Prior to his arrival at USF on December 9, Tech Times writer Umar Issa had the opportunity to interview Opinder Bawa, USF’s new Vice President for Information Technology Services and Chief Information Officer. Bawa was most recently the Chief Technology Officer for UCSF, and Chief Information Officer for the UCSF School of Medicine. In these roles he provided leadership in technology, innovation, strategic planning and delivery of solutions and services across research, education and patient care.
Bawa has over 20 years of experience in business solutions, client engagement, information technology, consultative approaches and business development. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from City University of New York and a master’s degree in Business and Information Technology from University of Phoenix.
Umar Issa – I wanted to start off by getting a little background information and history – where you grew up, where you studied, and how you ended up in the tech world.
Opinder Bawa – Originally, I am from India, however, I was born in Cairo, Egypt while my parents were living there. My father was a diplomat from India to various countries around the world, so I literally grew up all around the world. My family would move to a new country every three years for my entire life up to my late teens. It was a fascinating way to grow up, and I became a global, multi-cultural person before I even knew what the words meant. One of the last assignments for father was the Consulate in New York. I went to high school there and also graduated from City University in New York.
A few friends of my parents suggested that I look at computer engineering because it was just emerging. That’s actually the time when IBM came on the scene and Apple was just starting with the Macintosh. It was envisioned that computers were going to be one of the most important areas of change and revolution, so that’s how I ended up working in computer science. Lucky for me it ended up being so true!
UI - Can you talk about your transition from New York to your rise in Silicon Valley?
OB – Once I finished my education in New York, I actually went back to India to work for a couple years. I ended up working with an American company in India, so, it was another testament that the world was shrinking and that we were becoming more global. That’s where I realized that if I would be working for an American company, the best place for me to be is in the United States. I came back in 1988 and ended up working for a small software company that was eventually bought by IBM – Metaphor Computer Systems. I started to look at things from a different perspective because I wanted to build software and also understand what it takes to implement these solutions.
What I learned was that it takes an incredible combination of the technology, the processes and management, fiscal conditions, the right business ownership, executive buy in and having a great technology team. That’s probably when Silicon Valley leaders began to take note of me [because I realized that]. Being a part of a few startup software companies gave me a great understanding of quality software, but, I realized I’m most passionate when I am actually a part of an organization that is implementing technology that strives to conduct change within themselves – that are innovative. My links to Silicon Valley, the corporate world and the startups have made it an incredible experience for me to be able to bring those innovative approaches and technology into the organization I work for and the industries that need it the most: Education and HealthCare. It’s not about building more products or being a technology leader, it’s the combination of bringing innovation into those organizations that cause a dramatic shift or supports a business paradigm shift.
I believe that the higher education industry is in the process of a major transformation, where it is undergoing a lot of market pressures, and all sorts of fiscal pressures. At the same time, the technology needs of key stakeholders like students and faculty, have grown in their sophistication, resulting in substantially higher expectations, rightly so. One of the cores of this transformation, as well as prior ones over the past century, was the realization and implementation of futuristic technologies. Personally, it’s fascinating to be a part of a transforming organization and industry, and knowing that digital technology is a core part of that transformation. That’s what makes me wake up every morning to go to work and think “… it’s going to be a good day….” It’s about turning our strategies for the future into a real plan that’s executed over a period of time.
UI – What are the differences between working in Silicon Valley and now working in higher education and how has your role changed in this new industry?
OB – I think in 2006, CIO Magazine wrote an article around how an IT leader can move from one industry to another, and what the challenges are. Very few have done that successfully, and I am honored to be among those few who have [and] was included in the interview[s]. I shed light on my move from Silicon Valley into the medical industry, because I had worked for an east coast medical center for a while. I also spent some time studying the medical industry and higher education, because I realized that both would also be changing drastically with technology. It’s one of the key reasons I spent some time at Boston Medical Center which was invaluable in learning the basics, the experiencing the differences first hand. I ultimately joined UCSF to help them formulate and realize their ambition to become a leader in the use of technology in the healthcare industry. This week, at one of the largest annual events in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, i.e. Dreamforce. UCSF and its digital technology initiatives are part of the center stage. It is humbling to know that I had a part in bringing them together.
So to summarize, it’s not about leaving or moving away from Silicon Valley. It’s about bringing Silicon Valley to these industries. What I (and my IT team leaders) do is build bridges between institutions like UCSF and USF and Silicon Valley, as well as the technologists and investors in these organizations. Because we are in the midst of a digital transformation, Silicon Valley brings an immense amount of value to these institutions that have an incredible talent pool. I believe I’ve tapped into them, helping institutions to leverage their best assets – their students, faculty, researchers, and practitioners – and doing that to the highest degree possible.
UI – Looking forward, you are now the new Vice President of ITS and the Chief Information Officer of USF. I’m curious as to whether or not you have any changes that you would like to [make] upon your arrival to USF.
OB – You know, I make an effort to understand what the technological needs are at the institution, whether or not there are operational or project issues that require my immediate assistance. What are the long term strategic plans that we envision for the organization? What are some of the out-of-box ideas floating around? I typically don’t make any dramatic changes partially because any significant changes you make early on are usually not your best calls – unless you have a major problem on your hands.
So, I first make sure I understand the landscape, the issues, the organization we have, the business aspects, the institution’s values, and so on. I end up taking some time, usually three to six months before I start making navigational recommendations and changes. I also count on, substantially, key inputs such as from the IT Directors, Deans, Chairs and business leaders.
UI – Is there anything else that you wanted people to know about you, or anything that you wanted to end on?
OB – Umar, I really can’t imagine what it is that people wanted to know about me (laughs). It would probably begin with the fact that I am here to help formulate and realize visions; whether it’s a student and faculty who want to work on an idea, or business transformations with technology solutions. I have an open door policy, prefer to meet in person when I can and work out win-win scenarios.