This week on My Job Story, we hear from Eric M. Larson, Instructional Systems Consultant at University of St. Thomas, the largest private university in Minnesota, located in Saint Paul. University of St. Thomas has more than 10,000 students and offers undergraduate and graduate programs.
High Demand, Low Supply: How do you describe your job to others not in your field?
Eric Larson: I help faculty figure out the technologies that will help them teach their students.
HDLS: How long have you been in this current job?
Eric: I’ve worked at University of St. Thomas (UST) full-time since 1996, in a variety of technology-oriented jobs. My current position is aligned under a new Center that’s launching this year, but it’s an extension of the “Digital Planner” role added to my Academic Technology Consultant job in 2012.
HDLS: How did you get this current job?
Eric: I demonstrated interests, competence and humility. (I often remind others that my humility is my best quality, and most get the joke.) In my entire career at UST I’ve tried to step in and help where reasonable, and to put my “career interests” behind what’s best for the department or the organization. There’s an element of personal risk to that, but I’ve been fortunate that my management has consistently appreciated that approach and has taken opportunities to align me more and more with the work that I find invigorating.
HDLS: What is a typical day like for you?
Eric: Some “roll up my sleeves and figure out why this error is occurring in the online course system.” Some “sit in front of a spreadsheet putting together who’s-using-what-tools and communicating with them.” Some “so-and-so wants to do this kind of thing; which of our tools is the best fit?” Lots of “go to project planning meetings and figure out how we’re going to switch people into a new system” (e.g. WebEx or Office365 or Poll Everywhere).
HDLS: What are the best parts of your job?
Eric: I get to solve problems – important problems, but not “someone will die if you get this wrong” problems. That’s a good balance for me. And the problems are technology-related; I’m not an uber-geek, but I like finding and using technology tools that can help teaching and learning to happen.
HDLS: What was your first job?
Eric: Not including summer clerking at a gift store in a tourist town as a teenager, my first full-time “real” job was as the evening and weekend supervisor of UST’s main computer lab in 1996. Living as a pretty boring single guy working the 3:00 p.m. to midnight shift was a really fun fit for me. But that job was most interesting because it was paired with the creation and administration of a “computer competency” test that was implemented that year as an unfunded mandate. That’s where I learned my Excel skills, writing batch files to send reminders and follow-ups through our mainframe email. I served as an internal evangelist for something that was a worthy desire (ensuring that students had the basic computer skills they needed to succeed in their classes) but which was driven by a test that nobody wanted to take and that nobody really even wanted to give. That taught me a lot about the informal social side of organizations.
HDLS: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Eric: An investigative journalist – think “60 Minutes”. Or a lawyer. Then, in my early teens, I was sure I’d go to college for a business degree and run a Commodore support and repair store.
HDLS: What is your career story? How did you get to where you are now?
Eric: I’m probably unusual in that I’m in my early 40s and have had one 20-year career at one organization. In 1968 my father began teaching Journalism at what was then the College of St. Thomas (after his career as a copy editor at the Minneapolis newspaper) and I never had a desire to “spread my wings” or “be my own person”. I knew UST was a great school, so I wanted to take advantage of Dad’s reduced-tuition benefit and go there. Thanks to that cheap tuition I explored philosophy and video production classes (with a business minor -- so I could open that Commodore shop, right?) and when the opportunity for the computer lab position came up, I realized that “gainfully employed with a philosophy degree” was a good opportunity.
From there, I just kept taking “the next right step” as they became available. A year later a new role was created, serving as embedded “building/department support” for departments with their own labs and heavy desktop computer usage (in 1997, not every desk at the university had a computer!). I was later offered the role of “lead” and then, during a reorganization, that “lead” role became an official manager position.
At that point, my “career development” senses kicked in; I was working at a university and figured that a Master’s degree would become important. Our School of Education had a leadership program, termed “Human Resource Development” (contrasted with the College of Business and their “Human Resource Management” program – the difference was humorously summarized as “round tables” vs. “square tables”). The fact is, I got into technology because it didn’t have “people problems” – you write a program, it does what it’s supposed to, and if it doesn’t then it’s simply because you coded something wrong or the computer is broken. People aren’t that way, and now I found myself “managing” them. So unlike the rest of my cohort in the HRD program who were “people people” looking to explore a field they already loved, I was a “thing person” looking to develop and round out the other side of myself.
It was really life-changing… and just as I wrapped that up, there was an organizational change and I was given the opportunity to lateral from my role as a manager into a role managing projects and systems in our web development department. “The VP wants change,” my Director told me. A couple of weeks after my transition, my then-former Director pulled me aside and told me that the triggering event for the change was related to a service request for a VCR.
