Episode 5 - Daren Hubbard

Host Annmarie Caño speaks with academic leaders at Wayne State University to learn how they have developed their careers while empowering themselves and others.

Subscribe

Stay up to date on future episodes by subscribing to EmpowerED to Lead.

Daren HubbardAbout Daren Hubbard

Daren Hubbard is the chief information officer and associate vice president for computing and information technology at Wayne State University. With more than 20 years of experience in higher education leadership, he's responsible for the university's computing and networking facilities, datacenter operations, enterprise software applications, learning management environments, high-performance research computing, voice services, information security, and information technology support services.

Conversation highlights

Host Annmarie Caño begins the discussion with asking Daren Hubbard what he loves about his job. He likes being able to use technology to advance his colleagues' missions and see how those missions merge to guide the entire university. "It really does get exciting for us because we are able to leverage technology in a way that is supportive and not restrictive," he says.

Caño points out Hubbard and his team's ability to translate the wants and needs of those who might not have the same technical skills. "When you put it in the larger context of leadership, part of what our roles are as leaders is to literally go out, listen to what people need and bring it back to your team and say, 'OK, I think what I've heard from our stakeholders is that these needs are present, so how do we leverage what we have at our disposal?'" Hubbard says.

Hubbard shares his career trajectory: He came to Wayne State as a graduate student in the information sciences program, and he has been in six different roles in computer and information technology at Wayne State. "That pathway has been exciting, but it's definitely been challenging," he says. He pursued his M.B.A. as he moved into management at the university, and he now oversees 150 people in his division.

With every position he's held, Hubbard has kept an open mind: "I literally sometimes go into things not knowing 100% what I'm capable of, or what the needs are, or what the success marker is, but I always strive to learn and to really embrace the process of getting involved and finding out what it takes to be successful in the role."

Hubbard stresses the importance of listening and surrounding yourself with good people — something that requires humility. "If there is a compromise of sorts," he says, "it's easier to move the conversation forward to a solution because you've got somebody that's invested." Caño points out that Hubbard's approach to compromise is reminiscent of family relationships, and his ability to engage with people is not only a leadership skill but also a life skill.

Hubbard shares some advice to help listeners further develop their leadership skills: "Have a bold vision and don't be afraid of it." He draws on his idea to build a new data center on campus. "I think having a vision, for whatever the context, it is important because that's what gets people excited about coming to work: That's when they see things happening and changing and moving forward."   

Caño concludes the discussion by asking Hubbard what it means to empower someone to lead. For him, ongoing communication is key. "You don't necessarily have to be gushy, patting folks on the back, but you also do owe it to people to really give them feedback." He also believes it's important to provide others with the opportunity to be successful leaders. "It's stepping back and saying, 'You're ready: You've got everything you need. You go off and do great things.'"

Additional resources

Follow Daren on Twitter @DarenHubbard

Follow Wayne State University C&IT @WayneStateCIT.

Follow EmpowerED to Lead on Twitter @WSUFacSuccess.

Episode transcript

Annmarie Caño:                  

Welcome to empowered to lead a Wayne State University podcast for academic leaders who are committed to empowering their community to succeed. I'm your host, Annemarie Caño, associate provost for faculty development and faculty success at Wayne State. In this podcast, we'll explore the personal journeys of academic leaders, both current and emerging, to learn more about how they've developed their careers. We'll speak with faculty and staff about their work and how they have empowered themselves and others along the way. By doing this, we hope to empower listeners like you as you continue on your leadership path.

Today, we're speaking with Daren Hubbard, chief information officer and associate vice president for computing and information technology at Wayne State University. In his role as CIO, Daren is responsible for the university's computing and networking facilities, data center operations, enterprise software applications, learning management environments, high-performance research computing, voice services, information security and information technology support services. With over 20 years of experience in higher education leadership, Daren has led many successful development teams winning national recognition for several of those efforts. Daren and the it organization are presently helping drive Wayne State forward to support its urban research university mission.

