The cost of awesome – Turning CHAOS into Order with Mitch Davis


This week I’m joined by Mitch Davis, who is the Chief Information Officer at Dartmouth College.

In this episode, Mitch talks about how IT really manages chaos and how it ultimately turns CHAOS into Order. He goes further by discussing the ‘cost of awesome’ and how he moved clients from a change-negative to change-positive culture. As part of this shift, Mitch outlines why he focuses on the client you want, not the client you have and how great experiences play a role. Lastly, we cover a big topic around diversity and how Mitch makes it an everyday conversation the to the point that people from outside of IT are choosing to join IT.


Mitch Davis LinkedIn:

Dartmouth College:

Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello and welcome to the CIO In The Know Podcast. Where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection between business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO and strategic advisor at AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               This week I’m joined by Mitch Davis who is the Chief Information Officer at Dartmouth College. In this episode, Mitch talks about how IT really manages chaos, and how it ultimately turns chaos into order. He goes further by discussing the cost of awesome and how he moved clients from a change-negative to change-positive culture. As part of this shift, Mitch outlines why he focuses on the client you want, not the client you have, and how great experiences play a role. Lastly, we cover a big topic around diversity and how Mitch makes it an everyday conversation to the point that people from outside of IT are choosing to join IT. Mitch, welcome to the program.

Mitch Davis:                  Hi, Tim. It’s nice talking to you.

Tim Crawford:               Thanks for taking the time to join the conversation. I’ve always been impressed by how you think about the role of the CIO and your organization. Maybe to start us off, you can talk a little bit about your role as CIO at Dartmouth from a leadership perspective, and how you think about the role of IT in the CIO.

Mitch Davis:                  I think what I noticed during the interview was that their perception of who the CIO was was more of a service agent than it was a leader, because one person in the meeting said to me, “You think you’re going to be a leader at Dartmouth?” Like that was an unusual thing. What I said to them was, “Yes,” and that I also plan on being a catalyst for change across the board, but also inspiring other people to lead a new and different areas and that was not something they had heard before.

Tim Crawford:               That’s an important aspect.

Mitch Davis:                  Well, I think it was for me, because why was I leaving Bowdoin and why was I going to go to Dartmouth? Because I needed to know that I was coming to a place that was going to allow me to be a leader and not just expect me to make sure that the trains are on time. That was not where I wanted to go.

Mitch Davis:                  I always saw a role for a CIO that was at the top of the organization driving change, driving various institutional efforts, driving business process, and making sure that all of those things were in alignment with the mission of the college and what was it going to make the place better.

Tim Crawford:               Absolutely. You came to Dartmouth as a disruptive CIO. The way you think is not your traditional operational CIO. One of the things that you tend to talk about is this concept of turning chaos into order. Can you maybe spend a few minutes and elaborate where chaos started and how that has evolved to order over time?

Mitch Davis:                  I started noticing it when I did a presentation way back when at Stanford was that I tried to understand what it was that we were doing and when I finally figured out what it was, I created these letters and I went to a meeting, it was about 600 people, and I spelled out an anagram from the letters in chaos, and then I asked everybody in the audience what is it that IT does?

Mitch Davis:                  They did all the standard, we manage the network, we manage this and that. And I said, “No. What we really do is we manage chaos,” and I took the anagram and I spelled it out in front of me, chaos.

Mitch Davis:                  What I mean by that is on any given day, hundreds, if not millions, of lines of code can be changed. Hardware can be changed. All of these things could be changed, everything’s changed or built to be just good enough.

Mitch Davis:                  So there’s going to be conflict, there’s going to be problems, and yet our clients have been led to the expectation of perfection. This phone needs to work perfectly. These network can’t have a problem. Email must come through unfettered 24/7. To do that it takes a lot of IT people thinking about these inconsistencies and that chaos that is being created, to bring chaos to order.

Mitch Davis:                  That order allows all of this stuff to work together in a way that provides a solution to the client that’s perfect. I always love it when people who are not in IT say, “At sometime we’re not going to need IT” and I said, “That day will come when you guys stop buying new technology and are willing to sit around with a 20 year old piece of equipment until we can stabilize everything rather than picking up the newest shiny thing and tell us to make it work perfectly.”

Tim Crawford:               The idea of IT going away I think is one that exemplifies someone who misunderstands the value that IT can bring.

