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Michael Scarpelli acts as Director, IT, Technical Support Manager at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LIAI). He oversees LIAI’s team of support technicians and assists in managing the day-to-day flow of the Information Technology Department. With assistance from Senior Information Technology Manager John Stillwagen, Michael is an integral part of making sure that business, both administrative and research, runs smoothly at LIAI.
Michael joined LIAI in 2002 as a Tech Support Specialist. A Writing major from UCSD, Michael brings a broad skill-set to the Information Technology Department, and is continually looking to advance and expand the functions of the IT Department at La Jolla Institute for Immunology.
What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?
When I was a little kid I wanted to be a scientist. Then I hit high school chemistry and there was just some disconnect between my brain and what they were teaching me. Same thing with math. I was very good at math up until calculus level and then natural ability ran out and the subject matter sort of caught up with me. Then it was, “No buddy, this is not working anymore.”
At that point I made a hard left into Bachelor of Arts, literature kind of stuff. I’m actually a writing major so I have nothing applicable to what I’m doing in any way. That’s how a lot of my friends are. They went for astronomy or their passions and then they end up doing something totally different.
Growing up I’d always been interested in computer stuff because they were cool toys to play with and I liked getting into them. I wasn’t afraid to sort of poke around on them. I had a Mac computer growing up and then, at college, one of my friends, John Stillwagen, he’s our Management Information Services director now, was working here at the institute and he said, “Do you want a job? Go apply.” I showed up and essentially my interview was my boss shaking my hand and saying, “Do you know how to use a Mac computer?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Great, you’re hired.” So initially what got me into it was not necessarily my saying, “Hey, I want to do IT.” It was more that it was already something that I was doing on my own.
This is where the communication aspect comes into play finally, I like to try to translate and explain ideas to people and I like to answer questions. That’s a lot of what support is like, especially in the early stages. You having to just sort of walk people through, not only is this how you do things, but let me explain to you how it works so that you maybe understand it the next time and we don’t have this problem repeatedly forever. So that’s sort of how I got into IT.
I like being able to fix problems, so being able to do that what’s kept me in the position for as long as I’ve been here.
What super power do you want most?
Being able to stop time, slow down time, affect time. I think there’s a lot of different applications for that. There’s a lot of flexibility to it. I feel like you can get creative if you can stop time.
If you were on an island, what three things would you bring?
Well, I feel like I’d probably want some sort of board game. I’m not a chess player, but that’s one of those games that I can think of where there are so many solutions. Checkers has been solved. A computer has figured out how to win any game of checkers, right? Chess, I think they haven’t quite gotten there yet. I think I read something like there’s supposed to be more combinations of chess games available than there are stars in the universe kind of a thing. The number of permutations you can have is so vast, that you could always be coming up with new ways to play a game. I feel like that would be good. I’d have to pick a book, I just don’t know what book it would be. Maybe some anthology book.
Maybe something like a soccer ball or something, something you can entertain yourself with, something that will keep yourself in shape and entertained, but also like you could draw a face on it, make it a new Wilson or whatever.
What’s the area of focus that you’re concentrated on?
Generally, my focus is still sort of where I started out, which is end user support. The primary goal is always how is what we’re doing affecting the researchers and their ability to do the research, essentially. We try to really focus on that more than adherence to any particular sort of IT standard or methodology. I feel like it’s really common that it’s IT’s job to enforce a specific set of restrictions or standards on the company. Whereas for us, unless there’s a really compelling reason to say no, like it physically cannot be done or it’s a really dangerous idea, we aim to say, yes, and here’s how we’ll help you get there.
We’re trying to bring the most minimal amount of friction to the way research gets done. As a result, we have a pretty good rapport with the general user population. I think users trust us to handle data and solve problems effectively, so I don’t believe we have a lot of shadow IT issues, where people are buying things on their own because IT can’t solve it, or they’ve tried to fix it through the official channels and it didn’t work so they did their own thing, or went out and bought their own software or pulled in an external hard drive from home. I feel like people generally know that if they come to us, they’ll get the help that they need. They don’t have to go and look on their own to do something.
Are you a part of the executive conversation with growing the business forward?
