The Higher Edge
The Higher Edge

Episode · 2 weeks ago

Venture Forward: Driving Technology Transformation


Pete Williams ’s journey as an Information Communication Sciences post-grad took him through multiple tech-heavy industries, but he knew his heart would bring him back to higher education.

Now, as the Chief Information Officer for Butler University , Pete is spearheading innovation through servant leadership. He shares what he’s learned managing Butler’s venture fund to gas pedal innovation and how he helps give others the Higher Edge through mentoring.

Join us as we discuss:

  • How data impacts and serves organizations (7:51)
  • ClearScholar’s development as a value proposition for students (19:24)
  • Why higher ed CIOs are in the change business (31:03)

Check out these resources we mentioned during the podcast:

To hear this interview and many more like it, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website or search for The Higher Edge in your favorite podcast player.

Ye. Welcome to the Higher Edge, a podcast for the brightest minds and higher education to hear from the change makers and rule breakers that are driving meaningful, impactful change for colleges and universities across the country, from improving operations to supporting student success. These are the stories that give you the Higher Edge. And now your host Brendan Albitch. Hey everyone, and welcome to the Higher Edge. I'm Brendan Aldrich and I'm here today with Pete Williams, the chief information officer for Butler University, which is a private university here in Indianapolis, Indiana, founded in eighteen fifty five and named after a founder, Ovid Butler, and I should add was recently ranked as the number one regional university in the Midwest by US News for the academic year. Fun fact, if you remember taking exams using those little paper blue books, then you might have Butler University to thank for it. It is rumored that the infamous blue book got its start at Butler University sometime after about when professors there decided they needed a more standardized format for exam responses, and that the colors of the blue book itself blue and white, were chosen to match Butler's own school colors. So Pete, welcome and thanks so much for joining us here on the Higher Edge. Hey, thanks for having me, so Pete. I introduced you as Butler's Chief Information Officer, and that's a pretty big job in and of itself. But that's not the whole story, is it. It's not. I get to do a number of things for Butler and have a lot of fun outside of that as well. So UM, I serve Butler University as Chief Information Officer, and I also serve on a number of and have served on a number of boards for companies. I'm an advisor for tech and tech enabled companies. I've co founded a company for Butler called avant Blue, which I'd love to have talk about on another podcast if we can. And I'm also a co founder of a of another company that's an m v P stage that's a demand demand based commerce platform. And UM and so I get to serve Butler as c I O. And as I talk with my children, I have young children at home, and uh, we always sing the songs and things, and I always kind of joke with them that I get to be the C I E I O and Uh. And if you were to say instead of C I O, a't c I E I O. And that would be adding information entrepreneurship and innovation into into an office or a job or a role or at least a career that spreads a couple of different industries. Perhaps. But um, so we we joked when the said Dad, what do you do? I see the C I E I oh, And then we left and sing the rest of the song. So, uh, there's a lot at Butler to do. We work in entrepreneurship and innovation and I also manage a venture fund for Butler in the technology space. And how did that come about? Uh? It came about from really the idea that there's been a lot of study about the model of higher reed over time and its value and is the model we're oken Traditionally, the conversation could go something like this, we'd love to do this great thing with technology is cann produce huge results for success, retention, the stick, the whole experience, recruitment. You know, you insert the buzzword where everybody's focused today and then and everybody will say, well that's great, Um, how much does it cost? And then you say okay, X, Well we're gonna have to raise tuitiontion. How we're gonna go about that, we have to cut other things, and so we didn't think it was fair to ask current students to pay for something that prospective students might get to consume and and add to the educational debt, if you will, of the institution. So we wanted to refactor that calculation, look at things a little bit different, and then be able to move a whole lot faster. So for us to move quickly with technology and innovation, there's a lot required and it does cost some money. So one of the positions we took was that, you know, we probably should make...

