Beginning as a staff member in IT services, Mike Fudge has been working with Syracuse University and the iSchool for 20 years. Over those years he has developed an expertise in information systems while working in IT, taught as an adjunct professor countless times, earned his master’s degree in information management (from the iSchool), and has been teaching as a professor of practice for the last six years. Most of his work is focused on data science, programming, building databases, and the ‘internet-of things’ (IoT).
Last summer (‘22), Fudge was given a chance to exercise his leadership skills in a new way when he was asked to serve as the Program Director for the Information Systems (IS) master’s degree program. Fudge feels uniquely fit for the opportunity to lead the program and shape its future, and clearly cares deeply for the school that has played such a major part in his life. Here is a conversation about his new role:
Question: What do you do as Program Director, and do you still teach?
Answer: I do a number of different things. I am tasked with shaping the direction of the program and its curriculum, so I spend a good deal of time making sure I am current on what employers are looking for in our graduates, what our alumni in the field feel could be improved to better prepare them for their careers, and what innovations in technology and information are on the horizon.
I am also still teaching, though not as many courses. And I collaborate with faculty and staff on all the administrative aspects of the program, from recruiting and admissions to curriculum and advising, and career placement. For example, this morning I wrote three letters of recommendation for students who are applying to internships, and addressed some basic advising questions. I’m also considered the subject matter expert in IS, so when a student has a subject matter question they typically come to me. So I wear many hats!
Q: What are you bringing to this role? What are your hopes with taking this on?
A: I got my degree in information management. We’ve changed the name to information systems now, but I still have that same degree, and so for me, it’s personal. I believe in this degree, I believe in the value of it, and I believe in the versatility of it. And I want to make sure that we still respect the diversity of it.
When you get into information systems, you are gaining knowledge and skills around how organizations collect, store, manage, and leverage information – and that can take many forms. You could be on the more technical side, managing the platforms and systems that make these tasks possible, you could be on the strategy side, deciding what an organization needs to invest in to be successful in the future, you could be doing analysis, looking at data and communicating about your findings, you could be working on policy issues relating to technology and data, or you could be doing any number of other things. We have graduates in so many diverse fields – government, education, healthcare, retail, consulting. So I think the future of this program really is about recognizing that these skills are relevant in nearly any field, and figuring out how to make sure that what we’re teaching stays current when the technology landscape is changing so rapidly. At the same time, it’s a degree that is meant to provide IT competencies for people with a lot of different backgrounds, from accounting and finance to marketing and advertising, or even general liberal arts degrees. This program gives those people the technical acumen to make them highly marketable in today’s digital economy. So while we are delving into complex technical systems and ideas like AI, the Internet of Things, or cloud computing, we want to keep the curriculum at a point where people from non-technical backgrounds can still thrive.
Employers are telling us that they love to hire our graduates because they have that blend of technical and non-technical expertise – they have management, leadership and communications skills alongside the coding and technology skills. And that’s what makes this program unique, and that’s what I’m hoping to carry into the future.
Q: Does the transition to program director provide you with a higher vantage point to see the whole field of IS, and if so, why will this degree matter?
A: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s the most ambitious part of being a program director. To do this job well, in IS anyway, you’ve got to have a pulse on what’s happening, and more importantly, what’s going to happen. I look at things like cloud, IoT, AI and digital transformation and I see those as foundational differentiators as we go forward in industry. Our students need to be well positioned to have the skills to get that first job, but also to have the knowledge to build a career out of that first job. That’s the balance that we have to strike in the IS program. We want to give them some hard skills so that they can show an employer they can do things, but we also want to make sure they have the foundations that allow them to think abstractly and look at trends, and say “you know what, I see in five years everything’s going to be in cloud and we’re not going to be buying hardware and filling out data centers anymore, so I need to become more aware of ways that I can budget for cloud, or do some auditing of the workloads that I’m running in cloud to figure out who is going to be billed for what aspects of that work.” While those things are new – what’s old is new again – and we always do it like that in IS. We’ve always done all these analytics and accounting tasks, and the cloud doesn’t change any of that, it just changes how we do them. A big part of getting your master’s degree through this program is being able to look through the lens that allows you to see the generalities, how things work, and to be forward thinking.
Q: Now that you’re in a position to champion the aspects of the program that you think are most important, has your perspective changed since being “just” a faculty member, or do you have any fresh insights that you didn’t have the time or bandwidth to think about before?
A: Before becoming program director my focus was a lot more narrow. Now it’s exponentially more broad. Number one, I need to pay attention to a lot more facets of the program than the ones that merely interested me (IoT, etc.). Number two, on top of keeping in line with these trends, there’s this need to speak with students who get internships and are in early-career jobs, and talk to employers and alumni. Whenever there’s an alumni event, I want to go because that’s a way to stay relevant, and to talk to really smart people that are out there doing great things. A lot can come from having a conversation with our alumni and our recent graduates and our students that have gone on to do internships, and having them tell me where our curriculum needs a refreshing take, or where we’re doing really well. I find that incredibly helpful, and it’s always nice catching up with these people, too.
Q: Has this new perspective and set of responsibilities influenced your teaching style in any ways, or does it bring anything different to your classrooms?
A: I don’t know about that yet. In one way, I think I talk about it [the IS program] more. If there’s anything in that regard it’s that I’m selling it more. Like when I’m teaching undergrads—I will definitely sell it. I’m saying here’s where it’s valuable, here’s where it’s not. When you’re getting your bachelor’s in information management and technology, which is now a separate major, that major is similar to what we do in IS, so that goes back to the questions of: where is the subject matter expertise, where is the background in a certain area that’s going to make you really good at doing IT in that area? You can be a generalist, and that’s great, but I don’t know if getting a master’s degree in that would be helpful. In that scenario, you might be better off getting a master’s from a completely different discipline. The reverse is also true. If you went to the Whitman school as an undergraduate and you got your degree in accounting, then this is a great opportunity to get your degree in IS, and gain a more technical skill set to add to your bachelor’s. This is a really complimentary degree.
Q: What makes the iSchool’s information systems program unique?
A: One of the things that makes us unique is that we are in an information school – most information systems programs are either in a computer science or business school. Foundationally we don’t prioritize technology or management, we see the balance, and in this school we jokingly call it the “trinity”, because we focus on the three – information, people, and technology – and together those are equally important. That’s where our foundation lies in the IS program. What makes us different is that we take the human-centered approach to technology and management. The challenge for us is that a lot of people don’t realize how useful this degree can be until they have been out working in the field for a number of years.
Q: What’s your pitch to prospective students?
A: The world is being transformed by information technology, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, it’s only going to be more prevalent in just about every industry you can think of, so no matter what your area of expertise may be, coming out of your four year degree program, there is potential to see where gaining a good knowledge of IT management can help you leverage your career in that particular industry. That is the one thing that I try to tell all prospective students. This is what we can do for you… and then let them decide what makes the most sense for them, and we then try to maintain flexibility.