very rapidly.

Q: How has the IT organization changed over that time period?

DW: Some things remain the same. Any IT organization needs to understand the business of their institution and have strong business partners within the organization. We deliver the technology solutions, but our business partners have to bring the business concepts and be as invested as we are in the outcome. That has always been true.

Q: This is the case with any large IT organization. To what extent is an IT organization in an academic institution different?

DW: We have many masters—many colleagues and many customers. We have faculty, whose research and teaching we support; we have students, whom we must help to be successful; we have alumni who want to stay connected to the school; and we have companies who want to partner with us. Running an organization like that, one has to make choices, and that can be difficult.

At Wharton, excellence is the rule. Everything has to run extraordinarily well. At a place like Wharton—an institution that is looking toward the future—one has to think about the best strategic use of technology to transform the institution in the 21st century.

Q: What are the characteristics of a CIO to lead such an organization?

DW: Doesn’t need much sleep [laughs]! I read a lot about leadership, but I think you can spend your time reading leadership books and lose sight of the simple things: Treat your people well, treat your colleagues well, understand that your people work very hard. These go a long way toward having a successful organization.

Enthusiasm and a real passion for the mission are extraordinarily important. The ability to turn on a dime is also important. And the ability to be interested in many things.

Most of all is the ability to hire great people and trust them to do their jobs.

Q: If you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self 25 years ago, what would you tell yourself that you wish you’d known then?

DW: I would tell my younger self to value colleagues, to value the team more. It’s not about being a solo performer; it’s about the success of the team.

Q: Is there any advice that you would give specifically to women who are looking to move into a senior leadership role?

DW: Take more risks. Be noticed. I always tell women that, in meetings if you don’t talk, you’re not there. You need to say something to be noticed.

I think women have a tendency to make sure they understand 80 percent to 90 percent of the job before they feel adequate to perform the next role, whereas men will take a bigger risk and feel they need less experience to perform in the same role.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made over the course of your career?

DW: Something that plagues me to this day is delegation. When things go wrong, it’s usually for one of two reasons: either I’ve delegated something that I should have paid more attention to, or I underdelegated, got too involved in the details, and things weren’t able to move forward because I was busy and that became the sticking point.

Q: These are two opposite ends of the spectrum. How do you determine whether to delegate more or delegate less?

DW: That’s the trick, isn’t it? That’s why I continue to make this same mistake! It’s dicey.

My general rule is that I try to delegate as much as possible by having a team I can trust to make things happen. But then there are certain things that I consider critical that I need to focus on. It is sometimes hard to identify each of those.

Q: Looking over the entire career, what are you proudest of?

DW: The organization. We’re not an organization of “no.” We partner, we listen, we are always glad to help. We may not be able to solve every problem, but we will always listen and figure out what we can do to implement the best solution.

One of the things I tell people is that leaders lead. Leaders never think little of others. Leaders are never scornful. Leaders do the right thing. Leaders are collegial and enthusiastic.

Q: What’s next for IT? What should IT managers be focusing on?

DW: We’re entering version 2.0 of the CIO. The role of CIO is going to be much more about integrating services. It’s going about big data and unstructured, nonnumeric data.

For universities, CIOs need to understand the distribution of content and how to enable communication all over the world.

Issues of security and privacy are not going away. Making information available, yet protecting the institution’s intellectual property and reputation, will continue to be very important.

Q: What’s next for you once you step down from your role as associate dean and CIO at Wharton?

DW: I first want to take a pause. I’ve worked since I was 16 years old, even through the birth of my children, so I want to take a little bit of time off.

Looking forward, there are a few things I’m considering. I’m looking at CIO advising. I’d love to be able to help those version 2.0 CIOs to be successful in their organizations. I’m also very interested in the burgeoning world of online courses. I think I have something to contribute there as well.

Q: Any final thoughts?

DW: It’s been a great ride—a series of really interesting jobs and interesting people. Working with smart people every day makes you smarter. That’s something I’ve always appreciated at Wharton.


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