Good afternoon, Daren.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Hello, Annemarie.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Welcome to the podcast.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Thank you. Thank you.

Annmarie Caño:                  

So you have a lot on your plate as we just learned, and maybe we can start off with what you love about your job.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Sure. So what I love about this job most specifically is the fact that I get to work with colleagues like yourself to really try to use technology to advance what those individual missions may be, and then also how those individual missions merge to become the mission of the institution at large. And so it really does get exciting for us because we are able to leverage technology in a way that is supportive and not restrictive and not in any way sort of a technology for technology's sake. We really like to focus our work on adding value, and we do that best by really getting involved and being integrated and listening to what those needs and visions are of other folks on campus.

Annmarie Caño:                  

And technology really is infused in everything that we do.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Yeah, it is getting that way. We do have, I think, we're at interesting sort of inflection point in time where there's so much consumer technology that people just kind of use in their everyday lives, and we always try to find that balance between really leveraging the ... I'll call them use cases that people are familiar with, leveraging those to really get our university work done as well as best we can. But there are some challenges with that too because the expectation that people have and that they place in technology is greater than ever before as well. And so we always have kind of a high bar to live up to sometimes even though we may not have the same level of resources that an Apple or Google or a Microsoft may have.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Right. And one of the things I appreciate about you and your team is how well you do the translating. So many of us who work in higher education don't know the background. We don't have technical backgrounds or the language to describe what it is we want or need. We just know the work that we want to get done.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Sure.

Annmarie Caño:                  

And I was wondering that skill in translating needs and wants and being able to work with other people is really not just something that IT folks need, but we all need when we're working in leadership and in higher ed. And I was wondering if you could provide some ideas of how other people can do that translational work.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Sure. I think it all starts ... When you talk about translation, it's funny. You can look at it on multiple levels as the translating from one language to another. It's translating one level of expertise to something that maybe as finding a place of reference with the person you're talking to and then being able to make sure that the concepts are able to transfer to that other person. And I think when you put it in the larger context of leadership, part of what our roles are as leaders is to literally go out, listen to what people need, and then ingest that. And then bring it back to your team and say, "Okay, I think what I've heard from our constituents, our stakeholders, that these needs are present. And so how do we leverage what we have at our disposal to meet those needs?"

And so I think in technology specifically, but in general, I mean for service-oriented organizations, there is going to be a bit of that translation if you will, being able to take in what the needs are and then to provide value-added solutions. Because often, you can't expect everyone to have a great sense and a depth of knowledge about what it is you do. It's your role, it is your job to really bring that in a way that's digestible.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Mm-hmm (Affirmative). So never to assume that other people will just know the value that you bring-

Daren Hubbard:                  

Correct.

Annmarie Caño:                  

... But to be able to explain it.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Yes. You do have to explain it. You do have to provide, as best you can at least, like I said before, points of reference so that you can say, "Okay, is this something that you know about or are familiar with?" And once we find a point of common ground, then it's up to me to make sure I bring the technology in at a level that is understandable but that still conveys the overall value that it can provide.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Mm-hmm (Affirmative). So the translation is part relationship building, part communication, part collaboration and finding common ground.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Yes. I think all those things really work together to make sure that at the end of a process or of an engagement or at later stages in their relationship, value can be provided and success can be had by saying, "Okay. Yeah, we started at X point." And we started, maybe we didn't know what we needed to do completely, but we talked and we listened and we brought things to the table that we were able to use at a certain base level and then we kept iterating. And as we found out more, as we learned more about what was needed, we were able to expand that use. And at the end, we have something that's successful that we can both, from our varying perspectives, both agree that's successful, and that's important as well.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Yeah. Okay. So you've been here for about as long as I have been here, about 20 years or so. And I was wonder if you could share with listeners what your career trajectory looked like from the time that you started here and what you might have learned along the way.

