Staff Q&A with Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy

Michael Bryant

Tom Murphy will tell you straight—he’s not an IT guy.

But don’t be swayed by his modest words. As Penn’s new vice president for information technology and chief information officer, he brings years of valuable, hard-earned experience in managing information technology for multibillion-dollar companies.

“I think Computerworld Magazine once called me a renaissance CIO,” Murphy says with a laugh from his office in 3401 Walnut St. “I play music, I do art, I was an English major.”

Murphy’s English degree was how he ended up in IT. In 1984, as a newly minted graduate of the University of Richmond, he had no idea what career path he wanted to pursue.

“I just got lucky and got my first real job out of school at Marriott Hotels and Resorts,” Murphy says. “Mr. Marriott wanted to begin automating the [check-in] process, but he wanted hotel people doing the work—not technical people.”

Murphy was brought on as a non-technical person at the Marriott headquarters in Maryland, where he rose through the ranks of the tourism and travel IT world, eventually spending five-and-a-half years as CIO of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

“I’ve talked a lot about genuineness and authenticity of leadership, and rising above [the CIO] being viewed as a technical job. It’s a leadership job,” Murphy says. “I believe the ability to help organizations understand and leverage technology effectively can be applied in any setting.”

Deciding to, as he says, “put my money where my mouth is,” Murphy shifted industries and jumped to CIO of Amerisource-Bergen, a pharmaceutical distribution and services company, and later DaVita Health-Care Partners. After more than 29 years in corporate America, Murphy was offered the opportunity in February to lead the central IT organization at Penn.

“In the private sector, even with a clear company mission, a corporation is still driven by Wall Street on the quarterly cycle, and that fact transcends the organization’s mission,” Murphy says. “I’m intensely intellectually curious. I saw this opportunity [at Penn] as unique. When I worked for Royal Caribbean, people would say, ‘You’ve got the coolest job in tour and travel.’ Now people say, ‘You’ve got the coolest job,’ period.”

Murphy sat down with the Current to talk about the professional mountains he’s facing, the quickly changing climate in the IT world, and what makes his job at the University
so cool.

Q: You’ve spent nearly three decades in the private sector. So far, what have been some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in making the switch to higher education?
A: The private sector emphasizes the quarterly earnings cycle and board meetings focused on Sarbanes-Oxley. [Congress passed this act in 2002 to protect investors from the possibility of fraudulent accounting activities by corporations.] There’s inflexibility in the private sector, and it influences what you do every day. I’m not even through my first academic calendar, but the academic calendar is very different. It’s still a calendar, and it’s still going to drive behaviors, but it is very different. The other thing is my first Ivy Plus encounter. Before, I never talked to primary competitors for many reasons. Here, working with peers from the other Ivies, there’s not that same sense of competitive withholding. Other than getting the best and brightest students, we share everything. It’s in my DNA to hold tight, and [at Penn], it’s all about being open. That openness influences everything we do, even when it comes to cyber security. Our network is designed to be an open environment. That introduces unique challenges that add to the complexity of ensuring our technology infrastructure remains secure. It’s very different from the situation found in the public sector.

Q: What is your favorite thing so far about that transition to higher ed and Penn in particular?
A: I love the openness. But the walk onto campus is what gives me goose bumps. I’m taking public transportation for the first time. I come into 30th Street [Station] and walk to campus, and it’s a magical place—the students, the faculty, the energy that you sense. I know people who are Penn grads, and 20, 30, 40 years later they still talk about how magical it was to be on campus. It’s really fun to be a part of this. I feel like the luckiest person in the world. Also, I’m surrounded by incredibly bright people, driven by a mission they truly believe in—education and access to education, research, and community service. The mission is an integral part of everyday life at Penn. I find it’s fun to explore the uniqueness of each school and center. It can be demanding at times, but no matter what the discussion, no matter what the difference of opinion, the mission is clear, and that keeps everyone motivated. In the past, I’ve gone into broken organizations where my first order of business was to fix them. That’s not the case here, and it’s a wonderful experience. I have a really strong team of people in ISC who really get what it means to deliver IT in a decentralized environment, which is really complex, by the way, far more so than I thought it would be relative to the technology. I have a very steep learning curve, but I have this great group of people who know what needs to happen, and they’re doing a great job.

Q: What are some of the main issues you’re facing in the IT world?
A: MOOCs [massive open online courses] are interesting because they potentially change the dynamic of pedagogy. How will this change teaching and learning? What should our response be? What is the best position for Penn in this vast spectrum of the MOOC phenomenon? Obviously, Penn understands all of this and is taking an active role through the Provost’s Open Learning Initiative. Penn’s participation with Coursera is exciting because it’s a way to increase access around the world to Penn’s amazing educational opportunities and, of course, increasing access is at the heart of the University’s mission. It will be interesting to see how MOOCs evolve—and it’s challenging to predict. We want to position ourselves appropriately to make the most of it, while neither over- nor under-reacting to possible outcomes. It requires maturity and discipline and patience. A second issue, cyber security, is big because it impacts everyone, as I indicated earlier. The pace of change in technology is a third issue. Striking the right balance is a little like the bright shiny object—like the dog and squirrel in the movie ‘Up.’ IT people and IT users have a tendency to be the dog chasing the squirrel, so we really have to temper our enthusiasm for what’s out there. [Penn has a] very long view, and that’s another thing I really enjoy about the institution. But technology can change almost overnight, and it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the ‘latest best thing’ and make a bad move or bad investment in a shiny, new trend that just doesn’t have legs. There’s a lot more of that than there are potentially longstanding new technological advances that can really move the University forward.

Q: Speaking of Penn’s long view—what are some of your own goals?
A: Two things. One is my motto: Treat people well, and everything else falls into place. I want to create an environment where we work and play hard. We have fun, we do good work, we deliver exceptional services. I want ISC to be the place everyone wants to be. The other thing is building on the great strengths of Penn’s IT community. I’d like to see Penn’s IT professionals think more as a community, yet still in a way that respects the individuality and uniqueness of each of the schools and centers. Together we can do so much more than we can individually. There are 300 or so people in central IT, and another 600 of [Penn’s] IT community in the schools and centers and administration. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to unify and achieve significant benefits for the University—not to drive either for commonality of approach or centralization—but to gain the greatest advantages from the incredible brainpower people have focused on the mission. We can find places where we can communicate better and take more of a community approach to computing. Ultimately we’ll deliver more value, faster, to the schools and centers than we’re doing today. I’m investing a lot of time to understanding all of the pieces of the University and building relationships, and trying to find those wins where we can show the value of coming together and collaborating in a meaningful way.

Q: Is that type of decentralized environment at Penn something you’ve experienced before in any of your previous positions?
A: I think higher ed has the notion of corporate as control-and-command leadership, having total authority from the top down. That’s not been my experience. It requires a tremendous amount of collaboration, shuttle diplomacy, and relationship-building. Every organization I’ve worked in was also decentralized, just not to the extent that Penn is. The issue is not one of either control or decentralization. It’s a question of uniting people into a team and creating an environment conducive to sharing ideas and opinions openly, and establishing common ground from which to start rather than using differences as the starting point. I visualize Mt. Everest when I think about what success will look like. Finding our common ground as an IT community and working together to drive the most value possible on behalf of the University while respecting the uniqueness and independence of each operating unit—that’s what I see as our Mt. Everest.

Originally published on September 12, 2013