Mitch Davis:                  I even have it around AI. I was just talking to a group of people, a person from B2B and Oracle, and we were talking about AIs. They both run their own AIs and they’re thinking, well the AIs are going to take over. And there are some aspects of the business that AIs can’t… is a wireless solution. What that has a built in AI called Marvis and Marvis actually for some companies resolves over 50% of their wireless calls. Marvis will submit a ticket, tell everybody what’s wrong, try to solve the problem, solve the problem, and close the ticket for 50% of the time for a major corporation. You can see the AI is getting together and making that 50%, 60%, 70%, diving deep into applications, being able to solve things. Well, who’s building the AI? Unless they build themselves.

Mitch Davis:                  Who’s managing the APIs, this is what we got to, who’s managing the API for the AIs and the security around AI sharing information so that they can make everything work well together?

Mitch Davis:                  For me, I always see that, yeah, the bar goes up as far as the knowledge we need to do, but the amount of work we have to do, again, to deliver an environment where stuff is built just to be good enough. No AI is going to save us from that. It’s going to take people sitting around figuring out all these things and delivering it.

Mitch Davis:                  I guess when civilization decides they’ve had enough technology and it stops expanding, then there’ll be a time when it will level out. But from what I’ve seen, technology changes now every three months. If we’re not there with a solution to make it perfect, we’re probably behind the curve.

Tim Crawford:               Wow. That’s something that we all should be thinking about. That’s a three month window, which is not a lot of time. I want to shift it a little bit from chaos to order. There’s another presentation that you and I have talked about that I think is really interesting and I’d love for you to share your perspective on.

Tim Crawford:               Your presentation was titled The Cost Of Awesome, and in the presentation, in the conversation, you talk about moving from a change-negative to a change-positive. What do you mean by that? And share how you change that perspective.

Mitch Davis:                  The cost of awesome came out of a banner deployment that we were trying to do and we were going to do. One of the things we wanted to recognize is we had a project that would be launched and the client would have an awesome experience. So one of my staff said to me, waving her hand and said, “So, what’s you’re asking us to do is determine the cost of awesome?” And I said, “Yes, that’s my presentation. That’s what I’m going to do.”

Mitch Davis:                  We took about a month, maybe two months, and broke out what was the difference between an average experience and an awesome experience with the client, and what we felt is if we could deliver an awesome experience most of the time that that would change the perspective of our client to go from a change-negative where we are highly resistant to absorbing technology, to a change-positive, because we would be delivering value. We would be articulating to the customers the sense of that value prior to us delivering it.

Mitch Davis:                  If you measure the success of a launch of an application, that banner application, because of that process, we ended up with a standing ovation. But what we really ended up with is we ended up with a whole bunch of clients that were now very positive about receiving technology rather than resistant.

Mitch Davis:                  What I found was that allowed us to execute much quicker. So there’s the next time we did our Workday update, instead of executing in 18 to 24 months, which was some of our peers were doing, we were able to execute in nine.

Mitch Davis:                  When it was launched, everybody was really happy with it. All the teams were completely bought in, nobody was fighting the process. They all believed what we were doing was going in the right direction. And when we launched again, wild success and it moves the client a little bit further, again, more change-positive.

Mitch Davis:                  Each of your communications, all of your marketing, everything that you do has to be into creating the client that you want, not the one that you have.

Tim Crawford:               Interesting. But the other piece that’s foundational to what you’re talking about is also looking at the client and asking yourself what is it that would make it a great experience for them so that they see the value.

Mitch Davis:                  That’s right. You have to articulate that for them sometimes. Remember, they don’t always know. What they think they want and what they actually want are two different things, and you have to be willing to take a little bit of risk there and say that I’m going to give them something that’s way beyond what they ever thought was possible and that’s part of the cost of awesome. You can tell them you’re going to deliver one thing but then you deliver it with something that makes it incrementally better for them, so it’s a surprise at the end. A very positive surprise that gets them excited about the fact that we had done this application for them.

Tim Crawford:               One of the things you mentioned as you started to explain this shift, is the marketing aspect and it’s something that’s come up amongst IT leaders for some time is, where does marketing fit into technology? There are a number of changes that you have taken to change the focus of IT. Marketing being one of them. I know you’ve done some interesting things around compensation. Can you maybe spend a few minutes talking about your perspective on marketing of IT and maybe also where compensation and time comes into that?

Mitch Davis:                  The CIO is the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, is basically we set the communications for the college. Change starts at the top, and that means I have to show value in every meeting I am. I’m probably in my sales marketing mode 90% of the time when I’m talking about what we’re doing, I’m talking about IT, I’m talking about different States, whether it’s through business process. Everything I’m doing is basically geared into changing the client to being the kind of client I want, who is also focused on the value we’re creating for them.

Mitch Davis:                  That requires that you have very, very competent people to deliver. You can’t promise something and not be able to deliver. So how do you recruit those kinds of people is one, you talk about an IT that they’ve never heard of before. One is working in ways that they’ve never even experienced. That’s what I’ve done.