No, life isn’t “fair,” and fretting about that gets you nowhere. Lesson: Move on.
So I enjoyed the “instructional process analyst” role I found myself in; I moved from a department that “supported people who used systems” to one that “supported systems used by people”. I learned a lot about a wide variety of systems – some “instructional,” some not. One day I thought it odd when my manager asked me about our credit-card processing vendor and whether I had an interest in supporting things like ticket sales and event registration. “I love that stuff… but doesn’t our developer do that?” The question made sense a week later when that developer announced he was leaving for another job.
The people-side of my HRD degree kept gnawing at me, so when my former team was reclassified to be at the same level as my project/personnel management grade and a position opened up on that team in 2010, I talked to that Director, lateraled back, and put myself on my current path.
Things have a funny way of “coming back around” in organizations. A couple years after I moved back to the customer-service department, support of our online teaching system was going to transition from my previous web-development department to my now-current one. I loved that system and knew it really well, so I applied for the position, and apparently I was thought to be a shoo-in. But after my interview I told my boss (who was heading the search), “You know that I’m not going anywhere. I know I’d do great in this role. But I don’t ‘need’ it. If your search pool has any external person who’s reasonably qualified, I think it would make the most sense to hire him/her and then our department will be fully staffed. I’ll gladly help to get them up to speed. If you put me into this position instead, you’re just going to open up my current position and you’ll have to re-hire for that.” I don’t think many people seek to talk themselves out of getting a job, but I did. Why? Because what I said was true and, having been at one time in a nearly-identical role as my manager was, I would want to know if an employee was comfortable with that kind of situation.
I wasn’t surprised (nor disappointed) when he called and said I didn’t get the job. Instead, we made a great hire for that position and we “gelled” as a team. So much so that when a new VP came in last year and wanted to develop an academic technology center, we had all the people (myself included) already in place to make it happen. And that’s what’s next on the horizon for me.
HDLS: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Eric: “Everyone will tell you that life is short, but they’re wrong. Life is long and you have plenty of opportunity to do different things.” That came from my professor of video production as I was a senior asking the “what should I do with my life?” question.
HDLS: What is the worst career advice you have ever received?
Eric: “Perception is reality!” If you work in customer service and your manager means this as “perception is as important as reality,” you’re in a good place because that’s absolutely true. If, instead, your manager literally means, “That client claims you never replied to him, even though you’re showing me your email to him and his response back to you, so you must not have replied”… that’s a sign to look for a different environment and a manager who understands the concept of objective reality.
HDLS: What career advice would you give your younger self?
Eric: First and foremost, “You’ll be fine.” Then, I’d send back a copy of the recently-popular “Ring-Theory” through a time machine – “Comfort in, Dump out.” It applies to more than personal crises; put your employee at the center, and make sure you’re not “dumping” there. But don’t “dump” up the chain, either, unless you’re certain (and you never are) of your relationships with your superiors. Keep it positive and constructive and if you need to vent, find a good friend outside the organization.
Just the other day, I encountered one more tip that I might carry with me for years: “Serving a good leader is easy. If you really want to be good, learn how to serve a bad leader well.” I don’t need to exercise that advice right now… but there are moments in my younger self’s life where it would’ve been very handy to know!
HDLS: Can you tell me about an interesting day you’ve had in this job?
Eric: Nope. But I can tell you about lots of interesting “flashbulb memories”. Walking into an office during an inventory check (with a student-intern by my side) to discover an employee surfing porn during a holiday weekend (which turned my “Knock, announce, key-in, enter” process into “Knock… pause… announce… pause… knock again…. pause… key in… pause… crack the door… pause… announce… enter”). Or creating an assembly-line to disinfect dozens of desktop towers that were carried in after the Melissa Virus. (…or was it the “I Love You” Virus?) Or sitting in the emergency staff meeting where the VP announces, “Don’t worry; if you’re in this room, you haven’t been laid off.” And, most importantly, the many (many, many) joyful “ah-ha!” moments when you see a client discover how something they’ve been pondering or struggling with can actually revolutionize their teaching.
Eric's passion for education and technology has driven him to expand his role throughout his 20 years at University of St. Thomas. Not one to sit still for too long, Eric understands the value of learning new things and being willing to accept lateral moves and has built a successful career doing so. Taking on new challenges and learning new things afforded him the opportunity to truly discover what he enjoys doing. Thank you Eric for sharing your job story.
Eric holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.A. in Human Resource Development, both from University of St. Thomas. He and his wife, Ruth, live in the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan, Minnesota with their two young daughters Candela and Chloe. Eric is a long-time podcaster, producing his personal podcast, the Ericast, since 2005, with more than 250 episodes (which is how I first "met" Eric). Follow him on Twitter @emlarson.