How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts

Sara Peters, Editor in Chief | 8/20/2013 | 13 comments

Sara Peters
[Part VII of E2's two-week How to Become a CIO series.]

Anne Agee retired this year after spending the last half of her career as a CIO. The first half of her career she spent in a rather unlikely place -- in a college classroom teaching English.

Most recently Agee was CIO of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where she led a major rip-and-replace of nearly the entire university's IT infrastructure -- including knocking down the old datacenter and building a new one half the size and twice the capacity. (We spoke to her about this in a video interview not long ago.)

Her first steps into IT, however, came back in the late 80s when she was teaching English at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. When the school decided to build a "computer classroom" -- not a lab, but an actual instructional space -- Agee was the first professor in line.

"Nobody else in the humanities division was interested in this," Agee told me. "In fact, some of [the faculty] were vehemently opposed to the whole idea. But I thought it would be interesting and fun."

Agee studied other college's computer classrooms and worked closely with the school's IT specialists to learn how to set up workstations and run a network. Although not connected to the Internet at the time, students were equipped with electronic reference materials. If the students were studying Shakespeare's Othello, they could pull up an atlas to see where the play took place. The college set up a poetry web where students could upload poems to the intranet and use HTML code to embed links to other resources.

Once it became clear that the computer classrooms were a hit with students, it was easier for Agee to convert the non-believers in the faculty. She was named the official instructional technology coordinator for the entire college. In addition to some more hands-on IT functions like setting up the workstations and networks, she trained faculty and taught workshops on instructional technology.

When Agee decided that it was time to move on and began applying for new jobs, she found herself at a professional crossroads.

"I actually had two job offers at the same time," she said. "One was the dean of liberal arts and one was the head of client services in an IT department. And I took the IT job."

As head of client services at St. Mary's College, Agee was managing multiple departments of IT staff. Some IT people say that it's very hard to manage a technical staff if you don't have a technical background. However Agee says she didn't have that problem.

One thing working in her favor was that she was bringing experience in instructional technology, which is something the St. Mary's team lacked. Another thing in her favor was that she had a counterpart, the head of systems, who was much more of a techie. However, the main key to her management success was something else.

"I'm a good communicator and I think that's really the most important thing," Agee said. "I was willing to learn from [my staff]. I respected what they did. I didn't pretend like I knew all about that stuff when I didn't. So they were happy to sit down and explain to me what they were doing and why they were doing it."

Throughout this series, How to Become a CIO, I've asked people about what business, management, and IT skills a CIO really needs.

"The IT skills are probably the least important of the three, to tell you the truth, once you're a manager," said Agee. "If you're hiring me as a systems administrator then obviously you want a certain set of technical skills, but when you're hiring me as the manager of a systems administrator I don't necessarily have to be able to do his job. And as a CIO I definitely don't have to do his job. In fact, they'd be foolish to let the CIO do that job."

As CIO at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Agee was managing over a dozen departments. At the breakneck speed of technology evolution, there is no way for a CIO to maintain hands-on proficiency in everything that a dozen departments do. Therefore she says CIOs need to know enough to help the IT staff when they encounter hurdles, help them stay up-to-date with the newest technology themselves, and empower them to do their jobs.

Instead of techie chops, Agee has found that communication, project management, an understanding of business needs, and knowledge of how to manage your finances are more critical to the CIO job -- and are growing even more essential.

"The role of the CIO has shifted," she said. "I think it's been shifting for a while, kind of away from the technical. But I'd say in the last three, four years in particular, as cloud computing grows more, you're less likely to have the technology actually physically in your control. Your role becomes less technology than it becomes managing the companies that are providing the technology for you… [Employers] really do expect you to be able to manage your money very well and get the best possible deals you can get."

Agee's main advice for anyone who would like to get on the path to becoming a CIO: Get out of your comfort zone.

"The more experience you have, the more flexible you are, the better," she said. "Go out and look for opportunities to work with other groups. Take on projects that you otherwise might not have thought of doing."

What do you think? Are there any English professors in the E2 community looking for a career change? Are there any unfamiliar or outlandish projects you've taken on in order to expand your portfolio? Let us know in the comments below.

Come back to E2 tomorrow to hear how Michael Gliedman of the National Basketball Association first became a CIO. Take the current E2 poll to let us know what you think are the most important qualities in a CIO. Check out the first six segments in E2's two-week How to Become a CIO series:

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Susan Nunziata   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/30/2013 4:20:17 AM
Get out of your comfort zone
@Sara: Thank you for another inspirational segment in your series. My favorite bit of Anne's fantastic story is her advice to get out of your comfort zone. Doing so isn't always easy, and it isn't always fun, in fact it can be downright terrifying. Yet it is so crucial to any of us in our career paths to make sure we continue to grow and learn.

RashmiK   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/25/2013 1:49:36 AM
@Sara, true. It is very impressive to hear how someone was able to move from being a simple teacher to end up being a CIO. What is more impressive is that fact that it was possible to change the perception of most of the workmates who saw the building of the computer classroom as a wastage of resources by demonstrating how the computer can be able to help in ensuring smooth operation in the other disciplines.
Sara Peters   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/24/2013 5:02:19 PM
@RashmiK "I can say for sure that whoever reads this piece will be motivated." I certainly hope you're right. I'm glad you felt motivated by Anne's story. I know I did too.
RashmiK   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/24/2013 2:28:56 PM
That's an insight into a wonderful career. It is impressive how someone in academia can make a dramatic shift midway in their career path. I can say for sure that whoever reads this piece will be motivated. It is a good thing that you followed up with Ms Ann Agee.
Sara Peters   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/22/2013 9:09:02 AM
Re: Great interview!
@Pedro  Thanks. That's one of my favorite things about writing this series. It shows us that it really is possible to escape a pigeonhole, get out of a rut, and create an exciting new career for yourself -- even after you've been working for 20 years.
Sara Peters   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/22/2013 8:57:25 AM
Re: Great interview!
@Marta  I was so delighted to talk to Anne again myself -- too bad she's retired now! She did say that if she wasn't ready for retirement she could have happily stayed at U Mass for several more years. There was still plenty of exciting, challenging work that was left to do.
Sara Peters   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/22/2013 8:55:15 AM
Re: CIO specs for SMEs
@Curt @Umair  My first instinct says you're right -- the smaller your staff, the more important IT skills are in a CIO. My second instinct says the opposite. The smaller your staff, the more third-party IT services you might use, and therefore your business skills become more important than your IT skills.

I think that staff size can definitely be a factor, but I don't seem to know the full equation.
CurtisFranklin   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/21/2013 10:13:11 PM
Re: CIO specs for SMEs
@Umair, I suspect that a CIO with a huge staff can get away with much less hands-on knowledge than someone who has to actually "make something happen" as part of their job. The smaller the company, the more important IT skills become!
CurtisFranklin   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/21/2013 10:11:46 PM
Re: Great interview!
@Pedro, I wonder how much of the recipe for success is basic apptitude and how much is training? It seems that Anne has a lot of the innate skills that make for a great CIO -- she's "a natural", it seems. Do you think her academic training helped her in those skills, or represented something she had to overcome on her way to being a CIO?
Umair Ahmed   How I Became a CIO: Anne Agee, University of Massachusetts   8/21/2013 10:00:03 PM
CIO specs for SMEs

"The IT skills are probably the least important of the three, to tell you the truth, once you're a manager"

Very interesting post, Sara. Do you think that the above statement also applies to SMEs which have shorter budgets and teams as compared to large organizations? and often a single person looking after multiple roles as CIO/Technical Director.

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