Welcome to The Higher Edge Podcast!
Nov. 22, 2022

Venture Forward: Driving Technology Transformation (featuring Pete Williams)

Pete Williams’ journey as an Information Communication Sciences post-grad took him through multiple tech-heavy industries, but he knew his heart would bring him back to higher education.

Now, as the Chief Information Officer for Butler University, Pete is spearheading innovation through servant leadership. He shares what he’s learned managing Butler’s venture fund to gas pedal innovation and how he helps give others the Higher Edge through mentoring.

Join us as we discuss:

  • Navigating change across opportunities and industries (6:20)
  • ClearScholar’s development as a value proposition for students (14:04)
  • Why higher ed CIOs are in the change business (24:36)

Check out these resources we mentioned during the podcast:

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[00:00:00] Announcer: Welcome to the Higher Edge, a podcast for the brightest minds in higher education to hear from the change-makers and rulebreakers that are driving meaningful, impactful change for colleges and universities across the country from improving operations to supporting student success. These are the stories that give you, "The Higher Edge".

[00:00:30] And now your host, Brendan Aldrich 

[00:00:33] Brendan Aldrich: hey everyone, and welcome to The Higher Edge. I'm Brendan Aldrich and I'm here today with Pete Williams, the Chief Information Officer for Butler University, which is a, a private university here in Indianapolis, Indiana. Founded in 1855 and named after, uh, founder Ovid Butler and I should add, was recently ranked as the number one regional university in the Midwest by US News for the 20 22 20 23 academic.

[00:00:58] Fun fact, if you remember [00:01:00] taking exams, uh, using those little paper blue books, then you might have Butler University to thank for it. It is rumored that the infamous Blue Book got its start at Butler University sometime after about 1920 when professors there decided they needed a more standardized format for exam responses and that the colors of the Blue Book itself, blue and white were chosen to match butler's own school colors.

[00:01:23] So Pete, welcome and thanks so much for joining us here on the Higher. Hey, thanks for having me. So, Pete, I introduced you as Butler's Chief Information Officer, and that's a, a big job in and of itself, but that's not the whole story, is it? 

[00:01:37] Pete Williams: It's not, uh, there's a lot at Butler to do. Uh, we work in entrepreneurship and innovation, and I also manage a venture fund for Butler in the technology space.

[00:01:47] Really? 

[00:01:48] Brendan Aldrich: And, and how did that. 

[00:01:50] Pete Williams: Uh, it came about from really the idea that there's been a lot of study about the, the model of higher ed over time and its value, and is the model broken. [00:02:00] Traditionally the conversation could go something like this. We'd love to do this. Great thing with technology is gonna produce huge results for success, retention, the stick, the whole experience, recruitment, you know, you insert the buzzword where everybody's focused today and then, and everybody will say, well that's great.

[00:02:16] Um, how much does it cost? And then you say, okay, X, well we're gonna have to raise tuition. How are we gonna go about that? Do we have to cut other things? And so we didn't think it was fair to. Current students, uh, to pay for something that prospective students might get to consume and, and add to the educational debt, if you will, of the institution.

[00:02:33] So we wanted to refactor that calculation, look at things a little bit different, and then be able to move a whole lot faster. So for us to move quickly with, uh, technology and innovation, there's a lot required and it does cost some money. So one. Positions we took was that, you know, we probably should make some of our own money outside of the net tuition calculation, if you will.

[00:02:54] So outside of higher education, um, with technology, uh, with a sole purpose to gas [00:03:00] pedal innovation, to speed projects through, and really to be able to refactor the, the traditional ROI calculation. That's a 

[00:03:08] Brendan Aldrich: very cool approach and I, I love that idea of just getting very hands on with, uh, with how do you approach the technology to shape the future.

[00:03:16] Although, go ahead and share your story. Uh, how did you become who 

[00:03:19] Pete Williams: you are today? ? Well, I kind of take pride in the fact that I, I kind of, uh, I build myself as a non-traditional higher ed cio. Um, I, I did not start out in education. I worked in a number of different industries and had a variety of different experiences that led me, uh, to where I am today.

[00:03:36] So I have parents who are business owners, uh, in an aunt and uncle who are serial entrepreneurs, and they kind of put all that front stage for me to, to watch, observe, and in some cases participate in. And so it really started. That entrepreneurial spirit in me. I got to work for some startups through, through some times when I was in graduate school, I started an undergrad as a pre-dental student, uh, pre-med, [00:04:00] pre-dent.

