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Meet Carlos Jensen, SIS Governance Co-Chair: Advocating for Shared Engagement, Inclusivity and Readiness

AVC Carlos Jensen

As work on the SIS Project continues across a growing number of system implementations and improvements, I also continue with my effort to meet with as many of my project colleagues as possible to learn more about them and how they approach their role on the project. Today, I am meeting with Carlos Jensen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Educational Innovation and Chair of the Student Information Services Committee (SISC). The SISC provides governance for the SIS Project, and Carlos has been its chair (or co-chair) since August of 2021. 

He wears a neutral shirt with a coordinating cardigan over it. His salt-and-pepper hair gives him an air of dignity and solemnity that contrasts with his relaxed, playful attitude. He rests his right elbow on his desk and he leans his head on his hand, his index finger extended toward his temple. As we talk, he frequently lifts his head to allow himself the use of his hand to emphasize his words with gestures. Our meeting starts with some small talk about the project and our respective weekends, before I dive into my questions.

Identifying & Realizing Opportunities

I start by asking what exactly an Associate Vice Chancellor of Educational Innovation (AVC-EI) is charged with doing. I truly don’t know. He smiles, his right eyebrow lifting in a way that makes his expression seem almost gleeful. “I help the university as a whole, but, more specifically, departments and schools to think up and implement new and innovative ways to deliver education to a broader range of students.”

Once opportunities have been identified, his office helps with their planning and realization, especially navigating any hurdles that may stand in the way. “We are here to take some of the burden off our faculty and academic leaders, and help them get to their desired endpoint.”

In addition to his AVC-EI role, Carlos is also an Associate Professor in Computer Science & Engineering. “My research area over the last couple of years has actually been in software engineering,” he says. “Specifically, how project teams work and communicate, and where they fail to work effectively and communicate with each other.” He grins, his eyes alight, as he shares that this is probably what landed him the gig of chair (now co-chair) of the governance committee for the SIS Project.

I ask him if he has any suggestions for improving team communication, because it’s something we continually grapple with as a team—how best to communicate about the ten or so projects we’re currently working on not only to one another, but also to the wider university community. There’s so much happening that getting all the information out to the right people at the right time is sometimes a struggle. He laughs. “I am trying to draw from my research, but also to be very mindful that this is not a research project.”

Considering All the Angles

“I see my role as the [SIS governance] chair to make sure that we are as inclusive in our decision-making as we possibly can be, so that we’re looking at the project challenges, risks and needs from as many angles as possible,” he says. This inclusivity has taken many forms for the project, from expanding representation on the governance committee to implementing advisory committees for key implementations to doubling-down on outreach efforts.

For Carlos though, inclusivity is not just about asking the right individuals to join the right meetings or groups, it is also about not skipping key steps in the process. Listening to users, gathering feedback, consulting with stakeholders, taking votes, and documenting along the way are also key to ensuring we’re being inclusive in our work. We need to make sure, he says, “that everyone feels we are making the right decisions for the right reasons.” To do that, we need to ensure we’re communicating the why behind key project decisions.

“We have to do better [at that], especially when we are dealing with critical systems that were here before most of us arrived and need to continue to serve our students long after many of us have moved on.” Transparency and accountability with not just leadership, but also to our users and stakeholders are the bedrocks of Carlos’ approach to the project and to student success. Underlying every decision is the desire to better serve our students.

“The work we are doing as part of the SIS Project is critical for our ability to engage in meaningful curricular and student success work,” he says. “We have so many questions about our students and the student experience that could drive impactful interventions, but that we just cannot undertake because we don’t have the right tools to do them, and our most fundamental barrier is our current student information system.”

Knowing When It’s Over

I ask Carlos what has been his biggest takeaway from his research on the management of software engineering projects. He answers immediately, his hand flying away from his face and gesturing animatedly as he talks. “There is quite often a gap between when we, as computer scientists or IT professionals, consider a project to be done and when an end-user or customer considers a project to be done.”

I nod, remembering the most recent system change I went through and how it felt to be a user. An email arrived in my inbox, declaring the project a success, but as I reviewed the newly upgraded tool, all I could think was, It is going to take me months to clean up this mess so I can effectively use this “upgraded”  tool to do my job. In fact, I am still cleaning up things here and there, many months later. I share this with Carlos. He frowns and shakes his head.

“Once the infrastructure is rolled out and the systems are working,” he says, “it is very, very tempting to say, ‘It’s all there. It’s running. Job done!’” He wipes his hands together and then holds them up with his palms facing me, as if letting something go. “But, for a project to be really functional, we need to understand what is required for users to have confidence in the process, in the data and in the end results.”

Changing the Culture

“Part of the culture I am trying to promote,” he says, looking away from his camera for a moment, “is that the end-users, our clients, have a clear say in when we call a project done and when we don’t. This is a culture change for us.” This redefining of success is evident in the work that Carlos prioritizes for the project team, including clear readiness criteria for key milestones in each project and working with both business and technical stakeholders to set a clear, objective definition of success for each project. That way, our success is a shared success.

Carlos, though, is quick to clarify that developing that definition is not always easy. “It’s a negotiation,” he says. “It’s not alway clear cut. What if five of us think we’ve met that definition, but two of us don’t? Hmm?” He trails off, raising his eyebrows. I reflect on the fact that we are a consensus-driven organization and ask how that affects our ability to negotiate to arrive at a shared understanding of success.

“This is an institution full of very, very smart people with strong opinions, and we value that.” Part of the culture change he is pushing for, he says, requires arriving at “a place where we are comfortable saying, ‘This is not what I would have done, but I am okay with this decision if you, who are more impacted by it than me, are okay with it.’” Arriving at that place requires trust-building and additional culture shifts.

From Carlos’ perspective, we need to welcome and encourage sharing bad news as well as good news, pointing out when we’re moving too quickly or not including the right voices in the conversation, admitting when there are gaps, and reflecting on our own shortcomings. “Because,” Carlos says, “if we can’t, then we’ll never get to actually addressing what the underlying issues are.”

Taking Our Time

I ask Carlos if he has anything else he’d like to share with the university community about the SIS Project, his role on the project, or how he and the project team are applying lessons learned, both from previous projects and his own research. He pauses, looks off to the side, runs his hand over his beard and, after a minute, looks back.

“We understand the responsibility that we’ve been given,” he says, “and the importance of getting it right.” He looks away again, then back, and points with his right hand as if pointing to the future of the project and, perhaps, the university itself. “We’re going to take our time. We’re going to invest in the resources needed. We’re going to continue with this very open and broad engagement to make sure that we get these high-stakes projects done right.”

Note: The interview upon which this article is based was completed in February 2023. At that time Carlos Jensen was the chair of the Student Information System (SIS) Project governance committee, while the co-chair role was vacant; Carlos is now co-chair of the committee alongside Jonathan Whitman, Senior Director of Student Information Services for IT Services. This article reflects Carlos’ at-the-time role of chair, rather than his current role of co-chair.

Category: Student & Faculty, News