Thursday, September 13, 2018


Love and Invisibility

Mark Katsouros

September 13, 2018

Ever have one of those mornings where you realize you’re just going through the motions?  You know, you wake up, go for a run, shower, head to work, look at the calendar on your smartphone, and head to your first meeting?  This is how my day started yesterday.  Admittedly, I was tired (after getting up before 5am to go for a six-mile run in the dark).  Funny thing is that I realized, in real time, that I was just going through the motions.  This doesn’t happen to me too often, but I suppose we all occasionally fall into a pattern of mindless, barely purposeful movement.  Then a cool thing happened…

My first meeting of the day happened to be a Penn State IT Mentors final face-to-face meeting.  (I serve on the organizing committee, having been a mentor in the program since its inception four years ago.)  Right from the start, it was an energizing meeting.  We had a round-robin of testimonials from both mentees and mentors (who I had proudly helped pair), and what the program had meant to them—what they learned about each other and themselves, the networking opportunities, and the real growth opportunities discovered and forged.  We had some VIPs there to speak, including our Sr. Director for IT in Finance and Business, David Gindhart, and our VP of IT and CIO, Michael Kubit.

Dave spoke of the parallels between leadership and love.  This was extremely interesting, and really hit home.  One definition of love is giving something to others with no expectation of anything in return, of any real self-gain—the mother who’s really tired and has to get up early for work in the morning, but stays up all night watching over her sick child, or the stranger who volunteers, before or after a long day of work, to cook and serve others at the local food bank or drive a senior citizen to a medical appointment.  And one definition of a leader is one who gives something of him/herself to others, with no expectation of recognition for doing so.  This is often called “servant leadership,” and it’s something to which I subscribe and aspire to embody.  Give credit, take blame, help those around you succeed, even shield others from the bull and politics we all inevitably encounter on occasion.  If we all did this every day at work, imagine the kind of workplace we’d have.  But I had never quite thought about it in the context that Dave so eloquently provided.  Leadership and love.  It really is quite the striking parallel.  Dave talked about change, referencing the significant organizational change that is underway across Penn State IT, and people’s fears about change and the unknown, and their need for, yep, love.  We talked about how easy it is to view change as negative, and scary, but reminded each other that change should be contextualized much more positively.  Change is opportunity!  For growing, learning something new, and NOT going through the motions.

Then Michael spoke, first adding to the great conversation that had just occurred, but then listening to the program participants in the room speak on everything from the IT Mentors program to change to leadership.  It was a wonderful discussion, and a wonderful reminder of how important it is for leaders to be great listeners.  He reminded us of the incredibly important role IT plays in the University’s mission.  And he said something that triggered a lot of thinking on my part about another parallel.  He talked about how the best leaders are “invisible.”  Much like the context Dave had just provided, Michael reminded us that the best leaders promote the success of others—that the best outcome to which we as leaders can aspire is to push our colleagues and customers, and employees, and peers, into the limelight of success, while we remain invisible and ready to do it again, and again.  What could be greater, and point to more success, and purpose, and self-fulfillment, than that?  Finally, he reminded us of the importance of balance, of taking care of, not only others, but of oneself.  (Suddenly, I was proud of myself for making the time to run early that morning.)  Oh, and the thinking that it triggered on my part?  I thought about another interesting parallel:  That the best, most useful, most compelling IT should also be “invisible.”  That it should just simply ENABLE, as effortlessly and as intuitively, and as reliably, as possible.  Our mission is teaching, research, and service.  We Are…  Scholarship, and global problem-solving, and community!  And the IT underpinning all of this should be just that—an easy, and enabling, and out of the way (yes, invisible) underpinning to the greatness that is our mission and purpose.

Needless to say, by the end of our meeting, I was no longer going through the motions.  Nor was anyone else in that room.

So, yeah, love and invisibility.  “Who would have thunk it,” as I brushed my teeth and put on my shoes yesterday morning? 

Mark Katsouros is the Director of Service Design & Development at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.

