Q&A with Robin Beck

Robin Beck, the University’s vice president for information systems and computing, likes to say that technology is not a revolution, but an evolution. “You are always taking small steps forward, and when you look back you see the big leap forward.”

This month, as Beck prepares to retire from Penn after 23 years of overseeing the growth of technology on campus, it’s fair to say the leap she helped Penn make is unprecedented. 

Think back to the state of technology in 1989: The Apple MacIntosh computer was only five years old, the same age as a little boy named Mark Zuckerberg. Offices were using the latest operating system, Windows 2.0. There was no such thing as Google. Phones were dumb.

Yet, Penn wanted to be prepared for the technology tidal wave that was beginning to build, and Beck was brought on board to figure out how the rapidly changing realm of computers and computer technology could best serve students, faculty, and staff.

Under her leadership, Penn students have moved from registering for classes on paper, to registering over the telephone, through a website, and now using mobile applications. Classrooms have gone from featuring blackboards and chalk, to using smart boards and interactive devices. Researchers have gone from sharing their findings via paper reports once every few months, to exchanging information across the globe instantly online.

“Robin’s contributions to Penn have been tremendous. She led us through the most interesting of technological times,” says Craig Carnaroli, the University’s Executive Vice President. “She has been a resource for our faculty and researchers, and kept up with cutting-edge students. That’s not a simple change at a dynamic and fast-paced institution such as Penn.”

It probably goes without saying that Beck loves the quick pace of technology. But during her tenure at Penn, she says she’s been careful not to become enamored by technology for technology’s sake. Her job has been to harness technology to advance the University’s mission of providing world-class instruction and research.

The Current sat down with Beck to discuss the sweeping changes she’s seen, how Penn stayed at the forefront of the development of information and administrative computer systems, and what she believes the next big wave is going to bring.

Q. How did your career bring you to Penn?
A My career has always been in information technology. I was recruited by Penn in late 1989 by the then-Executive Vice President Marna Whittington, and the provost at the time. That was when the University was implementing a new student [information] system so the provost was very much aware of the capabilities of technology, basically going from a paper system to a computerized system. And the executive vice president was also very much aware that there were a lot of pressures involved. When I think about it now, the pressures that [we experienced back then] are not dissimilar to the pressures today, always the pressures of how to provide and deploy the academic and research resources [required to run a major research university at the highest level] while at the same time being very effective administratively. They also understood that technology was a future that the University had to position itself for.

Q. Can you give me an idea of where the University stood in terms of technology at that time?
A. Basically, think of the University as running on paper, and even though we had computer systems, they processed input that was paper-based. If you wanted to purchase something for a research grant, you filled out a paper purchase order. Then, it had to be walked to somebody to approve it and perhaps walked to somebody else to also approve it, and then it had to be entered into a [computer] system.
In the same way, we were beginning the change for students. Instead of standing in line to register, they were beginning a system that was just implemented when I arrived that was a voice-recognition system with which you could call in to register. It was not the most effective process, and soon we began moving toward web-based capability.
The three things I would say about the difference between then and now, if you talk about technology, is that we used a lot of paper then to gather information and data; that we were beginning to move toward web-based self services (and that was very much why I was here); and there was a growing understanding that a university had to look at data and information as the basis for decision making. Another way of looking at that, from my perspective, is to say data had to become more horizontally available rather than just vertical. [We were moving toward] changing things like the fact that we didn’t have a data warehouse.

Q. What about the state of technology when it came to the academic side of things?
A. Well, there was no technology in classrooms. Now, we have whole classes where instruction takes place in what we call the flipped classroom [where online resources and other aspects of technology play a key part in the daily curriculum] and the instructors expect students to be in the classroom with tablets. We register students using technology. We provide data for things like course-management systems. Technology is part of how we teach and learn. I am not saying it is the only way, but it’s part of how we do it. It’s the same with research. A large component of the research that Penn conducts now is computational-based, it’s not in a lab with flasks.

Q. I think lots of people still have that picture of labs with flasks in their heads.
A. Not in the research community. Think about things like genomic research. We all understand that would never have been possible without computers. That said, I would like to add that there is a part of Penn that has changed, evolved, and grown because of technology. But there is also a part of Penn’s overall drive for excellence and eminence that has undergone a general cultural shift.
One of the trigger points [regarding that shift] that I look back on is the fact that when I came to Penn it was in West Philadelphia. Penn is now in University City, without having moved at all! That is a big cultural shift for how the University thinks and looks at itself, and how others think and look at it.

