The Ohio State University Discusses App Development, Data Security, and the Future of Education

Michael Hofherr - Central Ohio Tech Power Player Honoree

Michael Hofherr

VP and CIO

The Ohio State University 



Jason Skidmore 

Partner and CEO



To listen to the podcast, click here!


The VP and CIO for The Ohio State University, Michael Hofherr, discusses app development, data security, and the future of education. 


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JS: Welcome. I am here today with Michael Hofherr, who is the Chief Information Officer at The Ohio State University, which, uh, as everyone hopefully knows is located in Columbus, Ohio. And uh, Mike is responsible for about 700 employees over there. So, my name is Jason Skidmore and I'm with Vernovis; I'll be your guest moderator today. So Mike, if you're ready, we'll jump in.


MH: We're ready. Thanks for having me.


JS: Hey, good to have you here. So, I think we're all really excited to hear from you in particular, because you're with one of, if not the largest university in the U.S. right now. So, you're going to have some unique perspective for us. And one of the things that I would like to jump right into, uh – development, application development in particular. Um, tell me a little bit, you know, we have an app for everything these days and applications are tying together everything we do. So, what are some of the things that you're doing over at OSU, um, that you can tell us a little bit about in this space?


MH: Yeah, it's an, it's an exciting space for us. We've just gotten through our first rollout of technology for all our students. So, um, we're committed to leveling the technology playing field and every one of our incoming freshmen have received an iPad Pro, pencil, keyboard case and care with that device. And, and while that's important and we’ll continue to do that for the foreseeable future, um, what really comes out of that is, everyone can code. And the ability to put coding in front of different types of students, um, students that have a different skill set that weren't used to. So, we really see, um, coding and the ability of everyone to, to code as, as the future and the trend.

But in the middle of that is the app development, uh, center and IOS Design Lab as we're calling it. And the…having our students work with our faculty, work with our community partners to solve problems. And that's not just so much as, you know, it's this, this customer-centered design or this user-centered design that we're really after. So, what we've seen early on is that, you know, folks come in, or folks come to us with ideas around, "Well I need an app to solve this problem." And then when we actually dig into what the problem is, that's not the app we end up building. And so, that's a different mindset than we've had in IT for a long time. Yeah. So let's do IT for IT. We're really now focusing on, let's do the IT that's gonna make folks' lives easier or experiences better for people.


JS: Absolutely. And I love the idea of the app development center, right? I think, you know, any of us who've been in the technology field long enough, we're all advocates for the earlier we start those types of things, the better for our students. So, is this available to anyone that would be at the university?


MH: It will be, it will be. So. I think, um, in November we're going to launch a mobile sort of lab, so, I think a bus.


JS: Cool. Cool.


MH: Yeah, yeah, we're really excited about it, and so that bus will be able to go anywhere on our campus or to our regional campuses, which we have five of, and, but it’ll also be able to go out into the community with our partners across the state and we really see this as a real advantage for us in the states. If you think about the folks on my team that will have these skills, the app developers, paired with people from Apple, paired with the latest technology that's available in a space that could go anywhere or be anywhere – that's exciting. It's exciting to our extension agriculture, how we're doing precision farming. It's exciting to name an industry where they…well we have a ton of students, right? 55,000 students on the Columbus campus, and now they're going to have a skill that they didn't have before. And how do we pair those people with skills and specific interests with needs out in the community?


JS: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it sounds exciting. I would think you'd have a waiting list to get on that bus.


MH: Well, that's, I think that's going to be the challenge. How we're gonna manage that demand and, and I think that'll align with our university priorities. More, more to come on that as we get into it.


JS: Fantastic. Thanks for sharing that. So, obviously, the better job we do educating and helping these students become more aware of what's going on from a technology standpoint, especially if we're giving them critical skills like app development, then you've got to worry about the flip side of that, which is how do you keep everybody safe and secure in an environment where there's so many endpoints and there's such a growth in the number of applications out there. So how are you addressing this?


MH: It's, it's a tough one, and I think it's probably the biggest challenge we face in IT right now is, not so much security of the borders, I think we've figured that out or we know what we have to do. It's the security of the data and then how we're using that data or who’s using that data, and it's the compartmentalization of that data that's, I think, so important.

So, we're looking at how we classify our data across the university or classify data in terms of importance. Obviously things like research data, when you’re one of the largest research institutions in the country, that research data is very valuable. And it's, has impacts on people's careers in, in a very, um…has a lot of longevity, right? So, a research study can take eight, 10, 15, 20 years. And how do you protect that data over time is really important.