Daren Hubbard:                  

I like to tell people the truth. So the truth is that I came here because I was in a graduate program here, library and information science. And I was sitting next to someone and they said, "You know, if you are an employee here at Wayne State, this class would be free." Because at the time, Wayne State, and still does today, has a very generous tuition benefit for its employees. And so I came here to work primarily to pay for my graduate education, that initial degree. And so I was very liberal in my application to different jobs. I applied to, I think at the time there were numerous jobs open, and I applied to maybe 20 different jobs and was finally actually selected to apply for a job that I hadn't applied for because the folks doing the hiring at C&IT at that time said, "We saw your resume, see you applied for this one position but we think there's this other one that you may be a better fit for."

That position at the time, and this is really going to date me, it was for the remote access coordinator who basically coordinated the universities, at that time, 150 or 200 dial-in modems, so where you had to use your phone line to connect to the internet. So that was the first position that I took. And in that role I had, I think for myself at the time, it was a very exciting role because everybody was trying to get connected at home and know there's all this growth.

And so I grew that facility from where it was to, by the time I left that position, we had about 700 modems in use. And then I also was able to establish working with [inaudible 00:09:08] Networks, the first international dial-in capability that the state had been used because we have students in Windsor, Canada. And so we were able to work with the University of Windsor and our networking provider to establish that. And so it was a great position for me because it allowed me to get out there and get to know the campus and really sort of establish myself.

But things change, technology advances. I kind of saw the writing on the wall and I thought, "This job isn't going to be around much longer." And so I started applying for different roles inside of C&IT, and I think to date, I've been in six different roles at C&IT, all sort of progressively more advanced, either in technology or leadership or both. And so that pathway I think has been one ... It's been exciting, but it's definitely been challenging.

And so I finished my degree that I came here for that library and information science degree. I also studied and was able to achieve the certification of a professional project manager. Then after doing that and leading some fairly large scale projects here for the campus, I also thought it would be a great idea to pursue an MBA as well, and so I did that.

I think that coincided right when I moved into management initially, and I've had progressive opportunities. So the first one, I think I led a team of about four. Then from there, I went to 10, and then from there went to 20 than to 50, and now the entire division is 150 people. So I've had opportunities and I've had great mentors along the way that have helped me to both leverage the skills that I had, but then also to branch out and try new things and grow in in certain ways.

And I think that's been the most important part, I think, in terms of what a trajectory should look like. You should always look for greater challenges, but you should have those challenges ... You should have some sort of background or backup support in mentors or other colleagues that you can bounce ideas off of or really sort of do gut checks with to say, "Hey, I'm facing this issue. How would you do it if it was you?" And so along the way, that has been really helpful for me.

Annmarie Caño:                  

And it sounds like from the path that you described that you were always seeking out new things to learn, not expecting that one role would just lead into the other role. That there's always, no matter what role you're in or how high you rise in leadership, there's always something to learn.

Daren Hubbard:                  

There's always something to learn. It has been a continuous learning process. My wife always teases me that. She says, "Do you tell people that you often take these jobs without any kind of guarantee that it's going to work? You just dive into them." And I don't share that too loudly, but yeah, that's the truth. I literally sometimes go into things not really completely knowing 100% what I'm capable of or what the needs are or what the success marker is. But I always strive to learn and to really sort of embrace the process of getting involved and finding out and discovering what the role entails or what it takes to be successful in a role.

And so that, ironically, has been very ... I mean it's been very good because oftentimes when you're working with people to try to figure things out, it does make it easier to work with people if you don't come in really either projecting or portraying that you have all the answers. You're literally there to listen and to learn from them kind of at the same time in parallel. The hope is, and what I have come to appreciate now is that you get into these conversations, and while there is an understanding and an expectation that you're going to be listening, people do eventually want you to bring some ideas to the table and have them be relevant and have them actually move the conversation forward.

