By Todd Miller, Contributing Writer
As the recently retired chief information officer at the University of Pittsburgh, Jinx Walton is proud of what she and her staff at Pitt Information Technology (Pitt IT) have accomplished over the past 18 years.
“I am most proud of the organization of nearly 400 professionals who support central information technology at the University,” said Jinx Walton, who graduated from Pitt as an English major and held various technology-related positions at her alma mater, as well as brief stints in admissions and financial aid. “Their dedication to providing a robust, reliable and secure technology environment benefits students, faculty and staff alike.”
The University’s position as a leader in academic technology under Walton dates to 2005, when she spearheaded the creation of a state-of-the-art Network Operations Center (NOC), which supports enterprise and departmental systems, networking, and infrastructure, operating 24/7/365.
“Within three months of the NOC beginning operations, the number of user-reported problems decreased by 66 percent,” recalled Walton.
Higher Education institutions require a strong technology environment to support the needs of the academic community. This environment is attractive to hackers, and in the past higher education institutions had a reputation of having ‘open’ environments. Under Walton’s leadership, cybersecurity has been transformed from having a part-time employee responsible for changing combinations on door locks to having a chief information security officer who manages a team of 12 highly skilled professionals. In addition, the University is in the process of implementing a Security Operations Center to further increase the focus on security across all systems and services.
“While adapting to change and implementing new technologies is important, mastering the use of those technologies is even more significant,” said Walton. “Seamlessly migrating systems to the cloud makes that transition a sound technology decision rather than an arbitrary action that negatively impacts those who use the systems. For instance, our Student System was migrated to the cloud with most users not noticing when the change occurred.”
The Pace of Change
Although the rapidly changing IT environment has been a challenge for CIOs in all sectors, it is particularly so for those in academic settings. “Within higher education, we have to balance security with access,” said Walton. “Pitt is a world-renowned institution of higher learning whose faculty members need to collaborate with colleagues around the world. While security is of utmost importance, we have the responsibility of balancing that consideration with the faculty’s need to conduct their research and teaching with minimal obstacles.”
Whether a specific change is good or bad, Walton firmly believes that IT professionals need to address those modifications by engaging with constituent groups to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
“The University environment provides us with the unique benefit of being open to exploring newer technologies and identifying those which are required to maintain the services and technology tools we make available to students, faculty and staff,” Walton said.
Handling a Crisis
In almost two decades leading Pitt IT, her greatest challenge occurred in 2012 when the University became the target of nearly 160 bomb threats.
“The situation was extremely stressful and disruptive to the entire University community,” Walton recalled. Almost immediately, then-U.S. Attorney David Hickton led a successful investigation in cooperation with the FBI, other law enforcement agencies and the University. That collective effort resulted in criminal indictments, making the experience “challenging and rewarding,” as Walton put it, because the University community “pulled together, highlighting the professionalism and creativity of units, schools and individuals campus-wide.”
Challenges for the Next CIO
Reflecting on what lies ahead for her successor, Walton observed that “as more services migrate to the cloud, the NOC and the University will need to adapt to a different operating model.”
She also noted that as machine learning and artificial intelligence play an increasingly significant role in computing environments, using those technologies to support the University’s missions of teaching and research will require careful study regarding privacy, ethics and security matters.
“My successor will be moving into what I believe is one of the best CIO positions in the country and will benefit from the support of an exceptional administration and talented IT professionals across central IT and the University.”