Monday, August 28, 2017

My Top-10 Leadership Lessons: From My Hindsight to Your Foresight

My Top-10 Leadership Lessons
From My Hindsight to Your Foresight
Mark Katsouros
August 18, 2017

For 30+ years, I’ve been leading people, and I’ve had some great leaders, and some not-so-great leaders, myself.  These are the most important lessons I’ve learned over that time period (and, believe me, I’m still learning):
  1. Do what you say you’re going to do.  Be careful about sharing half-baked ideas that may be misconstrued, but default to transparency.  Above all else, demonstrate trustworthiness.  Without trust and integrity, you will not survive as a leader.  Heck, you may not survive as a human.  Live your values and ensure they’re aligned with those of “the business,” otherwise you’re in the wrong job or, more accurately, working for the wrong employer.
  2. Be accessible to, and genuinely, authentically, deliberately care for, your people.  If you can’t do this, you’re simply not qualified for people leadership.  This requires emotional intelligence and empathy.  These are learnable skills, but you have to desire them.
  3. Provide the vision (“the what”) and empower your folks to find the road to get there (“the how”), helping them manage hurdles (removing hurdles for them) without micromanaging them.
  4. Don’t do “more with less,” but rather do either “less with less” or “more with more.”  This means that you have to prioritize and/or justify additional resources with data.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t do everything you reasonably can to optimize and constantly improve efficiency, but, let’s be real, the calculus of doing “more with less” is that you’re eventually trying to do “everything with nothing.”  Align with strategy.  Insist on resource sustainability.  For example, approved CapEx, to stand up a service, without approved OpEx, to run/sustain it, is deadly.
  5. Demonstrate humility vs. hubris.  Give credit and take blame.  Pro leaders know which pronouns to use, and when.  (Hint:  Default to “we” unless talking about blame, which should always be “I.”)
  6. Aggregate viewpoints vs. dictate decisions.  This is why diversity is so critically important.  It is our differences—our different cultures, experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and perspectives—that help create the most complete views and ultimately foster the best decision-making.  And there’s a balance between building consensus and making reasonably prompt decisions.  The key is to be clear up front about the process (e.g., “voting” vs. “advising”), and to own your decision, especially if it turns out to be the wrong one.  (See #5 above.)
  7. Teaching is learning, and growing others fosters self-growth and a culture in which people want to work/stay/perform.  Coaching (helping your employees come up with solutions on their own) and mentoring (helping your employees leverage your experiences and learn from your mistakes) are inherent responsibilities of leaders.
  8. In any profession, but perhaps most especially in IT, subject-matter expertise demands constant evolution/training.  So, stewardship of skillsets is part of our overall resource stewardship responsibility.
  9. Help your folks maintain a healthy work-life balance.  Work ethic and job passion are great, but performance has to be sustainable.  Happy, healthy, balanced employees are your best performers.  Burned-out employees are obviously your worst.  And YOU’RE at least partly responsible for which one each becomes.
  10. Even with balance, you and your employees spend an inordinate amount of time together at the workplace.  Help your employees have some fun there.  I’m not talking about forced platitudes here, but rather simple perks that demonstrate you care (e.g., leaving a candy bar on someone’s desk for his/her birthday, or bringing donuts to a project meeting), genuine celebrations that help build team comradery (e.g., an annual picnic), team recognition events that sincerely show your gratitude, and simply injecting humor (without overdoing it) to keep things light.  Tell stories, help people relate what they do to something positive, make fun of yourself.  Humor reminds us that we’re human, fosters humility, and provides a far healthier emotional outlet than, and can even replace, conflict and workplace politics.

Ultimately, your job as a leader is integrity, empathy, vision, strategy, portfolio management, prioritization, resource optimization, humility, knowledge aggregation, employee stewardship/empowerment/recognition, overall sustainability, and aligning employee growth aspirations with the needs of the business.  Sure, it’s a long list, but your employees and the business need all of these things.  Don’t let them down.

Mark Katsouros is the Director of Service Design & Development at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

7 Things You Should Know About Emergency Notification Strategy

As the CIO at her university, Emma is expected to be the IT service provider of emergency notification, not only towards her institution’s Clery Act compliance, but also to support the institution’s goal of keeping its community as safe as possible.  The institution is a large, public, research university, with tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff, so an on-premise solution seems unrealistic, given how taxing it would on the institution’s own infrastructure to initiate notifications for such a large constituency.

As Emma and her IT team, along with representatives from University Police, Public Relations, Risk Management, and General Counsel, search for the right technical solution to meet the institution’s emergency notification requirements, it soon becomes apparent to everyone that the technology is actually one of the easier components of this undertaking.