And so with that, that old adage of surrounding yourself with good people is something that I leverage a lot as well. So I always make sure even if I'm in the first conversation, I don't let it just be me. I bring in others who may have different perspectives or even more knowledge about specific technologies that may be useful. And so yeah, I try to leverage that a lot.

Annmarie Caño:                  

But that takes a little bit of humility, I think, that I haven't seen all leaders demonstrate. To be able to say, "I don't have all the answers, but I can help move something forward." Sometimes it seems like leaders are very invested in having all the answers, and what you're describing is the opposite of that. That it's best if you don't have all the answers and you're willing to take risks, still offer things at the table. Offer your knowledge and skills and work toward a common goal, but to be a good leader, you don't have to have all the answers.

Daren Hubbard:                  

No. I've definitely learned that sometimes the hard way, but also just through trial and error. And particularly when you're talking about technology because it gets to be so personal for people. So when you're changing an application, on the backend it may be something that's really logical and say, "Yeah, this thing is ... What we were using before is old and we need to embrace this new technology." Where it actually hits someone at their desktop, you're impacting what somebody's day-to-day work is. It may be something that they're used to that they've really kind of built their career path on or are around. And so when you're starting to change something, it gets to be a serious conversation with some folks.

And so I found, again through trial and error, that sometimes it's better to come into that saying, "You know what, I don't know if this is going to work for you. Let's find out together." If you allow folks to be invested in that process, then at the end of the process, you'll have something where if it's successful, that person has some skin in the game so to speak, and they are much more willing to adopt something that they felt like they've had some choice and some degree of input in instead of just being sort of imposed on it.

And so it's interesting that that works in a lot of different aspects of the work that we do. Because again, not having all the answers, you just need to go and listen. And if there is a back and forth, sort of a give and take, a compromise of sorts, it's easier to move the conversation forward to a solution because you got somebody who's kind of invested in it. They want to see something work. And so it's like, "Well, okay, he's willing to listen to what I need and I understand what our constraints are. Let's see if we can make this work."

Annmarie Caño:                  

It sounds a lot like family relationships. And I'm smiling because as a couples researcher, I see that a lot with couples where there's this give and take. Both people want to feel valued, that their input is valued, that they're cared for as human beings, any attachments that they might have to something that's going to be recycled or thrown out, that that's dealt with before the decision is just made.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Yes, yes.

Annmarie Caño:                  

So to me, it just seems like it's a leadership skill. It's also a life skill to be able to engage with people in that way.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Sure. Yeah. I have a joke that I tell. It may be funny or it may not be. That a system's last day is its best day. Because when you're about to turn something off, everybody's like, "Oh my God, that is the best thing that we ever had. Why are you doing this to me? My life is going to be over." And I always tell the team like, "Okay, people are going to say that, but you have to be steady and firm and say, 'That may be true, but what we have coming up, it addresses all the needs that you currently use, and then there may be some new opportunities. You may find a new person or a new that you liked just as much as this.'"

And then people all have short memories. And so on that last day when they're expressing their sort of utmost supportive of something, they forget those days when they were sending emails saying, "This thing is garbage. It drops out ... " Whatever the bad things that happen. So it is like a relationship where you can't just live in the present. You have to be mindful of, yes, we are at a point where we have to move on. And our hope is that if we've done our job well and we've talked well, what's coming next is going to be better.

Annmarie Caño:                  

All right. So shifting gears a little bit, can you talk about a challenging experience? Could be something related to these kinds of change of systems but doesn't have to be. A challenge or a disruption or something in your work that taught you something important that you practice today?

Daren Hubbard:                  

Sure. That lesson of going out and being humble and not assuming that you have all the answers, it's taught to you every day or frequently, I'll say. One challenge that we sort of learned a lot from was, we thought, "Okay, we're going to create this. We got some technology. It's sort of new and it has the capability, at least when you read the brochures or you see the demos, to really advance the sort of state of the art of both ... " Let me see the best way to translate this too. It really was supposed to provide people a very easy and straightforward way to look at data and to visualize things really, really easily. And so we thought, "Okay, we've got this technology, let's create something for associate deans." We think that there's a need out there for associate deans that really be able to work with data and new and innovative ways, from an ad hoc basis. Meaning that, you just sort of get something and you play with it and change it however you want.