Mitch Davis:                  At Bowdoin we were able to… Well, I have a pretty unique compensation structure myself, is that 50 days of the year I get to do outside consulting. I can go do what I want as far as developing myself in my career or for whatever reason I want to. I’ve had that since I’ve been in higher ed to Oregon, Stanford, Bowdoin, and now Dartmouth.

Mitch Davis:                  Bowdoin, they allowed me to move that down within my department and I was able to let people do consulting on the outside. So we were keeping really highly talented people in positions that allowed us to execute perfectly. Because as I was said, you had a top tier team that you didn’t have to pay top tier money.

Mitch Davis:                  We paid them well, but they also had an ability to go out and compensate themselves with things that they wanted. And they also felt that they were part of a team, they never felt that they would be able to put that together again anywhere else.

Tim Crawford:               And so that compensation is more than just dollars. It’s also helping folks grow and offering things that they wouldn’t necessarily get at other institutions or other organizations.

Mitch Davis:                  Right. So the person, when they enter our department, a new person, the first book they get is Designing Your Life. It’s a class that’s taught at Stanford, but every one of their managers has gone through the book. Basically it helps you have a conversation with yourself about where you want to go in the future. Our job in IT is to help them get them there, create the opportunity to move them forward, create learning experiences they didn’t and basically teach them how to be exceptional in their life and in their job.

Tim Crawford:               Very closely related to that, I know this is something that you are passionate about, is how you bring in the concepts of bias, diversity, and learning about those. Can you talk maybe a few minutes about how you have changed IT to become more approachable and your perspective on bias and diversity?

Mitch Davis:                  I had this question is asked to me by a woman when I was in Stanford doing the dotcom. I was working with a lot of startups and stuff, and she asked me, well how diverse was it? And I said it was really diverse. There were Asians, there were blacks, there were Mexicans going right across the board. We were all there. And she said, how many women were there? I said there were almost none.

Mitch Davis:                  And she said, “Why don’t you read this book?” It was called Brotopia. I read that book and I realized that I had a bias in myself that I didn’t even notice was that my perspective of where women sat within leadership that wasn’t was did I always think of was my responsibility. And then I took that on my mantle is that’s my responsibility. I’m required to do that as a CIO and if there’s going to be a diverse environment at any organization that’s on me.

Mitch Davis:                  So at Dartmouth, and beginning at Bowdoin, but really ar Dartmouth, I made that a focus. Bringing in a consultant, and she was both black and a woman, to help me understand how do I build an organization that gives both people of color and women an opportunity to advance to the highest levels of the organization?

Mitch Davis:                  Very shortly we were able to differentiate the top level of my staff. It was all men when I got here, now it’s about half and half. This year we were at 50% of our recruiting was diverse, which they told me when I first came here that that was going to be really hard in the Upper Valley.

Mitch Davis:                  We’re trying to push this message and sell this message across IT and working with Dartmouth across the campus as a value. The stay where we are is not where we need to be for the future. And if we don’t address this now, it’s something that’s going to eat away at us longterm.

Mitch Davis:                  But if I build a culture here that basically embraces all of this, our ability to recruit across the board the best people we can possibly find is going to get incredibly easy. I’ve seen people today that are very passionate about what we’re doing here to the point where they’re coming here so they can be part of it, which is exactly what I was hoping would happen.

Tim Crawford:               That’s impressive. Partly because Dartmouth is not exactly in a very accessible location and so you have a number of factors that you have to consider when you’re trying to attract great talent.

Mitch Davis:                  Well, I think opportunities in corporations and other companies aren’t as good as people think they are. People of color, or at least the ones I’ve talked to, feel like they’re stuck somewhat in their roles. And also that a lot of times the diversity conversations get sidelined and they’re not really a value. It’s more lip service than it is actual work.

Mitch Davis:                  What I’ve done, and I’m continuing to do, because I feel like we just touched on this is, trying to make it where people are a little more uncomfortable every day discussing this to the point when people walk in our departments, I was talking about this today, when they walk into departments and sit down with us and we’re just having a bias conversation across the table that anybody that walks in our group is incredibly uncomfortable, because they’re not used to talking about the things we’re going to feel very like it’s an every day part of speech, because if we can’t make it that then we aren’t going to solve the problem. I’d say rather than solving the problem is create a solution that actually works that we can hopefully can spread beyond us.

