A struggle within MIT’s IT department over its future
The sweeping transformation that is currently underway at MIT’s Information Systems and Technology office is one that is unprecedented in its scope and backlash from employees. Many students and faculty are familiar with IS&T, which maintains services ranging from email accounts to Athena clusters across campus — technologies that underlie everyone’s time at MIT. Fewer people, however, are aware of the changes that have redefined the organization over the past year.
Led by IS&T’s vice president, John Charles, the ambitious reorganization began in February 2015 and aims to spur innovation through agile software development practices adopted from industry. Charles emphasizes that this is not a typical reorganization, but rather a complete transformation of MIT’s IT department.
Meanwhile, a number of current and former employees say the transformation has fallen short of improving the organization, and has instead created considerable turmoil in the work environment. This has resulted in roughly 20 percent of nearly 300 staff members leaving since February, instead of the average 8 or 9 percent annual turnover.
The reorganization stands out in several ways. Many longtime employees have resigned — by the estimate of a former employee, Laura Baldwin ’89, more than 700 years of experience have been lost from people parting ways. A number of those employees have been MIT alumni.
The changes within IS&T are guided by a long-term strategic vision that was formed in 2014 and is expected to be fully realized by 2020. However, employees say that the vision is not clear and that the demotions of managers and other structural changes have left them perplexed and uncertain about the future. The shift to industry practices has also upset some staff who worry IS&T is leaving behind its roots in MIT culture.
It’s been a year since the changes were first introduced, yet they remain a contentious issue between upper-level management and many staff members. Since mid-November, at least five people have resigned from IS&T, Baldwin told The Tech.
Six current and former employees described their experiences with the transformation for this article, but several of them requested to remain anonymous to avoid backlash from IS&T or future employers.
Staff said that the wave of departures, combined with distrust in managers, has caused morale to plummet within IS&T.
“The problem,” Baldwin said, “[is] that the organization is kind of being gutted and demoralized.”
A former employee speaks up
Laura Baldwin had spent more than half of her life at IS&T. After graduating from MIT in 1989, she volunteered for eight years while in graduate school at Tufts and then spent a subsequent 17 years working full-time. Her most recent position had been at the help desk in the support department.
In that time, Baldwin saw the organization change a number of times. In 1995, it switched from six departments to five new teams that worked under the motto “great systems fast.” The year 2004 saw it expand from Information Systems into IS&T as it merged with another organization, Financial Systems Services. In 2005, 2006, and 2010, the organization underwent further expansions and changes.
Baldwin enjoyed her job of interfacing with students and faculty on campus and working to resolve their IT problems. Her managers appreciated her work as well; Baldwin said she had always received good annual performance reviews with no serious complaints.
However, when she was called into a meeting last October with two superiors and a Human Resources staff member, the mood couldn’t have been more different. Her managers had several concerns with her recent behavior responding to specific help requests by MIT professors and employees. These included what they called “unprofessional communications” with a professor, and in particular the casual tone she had used in her online correspondences. Baldwin maintains she had tried her best to solve the professor’s technical problem involving email servers, and had used similar language to what she had used previously. For her managers, though, the response she had given the professor over email had been unprofessional.
Charles, who was interviewed over email for this story, said he “cannot comment on individual decisions and personnel matters,” other than to say that all personnel matters were “handled in accordance with Institute HR policies.”
In the months before the meeting with her superiors, Baldwin already had doubts about her job. “I had not necessarily enjoyed my job for a while, but I was really good at it, and I liked doing it, and I liked helping people,” she said. “So I was like, I’ll keep my head down and stick it out, and eventually things will get better, since how could they not?”
Sensing that her managers were about to transform her role into a developer position, which would take time away from doing the support work she enjoyed, Baldwin decided it was time: only three days after her meeting, she resigned.
In a dramatic display, Baldwin met with one of her managers and ended with the line, “In the words of my people … offer me money … power too, promise me that. Offer me anything I want … I want my managers back, you son of a bitch.”
“I will always be grateful to my grandboss for allowing me to use my chosen exit line,” she wrote later on her LiveJournal blog.