With the stakes as high as they can be, valuable lessons are learned, not only along the road towards the technical implementation, but also in terms of defining the actual policies, procedures, and roles surrounding this critical function.  Learning from these lessons results in a robust, optimally effective emergency notification implementation and set of procedural best practices, keeping the institution’s community informed of threats to public safety and thus as out of harm’s way as possible.
Multi-Modal vs. Single-Modal
Some of the hosted, or SaaS (Software as a Service), emergency notification solutions focus solely on text messaging, in the form of mobile phone text messaging, or Short Message Service (SMS), and email.  While SMS/text might be the most reliable, scalable modality, it should not be the only one upon which your institution relies.  With a broad range of available messaging options and notification technologies, providing a multimodal solution dramatically increases the chance of reaching more people sooner, not only because of the diversity of individual communication preferences/capabilities, but also because of the greater resiliency achieved in not relying on only one or two communication infrastructures.  In addition to text, consider landline and cellular voice, indoor and outdoor loudspeakers/sirens, digital signage, websites, social media, and others.  In addition, all of the modes should be controllable from a single console (or as few control points as possible) in order to reduce the time it takes to initiate a multimodal notification.
Emergency Only vs. Casual/Other Use
No spam!  And, even if people opt in to receive non-emergency messages, “mixed messages” dilute the most important stuff.  There are plenty of other mechanisms for non-emergency announcements, such as LISTSERVs and websites.  Reserve your Emergency Notification System (ENS) for emergencies only, so people will treat those messages as having the utmost importance.
Templates vs. On-the-Fly Wordsmithing
There is no time for a well-thought-out, well-crafted message during an emergency, so do that in advance and in the form of pre-approved templates for ease.  You’ll want to establish a broad collection of templates, that account not only for all foreseeable emergency scenarios (e.g., active shooter, armed suspect, bomb threat, earthquake, flood, hazmat, hurricane, tornado, winter weather emergency, etc), but also for the various modalities (e.g., email, enunciated voice, text, tweet, etc).  This also affords buy-in on the wording from all major stakeholders, from Legal to Public Relations to Risk.  Choose an ENS that supports easily-used templates.
Text-to-Speech-Enunciated vs. Recorded-Speech Notifications
Just as wordsmithing an appropriate message from scratch is difficult during an emergency, trying to record a calm, cohesive voice message during an emergency can be equally challenging, and variable scenario specifics, such as location, prevent you from recording in advance, so leverage text-to-speech enunciation, which has come a long way.  Some systems do support a pre- or sponsor-message, which can be recorded by a voice of authority, like “This is University Police Chief John Doe; please listen to this important alert.”  This tends to add some credibility to the machine-generated message that follows.
Opt-out vs. Opt-in
This is the difference between having a near-100-percent subscriber base and a near-zero subscriber base.  Default to having everyone signed up, for all modalities, and have them opt-out where they want.  When their actions do not mimic their intentions, your constituents are far less vulnerable having not opted out vs. having not opted in.
Policies and Procedures vs. Just Technology
Again, the technology is the easy (or at least easier) part.  Fully developing and documenting your emergency notification policies and procedures, including identifying who is authorized to initiate notifications and who is trained in the mechanics of sending them, is critically important.  Well-documented communication and marketing plans, testing procedures, and overall notification policies are critical to ensure consistent on-boarding, a verifiably functional system, and a clear understanding of when and how the system will be utilized.
Consistent and Explicit vs. Irregular and “War of the Worlds” Testing
Notifiers should literally test at the start of every shift by sending a test message to themselves, and those messages should never mock a real emergency scenario, just in case they somehow are distributed by accident.   This regular testing ensures that notifiers have the access and the familiarity they need to competently and swiftly initiate a notification, and that the system, with all of its complex integrations, continues to function as expected.
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Mark Katsouros is the Director of Network Planning & Integration at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.

November 2013

Friday, November 16, 2012

IT Service Metrics 101

IT Service Metrics 101

What to Measure, and How, When, and Why to Measure It

Written by Mark Katsouros.

November 13, 2012

As IT service providers, we all know how important it is to develop good metrics.  Without meaningful measurements, how are we to gauge our level of performance, and thus how we improve, at delivering the services most needed by our customers?  And, yet, it seems that so few of us are doing this correctly, if at all.  In order to deliver the most value to our institution, we must know which services will do that in the first place (something that is always shifting), how efficiently and effectively we are delivering those services in order to be competitive with alternatives, and how adequately we are managing/monitoring services in order to maximize our provisioning and support capacity, and respond to growth in demand.

Know the Vernacular:  Metrics vs. Measurements

These two terms are not interchangeable, and a lot of people get them confused with each other, but it is important that we are all speaking the same language.  This is really straightforward, actually.  Metrics are the things you want to measure—the variables.  Measurements are the actual data—the values.  As a simple example, height is a metric, and 6’2” is a measurement.  That example metric, and the measurements taken over time, can be used, for instance, to determine how fast a child is growing (or to identify some other trend).  Trends are the real value in all of this, and are discussed further below, in more depth.

