Mission-Driven IT: Educating Tomorrow’s Visionaries with Help from Cisco and UDT
Welcome to Barry University, a mission-driven educational institution in Miami Shores, Florida. Barry was founded in 1940 by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, and our focus is on social justice, personal responsibility, and communal transformation.
Our institution is rooted firmly in the liberal arts tradition. We also offer programs in nursing, social work, and other helping professions, and operate a law school at our Orlando Campus.
I came to as a student more than 20 years ago. At the time, I’d been studying computer science in New York, but my brother and sister were living in Florida and suggested I come down here to study instead. I didn’t want to leave New York City, but Barry had an excellent computer science program and I convinced myself that I’d move back to the Big Apple after I finished school.
That never happened. The university offered me a part-time job in IT while I was working on my bachelor’s degree, and that became a full-time position after I graduated. Little did I know I’d become a Barry lifer.
Stepping into My Mentor’s Shoes
This place gave me a lot more than an education and a job. My boss became my mentor. He was the chief technology officer and he kept throwing challenges my way, helping me learn the ropes and rise through the ranks.
I started as a computer lab monitor in the second year of my undergrad in 1998. Shortly after I completed my master’s degree in 2003, I was named director of instructional computing, and I also began teaching here. Six years ago, I became our CTO, stepping into the shoes of the man who taught me most of what I know about managing IT in an educational setting.
I truly admired him as a visionary, and I never imagined I would eventually take his place, but when they offered me the CTO position, I knew I was ready. I’d been working here for 18 years and had weathered many changes in the way we approach IT. I’m not talking about technological advances—equipment is always evolving—but about a fundamental shift in the way we manage our assets. I realized that my job as CTO is less about understanding technology and more about applying strategy. It’s about using IT to improve the level of service and to move the needle for the entire university community.
Positioning Students for Success
I couldn’t have tackled this challenge alone. I work with an incredible IT team. My group of experts has in-depth knowledge of the technical aspects of IT, and this has allowed me to shift my focus from hardware and software to the big picture.
Fewer students are graduating from high school these days, and universities are competing for a smaller pool of applicants. Every university needs a competitive edge, and improving how we use technology is a priority. Instead of asking whether we need to upgrade our servers or improve support for Microsoft Office 365, I’m identifying ways to improve student retention and completion rates. I’m also looking at enhancing the learning experience by further embracing extended technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality.
Whether we are updating our website—which is a prospective and existing student’s first point of contact with the university—or speeding up campus Wi-Fi, we need to best position our learners for success.
Changing Our IT Mindset
My biggest challenge as Barry University’s CTO has been changing our collective mindset around IT. Our old way of operating involved viewing technology in terms of price and lifespan. When provisioning infrastructure, we considered our budget and how long we could go between upgrades. It didn’t matter that our routers and switches lacked the bandwidth we’d need two years down the road, provided we could go five years without having to buy new equipment.
This budget-minded, bureaucratic approach wasn’t doing justice to our students, our teachers, and our IT staff. We were too busy choosing and maintaining underlying technologies instead of delivering the service levels required to provide an outstanding educational experience. We always stayed within budget, but we weren’t helping the Barry community thrive.
To move past this impasse, we had to strike a balance between legacy systems and cutting-edge technologies. Some of our tools and services run on traditional network architecture, while others reside on the cloud. There’s no magic formula for moving forward. We start by looking at the user experience and then match the desired outcomes to the solutions that can help us achieve them, whether or not they’re on-prem.
We retooled our IT organization to reflect our new priorities. On top of our infrastructure and operations teams, we also have an engagement center, a CRM practice, and an integrations unit. Our focus is now completely customer-centric.
When I started here, tech support meant working on restoring a faulty router. Now, we are helping users maintain access to the tools and services they need. Students and staff now see my IT team as a partner in education rather than just being people who keep everything running.
My team wasn’t alone in transforming the way we did IT. We had help from three longtime partners: , the vendor that provides the bulk of our infrastructure; and , and NTT our technology partners of choice.