...some of our own money outside of the net tuition calculation, if you will, So outside of higher education UM with technology with the sole purpose to gas pedal innovation, to speed projects through, and really to be able to refactor the traditional r OI calculation. That's a very cool approach and I love that idea of just getting very hands on with with how do you approach the technology to shape the future. Although, go ahead and share your story, how did you become who you are today? Well, I kind of take pride in the fact that I kind of I build myself as a non traditional higher ed c I o UM. I did not start out in education. I worked at a number of different industries and had a variety of different experiences that led me to where I am today. So I have parents who are business owners in an aunt and uncle who are serial entrepreneurs, and they kind of put all that front stage for me to watch, observe, and in some cases participated in. And so it really started, uh, that entrepreneurial spirit and me I got to work for some startups through through some times when I was in graduate school. I started in undergrad as a pre dental student premd pre dent. I was getting ready to head the dental school and I was working in AH in the dental office, had my license for radiographs if you're interested in that kind of fun. And that's where my track was going. And some some folks said, hey, Pete, this technology stuff, it seems to be your calling. Maybe you should look at that instead, And so I made a pivot and went into graduate program for Information Communication sciences and that program really just helped position me. It's like a tech NBA kind of heavy technology, uh, and then finance and leadership and just a great program, and then I got to be a part of some really great groups and and some fun things and just get experiences as fast as I possibly could. I worked in consulting, I've worked in healthcare, I've worked in finance, I t and for financial firms, student lending, and all the while, I was just trying any anytime I had an oportunity, get on a new project, work with a new technology, new system, learn a new business. As I was a consultant, I just love to learn other businesses. So that's part of the job. You have to go in and figure out what's what matters to that organization and how they make their revenue and and all the mechanisms that feed to that. And I really enjoyed that part of the process too. When you talk about working in all the different industries that it's in some ways similar to the experience I had working with data, you know, since everybody in every industry was using data. I found myself changing industries almost every time I changed jobs, and the challenge was how fast can I learn absolutely everything I need to about this so that I can do my job. Well, Yes, absolutely, that's the technology thread. The commonality through all those was fun and the cool part was that it was being used to make a difference in those businesses too. Right, So you know, how how important is data? Right? We could spend like six six more episodes just talking about like one component of how important data is. Right. But the technology thread through all is a great way to serve. It's a great way to serve an organization. And if you want to impact change and you want to have be a leader with innovation, that technology is required as well. And then that skill set being able to navigate an organization and create change for the better and increase revenue is kind of like when we're working with technology too and just making change in general. So it puts together a fun a fun lens to look at things because the opportunity to make a difference is significant. It's really up to how fast we can learn, how we can serve, and and how we put those pieces together. And then you had that chance to sort of come back to Higher Ed. I did so. I I had always hoped I would end up in Higher Ed at a certain point, and I really thought my opportunity to do that would would likely be as uh say, an adjunct faculty who taught maybe the history of computing or something you know, or or technology and communications, and and say, well, this is how we used to do it, and back when X y Z was was cool, here's how we did it right, and and then maybe...