The Four Critical Categories of Metrics

While some might argue that there are more, I have found that most every meaningful metric falls into one of four high-level categories:  (1) Capacity, (2) Performance, (3) Relevancy, and (4) Satisfaction.  The first two types are typically gleaned via operational measurements—instrumentation, monitoring, and logging.  The latter two types are best gleaned via customer feedback—subscription rates and satisfaction surveys.  They are all truly critical, and are somewhat interwoven, but let us look at each one independently:
  1. Capacity generally refers to quantity—how much of a finite resource is being consumed.  In the case of IT service metrics, this resource is a service (or an identifiable, finite piece of a service, such as infrastructure).  How much bandwidth is being consumed?  What is our CPU utilization?  How much disk space or memory is being utilized?  (And, of course, how fast are these numbers growing?  Again, trends are discussed further below.)
  2. Performance, in the context of IT services, is mostly about uptime and reliability, but it is also often used to measure how “healthy” (fast, error-free, etc.) a service is.  How many nines of uptime have we achieved?  How quickly did the data arrive?  How many packets were lost?  What is the quality of the service?  Are we meeting the performance expectations identified in our service level agreements?
  3. Relevancy gauges how dependent your customers are (or their work is) on a particular service.  This metric is most critical in terms of distinguishing levels of importance, and thus prioritizing services—which ones you should continue to provide and, perhaps more importantly, which ones you should not (or which ones you should change to better meet your customers’ needs).
  4. Satisfaction should be pretty self-explanatory.  This is how satisfied your customers are with a particular service—how they perceive your delivery of it, or their level of gratification.  Without this metric, you are only guessing at how well your service delivery is received by customers.  Of course, this metric is only applicable to the services that customers deem most relevant to them.  (No need to ask, obviously, how satisfied someone is with a service having little importance to his/her job.)

The Importance of Continuous Measurements towards Trending

Metrics are the means to an end, or, rather, the means to a trend.  While each of these categories is critical, it is the slope of the lines plotted across time from which you can learn the most about your services.  Is the service moving towards more importance or less?  (Is it time to dedicate more resources to the service, or plan its end?)  At what rate are the service’s resources being consumed?  Are we getting better or worse at delivering it?

Taking a measurement in time, for example, of a satisfaction score might yield an average score of seven on a scale of one to 10 (with one being poor and 10 being excellent).  While seven might seem like a decent average score on its own, it could be a sign of serious trouble if the past several average scores have been nines and 10s, or a welcomed sign of great improvement if the past several average scores have been extremely low.  Which kind of attention (or celebration) to give that average score of seven is totally based on the context gleaned by the trend.

Knowing when to end services (one of the most significant challenges in IT organizations), how to manage just-in-time (optimal) resource growth, how much to focus (resources) on improving service provisioning and/or customer service skills in general, and understanding the overall fitness of your service management (and service portfolio management) processes all comes down to metric-based trends.

A Valuable Tool:  The Service Survey

As mentioned previously, service subscription rates and customer surveys provide the best metrics for identifying trends to gauge service relevancy.  And, essentially, the only surefire way to know what customers think about your organization’s ability to deliver services is to ask them.  A simple, consistent, regularly-scheduled survey, that asks two critical questions for each service, is all you need.  Those two questions are:

Ask these two questions for each service that can be ordered from your service catalog.  Additionally, depending on how centralized your IT organization is, you may want to ask some questions to segregate the results into appropriate demographics.  For instance, if you are the central IT service provider for your institution, you will likely want to specifically differentiate between the feedback of your institution’s other IT service providers (who might serve as liaisons between you and their department’s end-users) and that of true end-users.  You might have totally different staff serving these two very different constituencies, or a very different provisioning process for each of them, so looking at this data separately likely makes a lot of sense.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

Dan Rather references aside, the frequency by which one takes measurements is critical to maximizing the meaning of the trends produced.  If measurements fluctuate dramatically (i.e., have a high standard deviation), they need to be recorded more often to minimize the likelihood of drawing the wrong trending conclusions.  More importantly, you want to ensure that you can appropriately react to trend changes in a timely manner.  So, the frequency of your measurements needs to account for the time you might require to sufficiently take action (e.g., increase capacity, add redundancy to deal with an availability issue, improve customer service training, or even kill a service).

In terms of the above relevancy and satisfaction survey, one should balance the need for frequent measures with that of not asking too much of one’s customers (by over-surveying them).  One solution is to divide your customer base into 12 groups and survey one group per month, thereby surveying every individual only once per year, but still gathering monthly points on the graph towards more rapid trending.  Of course, this assumes that your customer base is substantially large—large enough so that one twelfth of it would still provide reasonably large sample sizes, and thus un-skewed results.