[00:04:00] I was getting ready to to head to dental school and, and I was working in a, in a dental office, had my license for radiographs, if you're interested in that. Kind of fun. And, and that's where my track was going. And some, some folks said, Hey, Pete, this technology stuff, it seems to be your calling and maybe you should look at that instead.

[00:04:16] And so I, I made a pivot and went. Graduate program for information communication sciences. And that program really just helped position me, it's like a tech MBA kind of heavy technology, uh, and then finance and leadership and, uh, just a great program. And then I got to be a part of some really great groups and, and some fun things and just get experience as, as fast as I possibly could.

[00:04:38] I worked in consulting, I've worked in healthcare, I've worked in finance it, and uh, for financial firms, student lending. All the while I was just trying any, anytime I had an opportunity to get on a new project, work with a new technology, a new system, learn a new business, as I was a consultant, I just loved to learn.

[00:04:57] Other businesses. So that's part of the job. You have to go in and [00:05:00] figure out what's, what matters to that organization and how they make their revenue and, and all the mechanisms that feed to that. And I really enjoyed that part of the process 

[00:05:07] Brendan Aldrich: too, when you talk about working in all the different industries that it's in some ways similar to the experience I had working with data, you know, since everybody in every industry was using.

[00:05:17] I found myself, uh, changing industries almost every time I change jobs, and the challenge was how fast can I learn absolutely everything I need to about this so that I can do my 

[00:05:26] Pete Williams: job well? . Yes. A absolutely. And that's the, the technology thread, the commonality through all those was fun. And, and the cool part was that it was being used to make a difference in those businesses too, right?

[00:05:36] So, you know, how, how important is data, right? We, we could spend like six, six more episodes just talking about like one component of how important data is, right? But the technology thread through all is, is a great way to. Uh, it's a great way to serve, uh, an organization and if you wanna impact change and you wanna have, be a leader with innovation, that technology is required as well.

[00:05:57] And, and then the, that skillset, [00:06:00] being able to, to navigate an organization and create change for the better and increase revenue is kind of like when we're working with technology too, and just making change in general. So, uh, it puts together a fun, a fun lens to look at things because the opportunity to make a difference is sign.

[00:06:15] It's really up to how fast we can learn, how we can serve and, and how we put those pieces. 

[00:06:21] Brendan Aldrich: and then you had that chance to sort of come back to higher ed? 

[00:06:24] Pete Williams: I did. So I, I, I'd always hoped I would end up in higher ed, uh, at a certain point. And I really thought my opportunity to do that would, would likely be as, uh, say an adjunct faculty, uh, who taught maybe the history of computing or something, you know, and, or, or technology and communications and, and say, well, this is how we used to do it and back when X, y Z was, was cool.

[00:06:46] Here's how we did it. and, and then maybe, uh, correlate that to some leadership lessons and things that help students get prepared, uh, for their next steps back 

[00:06:53] Brendan Aldrich: when you're, back, when you're telling all the students the stories about punch cards and tape drives. . 

[00:06:57] Pete Williams: Yeah, right. . [00:07:00] Um, yeah. So I thought I'd be able to talk about those things and the evolution of technology and human computer interaction, those kinds of things, and tie it to leadership.

[00:07:08] And I had an opportunity to join Marian University, uh, as cio, so I kind of. I've been working on my career and my experiences to, to head that way, just not in the education space. And just the stars aligned. A perfect opportunity arose to join an organization that was on a fast pace of growth, adding new programs, really pushing the edge of, of uh, sort of what you traditionally think of growth in higher ed.

[00:07:33] We got to be, I got to be part of a executive leadership team that, that built a med school from the ground up, from scratch building and everything. Uh, and so that was a lot of fun. That was a, wow, some of those career moments that were just a blast, right? Mission was aligned. Lots of opportunity to learn and serve.

[00:07:50] We had some great outputs. Some things became national models of how to do things going forward. And you know, some days it was, we'd wake up in the morning and yes, hey, we get to be a part of building a med school from the ground [00:08:00] up and then the next day it might. Oh my gosh. We have the responsibility to build a med school from the ground up.

[00:08:05] Right? But I love to live in the space where we wanna make drastic change, drastic improvement, and we, we kind of to do that in many cases, almost all cases, there's an element of the unknown that you live in. And so there's not a, a book you can go read to figure that out, uh, how to go do some of these things.

