Denison University Discusses Translating Technical Details into Better Business Language
Dena Speranza - Central Ohio Tech Power Player Honoree
Founder and President
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CIO of Denison University, Dena Speranza, discusses translating technical details into better business language.
BK: Hello, we are here today with Dena Speranza, who is the CIO at Denison University. Denison University is an organization based in Granville, Ohio, with around 700 employees. My name is Bryan Kaiser, and I'm with Vernovis. I will be your guest moderator today, so let's get started. So, Dena, you've been the CIO for about four years. At what point in your career did you decide that you wanted to be a CIO?
DS: Well, Bryan, I think it was somewhat of an evolution of discovery as I worked through my career. I had the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas in IT organizations, starting, kind of from the ground level up, from computer operator to leading network teams to application development, business analysis. And later on in my career, I spent some years in the consulting world and did a number of engagements where I was coming in and helping to identify where there were challenges in IT organizations – doing assessments of the organization, um, advising the senior leaders there to help them make difficult decisions sometimes, and, and through that process, um, identified some skill sets that I had, myself, that I thought may translate well. Then, with that experience in all these different areas. Also, working in several different types of industries kind of gave me a breadth of knowledge that I thought I could bring to the CIO seat.
BK: That's great. At what point in your career did you kind of feel like, “Hey, I think I got the chops for this.”
DS: I don't know if you ever really feel like you know, it all, you know? You definitely don't.
But, you know, I think probably after doing a number of consulting engagements where I had the opportunity to advise and provide some external insight and really see myself, kind of organizationally, what was going on in these various teams. I think at that point I, I recognized that I had the opportunity, um, and some of the skills, you know, that, that it might take to be a successful CIO.
BK: That's great. What is your best attribute that you bring to your organization?
DS: I think, probably a couple of things, Bryan. I, I find that I'm a good connector and a good communicator. I really like being able to bring people to the table, bring people together to help solve problems, to facilitate identifying solutions. I really get a lot of value out of helping other people achieve their goals and finding a path forward when there is a challenging situation to deal with. A lot of that has to do with, you know, building kind of your, your soft skills as an individual in this leadership role I think is really critical as well as having the ability to, kind of translate the, the technical details into business language so that there's a good understanding across both organizations. So, I find that, that ability to connect and the ability to communicate, to help come together to solve problems is really critical in this role.
BK: That's really good. What, what advice would you give to an aspiring CIO?
DS: Well, I, just to follow on there, I would say, definitely that building the soft skills is an important aspect. You hear, read a lot in in the trade magazines these days – Building your emotional intelligence is important. And I would definitely agree with that. You know, it's something that is sometimes challenging to develop over a technical career, but as you grow into leadership positions, it's really a critical aspect to be able to relate with people. Being able to listen. Listening is key to be able to build the trust relationships that you need to be able to solve problems across an institution. So, for aspiring CIOs, I think I would say, really take the opportunities that come your way to do things that are sometimes difficult early in your career like leading projects, finding complex projects to, to lead where it takes more than just the technical acumen, but that being able to bring people together, being able to clearly communicate, being able to prioritize and identify, you know, what is the critical path towards resolution here.
And the other thing I would say is if you, if you have the opportunity to really build some breadth across the organization, you know, really getting to understand the various aspects of the business units within your organization. So, it takes more than just knowing IT, it takes really understanding what your colleagues are faced with across the institution. So, understanding what it takes to do finance, HR, operations, the other types of areas in your businesses is, is really critical to be that good partner, to be able to understand from, from their seat what they're challenged with, and to be able to really then, find and translate what good technology solutions may be for their needs.
BK: That’s good. And you talked a little bit about emotional intelligence, soft skills. Is that something, you know, where do you feel like that comes from? Is that something people are born with? Is that something they grow up with? And if they lack in that area, where can they go to, to build that up or encourage that?
DS: Great. That's a great question, Bryan. And I definitely feel you can build those skills. Some people may be a little more naturally inclined to having good emotional intelligence, but I think everyone can develop these skill sets.
BK: Sounds good. So, so Dena, so, I have a question for you – professionally, who do you rely on for advice?
DS: This is where networking is just such a big benefit. And I would say, you know, the higher education vertical is so strong in this area. We have some really great consortial relationships that we've built over the years, where members of some large organizations across the country, where it really brings together our colleagues at all of the institutions, and we have such a great opportunity to share information. It's a very collaborative environment. Um, and, and I, I really trust my partners at other institutions that are in similar roles that I am. We share experiences around what worked, what didn't work, lessons learned, which is fabulous. And, and so it really helps to escalate our progress on a lot of different things. In institutions like ours, where you're really trying to be cost conscious, really control overhead, make sure that you're making wise decisions, you've got to tap into resources out there.
So, it's my colleagues at, at these other schools across the country; I also depend upon important vendor relationships. We really try to build these relationships, trust partners where, you know, they've got a depth of knowledge in particular areas, and we share with them, you know, what our, what our strategic initiatives are, where are we challenged? And we look to them to partner with us to find good solutions.
And then, I would also say, you know, we, we like to leverage memberships in organizations like Gartner, the Educational Advisory Board, Forest Organization, where they're doing great research in all kinds of things where, in the technology, technological fields. So, you know, those colleagues, peers at other institutions, vendor partners, memberships. And also, being here in Central Ohio, we have such a rich community, so many opportunities where we have people taking leadership roles and driving collaborative events, bringing together people who are interested in similar types of learning, similar types of things. And, and these are all great things to tap into. So, I find that's where I rely on others for advice. It's where people are having similar challenges and have, we're able to bring our heads together and find good solutions.
BK: Well, this is, this is an interesting concept because this collaboration, this “rising tide raises all boats,” this “Let's share information.” I feel like that's starting to kind of come into its own in the last five to 10 years. Where are you seeing that help, help your university? Are you getting up the field faster than, than before, or what does that look like?
DS: Yes, I would agree. And that's where I would just call back to like the consortial organizations that we’re part of. One is the Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges. I'm actually a board member of that organization, and it's 70 schools across the country. We started a program where we're, we call it the Mindshare, and we'll bring together people who are interested in solving a similar problem. For instance, recently we hosted one talking about, what are the challenges around integration? What do we need to do to solve this problem of all these disparate systems, bringing our data together and getting all of the right people to the table? And then also partnering with an organization like the Educational Advisory Board to bring experts into a room where it's not, you know, 14 conversations happening one off, but together in the room, we can all spread the knowledge and kind of get there faster.
BK: That's fantastic. I love to hear this idea of working together and helping each other, and I think, versus a competitive situation where we're going to hold things close to our vest, that's really, that's really great.
DS: Yeah, and, you know, it is interesting – in higher education we are competing just as, as people in corporate America are, but we also have a very collaborative environment. So yes, we compete for a very small pool of potential customers, so to speak, in our students, incoming students, but, but we do find that collaboration just critical.
BK: That's awesome. Well, Dena, thank you so much for your time. This is Bryan Kaiser and Dena Speranza. To learn more about us, visit comspark.tech. Goodbye, and until next time, have a great day.
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