Leonard De Botton – Berkeley College
Berkeley College Senior Vice President and CIO Leonard De Botton understands the importance of preparation and people.
Speaking with Toggle in early November 2020, De Botton was in the middle of helping neighbors react to an upcoming storm that didn’t turn into a hurricane but brought up memories of Hurricane Sandy. Given the area’s history and geography, preparation is—and has been—everything.
“The water was rising over our docks and even though my house is on pilings 15 feet above the ground, lots of my neighbors were panicking,” De Botton said. “That’s when you go to help, no questions asked.”
Similarly, he remembers the anxious feelings staff had when COVID-19 first hit. By all accounts, Berkeley College—where De Botton has spent most of his 30-plus-years career—was well prepared thanks to advance planning, a dedicated team and a robust, award-winning online program. The college had transitioned to RingCentral in 2019, a cloud-based unified communication system that has allowed for seamless communication before and during coronavirus.
Another of De Botton’s pre-pandemic moves that paid dividends down the road: the college’s conference rooms had been Zoom-enabled for nearly two years. Students also had Zoom accounts already tightly integrated into the LMS.
For De Botton, it was not about starting from scratch, it was about avoiding disruption. This allowed him and the college to concentrate on the people rather than the tech.
“The infrastructure was in place for online learning, not much we had to do there,” De Botton says. “We just had to hit reload to ensure everybody was comfortable using the technology at home.”
Specialty: online learning
Based in New Jersey and New York, Berkeley serves more than 4,900 students both on-site and online. It’s been named among the “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs” by U.S. News & World Report for seven straight years, including 2020. The college offers an array of bachelor’s and associate degrees, certificate programs and non-degree professional courses at campuses in New Jersey, New York and through Berkeley College Online®. Master of Business Administration degrees are also offered on-site and online.
De Botton and his team of more than 40 kicked into virtual high gear when the pandemic hit in winter 2020. Thanks to advance planning, Berkeley’s operations didn’t skip a beat.
Using Canvas, the college’s online learning management system, faculty and students have been engaged and involved throughout the pandemic. Through the platform, faculty can easily customize course content, handle grades in a less time-consuming way, collaborate with students, and integrate communications between all parties into the learning process.
“I’ve been here for 30 years and have been a part of every aspect of online learning from its emergence to its maturity,” De Botton says. “For instance, we had the back-end tech to do heightened online learning already in place well before the pandemic hit.”
Though faculty and students already used some aspects of the LMS, De Botton and his team had to step up once it became the only avenue for education in 2020.
“On the staff side, we approached things like a recipe, methodically making them comfortable working from home,” De Botton said. “It was really about helping them realize that working from home is viable.”
These days, online learning can occur just about anywhere—and anytime. De Botton has ensured that all of Berkeley’s systems are available to anyone who needs to study or work remotely. This was done by having high availability systems in place, and a 24/7, five-star rated helpdesk with on-call rotation systems to address any possible issues.
The longest snow day
Even with the necessary technology and procedures in place, dealing with the pandemic required plenty of foresight—particularly in the weeks leading up to nationwide shutdowns.
De Botton didn’t wait for marching orders; instead, he went to work, relying on his team, to help the entire college prepare for the coming storm.
“We knew COVID-19 was coming and kept hearing about people working from home at other institutions and companies. Every single winter there are people who can’t come to work because of snow on the ground,” De Botton says. “We made sure everyone had what they needed to work from home and let them know what to do with advance warning.”
This process took much more than a single email. Rather, it required college executives to verify that they and their team had what they needed to work from home indefinitely. All departments confirmed that they could do so and De Botton made sure each employee who requested assistance received the equipment and help they needed to be effective outside the office.
It was a prescient move—one that ended up preventing many headaches.
“Weeks before, I went to every vice president of a functional area and told them we were treating this like the longest snow day ever,” De Botton recalls. “They checked with their staff and signed off on them working remotely. We had all the necessary pieces in place, including training. We didn’t wait until the last minute.”
One early concern that ended up being for naught: Internet providers wouldn’t be able to provide consistent, high-speed internet access for remote workers. For the most part, employees’ home internet connections got the job done, leaving De Botton and his team free to concentrate on higher-level issues.
A helping hand
The mission evolved into doing whatever it took to make people comfortable, which included live chats with De Botton, and his team geared around helping people feel satisfied working from home. In addition, De Botton ran weekly “virtual happy hours” each Friday where he and his team interacted with staff in a laid-back format.
Created to handle technical issues, the help desk quickly became more than a way to report a problem. Instead, it became a hub for dealing with callers’ fears, anxieties and successes. Some tech support calls turned into simply helping someone who needed it—including helping them find toilet paper.
“In the early days of the pandemic, we anticipated that help desk calls would require more time to resolve and would be more complex,” De Botton says. “We proactively adapted and added resources in anticipation of higher demand instead of waiting for complaints.”
None of this would have been possible without his dedicated IS team, which he often refers to as family. Many of them have been working with him for well over 15 years.
De Botton has always been comfortable with technology—ever since his dad brought home a TRS-90 Micro Computer System. De Botton was enthralled and used it to manage clients on his paper route.
His first strategic tech move was effective. He was able to invest $500 in what was at the time a groundbreaking floppy disk drive—a princely sum back in those days. He’s been in love with tech ever since, and it’s integral to his professional and personal identity.
“I may not remember what I had for lunch three days ago, but I can list every computer I’ve ever had in order,” De Botton says. “If I have one regret, it’s that as an executive I have to give people projects I’d rather be working on myself.”
For De Botton, information technology is more about supporting people than integrating the “latest and greatest” product. He takes his work home with him because he loves it and wouldn’t have it any other way.
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