...relate that to some leadership lessons and things that help students get prepared for their next steps. Back when you're back, when you're telling all the students the stories about punch cards and tape drive. Yeah right, um, yes, so I thought I'd be able to talk about those things and the evolution of technology and human computer interaction, those kinds of things and to leadership. And I had an opportunity to join Marion University as c I. Oh so I kinda. I have been working on my career and my experiences to to head that way, just not in the education space, and just the stars aligned, a perfect opportunity arose to join an organization that was on a fast pace of growth, adding new programs, really pushing the edge of of sort of what you traditionally think of growth in high red. We got to be I get to be part of a executive leadership team that build a med school from the ground up, from scratch, building and everything. Uh. And so that was a lot of fun. That was some of those career moments that were just a blast, right. Mission was aligned a lot of opportunity to learn and serve. We had some great outputs, some things became national models of how to do things going forward. And some days it was we'd wake up in the morning and yes, hey, we get to be a part of building a med school from the ground up. And then the next day it might be, oh, my gosh, we have the responsibility to build a med school from the ground up. Right, But I love to live in the space where we want to make drastic change, stress of improvement, and we kind of to do that. In many cases, almost all cases, there's an element of the unknown that you live in, and so there's not a book you can go read to figure that out how to go do some of these things. But um, but there's maybe wisdom you can leverage from other folks into this. How can you accelerate that and and put that into play and delivers value and results. So it makes it kind of fun. But that's how I got into higher head And then I had an awesome opportunity to be the c I e. I oh at at Butler University and they've allowed me to to to sort of color outside the lines of traditional CEO responsibilities with a venture fund and making strategic investments in in other companies and in projects that we need to just accelerate to get done with and and bring new money to the table to fund those so that we can reduce the debt of the institution, not add to the costs right and and make some significant moves that way that maybe are a little a little less less than traditional in the higher reed space. So let's talk about the venture fund side of things, since Benning c i os might not have had a chance to to do something similar. So how does that work. We use the venture fund for anything that we believe can improve the student experience. And we also know that you know, um, when students come to Butler University and any kind of in any of the programs that we have, there's a moment where the light bulb goes off and they've they're discerning what it is they're going to do between certain boundaries for the rest of their life. And we know that the sooner that light bulb goes off, the more impactful the experience. And so everything that we do is focused on the student experience, student success and accelerating that those light bulb moments, right, we want the value of the Butler experience to be extremely high, and we want to be able to leverage out as best we can. I've been very fortunate to work for some really great leaders throughout my career, and certainly the leadership at Butler University is is just phenomenal. We have a resident who who can is a visionary right and can see opportunity in ways that perhaps might be forward thinking and helps us lead to that. But we have a CFO who also is you know, um, I guess it defies the normal CEO stereotype for sure, but comes from a place of how can we how could we solve for this? How could we enable that? How could we get there together? Everybody comes together to sort out how could we go forward? What are we gonna do together? How could we move things around to have a different lens. So, yes, we have the Innovation Fund. Our revenue um has gone happily, very very lucky and grateful, but with lots of support, our revenue model has has progressed faster than we anticipated. And so now we have a fund in the fund in...