A Fifth Metric Category

In addition to the four critical categories of metrics above, some count costs among the set of formal metrics that help expose important IT service trends.  IT cost metrics can include financial measures such as labor, software licensing costs, hardware acquisition and depreciation, and data center facilities charges, all mostly from general ledger systems, and combines these with operational data from ticketing, monitoring, asset management, time tracking, and project portfolio management systems to provide a single, integrated view of IT costs by service, department, GL line item, and project. Costs should further be broken down between capital (one-time) and operational (ongoing) cost elements.  In addition to tracking all of these costs, combining them with usage and operational performance metrics can provide a measure of value or Return on Investment.  Costs, budgets, performance metrics, and changes to data points are tracked over time to identify trends and the impact of changes to underlying cost drivers in order to help managers address the key drivers in escalating IT costs and thus improve planning.

Storing Measurements and the Grand Scheme of Things

Besides collecting, and gleaning meaning out of, metrics, one of the challenges many IT organizations seem to face is being able to summon and share those metrics when needed/requested.  This is a critical part of utilizing metrics successfully, as IT organizations are often large and complex, with completely different employees or groups supporting different services.

It is important to recognize the hierarchical relationship among metrics and two other fundamental service resource layers, (1) the service catalog/portfolio and (2) Service Level Agreements or, often, commitments / Operational Level Agreements (SLAs/OLAs).  To be clear, the service catalog is a public-facing menu of orderable services and the service portfolio is a more-internal superset of the service catalog that contains services (internal, retired, etc), service attributes, and detailed data, not typically present in the catalog.  SLAs are the performance and response commitments made to customers of the service, and OLAs are agreements between IT service providers that address roles, responsibilities, and response commitments.  Metrics should be leveraged to support SLAs/OLAs, and, of course, also support other service measurements more directly.  The aforementioned hierarchical relationship is a one-to-many-to-many structure:
In addition to storing detailed metric data in the service portfolio, a higher-level view of metrics and metric trends are often made available in the service catalog.  In essence, they demonstrate that you are meeting the service levels to which you have committed, and measuring other important aspects of the service.  Perhaps equally important, this provides a single authoritative source of metrics for both customers and service owners.

A Few Words of Caution

There are two risks, even dangers, of which you must be cognizant:

First, developing metrics, towards enabling better, data-driven decisions around a service, needs to be approached in a top-down fashion—with service level agreements/commitments (and perhaps other service goals) driving what you collect.  One of the major rookie sins of defining and gathering metrics is to start with those that are simply easy to gather, in which case you can certainly end up with voluminous amounts of data, very little of which may actually be useful.  Instead, start with your service goals—SLAs/OLAs, provisioning efficiency, customer satisfaction, and so on, and then identify the metric data that will help you gauge how well you are meeting those goals.

Second, developing the processes and structures for gathering, storing, analyzing, and sharing metric data requires a fairly monumental effort.  The very last thing you want to do with respect to metrics is to not respect the metrics, i.e., go through all of this effort, only to end up not utilizing the results.  More than just a waste of time, this will create a huge morale suck for those employees involved in the effort, as well as those service subscribers/customers who would likely benefit from it.  Act on the metrics and metric trends you expose.

Limited resources demand that our actions have a purpose, and that our purpose results in action.


Identifying appropriate metrics, taking reasonably-frequent measurements, and monitoring for trends, particularly changes in trends, is the only truly-reliable way to not only improve services towards meeting customer demands and expectations (and ensuring that you are meeting service level agreements/commitments), but it is the only way to know which services deserve your focus and resources, and which ones deserve to be placed on the chopping block (to free up focus and resources for more important things).

Capacity and performance metrics are typically gleaned via operational measurements—instrumentation, monitoring, and logging.  Relevancy and satisfaction metrics are best gleaned via customer feedback—subscription rates and satisfaction surveys.  Cost metrics, both capital and operational expenses, are obviously best gleaned from financial systems—general ledger, payroll, order/trouble tracking, and service and project portfolios.

And do not gather a bunch of metric data just because you can.  Gather it in support of service level agreements/commitments and other specific service goals.  Then deliberately and visibly act on them!  In other words, start with your high-level service goals and then identify the metrics that can help gauge how well those goals are being met.  Again, action without purpose is as detrimental to good service management (and employee morale) as purpose without action.

Finally, remember that those trends and trend changes tell the real stories, are what help us adequately grow (or shrink) services, and ultimately maximize our effectiveness and efficiency in delivering the important services on which most every business process of the modern enterprise so depends.

Mark Katsouros is the Director of Network Planning & Integration at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.