IT leader details her career progression

Education exec took on high-profile projects to land her current position.

Priscilla Milam, associate vice chancellor of IT operations for the North Harris Montgomery Community College District in The Woodlands, Texas, parlayed a part-time job in her college's computer center into a career.

We have a WAN fiber ring that connects all five campuses and some of the centers. The application developers [and] network support and operations teams report to me. In all, about 60 people report to me. And I report to the CIO.

How did you get interested in networking and IT in general?

When I went to Texas A&M, I was undecided as to my long-term career goals. And I happened to get a job at the computer center as a student worker. Then it became clear. I really just liked the environment and was interested in the new technology. It felt like it was the place for me. That's when I changed my course of study to computer science.

From there, how calculated was your career progression?

I first started out as a programmer-analyst and then moved into the networking side. It interested me so I did it, plain and simple. It wasn't until I was at Kingwood College in a leadership position that I got involved with districtwide projects that I thought, 'Maybe I should do this more often because it might be a path for me.' At that point, it was calculated. I knew that politics were important, and I became cognizant of the IT projects and people that could help advance my career.

Did you just happen upon networking?

I was a programmer-analyst for the Department of Defense, where I worked on the Apache helicopter project in Corpus Christi [Texas]. Then I moved to a top-secret security-level job working with the Trident Nuclear Submarine project in Newport, R.I. Then I made the move to Trans European Marketing in Frankfurt, Germany.

That's where I realized there is this new thing called a network coming out. I thought I could make use of connecting all our PCs and sharing the reporting on this database. That's when I truly got the flavor of the networking side, how everything connects. And now my advantage is that I have been fortunate to work on many sides of the house.

What are some of the differences working in IT for the government, education and enterprise companies?

I argue this a lot, because many people in education or in healthcare say "we're different." Really, on the IT side it's the same. We have to look at the bottom line, we have to work within a budget, we have to show our value to the business. We are under very tight budget restraints, and we have to figure out how we can do things more effectively, more efficiently all the time.

How do you keep yourself up to speed on all the technology areas in your current position?

I am a member of a CIO Forum here in Houston. I'm a member of IT Service Management Forum, which is the ITIL user forum. Also, any time the server team, for instance, brings in a vendor to do a dog-and-pony show for, say, blade servers, then I make it a point to sit in to hear what they are hearing and trying to pick out what's new from the vendor perspective.

How do you deal with the silos of technology across your reports?

I have done team development and also have sent all of my direct reports and many of their direct reports to ITIL foundation training. I also include the service desk on all the projects and get them intimately involved, to try to get the link going between the server side and network teams. I have used ITIL foundation training and the ITIL concept as a tool to help them see the big picture and communicate as a team.

What is the biggest change you have seen in IT over the past 20 years?

The biggest change I have seen is needing to know the business side of the house. I teach a graduate class once per year, and that's the first thing I tell them. When I first got into computing and I worked in Corpus Christi, I wore my winter coat to work because we were down in the basement, and nobody ever saw us and it was freezing cold down there with all the air conditioning. I definitely didn't know anything about the business and no one really cared as long as you spit out payroll and paid the bills.

How has the IT staff evolved within the business over the years?

As computers became more involved in day-to-day functions, we had to be more cognizant of what the business strategy was. How do we fit into that business model? And then how does our budget fit into the overall business strategy? And that continues to become more and more important.

What do you tell your students who are looking to get into technology today?

Graduate students often ask me what they can do with their MIS degree. I tell them to find a technology that really suits them and be really, really good at it. That way they can get their foot in the door and see what else is out there at the company. In IT today, you need to think of yourself as a service to the business and how you can make life better for the business with your skills.

What tips would you give IT staffers looking to know more about the business?

I tell them to look over the perspectives and publications that talk about the pulse of the business. That's one of the reasons why I have volunteered to teach a graduate class once per year. It keeps me in tune with what the pulse is in the classroom.