US and a number of things, our own projects, other companies, companies we want to create, some we've partner with others to create others where we consume promising product, where we get to work with some just some phenomenal talent that can gas pedal our own initiatives anyway, And that's the direction we're headed. I mean we I could go through a list of examples where it's put us five ten years ahead of where we where we would have gone on our own if we did not have these kind of partners and relationships. Everything's geared towards the impact we can make for students. So we have three three sort of mechanisms there. One, can we gas pedals some stuff we need to get done and do it in a great way. Can we impact students in an awesome way and help their success? And then if we can make some money. So there's kind of a three legged deal there, that stool that we use as the main criteria. Um and if we hit one of those, that's great. We like to hit two, and if we hit three even better. Hey, for everyone listening, hang tight, we're gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsor and we'll be back in just one minute. All colleges and universe cities face challenges in advancing the mission of higher education. Some problems impeding your progress are known, but others are invisible, hidden, impossible to address. Invoke Learning changes everything built on revolutionary technology that's light years beyond anything you've seen yet. Our leading edge data platforms and deep analytic solutions give institutions of higher education some real life superpowers to support the entire student journey. Ask questions you never imagine could be answered. Get unprecedented insights that lead to mission impacting action. What's holding you back today from taking your mission further tomorrow? Find out and discover just how far you can go. Contact Invoke Learning at www. Dot invoke learning dot com. Invoke Learning. This is education empowered. Thanks so much for listening to our sponsor. Let's get back to the show. Well, I think one of the earlier applications that you developed under the venture fund was it it was clear scholar, it was it was We were super fortunate there to just have some phenomenal partners at a at a very that Tiden couldn't have been more perfect. It was the technology itself. Now, it sounds kind of funny to talk about it because we're like eight years ago, right, so if you if you rewind eight years and kind of think of what ed tech was like back then. Um, we were very fortunate to work with a venture studio, Hyalpha and some amazing talent there there in the business of creating software as the service businesses and they have a studio and a capital arm that can just infuse that and get a business up and running. And so we partnered with them and it was just a great opportunity with clear Skylar to really enable a unique experience for each individual student in a mobile first software as a service platform. And it really enabled students to be to have the their digital experience, their digital inn action with the university in their native tongue, and the way that they asked would ask us to provide them the information and value. It was really fun. We had great usage statistics and it served a lot of of of need at the institution at the time and gave his EXCESSI to some very what we think is very important real estate on that top of that lock screen on the mobile device, uh that we use very judicially. But and was it an application that you developed because of a need that you saw it was our students have different ways they wished to receive communications. Sometimes it's directly through the LMS, sometimes it's through face to face communications. Other times it's other mediums. We know, folks like self service and knowledge base and ways to open cases and have sort of a standard customer experience like you would on with any major tech company. We also knew that if we called students on their phones, they were probably were not going to answer, and we knew they didn't read email. So we had a reason to figure out what would be the best way to communicate and how they preferred. That the great folks at HIOFA and our... sat down and we we built. We built an application based on what our students told us they needed and what they wanted and what they thought would be a value as part of their collegiate experience. And that's we we held true to that. Nearly every single item in the prioritization was based on what students told us they held in high values were pretty solid. Yeah, we experienced, I mean it was um We did a sort of the exclusive launch, if you will, So we started with a founding one hundred students who provided a lot of this input and data and on the value components, and then we slowly did a release, so if you want to go get the app, you were put on a wait list, and then every so often we would let another you know, a few hundred students through and a thousand through. We had ninety percent of all of our students, first years all the way through graduate students using the app on an on an active basis daily before classes would even begin in a semester, and but before classes started deep percent active use, and so it was it was a new day for us to think about how we might approach communication with students and and have curated content on top of that. Well, there was one story you told me about the launch of the application and how you kind of knew that you you might have something on your hands that that was going to be really successful. So you can you tell me that story. It was pretty funny. Very early on we had the founding one hundred students using the app in the in the m v P. So this is very early and we had a launch party to thank the students for all the help they had given us. And we're really bringing a new tech team together the folks at Hifa and UM the folks at Clear Skyler and the folks at Butler in our partnership, and so we're bringing a bunch of new groups together in person to celebrate the launch of the product. So this is the product launch party, and we had a we were hosting it on campus. It just turns out that the day we were going to do that, we had a series of significant storms rolled through Empus, which led us to shelter in place multiple times leading up to this launch event, and so I was kind of wondering how this was gonna go. We had, you know, a few hundred people we thought were going to show up for this event. We were in process of migrating towards the buildings, and every time we'd make it from one building to the other, we'd have to shelter in place. Again. We had funnel clouds coming through and the sirens are going off, and I mean, it just looked horrible. When we went to the launch event, we walked in the door and and we're kind of looking around and thinking, okay, by the way, we walked into the door, head shelter in place one more time. So we got to the event shelter in place, and then we came out and I thought, well, boy, this will be need if if students are going to be here, And unbeknownst to me, the Clear Scholar team had been sending notifications to our founding one hundred students and their guests saying, hank tight, shelter in place, we'll let you know the party still on as soon as the coast is clear, will let you know. Well they did that, and we had a full house. Everybody was able to do what they need to do. They knew when the times get adjusted to Everybody showed up and so we had this great launch party with with everybody that was involved in the in the new product and in with our students, and so at that moment we we thought, wow, we had a lot of communication happened, there, a lot of plans change. Everybody still made it and everybody was on the same page. The possibilities here could be pretty significant. That's fantastic and a good example of how the right technology can really enable and empower everybody at the institution. Although I think there's actually another story about the app success that I'd love to have you shared, you know, the one that I mean. Sure, So we were in the in the early launch phase of the m v P and we we had probably a few hundred students that were actively using the app. We permitted them to join UM and it was part of the slow rollout that I mentioned. It was Halloween and uh there was the president, President Danko and his wife. They host students at their house for a Halloween gathering and so we were working with students affairs, student activities and they said, hey, could you make an announcement for us? We said sure, so we sent out a US screen notification in the Tyler app...

