Teamwork is the name of the IT game at NCAA

Collaboration and caring — plus access to coveted championship tickets — are big draws at the #4 small organization on the 2020 Best Places to Work in IT list.

As a sports fanatic, Josh Smith had no intention of turning down the opportunity to interview for a job as systems engineer with the infrastructure team at the NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletic Association), which is most famous for its March Madness basketball tournament — even though he wasn’t looking for a new gig.

But during the interview process, the organization’s team-oriented dynamic was clear, which made Smith realize it was the right move. “I could tell it was about ‘I’ve got your back and you’ve got my back,’” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get started.”

Now, he enjoys both being close to sports and the culture of collaboration and innovation at the NCAA’s IT organization. Going to events like the men’s Final Four is a perk, he explains, but the real reward is seeing what goes into the event and behind the scenes. “We help student athletes create memories that last the rest of their lives,” he says.

The NCAA’s IT staff is a small shop, with about 40 full-time employees. Its main charge is supporting a staff of about 500 employees who run the business of the membership organization of 1,200 schools and universities, which in turn represent a half-million student athletes and 89 championships.

CIO turns to ITIL

When CIO Judd Williams first joined the organization in 2012, the IT department still needed to mature in terms of its technology and governance, so his first priority was to transition to the cloud and implement ITIL best practices. Now that those goals have been achieved, Williams says his teams work to push the NCAA’s digital transformation further.

That includes “cool new projects” such as the NCAA Transfer Portal, which was created in 2018 as a compliance tool to add transparency to the student athlete transfer process but has gotten significant recognition from media and sports fans. News of student athlete transfers fills hours on sports talk shows and runs on tickers at the bottom of screens. “It’s great to get that recognition,” says Williams.

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The NCAA’s national office in Indianapolis features two distinct buildings connected by a two-story enclosed walkway.

Innovation is also not simply valued but has become a requirement within the IT organization. “I want 10 percent of IT employee time spent on innovation, whether it’s [technology] someone is interested in exploring or something I’m looking for volunteers to look into,” says Williams.

In addition, IT staffers are regularly sent to national conferences to learn about new technologies. “I want them exposed to the latest and greatest,” he says. “It costs more, but I think that investment is really paying off.”

Smith, for example, has developed a strong focus in the Microsoft/Office 365 environment over the past five years, and he has felt lucky to attend Microsoft Ignite conferences. The results have been highly valuable: For instance, he was an important part of rolling out Microsoft Teams in the middle of February. It turned out to be excellent timing, as the entire Indianapolis-based headquarters moved to remote work during the COVID-19 crisis.

No place to sit and hide

As teamwork is valued so highly at the NCAA, it’s no surprise that Williams makes sure new hires have the right soft skills, interpersonal abilities and all-around good attitudes. According to Kristi Kennedy, director of the IT Project Management Office, the NCAA attracts a certain type of person with a “servant-type” attitude.

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Kristi Kennedy, director of the Project Management Office at the NCAA

“You don’t go into a nonprofit organization if you don’t fit that student culture,” she says. “There’s a lot of collaboration and teamwork, so if you’re looking to be a part of an IT team where you can just sit at your desk and hide, the NCAA is not a place for you.”

Yet there is a great deal of autonomy as well, thanks to the trust Williams and Kennedy have in their IT employees. “We have structure, but the leadership is there to support and enable success, not to dictate,” says Kennedy.

The NCAA’s flat organizational chart may mean there isn’t a lot of opportunity to climb a vertical career ladder, but Kennedy points out that autonomy means team members can make their roles as broad and robust as they want and need to be successful. “We offer professional development and learning to expand their knowledge, but we also encourage and enable them with creativity and innovation to find new ways to do things better,” she says. “We want them to broaden and expand their role.”

The small size of the organization, as well as its unique mission, also add to the importance of teamwork. “We don’t do projects because stock prices increase or make shareholders happy,” Kennedy explains. “We have to be thoughtful about resources to meet stakeholder needs, because as a non-profit we can’t just go and expand a team by five people.”

That means trust and respect are even more important, with leadership that provides guidance from a strategic perspective: “We have an amazing team of sharp, intelligent people who are passionate about what we do and who are empowered to make the right decisions,” she says. 

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NCAA staff gather for a daily stand-up with the PMO director in pre-pandemic times.

A March without madness

It was difficult for the entire NCAA organization when this year’s March Madness tournament was cancelled. “It’s sort of like our Super Bowl,” says Kennedy. “We have many other championships, but losing the big party was hard to emotionally wrap our minds around.” Yet with another academic year coming up quickly in the fall, the IT organization has come together to keep all of the systems running and help student athletes across the country continue towards academic success.

With low turnover within IT, Williams points out that he knows each of his team members extremely well, with each enjoying a great deal of built-in, inherent trust. Since the entire organization has moved to remote work, staffers miss each other but have been busier than ever and kept upbeat attitudes.

“We still have a lot of fun, with plenty of virtual coffees and lunches that keep this culture strong,” he says. “In a way, I’d say we are almost better off as a team, because we’ve reached out with such genuine caring for each other.”

Nominations are now open for the 2021 Best Places to Work in IT list! Nominate an organization or find out more about the Best Places to Work in IT survey and program.

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