So we thought we were going to do this and we thought we were going to do it in like three months over the summer. To have, start in May and have something production-ready by August. That was a mistake. So, the thing it taught us was that, okay, first off, you won't be very successful bringing technology random technology that you think is cool and just trying to find a solution for it to fix, right? That's just not going to work. You really have to start with what is the issue that you're trying to solve and be open to the fact that you may not even have the right technology tools to solve this problem.

The next thing is, you can't assume unless you're the customer, you can't assume what that customer wants and needs. You can't come into a conversation say, "Yeah, even though we've just talked for the last two minutes, I know exactly what you need and here it is. I just bought this. It's new, it's shiny. It'll do exactly what you need." It doesn't work that way. And if you get into the habit of doing that, eventually people don't want to talk to you because, again, it's, he doesn't listen. They are always giving me stuff that's garbage. It doesn't work. It never actually solves any of my problems and creates more problems.

And so we've learned that, yeah, you really do have to go in and listen. You have to be in listen mode 95% of the time. Because if you're there and you're present and you ask the right questions and get folks to talk ... I think also kind of implied in that is you've got to do a little bit of research to know what it is the person does. You just can't be dropped in somewhere and think, "Oh, I'll just find out how it is they work and what they need to do." You have to take a little bit of a risk to involve yourself and invest some time into learning how a person works or what they like to do so that when you're listening you have both the context and somewhat of a knowledge, a working knowledge of the place or the space of that person operates in. So that whatever you suggest, it has a lot higher opportunity to be accepted because you've actually thought about it and actually makes sense for this particular context.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Right. So that listening piece is important, and humility, being able to take risks. Is there other advice that you would like to share with listeners about flexing their leadership muscles as they go along their paths?

Daren Hubbard:                  

Sure. I think the one thing I have been fortunate to both witness and to, I think, a similar degree enact myself, is to have a bold vision and not be afraid of it. In the the years that I've been the CIO, I think we started, I think it was 2015, at the time, I had the idea and the need to get a new data center and that, "Well, why would you build a new data center? The clouds there. Why do you have to do that?" It's like, "Well, the thing is the future is kind of unwritten." And what we need to do is be prepared for what we need to do today, but also for the tomorrow that we can't necessarily predict."

And so I set out what's kind of a bold vision to say, "Yeah, we're going to replace this thing." It hadn't been substantially remodeled or fixed in 55 years, so I think the university was a little ready for it. And so kind of having that vision and really committing to not just sort of the day-to-day operations of, "Yeah, this is what we need to do." But also trying to envision a future state where, if we expanded our capabilities, we could do even more. That kind of propelled us and we were able to get something done.

I think having a vision, whatever that is for whatever the context, it is important because that's what gets people excited about coming into work. That's when they see things happening and changing and moving forward. That's what gets teams excited. And it's not that we don't appreciate doing our day-to-day, it's just that those day-to-day things, if they're not contextualized to say, "Yeah, we need to do these day-to-day things." Because that gets us, and we do these well, it allows us to now focus on these really cool and exciting things like this far out a vision of the future or the thing that maybe initially got people excited about working in technology in the first place, being able to actually change the way people do work or interact with within the organization.

Annmarie Caño:                  

So, being part of the bigger picture and having the role of the leader is to help envision what that bigger picture looks like or to articulate it in some way so that people on the team understand and feel like they're contributing to this big thing.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Yes. And that gets tricky for technology people because I have a lot of folks who don't see the outside of a cube that they're working in for days on end, and so we've tried to do a lot in our division to bring the campus either to our staff or bring our staff to the campus. And so we instituted a couple of years back, this idea that there's lots of activities that happen that need volunteers. Why don't we sort of make our staff available to volunteer? And so they get to see orientation, they get to see AP Days, they get to see commencement. And by doing that, we really expose, "Okay, yeah, we're a technology organization that supports the university."