...and we said this is about an half hour an hour before the party, said don't forget party at Prez Rez seven thirty come for Halloween, etcetera, etcetera. And uh we sent the message and then one about our our normal uh work, and then they had a meeting with the president about a week or so later and yes, how the how is the how is clear? Skyler? How's the app going? And I said, well, how is your Halloween party? And he immediately said did you do that? And then I wasn't sure what I was committing to, but what it turned out to be was one of the highest attendant events they've ever had. We confirmed we were able to make We were able to communicate in the way the students wanted, where they'd read it and they would take action, and so we thought we were onto something at that point. Just talking on the entrepreneurial side of things, you know, there's many of today's entrepreneurs kind of live by. I think it was Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook who talked about move fast and break things. So it was this idea of failure not as something to be afraid of, but kind to be embraced so that you could go further faster. I think Thomas Edison said something similar when he had been asked about his missteps in creating a light bulb, when he said, I have not failed ten thousand times. I have successfully found ten thousand ways that will not work. Have there been areas, especially with all the work that you're doing, whether in your I T role or in your entrepreneurship role, where where you've seen that where there's been something that maybe didn't go the way you wanted to and allowed you to grow or your team to grow and do something different out of it. Yes, And you know I always wonder too sometimes I think those quotes it's it's easier said than done, And it sounds really good afterwards once you find the success to right, because say, ay, did did we've you know, was this a failure? And yes, we have had failures one system in particular. And I think, as we've talked before, if you're not pushing for the limit and you're not having some failure, you're not you're not moving fast enough, you're not being creative enough. And certainly on the entrepreneurial side, you're you're always making pivots. But you have to get out there and engage and and really put put some risk into it. I mean, it's calculated right, so you're usually successful, but you will fail. And so yeah, we had a system where we were really pushing the edge on a new way to do something with a very traditional kind of system. So it was shifting mindset. Um, We've made a bet on a product that that we thought was headed the right direction. You know, sometimes you pick because you picked the people in the direction where it's going and is it ready for you right now? Maybe right what we did one of those and we thought we had a calculated uh, calculator risk and it turned out that it was more risky than we thought, and we went through the process and the team I said, you know, I think this is going to fail. We went through a couple more rounds of evaluation. As we were going through and as we got closer and closer to the final um you know, pieces of projects where we were going to really have to have the system where we wanted it, the team collective said this isn't gonna and so we said, yep, great, uh, and we made a pivot and we went and delivered a different, uh, different branded system And what really happened was we failed on that. The product failed. We failed, but it was one of those who saying, hey, look this is this is okay, it's not this is not the end of the road. And there were people that were afraid, Hey, this is going to be on my review, this is the end of my career at this place, and no, this is awesome. We're trying new things, and if we're trying new things, this may happen. We turned that that into I think you and I and you and I talked about how how how you were able to then capitalize on all of that experience that you had gained from that first project. Yeah, it really enabled us when we did the pivot to to move very quickly, very smartly, save some money, and have a better product at the end with a different solution that we did UH in less than half the time we had worked on before, and um, no one even really noticed that we did it. It just happened so smooth. So we really turned it into turned to failure into success and it was a good process to go through...

