As new school year nears, Ohio State systems manager talks tech

From rotary telephones to PlayStation Vita – the challenges of educational IT

Tim Winningham, a systems manager for Ohio State University’s department of mathematics, has come a long way since his first official gig in educational IT.

“In 2000, I went to a town called Pinedale, Wyoming. I had to stay in a hotel there the first night I came into town, and on that hotel, instead of saying ‘big screen TV’ or ‘free HBO’ or something like that, it said ‘we have touch-tone phones,’” he says.

He’s got quite the opposite issue now, however, as one of the IT coordinators for the biggest academic department on Ohio State’s sprawling campus. The advent of new technologies in the data center and on the network, coupled with heavy demand for BYOD support, makes it a challenge to keep up.

“All you see when you go into a lecture hall is a bunch of glowing Apples staring back at you,” he says. “The amount of devices these kids are carrying – they’ve got an iPod, an iPhone, their Windows slate, or their Macbook … they have so many wireless devices that it’s tough to keep up with all that.”

One student even complained that he couldn’t access cloud-based content on his PlayStation Vita handheld gaming system. 

Winningham’s first job after graduating from OSU was as a technology coordinator for as many as eight different school districts in heavily rural western Wyoming. He says he oversaw 8,000 workstations and helped to modernize the infrastructure.

 “It was a big challenge out there – I was very lucky the town I landed in… because we got re-capture money from the oil and gas industry, and that came back into my technology fund,” he says. “So I was able to, as a 24-year-old kid running a school district’s technology, to go buy whatever I wanted.”

He replaced aging Compaq Presarios with more up-to-date IBM machines, and began building a network infrastructure more sophisticated than simply moving files around via floppy disks and thumb drives.

It wasn’t, however, his first experience with being the go-to IT guy for a school.

“I’ve been doing this tech stuff all my life. My mother was a teacher in a school, she wrote a grant, got a bunch of Apples, and they didn’t have tech coordinators then, so I had to go in and set them all up,” Winningham says. He was a teenager growing up in Shelby, Ohio at the time.

Now, however, at OSU, his job is a bit more strategic. He juggles complicated compatibility issues created by BYOD, spiking demand for computing resources, and an ongoing transition toward the use of the cloud.

One example of the latter trend is the switch away from traditional network file storage to Box Sync, a remote desktop and content sharing service.

While Winningham says Box Sync has struggled to balance usability and security, it is making positive strides.

“We’d have hundreds of terabytes of data in this network file server, [but] now I need to re-allocate some of that storage for our cloud purposes,” he says.

It’s important, he notes, to have a hands-on relationship with every stakeholder, from students and faculty to administrators and vendors.

“We try to use Ohio State’s name and reputation and … purchasing power to make sure we get heard [by vendors],” he said.

The huge variety of different tasks aside, Winningham sounds like he’s pleased to be where he is.

“When I came to Ohio State … I wanted to make sure I was a part of the biggest university  and the biggest college … I wanted to run something different,” he says.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold. 

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