Q. What had you been doing prior to coming to Penn?
A. I worked at General Electric for 18 years. I always worked in IT.

Q. What was your title when you first got here?
A. Director of application development, or something like that. It was a management position responsible for application development.

Q. What was the first big thing that you tackled?
A. I was doing a lot of simultaneous work, but [the big thing] was finishing up and making stable a new student record system. Concurrently, I worked at the beginning to position [the University] for the advent of a whole new generation of administrative services. Again, moving from basically paper and vertical silos of information, if you will, to a system in which the data warehouse, the general ledger, and Penn Marketplace were all becoming part of the way we do business today.

Q. Universities are not known for quickly embracing sweeping change. Did you face resistance? 
A. Well, that leads me back to your first question: What brought me to Penn? They recruited me. I was working at GE in the Philadelphia area and a recruiter came to me and said, ‘I have this opportunity for you.’
There are three things that brought me to Penn, and I list these in no certain priority, but they all had an impact on my decision to leave GE. The first was the vision of the then-executive vice president and provost that technology was going to be important to Penn and the University was not positioned to deliver it. They said they needed somebody to come in and develop the kinds of skills and capabilities that Penn would need in the future to be able to deliver on their sense of how important technology would become. I like change. I wouldn’t be in IT if I didn’t like change. And I like challenges. Again, I wouldn’t be in IT if I didn’t like challenges.
The second component of this is that I am a fierce believer in the value of education, and whatever skills and competencies I had, I liked using them to further higher education.
The third thing was the executive vice president [Marna Whittington] herself. I saw her as very much a visionary, and I had never worked for a woman before, so that was part of the pull. I will say I thought I’d spend a few years here and go back to GE.

Q. Obviously you stayed for 23 years. Can you pinpoint why?
A. I stayed because of my commitment to higher education, and also my interest in change. We tend to say that universities never change. But in technology ... every year we admit new students and in today’s world those students and their knowledge of technology, and what they expect to do with technology, is always pushing the envelope. They are not complacent. They have high standards, and that challenges an IT organization to keep not just current, but to keep preparing for the future. And that is something I like doing.
A perfect example is that Penn was one of the first universities that began delivering mobile apps to our students with m.upenn.edu. That was very much in the forefront, and we did that knowing that students within a year or so were going to be coming to campus carrying devices and would want accessibility anywhere anytime.

Q. What does that app do?
A. It’s not just one app. It’s sort of a portal that leads you to many different applications. There is a whole series of them ... if you want to look at the [University] directory ... if you want to register for a class ... if you want to search the libraries. You can use the app from your iPhone, your iPad, your Windows, your Blackberry, your Android. This is what people use now. Pretty much anything that is out on the Penn webpage is available on a mobile device.

Q. How did the job evolve? I’m assuming that things changed quickly. Back in 1989, the web wasn’t what it is today.
A. Let me give you some numbers. At that time, Penn had less than 2 megabits of internet access, and at that time it cost about $1,000 per megabit, per month. Today, we just expect the internet to be there. That means [we have] about six-thousand times greater capacity than we had, and it costs less than $3 per megabit, per month today. Back then, you didn’t have wireless everywhere, you didn’t have Penn In Touch [which allows students to, among other things, review course descriptions online, create class schedules and check their financial aid status]. You didn’t have the Penn Portal [where students can find links to information they use daily, from accessing webmail to viewing an events calendar and finding news]. You didn’t have the Penn Marketplace [used by faculty and staff to order products and services from University-preferred suppliers]. You didn’t have websites.

Q. What was your role regarding the development of all these changes?
A. That brings me back again to the issue of change. As a leader, my responsibilities were basically to work with clients to develop these changes and make them real ... to begin putting the capabilities out there ... to work with the people who design and develop those kinds of systems. I’m very much someone who sees the opportunities that technology provides and works with administrators, with faculty, and other clients to develop technology that allows us [to implement] new ways of teaching and learning, and new ways of delivering administrative services ... There is a process of saying this is the cost-benefit of making these kinds of investments in technology.

Q. Do you have to inform your clients about what’s out there because they don’t know what to anticipate?
A. It’s a creative process. For example, the use of mobility was something that technologists began to see, perhaps, more than clients. But it’s a creative, iterative process. It’s never [about developing] technology for technology’s sake, ever. That’s not a success. It’s about how technology enables and facilitates strategic goals.

