Leading innovation in US universities

Philosophy and sociology helped former Christian Brother to the top of tech tree in US

It's a long journey from joining the Christian Brothers to becoming one of the leading technology innovators in the US, but then Gerry McCartney says he's never been one to do things the easy way.

McCartney has served as the chief information officer (CIO) of Purdue University in Indiana since 2007. He oversees the information technology requirements for the public college, which offers more than 200 undergraduate degrees and more than 70 masters and doctoral programmes.

With over 38,000 students and a further 15,000 staff members at its flagship West Lafayette campus alone, Purdue is one of the largest universities in the US.

Under McCartney’s leadership, the college has developed the nation’s largest campus cyberinfrastructure, with six supercomputers, including Conte, which is ranked as the second fastest campus supercomputer in the US and 28th in the world.

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During his tenure, Purdue has also been behind a number of ground-breaking advanced learning technologies. These include Signals, a data-mining and analysis programme that increased graduation rates at the university 21 per cent by warning students at risk of underperforming, and Hotseat, a programme that lets students ask questions and make comments online in the middle of lectures.

As if that weren’t enough, McCartney also holds an appointment as Purdue’s inaugural director of the Innovation for Commercialisation Center.

This was created last year to bring the university’s discoveries to the marketplace more quickly by boosting entrepreneurial links with local industry. All of this sounds impressive, and is even more so when you discover that his background was not originally technical.

McCartney ended up at NUI Maynooth at the age of 22, having spent a few years living as a Christian Brother after leaving school. He emerged from the college with first class honours in philosophy and sociology in 1981. He's convinced that his grounding in these subjects, along with his brief sojourn as a Christian Brother, have assisted him in his technical career by giving him a greater understanding and respect of the viewpoints of others. He argues that not only are these essential skills for any CIO, but they are crucial for any IT professionals who want to survive in their careers.

While studying, however, McCartney came to realise that philosophy and sociology were not subjects that would necessarily guarantee a successful career.

"I was in college at a time when the unemployment rate in Ireland was soaring and I knew my degree wouldn't be of much use. I went and did a diploma in programming and systems analysis at Trinity College in the evening so that at least I'd be able to do something after I graduated," he said.

Lucky break
This led to a job in the computing centre in Maynooth, where he stayed for five years until a lucky break took him to the US.

“I went over to give a conference paper on Irish networking and a guy from the University of Notre Dame came up at the end of the presentation and offered me a job, which I later found out was the only way they could convince people to move to South Bend, Indiana.

"I liked it in the US and, after a few years at Notre Dame, moved to Purdue, where I took up the role of director of the Krannert Computing Center. After nearly three years there, I moved on to become assistant dean and CIO at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where I stayed for 11 years before returning to Purdue," he said.

Along with gaining vast experience and leading innovation in higher education in the US, he also continued with his interest in studying the arts, emerging with a Phd in sociology while at the Wharton School.

Having taken a circuitous route to get to the top, McCartney thinks other techies could also do with learning a broader range of talents. He believes the personality of IT professionals can often prove an unfortunate barrier to them gaining their place at the boardroom table.

He points out that they are often shy people who can be one-track minded. He argues that, in proving their technical and strategic value to businesses, CIOs need to adopt greater political and imaginative skills.

“IT professionals are smart but they don’t handle ambiguity well. It is a challenge for those who come up in computing and then go into far greyer areas of management to cope with situations where outcomes aren’t always clear.”

McCartney warns of possible boardroom battles involving CIOs, particularly with marketing personnel, who are one of the biggest users of data. He urges IT professionals to make more effort to recognise the worth of others and to collaborate with them to enhance value.

He says this is not only essential for harmony in the boardroom, but also for the future of those working in tech.

“There is a natural path with all technology that, as it becomes popular, it is commoditised and becomes disposable. When that happens, you will no longer need to rely on the archetypal IT professionals, they’ll go the way of the TV repair guy. Given this, it makes sense for them to adapt so they can stay relevant,” he said.