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In 2020 I assumed an IT Leadership position at Duke University as part of a centralization of IT services under the Office of Information Technology. In my new role, I lead a small team of IT professionals who provide customer support across a number of academic departments. I have four direct reports plus six colleagues from other teams who attend my team meetings and receive daily communications from me. I also collaborate frequently with a number of IT professionals across campus. I am now part of a large, centralized campus organization of over 200 people.

Previously I’d been an IT Team Lead for a single academic department, and had far fewer managerial duties. Now I manage a West Campus team and am getting to know new people and departments. Since organizational silos are breaking down and people are learning to support new units, a big part of my job has been improving communication and facilitating better information sharing. I am also doing a lot of team-building and personal mentoring.  

For all of these new job duties of mine, I am grateful for my background in the humanities. I see my background like a long-term investment that is currently paying off for me. It took me a while to get to where I am today, but I’m here, and doing OK! 

Over the years, I sometimes questioned whether I should have majored in computer science instead of English. But I always come back to the fact that had I been a computer science major back then, I would have learned a few computer languages that are obsolete now. Great literature is timeless. I’d rather be able to quote the poetry of Robert Frost, or the opening lines of Beowulf in Old English, than code in Pascal.

I have a B.A. in English (1994) and an M.S. in Information Science (1997), both from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I went to college thinking I would be a teacher or a professor, but also had a backup plan to be a writer. 

My dad is a professor emeritus of Education at Appalachian State University.  My mom is a retired school teacher. My sister is a Dean’s Professor of English at the University of Kansas. Of my four grandparents, one was a professor and the other three taught public school at one time or another.

I grew up in the college town of Boone, N.C., quite literally on campus. Some of my earliest memories are going to the university-run daycare and living in faculty housing. Later, after I’d entered public school, we often missed weeks of school every year due to snow and ice. Many of those snow days were spent in the ASU Library, hanging out in my dad’s office, or running around campus buildings.

In public school, I had wonderful teachers in subjects like music, art, social studies and English. I immersed myself in these classes, sometimes at the expense of other subjects like math or chemistry.

I was then, as I am now, a generalist with a lot of hobbies. I still enjoy making music, art and writing. I have a nature and gardening blog. I have played in punk bands and jazz bands and done performance art. I am paradoxically shy but enjoy performance, and typically have kept my work life and artistic life separate, usually playing under aliases. I bought a piano right before Covid hit, and started playing at least an hour a day, usually right before bed time. Turns out it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in recent memory. not only for my mental health, but because I’ve made significant progress. Currently I am plotting my next band.

As you can tell, I’m all over the place…

My undergraduate years were a struggle, not being sure of what I wanted to do with myself. I became depressed, even dropping out of school for a semester. Looking back, I think I always wanted to work in Higher Education, because of my family and fond memories of campus life. In my youth it never occurred to me that there were jobs in Higher Ed  besides teaching. At least not ones that seemed right for me. I had it in my head that I should be a Professor of Something but I just didn’t know what. It was hard to think about specializing in one thing. 

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I started doing some freelance writing. I had an internship at the North Carolina Writers Network and my supervisor asked me if I wanted to do a column about writers and technology. While I was doing some research for the column, I came across a story about the “World Wide Web” which fascinated me. This was 1994. I had no idea what the Internet was. I had a moment of clarity, thinking, this is going to be huge. My dad suggested that I might want to consider Library School, which seemed like a natural bridge between my humanities background and my new-found interest in technology.

I started out graduate school thinking I was going to be an academic librarian, but by the time I finished school I had become a programmer and web developer. Creating an application, web page or database gave me the same sense of satisfaction I felt when I wrote something or made a work of art. It also paid a good salary.  

When I came to Duke in 2002, my career shifted again, this time in the realm of user services and desktop support. After 5 years, I was tired of programming. I had not intended on staying at Duke very long, but I soon found that I really enjoyed working with customers and being in a helping profession. After all, wasn’t that one of the reasons I had gone to Library School in the first place?

When I assumed the new role in 2020, we were in the middle of the Pandemic and it was undeniable to me that there were things happening that were changing Higher Education forever. People were worried about their jobs and their future. The changes in workplace culture seemed significant and I wondered how they needed to be addressed. I had colleagues struggling with work-life balances like keeping children at home while trying to work, or taking care  of relatives. Around the globe, thousands of people were dying every day. 

On top of that, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the national reckoning in our country reopened pain and trauma for some of my staff members. The pain, stress and trauma were real and palpable for them.

