University of Tennessee

Proud alumni offer tech support at University of Tennessee

College students aren’t especially keen on waking up early. So, when 4,233 University of Tennessee students, faculty and staff gathered in the university’s Neyland Stadium, it was impressive for two reasons. First, those students showed up at 6 a.m. Second, they broke the Guinness World Record for largest letter formed by humans—a University of Tennessee “Power T.”

That feat shows the kind of pride students take in the University of Tennessee (UT). It’s not just the university at large that depends on these spirited students. It’s also the IT department, which says that hiring students and alumni can be a way to compete with private sector technology employers who tend to pay more. But the approach works especially well at schools with as much pride as UT.

University of Tennessee

Joel Reeves can attest to that. Reeves is associate vice chancellor and chief information officer (CIO) in the UT Office of Information Technology (OIT). Reeves is also an alumnus. He’s worked in technology at UT since 1984, and he says UT’s culture is part of the reason he stuck around.

“You’re part of an institution that people take a lot of pride in,” he says. “… You’re investing in something that’s going to pay dividends well beyond what your life will be here on earth.”

Hiring from within

Reeves started working for the OIT as a student programmer. He advanced to programmer analyst, system analyst, IT manager, IT director, associate CIO, and finally, associate vice chancellor and CIO.

“I was fortunate enough to get hired, and I haven’t left yet,” he says. Over the course of his career, Reeves says, the OIT has invested time in training him and developed him into a leader. “They were willing to invest in me, and I feel it’s only appropriate [to give back].”

Reeves isn’t alone. The OIT has 215 employees, and Reeves can point to many who started in student or entry-level positions. There are people like Rose Parker, who started as a student worker in network services in the ‘90s, became an IT manager and is now an assistant director; Sarah Boatman, a student worker turned system administrator; and Travis Gordon, who started as a student worker and now manages the OIT HelpDesk.

University of Tennessee

Many OIT employees start as student HelpDesk or other entry-level workers, and while Reeves jokes that he’d be hypocritical not to hire them, the reality is HelpDesk veterans come well prepared. To even start as a student worker on the HelpDesk, students must have attended UT for at least one year and, before they ever take a call alone, they go through six months of training.

“The biggest thing they know is what the end user is having to deal with because they’ve sat there and heard the complaints,” Reeves says. Then, when they become system administrators or programmers, they have more respect for end-user concerns.

A “port for every pillow” philosophy

At a university with 27,000 students and 7,000 employees, Reeves says, “There’s always change, and there’s always plenty of work to do.”

For student and entry-level employees, that means plenty of hands-on, real-world projects to support. For instance, the university is currently switching to the learning management system offered by Canvas to better serve UT students and faculty.

UT is also in the midst of a building boom. Its main campus in Knoxville, Tennessee, has $1 billion worth of construction in the works, and it just finished building its fourth dorm in three years.

“You can build the biggest, most beautiful building in the world, but if you don’t have connectivity, nobody’s going to [live in] it,” Reeves says.

UT has a “port per pillow” philosophy, which came from Steve Keys, OIT executive director of communication. In a world where students are on their devices for everything from academic research to Netflix and videogames, wireless networks can be easily overwhelmed. By assuring that students can plug into a physical port, UT assures they always have access to the academic information they need.

University of Tennessee

Every time the university digs a literal hole, Reeves and his team jump at the opportunity to lay conduit for fiber-optic cable, or anticipated fiber. As streets get revamped, each new light pole has either a security camera or a wireless access point.

“We don’t want people 20 years from now going, ‘What were those guys thinking not getting infrastructure in place to support this?’” Reeves says. “So when we dig up a street, we’re right there going, ‘We need this, this and this.’”

A compelling return on investment

Ultimately, everything Reeves and his team does comes down to supporting the university and its students. That means providing faculty with the technology tools they need to engage students, he says.

“If they can use technology to deliver the instruction in multiple ways, to adapt to different learning styles, or it gets the student to engage, that’s what we’re here for,” he says.

In the ‘90s, Reeves was approached with a private sector job offer that would have significantly increased his salary. After much deliberation, he decided to stay at UT, and since then he’s been driven by one question: how can I have the biggest impact?

Reeves hopes other UT grads will ask themselves the same question and invest their careers in the institution that’s invested so much in them.

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