To celebrate the completion of his computer science degree earned at the Kearney Campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2003, Jason J. Degn packed his bags and took a trip—to Australia.
“My wife Becky—then, my girlfriend—and I moved to Melbourne,” he says. “We didn’t know a single person when we landed at the airport. That trip, which forced us out of our comfort zones, allowed us to re-envision our lives, not as they were, but how we wanted them to be. We could make changes. We could reinvent ourselves. When we came back from that experience, we didn’t look at ourselves in the same way.”
During the six-month sojourn, Degn took intermediate and advanced photography courses—“really tough stuff,” says the associate vice president of IT and chief information officer, Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC), Bentonville. “We spent most of our time exploring. If we could have stayed longer, we absolutely would have. But we couldn’t work because we were on a student visa, and the need to earn a living forced us to return.”
The experience taught the self-described introvert an important lesson: “Sometimes,” he says, “we need to break out of everyday life, to meet new people, and to have an adventure.”
Upon his return, Degn landed the position of network administrator at the College of Saint Mary, Omaha, where he leapfrogged the ladder, attaining the title of associate vice president of IT/chief information officer, in four years.
You’ve made a rapid rise through the ranks? What’s your secret?
Social and soft skills. IT professionals can come across as arrogant, if they think they know what’s best just because they know technology. I take the opposite view. I like to listen and truly understand what folks need, so that I can add value.
How did you end up at NWACC?
It was all about location. I had spent the past 15 years coming down here during the summers, visiting family, and splashing around in Beaver Lake. If you’ve never been to northwest Arkansas, I can tell you that it’s a beautiful and desirable part of the world. Once I learned about the position there, it was a no brainer. I jumped at the opportunity as quickly as I could.
What functions do you supervise?
The full gamut of a traditional IT organization, with one exception: We don’t handle anything related to distance education, which is on the academic side of the house. We do hardware, software development, network infrastructure, desktop support, help desk, telephone, and shared services. We joke and say, “If it plugs into the wall, people come to us.”
Which function is most likely to keep you up at night?
Security, where all of those things converge. The relative openness of higher education has its security challenges and is a huge concern. Just last week, I hosted an open forum on our campus to talk about this issue. In education, there’s this whole balancing act between making things secure or making them very usable. Each organization has to figure out where it lies on that spectrum, and what it is willing to accept.
Any other IT challenges?
Mostly around personal interactions. Given enough time, resources, and expertise, we can make a system do whatever we want it to do. But because we have a finite amount of resources available, sometimes we have to say no, which can be tricky. For example, we say no to requests that don’t provide value to the organization. Separating the hype from reality, and keeping us on a clear path toward strategic long-term objectives, are where I see the added value in IT.
What changes have you implemented since your arrival in August 2013?
We have tried to simplify and standardize. We found that we were supporting multiple systems that duplicated services. For example, we had two different telephone systems to support and maintain, which created operational issues. If you were on one system, you couldn’t transfer to the other; so we would find ourselves saying, “OK, I need you to hang up the phone and dial this number,” instead of transferring the call.
We’ve also made changes to core services. In Arkansas, we have a statewide ultra high– speed telecommunications backbone called the Arkansas Research and Educational Optical Network (AREON). We worked really hard to bring the network to our campus, so that we could offer services that enrich the learning experience. Before AREON, we couldn’t even bring up a YouTube video. We were starved for resources. By building out the infrastructure with higher education entities across the state, we were able to offer more advanced services through only one Internet service provider.
We still have modernization that needs to occur, but it takes time to investigate and implement.
What mistakes are institutions making with their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems?
Taking a ready, fire, aim approach. We tend to buy things and figure out later how to use them, as opposed to thinking through the need and investing in the areas with the biggest impact.
You have a staff of 20. What’s your management style?
I’m naturally inquisitive, so I like to be hands-on. I can’t and don’t ever want to get to the point where I just sit behind a desk and write policy and manage various groups. I want to be involved and know the nuts and bolts of technical details.
What is the best business advice you have ever received?
When I got my undergraduate degree, I was flying high. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college—a huge deal. I was feeling really, really great until I got this advice: “This is a milestone of your achievement, but if you don’t run harder and faster than everybody else, people will not only catch up to you but also run over you. This isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning. What you’ve accomplished is great, but don’t stop.”
Talk about taking the wind out of your sails. But, it is 100 percent true.
What part does social media play in your life and career?
I’m a user, but I try to keep my professional and personal life separate. I have a pretty strict policy about the overlap of personal and work activity on social media; however, within our organization, we’re heavily invested in social media.
How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?
I love to ride my bike, take a hike, and swim in the lake. At the heart of everything, of course, is family time. My wife and I have a wonderful, beautiful family. Our oldest is in kindergarten, and she is an outstanding student. We also have two young sons, three and one, who are typical boys—wild and crazy.
Hobbies are a luxury at this stage of my life.
What’s the most important professional lesson you have learned?
Listen, listen, listen. Keep your ear to the ground about what’s happening in the organization at the presidential and cabinet levels. Be a part of the conversation. Understand the priorities for the next 18 to 24 months, so you can position your team to respond.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.