Baldwin’s experiences are not unique, and she is worried about her former colleagues. “The casualty rate is still going up, and I feel like I know very few people [at IS&T] who are not either looking for jobs or wishing that they had time to look for jobs, and it’s just going to get worse,” she said.
The vision for an agile future
In 2012, shortly after Israel Ruiz was appointed MIT’s executive vice president and treasurer, he applied the tried and tested concept of external visiting committees — designed to provide universities’ academic departments with outside feedback every few years — to the IS&T office he was now in charge of. The result was the 2012 IS&T Advisory Council.
That Council’s report, along with an older 2009 working group report, formed the foundations for John Charles’s plan to revamp and modernize IS&T’s services. After being appointed to his position at the end of 2013, Charles drew upon these reports and began a listening tour of his own to meet with groups ranging from IS&T staff and a student IS&T advisory board, to IT governance and advisory committees.
By the end of 2014, Charles had received the necessary approvals for the 2020 Vision for IT@MIT plan that he had helped develop. The plan concerned all information systems at MIT, but also focused largely on IS&T.
It was in February 2015 that letters were delivered to all IS&T staff members to inform them about the changes. “Everyone will experience some type of change,” some of the letters read. “Individuals may have a new manager, have some modification of responsibilities, and/or need to learn new technologies and gain additional skills.”
One of the primary principles guiding Charles is that IS&T must improve the efficiency with which it develops software to meet the growing needs of the university — something that most of the people interviewed for this story agreed with.
Before 2015, IS&T relied on a development methodology called the “waterfall model” in which the various stages of building software — such as design, coding, and testing — happen sequentially.
Under the 2020 vision, IS&T is moving towards an agile and iterative approach. The exact flavor of agile methodology they’ve adopted is one called Scrum. The model is used in much of the software industry, and is generally considered more efficient than the waterfall model. The time between conception and deployment can be dramatically decreased.
IS&T is attempting to apply the agile approach to the entire organization. “Agile organizations,” Charles wrote in a February email, “need empowered leadership at the individual and team levels — that means less management and more fluidity.”
He acknowledged that the “career progressions” for individuals would change and that several managers would transition to “lateral/same-level individual contributor leadership roles.”
In an email interview with The Tech, Charles said there was a need for “transforming, expanding, and refreshing skillsets” of IS&T employees.
While MIT’s IT department has seen its fair share of reorganizations in its 33 years of existence, this one may be unique in the number of people that have left as a result.
During IS&T’s last reorganization in 2010, 19 IS&T staff were laid off. While the number of “involuntary separations” during this restructuring was similar — 17 between February and August according to an IS&T document — many others also chose to resign or take an early retirement.
According to Charles in a November meeting, 18.6 percent of IS&T staff members had left IS&T since February, in comparison to 8 or 9 percent on an average year. More staff members have left since that number was announced.
Despite the fact that Charles and other managers have repeatedly told staff members that the transformation would require their full support, there seems to be very little agreement. While most of those interviewed agreed with the general high-level principles guiding the changes, they contested the scope and details of their implementation.
Applying industry methodologies like the agile Scrum framework to the entire organization of IS&T is overkill, several of those interviewed said.
Another former employee said that he decided to leave IS&T when he realized “the organization would never truly be able to adopt agile practices such as Scrum.”
The Scrum methodology is about avoiding micromanagement of employees, he said, which is “completely at odds with the preferences and personalities of much of IS&T’s current leadership.”
Several people said that since Charles believes IS&T is undergoing a transformation that not many other universities have attempted, he looks to the corporate world — insurance, financial, and technology organizations — for examples of similar changes. Charles cites Google, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix as inspiration and for having similar “maker-based” cultures to MIT.
Not everyone feels that industry and MIT cultures are comparable.
“MIT is not a one-size-fits-all organization,” Teddy Thomas said, who worked at IS&T for 1.5 years before resigning this June 15. “Just because something works somewhere else doesn’t mean it will work at MIT.”
Baldwin described the new approach as a “‘we’re-a-company’ mindset.”
“There has been a lot of lip service paid to the idea that we’re partners with the MIT departments and communities in providing service,” she said, “but if we’re behaving in ways that are much more corporate, it’s unclear how true that is.”