Q. I’m assuming because technology has become such an important part of everybody’s life, your department has exploded since you’ve been here?
A. It’s grown, but Penn has a very collaborative IT delivery model, in which we have clearly defined roles and responsibilities between the central IT organizations and the IT organizations of the schools and centers. So while ISC has certainly grown, the vast majority of IT growth has actually been in the schools and centers. Less than 40 percent of IT resources are central, while a little over 60 percent are in schools and centers. And that goes back to your earlier point about how we all use technology.
The technology organization at Wharton will be developing, or acquiring, instructional software for their unique academic discipline. The School of Nursing will be acquiring software for simulation labs. Part of the strength of Penn is that we put IT resources within organizations so they can further the academic disciplines of schools.
So, yes, ISC has grown but we’ve grown less proportionally, and we’ve grown in ways that allow us to enable and facilitate [technological changes] by providing the infrastructure. I think of it less as the growth of IT organizations, and more as the explosion of the use of technology, whether you are a faculty member or student, a researcher or a  staff member. Technology is just a part of how we do our jobs, a part that was very immature when I first got here.

Q. So, IT at Penn is decentralized but coordinated?
A. It’s a model of complimentary responsibility for IT that is taken somewhat for granted today. But I can recall in one of our first major projects—a project called ‘Cornerstone’—part of the very first thing I did was bring all of the IT leadership from the schools and centers together to talk about the project, and that was one of the first times they had ever met together. Now, of course, we don’t ever think of doing anything but coming together and working together. That is one of the strengths of the IT community at Penn, our collaboration.

Q. Can you give me an idea of the scope of responsibilities of your office today?
A. We do voice, data, and video networking. We provide the gateways to internet capacity. We provide core administrative services, that’s everything from a general ledger and our purchasing system, to student records and financial systems ... the compliance systems for research. It’s the breadth of the systems and applications that go horizontally across the University, and that are shared and used across [Penn].

Q. What is an example of that?
A. Well, do you use the Penn Portal? That’s one of those horizontal systems. If you are a student, you look at your financial information, you register, you drop and add courses, you provide course evaluation feedback to faculty.
We support the technology in the provost’s central pool of classrooms. We provide security prevention, awareness, and response leadership. We support other IT organizations by brokering licensing, by providing and brokering training, by being a resource of best practices, and how to leverage the strength of Penn.

Q. When you say you do these things, do you literally develop those systems?
A. Yes, we develop and acquire and operate them. We have a University data center, so the servers that run undergraduate admissions, or run the general ledger, or run financial aid are in the University data center, which is part of our responsibility.

Q. I’ve heard talk that the data center might move from its current home onWalnut Street to the new South Bank site.
A. Yes, it will. We will be building a new data center at South Bank. Data centers are great consumers of power, so not only do we need more space but we also want to be able to be in a location designed as a data center so we can achieve operational efficiencies through green practices.
In addition, we have approximately 23 other data centers across the University in schools and centers, mostly in academic buildings. This is an opportunity for them, too, to move into the University data center and free up space in their existing buildings, if they so choose.

I’m very much someone who sees the opportunities that technology provides. ... It’s never [about developing] technology for technology’s sake, ever. That’s not a success. It’s about how technology enables and facilitates strategic goals."

Q. How has technology influenced your job, the way you spend your day at work?
A. Technology doesn’t impact my job, specifically. What technology does is become more and more ubiquitous and more and more complicated. The challenge for anyone in IT is to continually evolve your vision of what technology can do.
For example, when I first came to Penn we talked much more about physical security. Now, when we talk about security we are really talking about protecting Penn’s information, assets, sensitive and confidential data. That’s something that has vastly increased. If there is something that I spend more time on, it would be the prevention of security incidents. The other thing I think I spend a lot more time on has to do with data. How we use it, how we make it valuable, how we make it accessible.

Q. What sort of technology do you use personally? What gadgets do you like to play with?
A. I have an iPad, I have a smartphone, I have a laptop. But I don’t think of myself as a leading-edge user of technology. I am more excited about what technology can do than the technology itself.

Q. What is on the horizon that ISC is working on right now?
A. One of the things is the development of the next generation of student systems ... how to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students, including non-traditional students. We have, in the past, looked at very specific academic terms, a fall term and a spring term, and we think of students being residential. That’s what is so exciting about Coursera [the global online open classroom platform with which Penn is partnering] and exploring what that means for Penn.
I do not believe it will replace face-to-face education. But it will open new ways of learning, how we teach, and how people learn. It will augment the face-to-face, and we’ll need systems that will support new ways of learning.

Q. As you prepare to step away, what future accomplishments would you like to see ISC make?
A. I think we’ll continue with the data center, we’ll continue with the next-generation student systems. They are the two biggies. I think ISC is a particularly strong organization with an awful lot of talented people who will look over the horizon and see new technologies and how they will benefit Penn.

Robin Beck - slideshow