And that is different than one that supports a bank or an auto company. We're actually trying to change folks lives through this process of education. And it may be that we're making transactions smoother or we're allowing folks to get access to homework or assignments or presentations, whatever that may be. Whatever our place in the big continuum is, it is about eventually, this sort of that signature moment where we create new knowledge or we graduate folks and they're now able to either be the first one to graduate in their family, or they're going off to this new exciting career and then they do something big with the foundation that they've gotten here.

And so, I say all that stuff to our team and sometimes they're kind of like, "Yeah. You're just, you're trying to be the visionary. That's fine, but-

Annmarie Caño:                  

Rah-rah.

Daren Hubbard:                  

... rah-rah." But when you talk to folks who've come back from volunteering and actually meeting students and talking with them, they get it. It's like, "Okay, I'm not just here to create a report. I'm here to make sure that we get the right information to individuals who are going to change the way our curriculum is so people can graduate sooner." It really does translate what the mission and vision is of the institution back to that ground level. And so having a vision of, "Yeah, we're going to do these things." We're going to try to do these things because they're important. They make a difference. And if we can do our job better, everybody else can work better too.

Annmarie Caño:                  

So you may have just answered my last question for you, which is what does it mean to empower someone to lead? Because the podcast is called Empowered to Lead. So what does it mean to you to empower someone else to lead?

Daren Hubbard:                  

Wow. Yeah, I was hoping I had also actually answered it, but I, I guess I really didn't. That's a tough one because I think as a leader, one of the things that people tell you is that, "Yeah, good leaders try to make resources available and make sure that their team is skilled and they've all the current information they need, and then they get out of the way and let the team kind of do what they're going to do." I believe that is true and I believe that that's part of what my role is. But I think that empowerment piece, it's not a one and done. It's an active role that you have to, I think, both believe in and embody and just constantly work.

So with your team, they always need that assurance that, "Yeah, you are working in the right direction. We are adding value here. This is important work that we're doing and people appreciate it." And you don't necessarily have to be the gushy, patting folks on the back and cheering for them, but you also, I think, do owe it to people to really give them feedback around this was really a big deal. Like this is something that was very important and it's been very well received.

 And likewise, I think it's also important as a leader to give people the opportunity to lead. Because it's one thing to say, "Well, yeah, my staff is empowered, but I really don't have them go out to meetings to talk to people. I try to handle all the relationships on campus because people feel more comfortable talking to me." That's not going to work. You definitely have to give people the space and the freedom to go out and really work in and develop their own relationships and really promote what it is they represent or what they are responsible for within your team.

And I've tried to make sure I live that by including as many diverse folks as I can, getting folks who normally wouldn't go and talk to folks on campus. "Nope, you got to come to that meeting. And maybe I'll come to the first one, but after this it's you. You're the representative. All this work would come to your team, And so, you should be the one here and you should be the one to interact with that campus stakeholders." So I think that empowerment piece is literally making sure that you tell people that you support them and that that is just not talk. It's actual, "Yes, here are the resources that you need. If you need training, I'm going to get that for you." But then it's also sort of stepping back and saying, "Okay, you're ready. You got everything that you need. You go off and you do great things."

Annmarie Caño:                  

Great. So thanks so much for being a guest, Daren.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Oh, thank you for having me.

Annmarie Caño:                 

Where can our listeners find you or your team online?

Daren Hubbard:                  

Folks can follow me on Twitter @DarenHubbard, and C&IT @WayneStateCIT.

Annmarie Caño:                  

Great. Thank you.

Daren Hubbard:                  

Thank you.

Annmarie Caño:                  

We're glad to have you listening to Empowered to Lead. To learn more about our podcast, follow us on Twitter @WSUFacsuccess.