We’ve been using Cisco gear since I started here in the 90s. Their equipment is the bedrock of our IT and telephony networks as well as our collaborative platform. Cisco supplies the fabric of our infrastructure. UDT and NTT help us put everything together, including managing our solutions. When you transform an organization as we did, you can either go directly to a vendor, like Cisco, or you can work through a partner like UDT and NTT.
We chose to work with UDT and NTT because they had already deployed Cisco technology dozens of times in higher education environments. They understood our use cases and our budgets, and they knew how to recommend the appropriate solutions for our needs.
Cisco has a massive product portfolio, and there is a lot of overlap between the company's many product lines. There may be three or four Cisco solutions for any given application, and so it's good to work with a trusted third party to look at all our options. It really helps to have an objective opinion.
NTT and UDT have helped us deploy a number of Cisco solutions over the years, including and . Most recently, they helped us roll out as our campus-wide wireless platform. Meraki is a unified wireless communications platform that lets you manage mobile devices, computers, and your entire network from a centralized dashboard. It combines wireless access points, switches, and security appliances with cloud-based tools that give you full network visibility, zero-touch provisioning, and automated network monitoring tools.
Shrinking Budgets and Managed Services
Meraki was the perfect solution for Barry University because we have to deploy, secure, and manage thousands of access points across our two campuses. However, we lacked the internal resources to stay on top of our wireless network.
After the rollout, we realized we needed help to track telemetry data and troubleshoot problems internally. It wasn’t for want of trying. One of the realities of higher education is shrinking IT budgets. At most, I could have assigned a team of three or four people to manage our wireless network. That would have meant major headaches for end users as it might have taken a day or two to resolve a severe outage.
We didn’t have the luxury of trying to do this internally. Everything we do—from email to remote learning—relies on Wi-Fi. Fortunately, UDT came to our rescue again. Over the years, they have evolved into a managed solutions provider and, once they had set up and deployed Cisco Meraki, they took over its day-to-day operation. Our service agreement even includes a full-time UDT engineer embedded into Barry’s IT operations team.
Meraki Changed Everything
Working with Cisco and UDT to update our wireless network changed everything. I keep my ear to the ground and make it a point to know the technology needs of our users on campus. I am always talking to our faculty and students, asking them how they think we’re doing and what we need to do better.
From a purely anecdotal perspective, I stopped hearing about wireless problems after we implemented Meraki. As they say, “No news is good news.” The number of wireless support tickets have also dropped significantly since we switched to Cisco Meraki, but there’s another metric that makes me particularly proud.
Every year, we take part in a National Information Standards Organization (NISO) survey of access to institutionally-provided information resources. In the past, we scored well in most areas, but poorly in wireless access. I saw this year’s preliminary numbers and our scores have improved significantly. It means a lot that an independent body has given us high marks in this area.
Rapid Response in a Crisis
Our new wireless infrastructure is part of the seamless network fabric Cisco provides. Meraki was the final piece of the upgrade puzzle, and our cutting-edge infrastructure is helping us weather the COVID-19 crisis. When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot from face-to-face classes to remote learning in a couple of days. Cisco and UDT gave us a flexible environment that enabled a rapid response in this emergency.
None of us expected this, but this is Florida, and we have to be ready for anything, including hurricanes. Thankfully, we had everything in place to make the move to online classes. And if our current model is any indication, the trend to remote learning will continue once the pandemic is over.
Executing and Delivering
When I look back at my career, I can sum it up in two words: “execute” and “deliver.” My mentor taught me that visionaries don’t just see problems and solutions; they breathe life into new and better ways of doing things.
As Barry University’s CTO, I’ve made it my mission to transform my IT team into a partner that helps this organization execute our mission and deliver on our core values. We are part of an effort to educate the leaders who will fight for social justice and transform communities in the United States and around the world.
We are living through historic times, and I am proud that my work is helping to shape the young minds who will survive today and steer us to a better tomorrow.