She went on to add, more generally, that she thinks the changes “bring you more to the average of what everyone else does,” potentially destroying the “unique culture” that existed in MIT’s IT department before.
Baldwin thinks that even if some of the industry standards work for the software development aspects of IS&T, the agile framework and the measurable metrics that were introduced alongside it are not appropriate for the support aspects of IS&T.
In the call center, she said, staff used to take a support call and have as much time as needed to write up the support “ticket” afterwards. After the reorganization, though, they were required to finish the ticket and take another call after two minutes. While that meant the call center metrics may have looked better, Baldwin thinks it came with the cost of lower quality tickets as staff members were pressured to take more calls.
IS&T may also be shifting away from certain projects that hold value to MIT. One example is the development of future versions of Athena, MIT’s academic computing environment that has been around since 1983.
Jonathan Reed ’02 was the sole IS&T employee in charge of Athena development, before resigning last July. Since then, “no staff members have been assigned to work on Athena development,” Reed said. There are still part-time contributors, but Reed noted that they “can’t provide the same level of support that a full-time staff member can.”
Charles acknowledged that future development of Athena is up in the air. Due to its shift “from on premise datacenters to off premise cloud” environments, IS&T is preparing to close down its W91 datacenter in 2017 and is simultaneously rethinking the Athena clusters on campus.
Two employees remarked on a trend of staff members who were MIT alumni either getting pushed out or choosing to leave IS&T. One current employee, who is not an MIT alumnus, hypothesized that graduates are more likely to identify with MIT students and faculty, and thus more willing to help out some “quirky” person with their idiosyncratic projects — something that is harder to do, and possibly even looked down upon, in post-reorganization IS&T.
Reed added that the Athena system includes “a vast number of under-utilized complex features that are in use only by a small, but highly vocal, subset of the MIT community,” and that maintaining them would require “active support from senior leadership.”
Charles asserts that the transformation is about “enabling MIT’s culture of innovation” and serving the community in a “hopefully more effective and efficient way.”
However, the belief among those resigning is that the managers are too focused on metrics to notice if they’re actually assisting the people who need it. A former employee posed the question, “Have these people lost touch with [those] they’re helping?”
“This was the first time in 13 years (and 4 previous IS&T re-orgs) that I had seen managers and directors demoted for no apparent reason,” Reed wrote in an email. “This was also the first time I had seen people re-assigned away from their existing positions and then those same positions re-posted on the MIT Jobs website within days.”
Many managers were demoted from their supervisor roles, likely as part of the changes to make IS&T a flatter organization. However, in several cases, new managers were put in place as soon as their predecessors left.
In data management, systems engineering, and customer support, where most of the resignations occurred, at least 15 project managers or team leaders left since the reorganization, according to organization charts from IS&T’s website.
Charles acknowledged the “disruptive work” in the transformation, but said that the organizational changes are due to “consolidating teams around [their] new operating model.”
IS&T has tried to make the details of the upcoming four years accessible through the public-facing Future of IT@MIT website (it.mit.edu) and a wiki with commonly asked questions and answers, such as, “Who made the decision regarding my title change?”
IS&T also reports on the latest version of the transformation (using version numbers like those used for software), which they announce at meetings or over emails, as well as publicly online.
In the latest version from November, “IS&T v1.5,” Charles asked IS&T employees to step back from the Scrum model, instead providing them with the flexibility to choose whatever methodology they want to use, “whether it’s Scrum, waterfall, Kanban, or storyboards.” This process is known as bimodal IT, and is once again an idea adapted from industry.
The latest change seems like it would have resolved the concerns that staff held in 2015, but it has not.
For some skeptics, it has simply fueled the perception that upper management does not have a clear plan for the transformation.
Another former employee predicted that “groups will go back to doing things the same way they have for the last 20 years.”
“I think this is too little too late,” Thomas said.
Baldwin said that the changes were “probably a good sign,” although her work in support would not have been affected.
The switch to bimodal IT is supposed to help people know “how to select the proper tools and methodologies for the job,” Charles said. This is a “critical first step in the transformation” toward a completely agile workplace that is made up of “agile mindsets, agile behaviors, agile practices, and agile processes.”