Yes. The structure for our leadership is going to be a little different from the standard company. We have an executive vice president and chief operating officer. And then above him is the president and scientific director. When I started, the president was just a head of a lab and also a division, which is like a logical grouping of labs. I feel like he still primarily thinks of things like a scientist. So, for him, research is paramount and protecting the unique structure and feel of the institute is really important.
The COO, who is my direct boss, has been my direct boss since I got hired, used to be the IT manager and is now the COO of the company. He understands the IT side of things. He was also a researcher himself, has his PhD and had been an immunologist at some point. He understands both sides of the equation very well and can back initiatives that we are pushing forward, knowing that we’re making the right choices. I’d say it’s pretty easy to feel like we’re part of that discussion and the driving goals of IT are aligning well with what the organization on the whole is looking to accomplish.
We’ve developed a level of mutual trust. The COO knows that we are going to try to do our best to assist the research, and we know that if we really need him to come to bat for us, that if it’s something that really matters, we know what can happen.
What does this year look like for you?
I’ve been focused on security. We have a simple site, we have a simple network. So, it’s pretty easy to protect the perimeter. Single firewall, single site. We’re able to say, “Let’s just not let all this stuff in unless it’s through the VPN or is a service that we specifically allow.” The network security side of things is fairly straightforward. Obviously, I’m sure security experts anywhere wince when someone says that to them. Where it gets tricky is the end users. Especially where we’re at because we have a lot of visiting scientists. We’ve got 400 people in a given year and you might have 100 people turn over in the course of a year. It’s because you have people who are grad students, who maybe graduate or get another job or go somewhere else. You’ll have post-doctoral candidates, and they’re there to be doing lab work, but their goal is to have their own lab, so they’re going to leave one day. That’s sort of the ideal scenario, that they’re doing so well, they have projects of their own, they go off and start their own gig.
You’ll have visiting scientists, people from China, Japan, Spain, the Netherlands, anywhere, all over the world. And they’re here for months and then they leave. Having very user-focused rules is important because we’re not their home institution, we’re not even their home country for many of them. So, it’s difficult to instill the sense of corporate culture responsibility when they’re just going to be leaving soon. You really want to have easy options available to them.
The labs are all sort of their own little companies, they all bring their own funding, I simply control what they’re going to buy. We have some labs that are all PC, some labs are all Mac. Some labs, everybody gets their own stuff, some labs it’s bring your own from home. That’s all based on their funding level, but also the comfort level of the PI, of the lab head, the principle investigator. Which is also why we have to be flexible in our department. I can’t say to anyone, you have to be using this particular hardware and it can’t be more than four years old and it has to be running all this stuff because if they don’t have the money to pay for that. I can’t be like, “Well then you can’t do your research.”
The other issue that we have used to be storage. The storage in research nonprofits was a big deal for a while; it was the topic of a lot of conferences. But that’s sort of been “solved” now. It’s tricky because we generate a ton of data but we don’t have Fortune 500 budgets. We just have nonprofit institute budgets. But, the data output is excessive. The question’s not how do you store it, it’s how do you find it again. We’re now looking at solutions that will enable us to do a lot more metadata management and a lot more automated assistance with tagging and sorting and collecting that data.
Analytics is probably downstream of that. Data management is what’s really critical, and it’s something that most file systems don’t really do well natively. Especially not at the volume we would need. We’re dealing with 150-200 million files. Research data is frequently write once, read seldom if ever. You may have people that just collect data, and they should be, it’s their job. But it may be data that they didn’t really need to analyze at the time because it didn’t quite get them the results that their research needed, but you still want to keep it. It also means that people aren’t touching it very often, so it’s really easy to lose track of it.
A lot of places cover this with data librarians, and we may move in that direction. Larger institutions, solve it just through raw manpower. They throw interns at it, they throw grad students at it, which is not a luxury we have.
The next initiative will be probably coming up in two years from now, which is then moving that data quickly. Especially as more collaborations are being done between institutions and those datasets are not small. You’re going to be dealing with stacked TIF images. Maybe one image file you’re working with is actually a stack of hundreds of other images compressed to give a 3D model of a cell structure. That’s going to be a 50 gigabyte single file that you might need to send to somebody, and maybe they don’t want to wait seven hours to get it. Having a network that’s sort of hardened to do large transfers like that and systems that will help chaperone transfers across the land is going to be big for us.