So, you know, a couple of approaches. We have a security program that we run at the university where all apps go through sort of a vetting of that security. And then I spoke to it earlier, just the, if this is the data everyone could see regardless of the app, right? And that's probably, uh, name and the things associated with that. Right? Then we're not going to do too much work to protect that, because that's out there, but if this is our most important data and we're the only stewards of that, you know, we're going to put the most gates around that, or as many gates around that as we can, which is really about resource allocation. Right? So, where are you gonna spend your dollars and where are you going to spend your time? Right? It's not just on security, it's, it's on processes and work that gets us to, this is most important, right? Based on these criteria, and therefore that's what we're going to protect.


JS: Yeah, absolutely. No different than any organization should be looking at their overall security roadmap and program, right?


MH: Yeah. Very, very similar. So, I think our, our challenge is in the uniqueness of what we do as a university, you know? We have a football team, we have a football stadium, we also have a hospital, we also have a band. We also have researchers that do work for the government, and we have researchers that do work on the oceans, and everything in between those two things.

And so, understanding that, you know, we have to have IT that helps, or processes in IT that help all of those people be successful. From, you know, the faculty teaching general chemistry to, you know, the researcher working in the Antarctic, to the football coach, to the basketball coach, to the doctor at the hospital. And those are a whole bunch of different needs that a lot of folks have to, to look at.


JS: Absolutely. And how do you drill that all the way down to the personal device level? I mean, how worried do we really need to be there?


MH:  Well, we drill it all the way down. Whether that's through a variety of, of um, you know, if we own that device, we are obviously managing that with the MDM solution. For the first time we’ll be managing student devices through our flagship program that we’ve rolled out for our students. But again, I think it's compartmentalizing the information on those devices so that the things that we know are of value or importance to the organization are, are protected. So, it's not much different, it just becomes at the micro level then. It's a lot of partnership at the university. We still operate a very much distributed model, so it's building a lot of partnerships and getting people to understand why this is important, and then it's doing some things that we haven't had to do in the past, right?

So, "Thou shall not," is not a term that we use very frequently in higher education. I talked to my peers around Columbus, around the state, and those in private industry would just say, "Well we just told everyone we should do that." Well, we have this group of folks, right? Tenured faculty, faculty members that we don't operate, we worked through shared governance. And so, building consensus is really important, and getting them to understand why we're doing these things to protect them and protect their data is important.


JS: Sure, absolutely. Okay. With such a big group and so many things going on; we've heard about a few of them. What's exciting you the most about what you have coming up in the next 12 to 24 months?


MH: Oh, that's a great, great question. So, what's exciting me the most is we've had a, in the last year we've announced a lot of big things. Our flagship partnership, our move to one university wireless network, our move to [Office] 365, our move to Skype for business, our data center move, which are all big initiatives in and of themselves. What's exciting me is what the world looks like 18 months from now when all of those are done, and we have this connected campus, right? And we have this connected infrastructure that has things like the app development center at the middle of it, the IOS lab at the middle of it, that are generating new discoveries or getting people to research faster or building new applications for our community partners. Right? Those are all the possibilities at the end of this very intensive period of, you know, IT project work.

And, you know, when we think about the future and the students we’re preparing to go out into the workforce, you know, we really think we're going to differentiate an Ohio State student from, name another school, because of the experience that we're going to give them, or our researchers are going to have an advantage because they're going to get the discovery faster. So, the possibilities at the end of the day are what excite me, not the next sort of IT project, I have enough of those going on right now.


JS: Right, right!


MH: But, but the, the big ideas of, of what we could, could be and, and the impact that our students will have on the workforce going forward is really exciting.


JS: Yeah. Awesome. Well, it needs to be said – thank you for everything that you're doing to influence the next generation of great IT leaders that are going to come out of Ohio State and have an impact on our world.


MH: We're excited to do it. It's, I tell folks I have a really fun job, and to get to go in there and work with some of the best researchers, some of the best faculty, administrators and students every day is, it's, it's a pleasure. It's something I don't take for granted.


JS: That's great. That's great. Well, Mike, thanks so much for your time today.


MH: Thanks for having me.


JS: Yeah, really appreciate it. Again, this is Jason Skidmore with Mike Hofherr, and to learn more about us, please visit Until next time, goodbye.


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The Ohio State University Discusses App Development, Data Security, and the Future of Education
The Ohio State University Discusses App Development, Data Security, and the Future of Education