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We'll Take Care of All Your Problems

Isabel Beichl

Pages: pp. 3–4

Oh, don't you just want to believe it? When you're talking about information technology, and you hear the title of this piece, doesn't at least part of you hope that it's true? CiSE readers are aware of the importance of keeping up

with new ideas in computing in science and engineering. But IT is yet another area in which we need to be at least somewhat informed as well.

Recently, a friend and I somehow drifted into a gripe session on IT support. My friend is now a professor of mathematics at the midwestern university where he spent most of his academic career. It had been suggested that all IT support for the mathematics department be outsourced. A small firm proposed to take care of all IT issues by providing two "expert professionals" to take care of operating system updates, printers, network connectivity, firewall installations, and so forth. It doesn't take much imagination to picture the faculty's reaction to this proposal. Some expressed real outrage when told that the two experts would, in addition, act as the CIO for the department! Yes, CIO—an acronym whose mere mention chills the blood of even the bravest. The CIO will take care of all your IT problems, and you won't have to do anything. Hmmmm.

Janet Malcolm, the justly famous essayist and journalist, wrote a book called Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (Knopf, 1981). It's tempting to hijack her inspired title and start writing Chief Information Officer: The Impossible […]. The problem is how to fill in the […]: "CIO" isn't exactly a profession. I think it's a function that an organization must have once it reaches a certain size. There's simply no way to have even a modicum of security and uniformity across computing platforms without some central "authority" to design standards and practices. Yet, in all institutions I know about, the CIO is the receptor of a flurry of complaints from below and a barrage of demands from above. At one large institution—after weeks of complain, complain, complain from the research staff—the CIO agreed to hold a general meeting and attempt to answer any questions. You can imagine:

Researcher: Why aren't we informed about changes before they happen?
CIO: You are.
Researcher: What? Where? When? How?
CIO: In the newsletter.
Researcher: Newsletter? What newsletter? I don't know about any newsletter.
CIO: It arrives in your mailbox every month.
Researcher: Oh that. I was supposed to read that?
CIO: Sigh…

Yes, we need to keep track of what's happening in IT support. The terms change, the services change, the policies change, and all of it very fast. Most of us hate it when things we use every day suddenly act and look differently. In computing, change is unavoidable, and in large institutions, it's the CIO who must oversee it. My modest suggestion is that we might do better to try to work with our local CIO before complaining or at least try to stay informed. A more radical idea might be to require senior scientists to serve a term as CIO or, even wilder, the research staff could elect the CIO from among themselves. Picture TV spot ads and slogans like, "Change: you have to deal with it!"

C iSE Welcomes New Editorial Board Members

Konrad Hinsen is a researcher at the CNRS in Orleans, France, and an associated researcher at the Synchrotron Soleil in Saint Aubin. His research interests include theoretical biophysics, molecular simulation, and numerically intensive computation, especially scientific computing applied to slow protein dynamics and protein structure prediction. In addition to six software products that he has developed, which are freely available to the scientific community, he has authored or co-authored more than 50 scientific publications on these subjects. He will serve as a new coeditor for our Scientific Programming department. Contact him at

Ernst Mucke is a senior R&D program manager in the Biometrics Division at L-1 Identity Solutions. He has worked in software engineering at several organizations in private and government R&D communities, both managing and working on projects ranging from facial recognition to specialized CAD applications. Mucke has a PhD in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Contact him at

Volodymyr Kindratenko is a senior research scientist at the US National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. His research interests include HPC and special-purpose computing architectures. Kindratenko has a DSc in analytical chemistry from the University of Antwerp. Contact him at

About the Authors

Isabel Beichl is a mathematician at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and editor in chief of this magazine. Contact her at isabel dot beichl at nist dot gov.
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