What’s the greatest mistake that you learned from?
Coming up through the ranks as a part-time, hourly help desk guy I think was very helpful because you make a lot of mistakes doing that stuff. I can think of a time where I lost somebody’s data. I can think of times where I didn’t give someone a good answer or I didn’t follow up with them. It helps me understand the help desk that I’m managing and the work that they’re doing, because it’s work that I did for a long time. I can tell what flies and what doesn’t. Somebody tells me, “ I didn’t have time to do this,” I can be like, “Well, you did. You just didn’t do it.” Or I can be like, “Yeah, I can tell it’s been crazy, I’ve seen the tickets. I know what’s been going on.”
I would say more specifically for me on that, I learned a long time ago to sort of separate my ego from the process. In IT, you don’t often have great conversations with people. It’s usually like why is my stuff broken? What happened, what did you do wrong? People don’t generally come to you to say everything is great today. If nothing is broken, people wonder why we have so much IT staff. But the answer is the reason it’s not broken is because you have so much IT. You need to learn to be not defensive about that or to realize that it has no bearing on you as a person necessarily, as long as you are doing your best in the job. Being able to just have someone unload on me and let them know we’ll fix it for you and we’ll make it better, I think goes a long way.
You always hear horror stories about people’s bosses and the way they handle conflict, and I feel like a lot of that is tied with their sense of ownership and power in the organization. I think not having that is crucial for this kind of service-oriented role. I still think of it as a service. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been doing it as long as I have, it doesn’t matter that I have a director title, I still consider myself to be a service employee. I solve tickets regularly in the system. I’m still one of the guys that goes out to a microscope to install new software.
There are things where the help desk has surpassed my knowledge set at this point because they’re doing it every day. There are times I don’t know the method they’re using anymore. Also realizing that it’s sort of like working in retail. You’re going to see some ugly stuff out of people, and sometimes realizing that they’re not mad at you, they’re mad at a situation. Being able to grasp that is important.
What are the hiring challenges, and how do you hire?
I’m actually usually not super focused on an applicant’s resume. I look for certain key words, but for the help desk especially, I actually prefer a resume that is not a six pager or super dense. I am willing to hire people who are pretty green as long as it seems like they have the willingness to pick stuff up and run with it. We tend to hire for who’s going to fit best for both the group and the personality and structure of the organization. So, if we get a sense that someone’s a self-starter, that they are a good communicator, that they are going to be able to be relaxed in a stressful situation, those are things we tend to hire for more than this person has three pages of certifications and has worked at a hundred tech companies and has probably seen it all before.
Now obviously, sometimes those candidates are great because if they can come in and know everything and hit the ground running, then awesome. Perfect. But I also feel like sometimes you come in with a lot of preconceived methods about ways of handling situations. I hire based on fit for the team more than I do for the resume. You could have a pretty low amount of actual resume experience, but as long as it seems like you’ll catch on quick, that’ll work out pretty well for you. We want someone who can communicate well to our end users rather than someone who just knows it all already.
I’d say the biggest challenge there is that people, since it’s sort of like an entry level-ish kind of job, depending on the tier of tech, you tend to have people who shotgun resumes out. So, we’ll get people who are fresh out of school, and you’ll also get people who are clearly looking for high end level six figure salary sort of jobs. And they’ll say that specifically, in our recruiting system. It appears they didn’t apply for this job, a robot applied for this job, or they just applied to anything that had a keyword. We get a lot of that.
If you could give guidance to any IT manager about how they position their careers, what would you tell them?
I think it’s really important to be part of the greater organization and to work a lot with other groups where possible. When another department has a technology problem they need to solve or a problem you can solve with software, really work with them on it. Be involved in that process because it helps you both understand the business. It will help you immerse faster, but it also makes you more valuable. You’ll be involved in more discussions because people will have learned that they can bring something to you and you’ll be willing to sit down with them and solve the problem.
I find that the more up front you are about stuff, the less things can come back and bite you in the ass later on, and the more people believe in you and depend on you.
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