A conversation with Vermont Technical College’s CTO on budget strategy during COVID-19

Expert Insight

A conversation with Vermont Technical College’s CTO on budget strategy during COVID-19

COVID-19 has drastically shifted IT operations and spending.

On May 7th, EAB’s Alec Pallin sat down with Kellie Campbell, Chief Technology Officer at Vermont Technical College (VTC) in Randolph Center, Vermont. Kellie shared insights around VTC’s COVID-19 cloud strategy and how their flexible budget model accommodated COVID-19’s rapid changes.

This transcription has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

EAB: What was Vermont Technical College’s cloud strategy before the pandemic?

Campbell: My approach to cloud strategies will be different because Vermont Tech is a part of the Vermont State College System.  Where a single institution might strategize around specific technologies, it’s just for their institution. At Vermont Tech, it is not only our vision of how we implement these tools and technologies, but it’s really how the system executes. The chief technology officers at each of the institutions, along with IT leadership at our Chancellor’s Office, inform a lot of our best practices in terms of how we establish our strategy around cloud for each of the institutions.

Besides, I think as we start to look at cloud strategies, where I see a lot of the opportunity is in strategic partnerships with vendors and service providers. When I think about investments with my colleagues: I ask how vendors become our strategic partners, how vendors can help advise us on future decisions, how we start to look at not just the investment of one system, but how an investment will influence other systems. It is not just looking at a system, service, or vendor standalone but building working partnerships into the broader system. And I think cloud presents a lot of opportunities there.

EAB: As you work to balance budget cuts with future investments, what changes have you made to approaching vendor and campus partners?

Campbell: Building strategic partnerships with campus leadership, system leadership, and vendors were my philosophy pre-COVID. Leadership needs to understand a vendor’s potential impact, and we want the vendors to understand our environment, our needs. Small colleges versus big colleges versus state colleges versus private colleges. We all have different needs and wishes. We’re not one size fits all, and we need our strategic partner partners to understand.

And so, if we’re going to pay for a service and invest in them, we need vendors to come to the table with more than just the technology solution, including the understanding and willingness to learn about our environments and help us, quite frankly, problem solve. IT and IT vendors have a critical role in helping solve some of the significant challenges facing higher education. And we need strategic partners who can help think at that level. And I have been impressed with some vendors who come to the table with our needs in mind. I am happy to shift dollars into consulting and other priorities if I can get a strategic partner who can help get me there.

EAB: When we last spoke, you had mentioned a flexible approach to project budgeting that you’re hoping to implement. Can you provide more context about what it means to have a flexible budget on your campus?

Campbell: The first step is having a strong partnership with your chief financial officer or whoever heads up your finance area and working closely on institutional strategy. Our relationship has allowed us to be more creative with our budget. Next is getting the entire leadership team on board. Everything IT does is to support the mission and business operations of the institution. Any IT budget conversations that come up, I always work with my executive team to determine the institutional mission and the business operational impact it will have. Those are business practices and partnerships across the institution that I think are important to educate leadership and colleagues about how IT can influence.

Traditional budgeting models do not always allow the flexibility to make strategic investments when necessary. To address that, especially as it relates to big purchases, I work with my CFO to move funding based on last fiscal year’s success into special project funds that is not tied to a fiscal year. In a traditional budget model, this money would need to be spent at the end of the fiscal year. Instead, the CFO and I have agreements how the project funds can be spent. We are able to make strategic investments from this fund when a problem arises and save funding when we do not have a problem.  We make those investments year over year to build up a pool of dollars that then we can strategize about what we need to spend. Most recently, I’ve used the funding for some major infrastructure investments.

EAB: What are a few specific examples of how the special projects fund was used during the ongoing pandemic?

Campbell: One example directly related to COVID-19 was investing in our telepresence and some of our remote technology that helps deliver education throughout the state. The funding came from the previously established special projects fund. Telepresence and remote work technologies are very mission-centric to our academic delivery mission and, quite frankly, need a little more investment at this time.

EAB: What advice do you have for your peers who are hoping to set up a similar fund at their university?

Campbell: I am sure your readers asking that very question ‘if I had a special project fund, it’s the first place my CFO would go to make cuts’. It is essential that IT and IT’s budget are viewed as a key part of an institution’s strategy and mission. Your head of your finance and your executive team should understand the fund’s significance, the sacrifice that fund’s removal will make, and what the funds strategic contributions.  You need strong strategic partnerships to create a special projects fund, partnerships that understand IT’s significance and investment impacts.  When you have more people invested in that vision, you will have most likely more support and more voices to help encourage further reflection if the cut is a strategic move or not.

EAB: What impact will COVID-19 have on your next fiscal year? How do you believe COVID-19 will affect your flexible budget model in the long term?

Campbell: General budgets right now are extremely challenged, and there is a critical need to reframe and reground the budget conversation around institutional priorities. While it presents many opportunities, I need to wait for the priorities to develop before making IT strategic plans. In the meantime, I am actively engaging my strategic partners to align IT’s strategic mission with campus needs. As it relates to next year’s special project funds, there are dollars set aside to be used on priority technology and infrastructure investments. Now, as we start looking at the next fiscal year budget, I’m calling for even more dollars for the special project fund to prepare because we, along with many other higher ed institutions, are going to have very turbulent and windy roads the next two to three years, not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that I think is really going to challenge us to transform. I’m looking for as much flexibility in my budgeting as possible to be able to respond and adapt to the needs of that transformation.

Concurrently, I am considering expanding our vendor and consulting lines because I think it needs to be not just higher ed thinking about solutions. I think our vendor partners can contribute great insight into how to get us through COVID-19. It is vital to dedicate dollars to partnerships that provide an outside view. We cannot address these issues solely through our lens and perspectives.

EAB: What would you say to our partners that feel that they are not in a position to approach their CFO, CBO, and campus leadership and make a case for why IT budgets need to be more flexible?

Campbell: You have to understand the macro picture. If you are having a challenge reaching your executive senior leadership groups and having them understand how IT can contribute, you need to go to the strategic plan. You need to go to a resource or vision that is at the heart of the institution, learn it well, and understand how you can contribute. When I first started as a CTO, I went right to the strategic plan and tried to immediately connect dots of how my resources, my people, my vision could contribute to that plan.

The other thing is collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. One of the first things I did when I started as the CTO was scheduling meetings with every single academic department. I listened to what was working, what problems they were having, and how IT could be a strategic partner. And when you have more advocates for your budget and supporting you with your vision that is informed by their vision and needs, I think you create more buy-in. That’s at the heart of what needs to happen to ensure that IT dollars are going to the best places possible within the organization.

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