Tim Crawford:               Well, and I think to that point, if you look at your organization where it was compared to where it is today, you know the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

Mitch Davis:                  Right. All the things that people thought couldn’t happen at Dartmouth, we’ve been able to do. Did we take alternative paths to do so? Yeah. We didn’t follow standard recruiting practices. We dumped a bunch of people in a car and we drove to RIT and MIT and all the job fairs, hung out at our sign. And from a very top to bottom line, we sat around and talked to people. And within three weeks we had 160 resumes for people who wanted to come here, because our message was much different than what they were hearing from other people. And that was not the same thing. I tell people we’re not going to institute changes, all we think we’re going to do it a little bit more of what we’re doing.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s talk about change a little bit from a different context, which is how you’re thinking about the IT organization and shifting IT into more of a research organization. Now some might say this is specific to higher education and doesn’t apply to corporate organizations. I personally would say it does apply to corporate organizations, but why don’t we start with sharing some of what you’re doing at Dartmouth and how you’re making that shift take place.

Mitch Davis:                  I’d say the first thing there was a change in the name, and you’d say, well, what does that mean? When you’re starting to establish your brand, you have to have something to wrap your brand around, but we changed the name from information technology services to information comma, technology and consulting. So rather than just a research organization, we’re a consulting organization across the board.

Mitch Davis:                  Number one is how are we going to move business process better? How are we going to make the client value what we do in the sense of where we go from being the required provider of services to the desired provider of those services, and actually think of ourselves as a company that’s actively out there trying to sell our services and create services that people want to use.

Mitch Davis:                  It just so happens that research was a place where that found a foothold very quickly and we were able to bring in disparate HPC groups, high performance computing groups, data analytics. People actually chose to come to IT that were in other areas in the medical school and stuff so that they could work with us as a team and a partner.

Mitch Davis:                  I think of a CIO, I told them they didn’t have to report to me. And also I say this to the other schools is that I’d like to earn my influence place at the table every day for what I do and what I say, and that is something that I consider every morning. I get up, what can I do today to make the position of IT a much more leadership role and also one where people value that input and value having them at the table.

Tim Crawford:               But part of that aspect is really leveraging IT as an incubator in some regards, wouldn’t it be?

Mitch Davis:                  Yep. And that’s why you think of it as an incubator. We do actually function as an incubator for projects across the campus. We work with faculty now. We didn’t before. We worked with the DALI Lab, which actually teaches students how to work on projects and stuff, and computing. My staff was actually taking the class that is the DALI Lab and worked with students and launched applications out of that, that are now being used across the campus. To the point now we’re thinking of creating a Dartmouth nonprofit consortium because a number of people have come to us and said, “Hey, could we use that app?” And we’re thinking, well, we have to maintain it, we don’t want to create something we can’t maintain.

Mitch Davis:                  So we have about three or four, maybe five apps right now that people have wanted, and we’re thinking that people would pay maybe $500 or $1000 to support the consortium to have access to any software within it. Let’s say if we did a Phishing Tournament app. Right now, all Phishing Tournament apps are included in major software security packages that can run you up to $60,000 a year. I think people would pay $1,000 a year to have access to a just the Phishing app, to be able to run a Phishing Tournament. You know what I mean by Phishing, right?

Tim Crawford:               Sure.

Mitch Davis:                  Security Phishing. To have access to that app, to run a quick Phishing Tournament across their campus, and also come with documentation in marketing about how to run this project. How do you run a Phishing Tournament? What’s the value? The value is you get this huge communication opportunity that is fun and interesting with your campus about security, so you can educate them much more clearly about one of the biggest risks you have at the campus.

Tim Crawford:               No, that’s great. As we wrap on this episode, there’s a question I always like to ask my guests, which is what excites you most about the CIO role? You’ve been CIO at a number of institutions, you have a very unique perspective on the role of the CIO and where it’s headed. What excites you most as you think about where things go from here?

Mitch Davis:                  I think the potential. I just think I’m scratching the surface of what the CIO can do across the board. If you think of it even as we go forward in the future, there’s nothing that people do that isn’t touched by technology.

Mitch Davis:                  So if the CIO, instead of being at the bottom level, providing the services, is at the high level thinking strategically about how all of these services are in alignment, and if all of that alignment allows the business or allows the institution to accelerate its ability to innovate and move forward, that’s a really interesting space.

Mitch Davis:                  Those people, they will get that job. The fact that I feel that I do some of that today, but that I’m just barely there. And also thinking of that we’re able to create opportunities for understanding bias in a way that they haven’t done before. You can move that not just here, but across the campus with various members of the campus and college. And if you’re successful in IT, it actually positions you in a much different place than what you would have been before.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. Mitch, thanks so much for taking part in the program today. Love it.

Mitch Davis:                  You’re welcome. Thanks. It was fun.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on the CIO In The Know Podcast Series, visit us online at, or you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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