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Q&A: UTS CIO, Christine Burns

Burns talks about a $1 billion buildings upgrade, data centre strategy and IT as a business partner

Christine Burns, CIO of University of Technology, Sydney

Christine Burns, CIO of University of Technology, Sydney

Before recently joining University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) as CIO, Christine Burns was head of IT at Ashurst law firm. As CIO, she will be managing the many technology projects that are underway at the university and will be developing an IT-business strategy.

Burns spoke with CIO Australia about the university’s $1 billion buildings upgrade and the technologies that will be integrated into that, the review of the university’s long-term data centre strategy and the need for organisations to see IT as a business partner.

What does and average day involve for you at UTS?

The university is quite a busy and complex environment and that translates into a lot of variety in what I do. From an operation perspective, my team provides services to students, to academics, to researchers and to staff with a wide variety of roles. And for similar reasons we have IT projects that covert quite a broad range of technologies and objectives.

At the moment, UTS is a few years into a very exciting $1 billion dollar upgrade of the university campus. Overseeing the IT and audio visual services involvement in that is a major focus for me at the moment.

Like many other CIOs, I’m involved in a normal cycle of business planning and people development processes for the team. At the moment, being new in my role here, I’m also spending a lot of time meeting people and deepening my understanding of the different faculties and of my own team.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role as CIO?

IT is a significant investment for every organisation so the perpetual challenge here as elsewhere is just to make sure that the technology investments that are made align with what the university’s goals are and they are future proof. UTS does have a very clearly articulated strategic plan and that makes that task a bit easier. But as you can imagine, the needs of each of our different faculties are all very different and that adds some complexity to the job.

Another challenge in such a varied environment is determining how to communicate effectively with all the diverse stakeholders and that might range from using digital signage to get messages to students through to reports and items in faculty online newsletters. Then, of course, there will always be face-to-face meetings and phone calls.

Balancing project and operation work is also a daily hurdle which the management team and I face. There is a really significant project load here at the moment and particularly with the work related to the university’s new buildings.

What are the major projects you are working on?

We do have a broad range of projects underway at the moment. We’ve just completed a really major upgrade for the university’s wireless network. Some of our older structures, when they were [being] built, the use of portable computers wasn’t even contemplated let alone mobile devices. Now, we have 917 wireless access points across our campuses. So that’s a very significant project which is just in the final phase.

One of the really interesting ongoing projects is work that we are doing to support the university’s teaching and learning team in creating flexible learner-centre teaching spaces so there’s a huge variety of technology-enabled spaces and the range of technologies that are incorporated in those are vast.

The other thing we have underway is a lot of projects to support the university’s researchers. You read a lot in the IT press at the moment about big data but at the university it is a lot more than just a buzz word, it’s really a daily reality. So work to support our researchers is behind a lot of our projects.

UTS has embarked on a $1billion building programme. To date, that has involved building new clinical labs for the Faculty of Health, a major refurbishment to Great Hall, new student housing, an underground sports and leisure facility and fitting out several new floors of teaching space for our Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building.

Building work has just commenced for a new building on Broadway which will house the Faculty of Engineering and IT. It is encased in angled, semi-transparent ‘binary screens’ and was designed by Denton Corker Marshall architecture. It will include a ‘data arena’. The data arena is a 360 degree data visualisation room. It will be used to display large, complex data sets in a graphical manner. Other buildings which will form part of the program are the first building in Australia designed by Frank Gehry to house the UTS Business School and a new building in Thomas St for the UTS Faculty of Science. The Thomas St building will include an underground storage and retrieval facility for the library which is operated by robots.

Over the past six months the university has been reviewing its data centre strategy. A tender is currently underway to identify an appropriate external data centre which will enable it to improve its IT infrastructure and capacity planning. As the tender process is currently in progress there is not much more I can add at this stage.

What are the three biggest issues facing CIOs today?

One of the things that actually keeps CIOs being interested in being CIOs is how quickly technology changes. I think at the moment the biggest things all CIOs are dealing with are the trends people refer to as the consumerisation of IT or BYOD, and cloud computing.

The reason for that is I think now more than ever those sorts of changes mean that the IT needs to make sure that they are viewed by their organisations as a business partner. For CIOs in particular, they need to make sure they are someone who is sought out because they provide expert assistance in finding a solution to business needs.

I think some of those other technologies that are on the horizon now potentially make it easier for the business to bypass the IT department and they certainly change the expectations of IT service and delivery turnaround time.

What’s your favourite gadget?

I like all sorts of gadgets. At the moment the thing that I’m most pleased with is a new ultra-light keyboard for my iPad which has been very well designed. For those times when you need to type something slightly longer than a few sentences, it is a very good alternative to using the iPad built-in keyboard.

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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