I had heard about “team-building” in my coursework but I think I downplayed its importance. Now I saw it as mandatory, especially since we were forming a new team with some members who had worked on other parts of campus.

I started getting up earlier in the morning and writing to my team every day just to say “hello,” and check-in. I still do that. In February, I decided to write something every day to my team in celebration of Black History Month. I gave myself a challenge by only focusing on history in North Carolina. The next month was national poetry month, and I would share a poem every morning—which prompted poem-sharing by other staff members! 

These posts started discussions that were sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes amazing. One week during our celebration of Black History in NC, I featured musicians born in North Carolina, including jazz greats Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Nina Simone. Going from jazz to funk, I featured George Clinton, who was born in Kannapolis, NC. To my astonishment, one of my staff members told me that Clinton was his cousin, raised by his grandmother alongside his mom, aunts and uncles. In the same thread, we discovered that another colleague was related to Tyrone Johnson, who played sax with Sam & Dave. 

I read a lot of history, and if I ever went back to graduate school that is what I would study. During my month of writing about Black History in NC, one of my colleagues taught me how to be a better historian. My first post was about an enslaved man named Burrell who showed Daniel Boone the way up the Blue Ridge escarpment from the Yadkin Valley via an old buffalo trail. My hometown of Boone, NC is named after Daniel Boone, who built a cabin in the area. My colleague in IT, who is passionate about genealogy and happens to be the CEO of My Roots Foundation, wrote back to tell our team more things about Burrell–that he was enslaved by the Howard family, that he was a cow herder, and a couple of other facts that helped paint a picture of him. My colleague did something similar in at least two more posts, and it really impressed upon me that part of being a historian is bringing the dead and forgotten back to life.

It was one of those chilly February days when I had an “a-ha” moment where I realized how my background in the humanities had prepared me for leadership. Getting up early in the morning to write and do research and sip coffee and enjoy a sunrise view from my little home office seemed fun, even effortless sometimes. I was getting good feedback and colleagues from other teams were coming to our team meetings. Later that day, things got really hectic, and I realized that I was doing a lot of rapid communication with numerous individuals across the university and managing multiple projects. I was spending a lot of my time writing, communicating, and explaining things. I remember thinking “how could I even do this job well, and sanely, without these abilities?” I realized I’d taken some things for granted over the last 25 years, especially my ability to write and communicate. I feel like my creativity, as someone who makes art, allows me to communicate big ideas and sometimes think outside the box. My long-time interest in history has helped me synthesize information and make connections between things. 

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is mentoring and coaching my colleagues. When we formed our team, I found out that some of my employees needed one-on-one training to become comfortable performing certain tasks and procedures. Others needed feedback and encouragement.  Some only needed me to delegate the task to them. This required from me a situational leadership paradigm, tailored to the need of the employee. I realize now that mentoring/coaching and teaching are really the same thing.  Although I’ve always felt too introverted to teach in a classroom setting, I have tried teaching before, and it is draining. But coaching and mentoring, one-one-one, energize me.

In my approach, I tend to ask a lot of questions. I really want my employees  to have a professional development plan, and I try to give them some time each week to put aside other duties and focus on learning and training.  Everyone has different needs, different aspirations. I will ask things like, “Do you want to be in leadership, do you want to be in project management, or do you want to be in systems administration?” and encourage them to focus on the next task to get there. 

This week I have been thinking about the classical roots of mentorship, which took me back to Greek Mythology. Mentor, of course, was Odysseus’s trusted counselor, and in whose guise Athena became Telemachus’s guardian and teacher. In some ways, given the past year, we are all trying to get back home, just like the characters in the Odyssey.

One of my favorite writers is the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, particularly his work “The Kingdom of God Is Within You.” Tolstoy is also regarded as the father of Christian Anarchism, and was an influence on Mahatma Gandhi.

In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote Tolstoy, asking for his support in liberating India from British colonial rule. Tolstoy wrote him a moving letter, which caught Gandhi’s attention. The two began a correspondence.  Tolstoy wrote:

Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.

Gandhi went on to influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. To me it is a wonderful example of how all it takes is one writer or artist, through a Big Idea, piece of literature, song or work of art, to help change the world.  And that mentorship often implies co-mentorship. When you mentor someone, often they are teaching you as much as you are teaching them. The ripple effect is real. As a leader and mentor, my sincerest desire is that my actions have some kind of ripple effect for good, however big or small.

Matt Mielke
IT Team Lead
Duke University

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