[00:08:21] But, um, but there's. Wisdom you can leverage from other folks into this. How can you accelerate that and, and put that into play and, and delivers value and results. So it makes it kind of fun. But that's how I got into higher ed. And then I had an awesome opportunity to be the C I E I O at at Butler University.

[00:08:39] Uh, they've allowed me to. To, to sort of color outside the lines of traditional, um, CIO responsibilities with a venture fund and, uh, making strategic investments in, in other companies and in projects that we need to just accelerate to get done with and, and bring new money to the table to fund those so that we can reduce the debt of the institution, not add to the cost, right?[00:09:00] 

[00:09:00] And, and make some significant moves that way that maybe are a little. a little less, less than traditional in the higher ed space. So 

[00:09:08] Brendan Aldrich: let's talk about the, the venture fund side of things since many CIOs might not have had a chance to, to do something similar. So how does that work? 

[00:09:15] Pete Williams: We use the venture Fund for anything that we believe can improve the student experience, and we also know that, you know, um, when students come to Butler University in any kind of, in any of the programs that we.

[00:09:28] there's a moment where the light bulb goes off and they've, they're discerning what it is they're gonna do, uh, between certain boundaries for the rest of their life. And we know that the sooner that light bulb goes off, the more impactful they experience. And so everything that we do is focused on the student experience, student success, and accelerating that, those light bulb moments.

[00:09:46] Right? Uh, we want the value of the, of a Butler experience to be extremely high, and we want to be able to leverage that as best we can. I've been very fortunate to work for some really great leaders throughout my career, and certainly the [00:10:00] leadership at Butler University is, is just phenomenal. We have a president who who can, is a visionary, right, and can see opportunity.

[00:10:08] uh, in ways that perhaps might be forward thinking and helps us lead, uh, to that. But we have a, a CFO who also is, you know, um, uh, I guess it defies the normal CIO stereotype for sure, but comes from a place of how can we, how could we solve for this? How could we enable that? How could we get there together?

[00:10:26] Everybody comes together. To sort out how could we go forward? What are we gonna do together? How could we move things around to have a different lens? So yes, we have the innovation fund. Our revenue, um, has gone fa happily, very, very lucky and grateful, but with lots of support, our revenue model has, has, uh, progressed faster than we anticipated.

[00:10:46] Uh, and so now we have a fund, and the fund invests in a number of things, our own projects, other c. The companies we want to create. Uh, some, we partner with others to create others where we consume a [00:11:00] promising product, where we get to work with some, just some phenomenal talent that can gasp, pedal our own initiatives anyway, and that's the direction we're headed.

[00:11:07] I mean, we, I could go through a list of examples where it's put us five, 10 years ahead of where we. where we would've gone on our own if we did not have these kind of partners and relationships. Everything's geared towards the impact we can make for students. So we have three, three sort of mechanisms there.

[00:11:22] One, can we gas pedal some stuff we need to get done and do it in a great way? Can we impact students in an awesome way and help their success? And then if we can make some money, so there's kind of a three-legged deal there that, uh, stool that we use, um, as the main criteria. Um, and if we hit one of those, that's great.

[00:11:37] We like to hit two. And if we hit three, even better. 

[00:11:40] Brendan Aldrich: Hey, for everyone listening, hang tight. We're gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsor and we'll be back in just one 

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[00:12:49] Brendan Aldrich: Thanks so much for listening to our sponsor. Let's get back to the show. Well, I think one of the earlier applications that you developed under the Venture Fund, was it, uh, it was Clear 

[00:12:58] Pete Williams: Scholar.

[00:12:59] It [00:13:00] was, it was, we were super fortunate there to just have some phenomenal partners, uh, at a, at a. , uh, the timing couldn't have been more perfect. It was the technology itself. Now sounds, uh, kind of funny to talk about it cuz we're like eight years ago, right? So if you, if you rewind eight years and kind of think of what EdTech was like back then, um, we were, we're very fortunate to, to work with, uh, venture Studio, high Alpha and some amazing talent there, there in the business of creating software as a service businesses.

[00:13:26] And they have a studio and a capital arm that. Can just infuse that and get a business up and running. And so we partnered with them and it was just a great opportunity with Clear Skylar to really enable a unique experience for each individual student and a mobile first software as a service platform.