What are your future career aspirations?

I'd like to be the CIO somewhere someday.

Tell me more about your ITIL project.

We had business strategic-planning initiative that started more than a year ago. I was still at Kingwood College, and they sent out one of the issues they wanted to talk about. One of them was about benchmarking our IT services and what kind of services we wanted to deliver. I latched right on to that and called the people in charge and said I want to be working on this strategic initiative. I used that to leverage our ITIL initiative districtwide to the board. We had a consultant come in to jump-start that process. We had all the IT people across the district come together and work with the consultant firm. We purchased Peregrine ServiceCenter as our tool. We are rolling out the new product and having a marketing plan around that rollout and the IT processes, which says this is going to be the new IT and these are the services you can expect. Basically, this is what it's going to mean to you, the user. Marketing IT is not something IT people necessarily do often, so business leaders don't see the value of what they are spending their money on IT.

Why are the processes so critical for an IT person?

The tools are only as good as the process behind them. In the old days when I first started programming, you would get the flow chart from the user that would say this is how we do things, and you would program the computer to do that for them. If you don't have a solid process in place - even today with intuitive software and great tools available - then you are only implementing a bad process. The only way to make it a good process is to look at how you do it, evolve it into a mature process and then implement a tool to make it easier to perform the task. Take identity management. You have to have the process of identifying of roles and security privileges in place before you lay a technology over it, or no matter what you use, whether it's Novell or Microsoft or another tool, you're not going to be happy with it.

What kind of benefits does ITIL bring to your organization?

The biggest benefit is that you have projects that go to fruition smoothly on a more regular basis. Otherwise, you have people that aren't sharing or don't see the value of sharing, and you are going to run into bumpy or missed milestones. You will find out after the fact about some things that you should have been thinking about in advance, which is a killer with projects. Those "oops" kill you on projects when you need to bring something to production quickly and smoothly.

What qualities do you look for when hiring?

It largely depends on the position. We look for certain technical skills depending on the position, but I've also asked committees considering people to really take a look at the personality of the candidates. The technical people are the lead in the interview process, because they know the skills need to be, but I also want to know the person's personality will fit in with the team. Someone can be a great technician but perhaps not fit in with the team or be able to sit in on business meetings and relate to that perspective.

How do you distinguish personalities for job positions in, say, networking and programming?

The programmer is more of an individual process of doing the analysis and figuring out in your head what the logic is going to be and implementing that. For instance, I have a team working on our ERP system, and even though it's a team effort, they still have their individual projects. On the networking side, you have to take a look at all entities. For instance, how will this application affect bandwidth consumption, and thinking about bandwidth is thinking about everybody on that network.

What areas should new technicians explore?

Networking and security are the big ones. Security especially overlays everything that we do. I talk to our DBAs, analysts, network people - everyone about security. We have a state compliance regulation that is not as stringent as Sarbanes-Oxley, but along the same lines of Sarbox, so it's always on my mind.

What things do you think about for security?

When we bring on a new technology, I think about how are we going to authenticate our users. What will the encryption on the wide-area network have to be? How will that encryption affect the performance of the WAN user? Then on the client side, what kind of training would the user community need? And letting them know what they need to be aware of in terms of security? A lot of colleges have taken hits because a user hasn't thought twice about saving a file with Social Security number on it to a machine. We always think about data-use policies behind what is good stewardship of our data. In fact, we are working on new drafts of these policies, because we found what we had was kind of antiquated in terms of the new technologies coming down the pike.

Any other hot technologies you have to stay on top of?

Wireless is going to continue to become more prevalent, and of course, we have to think of security with our wireless networks. You have to have an anywhere, everywhere syndrome. We are looking at podcasting all our lectures to our students. We are supporting BlackBerries now for our administrators, and I am sure faculty are soon to come. They must have an anywhere-all-the-time mentality, and then how do you support it on the back end? That goes back to setting your levels of expectation and the service-management idea.

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