Grassroots effort helps shape future IT community at Stanford

More than 300 information technology professionals at Stanford gathered on campus earlier this month for an "unconference" to share information face-to-face, to raise awareness around common IT issues and to lead discussions on a theme.

Steve Fyffe

In his keynote address, President John Hennessy talked about how technology might be used in 21st-century classrooms.

He was only planning to stay at the Stanford University IT Unconference for an hour, but Bill Clebsch, the university's associate vice president of Information Technology Services, couldn't pull himself away from the recent daylong gathering on campus.

"God's honest truth, I was going to go and introduce President John Hennessy, stay for his keynote speech and then leave, but I stayed for the 'agenda creation' session after the keynote speeches, for lunch and for the first session of the unconference in the afternoon," Clebsch said during a recent interview about the Nov. 16 event.

"By that point, my assistant said that was enough, that I had screwed my calendar for the entire day and had to come home," Clebsch added with a laugh. "But it was hard to leave because the energy in the room was fabulous. And so were the people who attended, who are committed to Stanford and who were talking about all the interesting things they want to do. There was quite a buzz there."

The event was the brainchild of the 2011 class of the Stanford Technical Leaders Program, which offers leadership training annually to about 25 information technology (IT) staff from across the entire campus.

After completing the nine-month program, they decided to organize an "unconference," where the attendees create the agenda and lead discussions around a theme.

Stanford EdTech Group of participants from the IT unconference

The unconference included sessions on a variety of topics suggested by the participants.

The recent unconference offered more than 300 IT professionals – some of whom only knew each other through email exchanges – the chance to share information face-to-face, to raise awareness around common IT issues and to promote change that would benefit the university.

"Unconferences are probably a little more common in IT than in other areas," Clebsch said. "The notion behind an unconference is that the people on the ground with the technical knowledge probably have a better idea of what the topics and things people are concerned about might be, compared with someone like me."

The organizers chose the theme, "Building the Future IT Community at Stanford."

They lined up 10 sponsors – six of Stanford's seven schools, Information Technology Services, Stanford University Libraries, Administrative Systems and Residential and Dining Enterprises.

"It was a 100 percent grassroots effort," Clebsch said.

And based on some of the positive feedback from some of the people who attended the event, a successful one:

  • "How did you get Hennessy? To have 20 minutes open Q&A with him was AMAZING!!!!!"
  • "The best part is how this is part of a major shift in thinking about collaboration and technology. The university is talking the talk AND walking the walk!"
  • "The agenda (idea creation) went MUCH more smoothly than I anticipated and was very interesting. One small breakout group went down a different path than the stated themes, so I used my two feet and collaborated with others informally. GREAT DAY!"
  • "Great chance to meet peers and discuss issues, especially for all who work off campus and don't have the opportunity to meet face-to-face as much as on-campus folks. Let's keep this an annual event."

The event, which was held in Paul Brest Hall, began at 8:30 a.m. with breakfast and continued with a welcome from Clebsch, followed by Hennessy's speech and Q&A, and an address by Clarence So, chief strategy officer of, an enterprise cloud computing company based in San Francisco.

By 11:30 a.m. it was time to begin creating the agenda for the afternoon. To propose topics for a session, attendees wrote down their ideas on pieces of paper, summed up each idea in 15 seconds at the microphone, chose a time – 1, 2, 3 or 4 p.m. – and posted their sheets of paper on the whiteboard.

"Then everyone in the room, each of whom had been given four little sticky dots, went up to the front of the room and stuck dots on the sessions they wanted to attend," Clebsch said. "The reason that was important was that was how the organizers knew what size room each session needed."

The sessions were many – about 10 were held each hour – and the topics were varied, including web accessibility for people with disabilities; web design; high performance computing; lecture capture; mobile device management; educational technology; Drupal (open source content management software) features; social enterprise/social collaboration; and, befitting an "unconference," a session on "unleadership."

Clebsch, whose unconference talk focused on the future of IT at Stanford, said the university will be much more focused on research computing in the years ahead.

He said he has been working with Dean of Research Ann Arvin on a new research computing facility on the site of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The Stanford Board of Trustees has given concept, site and design approval to the $41.2 million project. If all goes according to plan, Clebsch said, construction of the new facility will begin early next year.

Clebsch said that when he arrived at Stanford in 1986, people accounted for approximately 35 percent of the budget of IT Services. Now, they account for almost 50 percent, a change that reflects the falling cost and the increasing power of technology as well as the ever-increasing importance of IT staff to help the university harness that computing power.

"You need experts, you need people who can make that technology work for other people," he said. "In research computing, you need a computational support team for a wide range of tasks, from helping professors determine what to put into their grants to helping them parallelize code. Our faculty advisers believe that we will see more and more PhDs in technology working alongside researchers to harness that technology even more.

"That's definitely true on the teaching and learning side as well," Clebsch continued. "The work being done at Stanford on transforming large lecture classes through breakthroughs like chunking – a method of splitting content into short, easily scannable elements, especially for viewing on the web – and video capture will have profound effect on pedagogy."

Clebsch said such changes would take time, but technology, which changes fast, will help drive those changes.

"This is not a field to go into if you don't love change," he said. "It's what I love. You get the best of both worlds at a university – intellectual focus, questioning of everything, the need for consensus, the need for stability and digital curation of knowledge. You get all of that, but you also get IT, which is fast-paced and changing all the time. New skills are needed. You get to implement new things. It's a very, very fascinating environment to work in.