[00:13:44] And it really enabled students to be, to, to have the, their digital experience, their digital interaction with the university, um, in their native tongue, in the way that they asked would ask us to provide them the information and. . It was really fun. We had great usage statistics and [00:14:00] it served a lot of, of, of need at the institution at the time and, and gave us access to some very, what we think is very important real estate on that top of that lock screen on the mobile device, uh, that we use very judiciously, but, 

[00:14:11] Brendan Aldrich: and was it an application that you developed because of a need that 

[00:14:15] Pete Williams: you saw?

[00:14:17] it was, our students have different ways they, they wish to receive communications. Sometimes it's directly through the lms. Sometimes it's, uh, through, uh, face-to-face communications. Other times it's other mediums. We know folks like self-service and knowledge base and, and ways to open cases and have, you know, sort of a standard customer experience like you would on, uh, with any major, uh, tech.

[00:14:39] We also knew that if we called students on their, uh, phones, they would probably were not gonna answer, and we knew they didn't read email. So we had a reason to figure out what would be the best way to communicate and how would they prefer that. The great folks at High Alpha and our team sat down and we, we built, we built an application based on what our students told us they needed and what they wanted and what they thought would be of value, [00:15:00] uh, as part of their collegiate.

[00:15:02] And that's, we, we held true to that. Nearly every single item in the prioritization was based on what students told us they held in high values. 

[00:15:10] Brendan Aldrich: And your uptick rates were, were 

[00:15:11] Pete Williams: pretty solid. Oh yeah, we experienced, I mean it was, um, we did a sort of the exclusive launch, if you will. So we started with a, a founding 100 students who provided a lot of this input and data on, on the value components.

[00:15:26] And then we slowly did a release. So if you went to go get the app, you were put on a wait list and then, uh, every so often we would let another. , you know, few hundred students through or a thousand through, uh, we had 98% of all of our students first years all the way through graduate students using the app on an, on an active basis daily before classes would even begin in a semester.

[00:15:47] And, but before classes started, 98% active use. And so it was, uh, it was a new day for us, uh, to think about how we might approach communication with students and, and have curated content on top. . [00:16:00] 

[00:16:00] Brendan Aldrich: Well, and there was one story you told me about, uh, the launch of the application and how you kind of knew that you, you might have something on your hands that that was gonna be really successful.

[00:16:09] So can you tell me that story? , it 

[00:16:11] Pete Williams: was pretty funny. Very early on we had the founding 100 students using the app in the, in the mvp. So this is very early and we had a launch party to thank the students for all the help they'd given us. And we were really bringing a new tech team together. Uh, the folks at High Alpha and um, the folks at Clear Skyler and the folks at Butler, uh, and our partnership.

[00:16:32] And so we are bringing a bunch of new groups together. In person to celebrate the launch of the product. So this was the product launch party and we had a, we were hosting it on campus. It just turns out that the day we were gonna do that, we had a, a series of significant storms roll through campus, which led us to shelter in place multiple times, uh, leading up to this launch event.

[00:16:55] And so, Kind of wondering how this was gonna go. We had, you know, a few hundred people we thought were gonna [00:17:00] show up for this event. We were in process of migrating towards the buildings, and every time we'd make it from one building to the other, we'd have to shelter in place again. We had funnel clouds coming through and the sirens are going off, and I mean, it just looked horrible.

[00:17:12] When we went to the launch event, we walked in the door and, and we were kinda looking around. I'm thinking, okay, by the way, we walked into that door. I had a shelter in place one more time. So we got to the event, shelter in place, and then we came out and I thought, well boy, this will be neat if, if students are gonna be here.

[00:17:26] And unbeknownst to me, the, the Clear Scholar team had been sending notifications to our founding 100 students and their guests saying, hang tight, shelter in. , we'll let you know. The party's still on. As soon as the coast is clear, we'll let you know. Well, they did that and we had a full house. Everybody was able to do what they needed to do.

[00:17:43] They knew when the times got adjusted to everybody showed up. And so we had this great launch party with, with everybody that was involved in the, in the new product and, and with our students. And so at that moment we, we thought, wow, we had a lot of communication happen there. A lot of plans change.

[00:17:59] [00:18:00] Everybody still made it and everybody was on the same page. The possibilities here could be pretty significant. , 

[00:18:05] Brendan Aldrich: that's fantastic. And a good example of how the right technology can really enable and empower everybody at the institution. Although I think there's actually another story about the app success that I'd love to have you share.

[00:18:17] Do you know the one that I mean. 

