Meet the Tech Exec: Helen Norris, CIO, Chapman University

Helen Norris, CIO, Chapman University

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Helen Norris is the Chief Information Officer at Chapman University. She has almost 30 years’ experience working in IT leadership roles.  Originally from Ireland, Helen has earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, and a Master's degree in Computer Resource Management and Business Administration from Webster University in St. Louis.  Helen holds a project management certification (PMP) from Project Management International ( and is a fellow of the Educause Leading Change Institute.  She serves as a board member of the Southern California Society of Information Management ( and a trustee of the National Endowment for Financial Education (   Helen also previously served as the Director of the Sacramento Women in Technology International network (

What superpower do you want most?  

You mean the one that I don't already have? To read people's minds. To understand what it is that people want. I feel like you have to listen really hard to what people are saying and I spend a lot of time practicing listening.

What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?  

I grew up in Ireland in the 70's which was a little different than here. I was the first to go to college in my family, as my parents worked in factories, and I didn't have a professional background. I was good at math and I wanted to be a math teacher or an actuary. When I was finishing up college at Trinity College in Dublin, there weren't many choices to move cities in Ireland, so I went to live in Germany. I didn't speak any German, so I worked for American Army in Germany. There, I was a computer programmer where I accidentally fell into IT and never went back. Back in the early 80's they didn't have computer science so I did a lot of fortran and pascal. In 1984 I moved to the US where I lived in St. Louis. Since 1997, I've been all over California where my first job in higher Ed was at UC Berkeley. After that, I worked at CSU Sacramento and then moved to Chapman University in 2014. Now, I oversee 75 people and we provide IT support to both the entire main campus and our health science campus.

How are you inspiring young women in STEM areas? 

I do a lot of work with different organizations in Southern California to support advancing women in technology. We do have a Women in Science and Technology group at Chapman and I have spoken to them on several occasions, and also connected them with other women leaders in technology.  During Women's HerStory month, we did an interview that we were able to Facebook Live which was to stress to women, students, and faculty who don't often see women in leadership positions in technology. I am also connected to STEM Advantage and Advancing Women in Technology (AWT); organizations that provides scholarships to women and underserved communities studying in STEM fields in different universities.

You were the first female interview conducted after 30 previous interviews, does that surprise you?

It's important to be visible to show people that you can be a woman and lead in the field. I never once had a female supervisor or manager in a technology field.  I do see a lot of women represented in management on the application side or project management side of information technology, but it is difficult to break through to the most senior roles.  So sadly, I’m not surprised to hear that.

How do you think women could change IT? 

I remember people had this image for IT of somebody in the back playing dungeons and dragons, eating pizza, and now that stereotype I hope is gone. Our work is really focused on what we can do for the organization and how you support the business. To support the business, you have to know the business and know what their priorities are, otherwise you are just a utility. I want to be an asset to the organization and learn the needs of the community.

What are the top priorities for a university or for education?   

I think it really varies between all universities and university systems. When I was at the CSU's and the UC's, the priorities and focus were on costs, as we had constant budget pressures. This included being more efficient and helping students to graduate in a timely fashion. In universities it was harder for them to get the classes they wanted and we had to make sure we provided the ability for students to graduate. We wanted to understand what students’ needs were  and how they can use technology to graduate.

At Chapman, we are very focused on personalized education. Rather than developing online education, we’d prefer to use technology in the context of personalized learning. Also, we are adding more faculty with a research focus. We have to have the right connection to other universities, the efficiency has to be there. Using technology to enhance our mission and define the role of collaboration in teaching. When students leave here, they are expected to be able to collaborate.

Students have access to Google tools and O365. The way students use them are mostly for email, and then they use One Drive or Google Drive for collaborative purposes. People use One Note a lot to just manage their lives and we use a variety of tools. In our College of Educational Studies, Google apps are very popular. It varies a little bit from discipline to discipline, but Google Tools are very popular.

We have all these tools (phones, iPads, laptops, etc.) and yet we still struggle to get information to students—how can we get something in front of them and how do we make sure we are delivering the right messages to them? When we bring people from this generation into the workforce, how will we train them? It's so easy to get in front of them but it's harder to communicate.

What are your hiring challenges in regards to millennials?  

We have hiring challenges in general; it's very difficult to hire technical people in Orange County. There's lots of competition in Silicon Beach and we struggle to find candidates in fields like security. They want a cooler place with sexier tools, and  it's just not as exciting as working for Snap Chat. We are more of a traditional environment and workplace. We have to figure out how to provide the flexibility to be attractive to millennials.. I do think that millennials are working in places where they like their mission, and since we are mission driven, that becomes more attractive.

Where do see technology in education in the next 5 years?   

The ability to use VR to train and educate people. That's something that will continue to see growth in the next 5 years. We are beginning to look into it for example, in the health sciences we are already using virtual cadavers. That's an area we are going to see massive growth. In the future, as patients, we may be treated by someone who was completely trained virtually.

What kind of messaging is coming down from the CEO/Key Executives about their partnership with IT?

A couple of things: we are focused on business intelligence and dashboards, and very focused on providing more and more data to our colleagues around campus. Our Data Warehouse is built on a Microsoft SQL back end and we're using something specifically built for our universities. Those are the kinds of tools we are looking at. We're doing a lot of work in the classroom with technology enabled space and learning spaces, and transforming classrooms to spaces that are much more inviting. We want to have students share information back and forth; the same kind of thing in informal learning centers.

Are you connecting with any universities abroad?  

We have a campus in Irvine that we've done a fair amount of teaching to and from the main campus in Orange with. We frequently have guest lecturers via Skype. Our Irvine campus is interesting because we opened a School of Pharmacy four years ago, and our dean is very forward thinking. The entire curriculum is made with technology in mind and the students interact with it from the day they come on board.

What's your philosophy on premise or moving to cloud?   

Moving to the cloud makes a lot of sense in a variety of ways. I think it's harder to move to the Cloud than we're led to believe, with the first reason being cost. The other challenge we have in universities is that the cloud efficiencies of scale are really harvested because you go to a standardized model. Some things can be outsourced, but if I'm supporting researchers in data science, they need cutting edge, non-standard technology that will remain on premise.

Do you talk to students about what they need from you?  

I spend time with our student government association to make sure we are providing the services they need. We do reach out and talk to students and faculty as much as we can and try to consider their points of view.

How about security?  

Security is always a major issue. We need to be open as a network and we have to balance that need with security. It's much more difficult to dictate things students can and cannot do. We've always had students bring their own devices and we've had to manage that for a long time. Over the last couple of years, we've really focused on education and outreach. We work hard with students and do a lot of work on phishing campaigns and password management since we have a transient community. It's a big deal in information technology and we think as a university setting we are a target. Hackers have used universities as launching pads since we maintain so much personal information.

If you could give guidance to a CIO, what would you tell them?

I would tell people to build your relationships across the organization. Sometimes, people just build them internally and manage up, but you have to manage out. Build your relationships across the organization and give them your time. It’s difficult for more introverted people,  but just take an hour,  (only 2.5% of your time if you work 40 hours a week) and reach out across the organization and just talk to people about their needs and about their departments and groups..

What advice could you give to your longer younger self?   

I wouldn't give any advice. I learned from all of my mistakes, so for the most part, I am glad I made them. I would just say learn to listen and build relationships.

Was there a woman in history that you admired or looked up to? 

There are so many women to admire, like Maya Angelou. Any women like that have done amazing things. Harriet Tubman I admire from history. More recently, women in Silicon Valley like Marisa Meyer from Google—I admire her and think she's made mistakes but that's what I would admire about her.

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