When Shah Ardalan joined Houston’s Lone Star Community College System as CIO in February 2008, its information systems were an embarrassment. Network services were unreliable and the implementation of an ERP system for college administration had a habit of crashing during critical periods like student registration.
Formerly known as North Harris Montgomery Community College District, Lone Star had just rebranded itself as it expanded to become one of the nation’s largest, fastest-growing college systems. Under its new chancellor, Dr. Richard Carpenter, it also aimed to be recognized as one of the best. In May, Lone Star won a vote of public confidence when voters approved a $420 million bond package to support improvements to its buildings and technology.
Part of the new CIO’s job was to demonstrate that Lone Star could spend that kind of money effectively. He was charged with leading an IT turnaround that would win the respect of students and faculty, save millions in wasted spending and also give the new chancellor the data he needed. “We were spending millions each year on technology, but we weren’t necessarily focusing those expenditures,” Carpenter says. “There was basic data I wanted, and that data was of questionable quality. It was not timely and it took forever to generate.”
Ardalan struck a bargain with the Lone Star chancellor and board of trustees. He would attack the scattershot way that the technology budget was being spent. But wherever he achieved savings, he would keep that money to reinvest in improved services. With Carpenter’s backing, the CIO also got the board to give him a $12 million blanket purchase order to improve the procurement process. Once he had the freedom to move quickly—meaning he could promise vendor sales people a purchase order the next day for the right price—”they got very aggressive,” he says. One storage equipment vendor dropped its price from $2.4 million to $683,600 in return for that speed, among other reasons, he says.
As of July, Ardalan estimates he shaved about $5.2 million—or more than 50 percent—off what he would have paid vendors at the standard discounts negotiated by the state government.
“Now, nobody remembers the last time the network was down,” the CIO says. “That’s because we’ve got full redundancy, with different paths to each of the campuses.” Few educational institutions even attempt to deliver those levels of reliability, he notes. But getting there didn’t require more money—in fact, one of the key indicators to measure his performance is holding IT expenditures to less than 10 percent of the operating budget.
Ardalan singles out one $1.9 million business intelligence initiative he canceled, which he likened to bringing in an 18-wheeler to move a pickup truck’s worth of cargo. There was no demand for such an enterprise-class solution, he says. The colleges hadn’t completed prerequisites like data cleansing to make proper use of such a toolset, so Ardalan concentrated on improving the use of the data and analysis tools it already owned. He also took control of previously decentralized IT functions, rationalizing the portfolio of projects and technologies and establishing aggressive uptime goals.
There are still major challenges ahead, the CIO notes. “The investments we’ve made in infrastructure were to get in the game. Now, we want to change the game altogether.”
David F. Carr is a freelance writer based in Florida.