Staff Q&A with Jeff Rusling

Jeff Rusling, Business Services  Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

When Jeff Rusling first took the helm at Computer Connection in 1998, the store would turn the Penn Ice Rink into a giant distribution center each fall, where students would pick up the new desktop computers that they’d ordered over the summer.

Needless to say, things have changed.

Not only has online ordering made the need for a makeshift central distribution point obsolete, but more students than ever are opting for smaller, portable laptops. Add to that the rise of handheld multimedia devices and the latest tech craze—the iPad—and the Computer Connection of today looks much different than it did 13, five or even two years ago.

“We’re always trying to keep on top of the technology that people want—better ways to get it into their hands, improved mechanisms for ordering and fulfillments,” says Rusling. “Technology changes so fast that long-range is tomorrow. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Rusling, now in his 35th year at Penn, started his University career as a student and civil engineering major. As an undergraduate, he worked in the Facilities Department (the architect’s office) and did architectural drawing and modeling. In fact, some of his handiwork is still on display in the 3-D model of the University, located in the Facilities and Real Estate office lobby.

After graduation, he first worked for Penn Housing, and then, for 17 years, the department of Residential Maintenance, where he ran a student housing inspection team and created the first automated work order system for Housing.

The common thread in his Penn career is one of customer service. “My philosophy for running [Computer Connection] is that I want my customers to enjoy their experience,” Rusling explains. “They come in and maybe they don’t know what to buy, they don’t know what they need. We help them figure out what it is they want, we get them their computer at hopefully a great price. If we can’t satisfy what you need, we’re going to point you in the right direction.”

The Current recently sat down with the Penn grad to talk about how he works to satisfy the demands of a very diverse and tech-savvy community.

Q. What was Computer Connection like when you started there 13 years ago?
We sold Dells and Apples and occasionally other brands. The biggest difference was that everybody was buying desktops then, and today, they’re buying laptops.
My job in Housing and the Vice Provost for University Life was customer service; it was helping students get their rooms fixed up, making sure that the tradespeople got their repairs done and all of that. It was a tough customer service job because people are always demanding that things get fixed.
This job has been really great because we get to give people things that they like and they thank us for it.

Q. What’s the mission of the store?
Our mission really is to get the best technology into the hands of students, faculty and staff at the best price that we can. We have a great opportunity to do that all the time. We have really good relationships with the manufacturers that we represent—Apple, Dell and Lenovo—and we get very good pricing for the computers. If people have problems after they buy, our relationships are such that we can help them, where a regular phone call to their tech support lines might not solve the problem. That really goes a long way to making the customer base happy.

Q. How do you balance all of the different needs of students from 12 distinct schools, faculty in a wide range of fields and diverse staff?
One way we do it is, each year, during the spring semester, we solicit information from the IT directors of each school to help us formulate what the back-to-school sales should look like, which is where we’re selling the majority of computers each year to students. We don’t want to come in with a computer that doesn’t meet the needs of those folks who have to support them in any school, as well as residential College House Computing. So, we vet our selections with them first and then that helps ensure when the students come in and buy what we’re offering that it’s easily supported within each school’s infrastructure.
My staff is also very technical and they’re very interested in the latest technologies, so we’re always trying to bring in those things that would be interesting to the users. As students come to us and say, ‘Hey, we need something special,’ we’ll get it for them and if it looks like it’s something that we would continue to sell, we’ll stock the shelves. We’ll take input from the IT folks and from our customers to make sure they have what they want.

Q. Computers themselves have changed so much, but there are so many other accessories that you can buy now. I imagine the store looks much different than it did a decade ago.
Desktops were, 10 years ago, physically big. We’d have boxes stacked around the store. From our viewpoint, the categories don’t change, but the products do. Luckily, my staff is very talented and they’re very interested in what’s out there so I think they help provide a good selection for what our customers are looking for. Things like the iPad come along and the iPod and they really change significantly the focus of what students and faculty and staff want or need.

Q. Can anyone shop at Computer Connection or just members of the Penn community?
Anyone can shop, however you need a Penn ID or University Health System ID to purchase some things, such as computers and academically discounted software. Manufacturers like Microsoft and Adobe have special programs to sell software at a reduced price to students and faculty and staff and those are limited to Penn and UPHS only. But anybody off the street can come in and buy a network card, a mouse, a keyboard or whatever.

Q. You also head the Office of Software Licensing. What does that entail?
That’s the group that negotiates with major academic software providers and acquires software to be distributed throughout campus to departments at significantly reduced prices. The group manages the Microsoft Select Program, for instance, that gets Microsoft Office and Windows into departments’ hands at a reduced cost. They manage the Adobe program, there’s all sorts of statistical software, thought certificates that ensure website certification so you know you’re not going to a bad website when you go to a url.
They provide a really significant service in that they save the University upwards of $1 million a year in terms of what you would pay if you didn’t have an Office of Software Licensing—if you’re just going and buying the straight academic pricing. Departments all over the University take advantage of it. It’s a small office, but it has a really far-reaching effect.

Q. Having such a wide variety at reasonable costs must be so important because it seems so difficult to be a student without access to technology.
It’s just impossible. They’re walking around connected, which is a challenge for us, too, because nobody has to buy from us, so we’re competing with online sales.
The goal is a happy customer, a good experience, if they need help on the back end after the sale and they’re going to remember how they enjoyed their experience in the store and come back the next time they need something. We’re here to get technology into people’s hands at a good price that you can’t find anywhere else and we’re coupling that with service that you can’t get anywhere else. As technology changes, we recommend new things and one of the fun parts of running the store is you always get to see the newest stuff first. My staff loves that.

Q. You’ve been at Penn since 1976. What were your impressions of it back then?
The University back then was rather isolated from the West Philadelphia community. I think that’s the single biggest difference between then and now. I live in West Philadelphia; I took advantage of the Penn Home Ownership Program. The boundary used to be 40th Street when I was a student here. Now there are students continuing to move out [into the neighborhood] and that helps the West Philadelphia business community. It’s just a far more vibrant place to be. Public safety expanded their reach out into the community not only physically with patrols, but also with community outreach. They’ve done a fabulous job of helping the two communities to merge, to meld.
The reason I’m here and not elsewhere is because it’s the best place to work that I think I could ever find. The colleagues are tremendous. You’re allowed to be creative. You have the opportunity to make a difference in the experience of the students and that’s what we’re all here for, to make sure they’re getting the best education at a world-class institution.
It’s continually challenging because you have to meet their demands. It’s satisfying because we get students who purchased their computer from us when they were a freshman and parents send us thank-you letters. That’s gratifying to be able to do that for folks.

Originally published on January 20, 2011