...with our team to learn as we went through that. As funny as we had that conversation, I was sharing it with UH with an academic in an academic meeting and I said, well, we like to fail fast, fail early, learn from it, move forward and put a better product on the table. And the professor looked at me and said, that's called learning. Pete, Well, we learned. This is awesome and start like that. Right, We're learning and that's what is and it's that learn, unlearn, relearn in that pivot that you do, and failure is part of it. Pete. I know you knew this was coming. But one of the things that we ask guests to do on the show is to share a story from their own career that might help give others the higher edge. One of my mentors has been very influential for me. UM is one that that will lead by actions and just do UM actions speaking louder than words that taking that kind of approach UM. But as an approaching a business decision, say you wanted to start to a new kind of gas station, Well, instead of UM starting that and getting into the business and making the investment, he would work at a gas station for six months or two months or three months and go learn the business hands on, working graveyard shifts and understanding supply chain with all the things that happened with fuel and all things you can't put in a gas station that you can put in a restaurant because the fuel and all the different requirements and regulatory issues, where the revenue comes from, How do you staff things, what can set you apart from your competition, and learn the business that way and then go do it. I worked in AH. I was working in a dental office that needed an electronic medical record in a building system. The practice was growing, growing really big. There's a lot lots of patients, so managing that was taxing from a business ownership perspective and from a clinical perspective, and how can we treat this many patients? And there was an opportunity to implement an electronic medical record and building system. UM. At the time time I was, I thought perhaps that I was gonna head to the dental school after I was done with college. UM. And so one of my one of my UH jobs that I enjoyed was just putting putting technology into office spaces and helping that process. Um. Could we could we shave a few days off receivables. That's a big deal for a business owner. That makes a financial impact in a nice way. How could we treat patients? How could we freamline some of the operations there? So I was able to do some work in the dental office as an expanded assistant a little bit. And uh so as I was working through that, I was able to figure out, well, here's here's how this could make a difference in the in the exam room, in the treatment room, in the clinical setting. UM. What little things that add up to a big deal. Where would I place the monitor? What kind of monitor should it be? How am I going to interact when I've got gloves on? Do I need to take them off to use the equipment? Or can I cover the equipment? How would we be able to have that information accessible, and when we have a treatment plan, we're taking notes on what the dentist says, all the kinds of things. Just in that function, UM really made a difference in how we approached the whole project. And I got to know folks, I got to know their role. I did some of the roles myself, so then I could come into that space with some credibility UM and really work through the tech application so that we can talk about really the value components of it and make sure that we delivered on the value, not necessarily the just the tech itself. The awesome things that mentors mentorship has provided me is a reinforcement of that it's okay to learn and say hey, I don't know, and jump in and and get hands on in a certain way like that and and say I don't know. Does anybody else in the room? No, does our team know? Okay, well, let's go figure it out together, and let's let's look at it. Let's get in there and and see because so many times there's just not a manual for this stuff. And UM, if we're in it together and we're sharing transparently and openly, and we're all working towards the same thing. You know, that learning process becomes fun too, it's not as scary, and our products get better because we're in it together. So really that hands on let's just get in and go if if that's...

...what it requires, let's let's do that now. I love that. That was actually very similar when I started in my career was I don't remember the old comp U s A, but I used to be in the inside sales rep for for comp USA, and one of the things they'd say is, you know, if you wanted to take a day off, go go out to your client site, work at your clients, see what they're going through. Get to know what that experience is, because that's going to help inform you and make you better in how to help them. Before our listeners, we've been talking with Pete Williams, chief Information Officer and venture fund manager for Butler University. So if listeners like to reach out to you about today's episode or continue the conversation, what's the best way for them to reach you. Please connect with me on LinkedIn, check out the Butler website and I'd love to continue the conversation And if you'd like to email Pete. You can also reach him at Pete p E t E at The Higher Edge dot com. Pete, thank you again for coming and being a guest with us here on the Higher Edge and for everyone listening. I'm Brendan Aldrich and we'll talk soon. Thanks for listening to The Higher Edge For more, Subscribe to us on your favorite podcast platform, leave us a review if you loved the show, and be sure to connect with Brendan on LinkedIn. Know someone who's making big changes at their higher at institution that belongs on this podcast, Drop us a line at podcasts at the Higher Edge dot com. The Higher Edge is sponsored by Invoke Learning in partnership with Westport Studios. Using opinions expressed by individuals during the podcast are their own. See how invoke Learning is empowering higher education at invoke learning dot com.

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