“Gutted and demoralized”
In order to be successful, the transformation will require everyone to buy into new philosophies, as Charles has emphasized in meetings. However, this has led to an environment where people are hesitant to express dissenting views, a current employee said.
Baldwin agreed. “When it’s presented as a victory,” she said, “then nobody feels like they can say, ‘No, actually, this is inconvenient. This makes it harder to get our jobs done.’”
These attitudes are indicative of a larger morale crisis currently taking place in parts of IS&T: what Baldwin referred to as feeling “gutted and demoralized.”
IS&T has developed “a culture of fear, secrecy, double-speak, and a clear lack of respect from IS&T senior leadership,” Thomas said.
Charles described this “stress” as originating from employees’ “disrupted relationships,” “new roles within new teams,” and their needing to adopt “new skills, new methodologies, new processes, and … new mindsets.” He agreed these difficulties are challenging, but maintained that they are necessary for modernizing IS&T.
IS&T has noticeably tried to improve morale in small ways, such as adding treadmills, soda machines, and free snacks across the offices. Rather than appreciating such amenities, however, those interviewed took a cynical view and treated them as superficial attempts to boost morale.
Furthermore, despite the IS&T reorganization principles being openly documented online, other parts of IS&T have seen a culture of secrecy develop around them.
Some staff in managerial roles allegedly signed non-disparagement agreements when resigning. These agreements can be found in many organizations, and they generally prevent former employees from taking actions that negatively affect the organization. As a result of these agreements, though, many staff were not available to be interviewed for this story.
Even those who were interviewed requested anonymity because they feared their identities being revealed would hurt them in their current jobs or in future jobs. Some former employees were concerned that their speaking out would lead to retaliation on current staff.
Beyond the IS&T bubble
The impact of the reorganization extends beyond just IS&T. Both Charles and discontented employees agree that the changes are affecting the greater MIT community.
Charles attributes the success of several new IS&T services used by the MIT community to the reorganization and its accelerated development cycle. One such platform is the newly released Developer Community Portal and its APIs that allow MIT developers to access various MIT data. “Two of our new APIs, Classrooms and Subjects, were built in response to student feedback,” he said.
Charles also highlighted two other services that IS&T has introduced at MIT — Dropbox for Business and GitHub Enterprise. It should be noted that these services were announced in August and October of 2014, respectively, months before the reorganization began.
Their development originated from a “series of proof-of-concept projects” that were launched during the planning stage of the transformation, Charles said. One current employee, however, said she didn’t see “any connection between their rollout and the transformation.”
Many current and former employees worried that the quality of support that IS&T is providing students and faculty has declined. Because of the considerable loss of institutional knowledge from people resigning, the organization isn’t as well-equipped to manage several of its services, some said.
“To the extent that we [at IS&T] actually have a mandate to provide IT help and infrastructure and support to the MIT community,” Baldwin said, “we’re going to be screwing that up.”
Since 1983, MIT’s information systems have been a key part of the MIT experience. For example, one of the first things a student now does upon entering MIT is create a Kerberos account that will act as their online identity during their time at the university.
The turmoil within IS&T will likely settle down, but beyond the buzzwords like “agile” and “innovation,” and beyond the managerial role changes, there is a more fundamental disagreement taking place.
It’s an open question whether IS&T should be run based on the principles that guided it through the rich yet fragmented history of the past three decades, or based on the norms of industry that could lead to a more progressive yet uncertain future. While everyone agrees that IS&T can and should improve, a number of IS&T affiliates don’t want to see the defining aspects of MIT’s IT be thrown out with the transformation.
Interestingly, that concern was raised as far back as August 2012, when the IS&T Advisory Council released their report after assessing the state of IT. Two years before the transformation would even begin, members of academia and industry were anticipating the struggles associated with change at MIT.
“The MIT environment might also be characterized as one of autonomy and entrepreneurialism,” the report read. “Over time, this culture has impacted core administrative processes and systems, which have become disparate and led to inefficiencies.”
“It is now difficult to modernize systems and scale them to meet the needs and expectations of the community. This cultural challenge will need to be confronted in order to achieve the vision of simplified processes and systems.”