[00:18:18] Pete Williams: Sure. Uh, so, uh, we were in the, in the early launch phase, uh, of the mvp and we, we had probably a few hundred students that were actively using the app. We'd permitted them to join. Um, and, and it was part of the slow rollout that I mentioned. Uh, it was Halloween and, uh, there was, uh, the president, uh, president Danko and his wife, they host students at their house for a Halloween.

[00:18:43] And so we were working with student affairs, student activities and they said, Hey, could you make an announcement for us? We said, sure. So we sent out a top of screen notification in the Skyler app and we said, uh, this was about a half hour, an hour before the party said, don't forget. Party at Perez Rez seven 30, uh, come for [00:19:00] Halloween, et cetera, et cetera.

[00:19:02] And, uh, we sent the message and then went about our, our normal, uh, our work. And then they had a meeting with the president about a week or so later, and he asked how the, how is the, how's clear Skyler, how's the app going? And I said, well, how was your Halloween party? And he immediately said, did you do that?

[00:19:18] And then I wasn't sure what I was committing to. Uh, but what it turned out to be was, uh, one of the highest attended events they'd ever had. We confirmed we were able to make, we were able to communicate in the way the students wanted, the way they'd read it, and, and they would take action. And so we thought we were onto something at that point.

[00:19:34] Pete, 

[00:19:34] Brendan Aldrich: I know you knew this was coming, but one of the things that we ask guests to do on the show is to share a story from their own career that might help give others the higher edge. 

[00:19:44] Pete Williams: One of my mentors has been very influential for me, um, is one that that will lead by actions and just do, um, actions is speaking louder than words that taking that kind of approach.

[00:19:55] Um, but as it approaching a business decision, say you wanted to start a, [00:20:00] a. a new kind of gas station. Well, instead of, um, starting that and getting into the business, uh, and making the investment, uh uh, he would work at a gas station for six months. Or two months or three months and go learn the business.

[00:20:15] Hands on working graveyard shifts and understanding supply chain with all the things that happen with fuel and all things you can't put in a gas station that you can put in a restaurant because of the fuel and all the different requirements and regulatory issues where the revenue comes from. How do you staff things?

[00:20:30] What can set you apart from your competition and learn the business that way and then go do it. One of the awesome things that mentors, mentorship has provided me is a reinforcement of. Um, that it's okay to learn and say, Hey, I don't know, and jump in and, and get hands on in a certain way like that and, and say, I don't know.

[00:20:49] Does anybody else in the room know? Does our team know? Okay, well let's go figure it out together and let's, let's look at it. Let's get in there and, and see, cuz so many times there's just not a manual for this stuff. And, [00:21:00] um, if we're in it together and we're sharing transparently and openly and we're all working towards the same thing, you know, that learning process becomes fun too.

[00:21:07] It's not as scary and our products get better cuz we're in it together. Really that hands on. Let's just get in and go. If, if that's what it requires. Um, let's, let's do. . 

[00:21:17] Brendan Aldrich: No, I love that. That was actually very similar when I started in my career was, uh, I dunno if you remember the old comp u a, but I used to be an an inside sales rep for, for comp u a and one of the things they'd say is, you know, if you wanted to take a day off, go, go out to your client's site, work at your client, see what they're going through, get to know what that experience is because that's going to help inform you and make you better in how to.

[00:21:39] Before our listeners, we've been talking with Pete Williams, chief Information Officer and Venture Fund manager for Butler University. So if listeners would like to reach out to you about today's episode or continue the conversation, what's the best way for them to reach you? 

[00:21:51] Pete Williams: Please connect with me on LinkedIn.

[00:21:53] Check out the Butler website, and I'd love to continue the 

[00:21:55] Brendan Aldrich: conversation. And if you'd like to email Pete, you can also reach him at Pete [00:22:00] p e t e, the higher edge.com. Pete, thank you again for coming and being a guest with us here on the higher. And for everyone listening, I'm Brendan Aldridge and we'll talk soon.

[00:22:10] Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Higher Edge. For more, subscribe to us on your favorite podcast platform. Leave us a review if you loved the show, and be sure to connect with Brendan on LinkedIn. Know someone who's making big changes at their higher ed institution that belongs on this podcast. Drop us a line at podcasts@thehigheredge.com.

[00:22:32] The Higher Edge is sponsored by Invoke Learning in partnership with Westport Studios. View and opinions expressed by individuals during the podcast are their own. See how Invoke Learning is empowering higher education@invokelearning.com.[00:23:00]