Houston’s Rice University CIO Talks About Technology

Klara Jelinkova became the university’s first chief information officer in 2015, but her start in technology can be traced back to the days of the Iron Curtain when her mother taught her coding in Czechoslovakia.

by Dwight Silverman, Houston Chronicle / April 26, 2019

(TNS) — Rice University has a storied history in technology, having been one of the original hubs in the earliest days of the internet. So it may seem surprising that Rice never had a chief information officer until Klara Jelinkova signed on in 2015.

A native of the Czech Republic — at the time of her girlhood, known as Czechoslovakia — she learned programming on computers her mother smuggled into the country. She’s worked most of her adult life at various U.S. universities, including a stint as the CIO at the University of Chicago, from which she was recruited by Rice President David Leebron to come to Houston.

At Rice, Jelinkova faces the daunting task of managing a diverse and complex technological ecosystem populated by many different types of users. Making sure those networks are safe and running well is a massive job, and one that’s at the forefront of today’s biggest computing challenges.

Jelinkova sat down with Texas Inc. to talk about her inspiration, her career and the challenges of serving multiple constituencies when it comes to security, privacy and identity.

Q: How did you initially get into technology and come to where you are now?

A: I got into technology when I was quite young. My mom was one of the tech pioneers in the Czech Republic. Back then it was Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. You’re talking about late ’60s, early ’70s, so this is before computer science was really even taught. My mom has a PhD in math and physics, and a post-doc as well.

When I was little my mom really believed that women have to go into science and technology, so as a little kid I learned how to program with my mom. And in order to do that my mom smuggled a Commodore 64 from West Germany into the Czech Republic, so that was quite an achievement.

Q: How was your mother a pioneer?

A: For the longest time. she was basically the only woman in in her area. She worked on some of the first Russian mainframes, similar to the IBM mainframes. She really worked more in COBOL. You know, it’s kind of funny, my mother retired but for a while, in her 60s and 70s, she was still writing little COBOL programs for a company as a gig.

I think for her, and I think for me too, technology is just kind of a creative endeavor. And I think that’s what I inherited from her — the passion for it.

Q: How did you get to the U.S.?

A: I went to school at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I first worked for private companies and then I went back to work Wisconsin Madison in the IT department and I have been at universities ever since.

Q: The private company was pretty famous for its time, Harvard Graphics. What did you do?

A: I was the support specialist for Harvard Graphics just as it was going out of business, so it wasn’t a very good role. But I have to tell you I think it’s a great when, early in your career, you work for a company that went out of business. It teaches you a lot. In your 20s you are pretty naive — everybody else is reading the tea leaves and you’re not. And through that experience you get better at reading the tea leaves.

Q: Your title at Rice includes “vice president for international operations and IT”. What does the “international operations” part entail?

A: When you’re thinking about technology, it really enables people to go global, without necessarily a physical presence. That’s one of the fundamental parts of the internet: you can be global even though you are based in a certain country. In the international operation side I primarily worry about more operational issues like General Data Protection Regulation (a European Union privacy law), compliance questions, security questions, those types of things.

Q: Why is one person doing those two jobs?

A: Rice is committed to spending as much money as we can on instruction and research, and administrative overhead is really secondary. So, if you have someone who can do two jobs, why not have them do it? It’s actually part of the reason why I was interested in coming here because you get to do a lot of different things.

Q: How did you end up at Rice?

A: I’m on the board of a nonprofit called Internet2. ([Rice University President) David Leebron was also on the board, and when Rice opened this role and decided that instead of having technology report to different people, they wanted one CIO. He asked me to apply for the position. And you know I really came here to follow David.

Q: You’re the first CIO at Rice. When you came in you essentially had to build your job. How did that work?

A: One of the things to figure out when you’re building your job is that Job One is to find an assistant! Up until this point I have always followed somebody (who had the job before me). So you come into a job and you kind of get on a conveyor belt, and all of your meetings are set even before you get there.

What really attracted me to this job was being able to chart your own path, which was something that Rice was very clear on. And it wanted technology to have a seat at the table.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face on a campus this big, this diverse? What are some of the biggest challenges you see?

A: By nature we have multiple generations at Rice. We have a faculty with some in their 80s. We have people that are coming in that are 17 and 18 years old. We need to have technology solutions that meet both of their needs. You have an environment where people move at different speeds, have really different expectations as far as engagement on social media and reading email. There’s this whole thing where students don’t read email anymore and yet here we send an email, because it’s not right to text someone their financial information.

Q: What about security challenges?

A: Yes. I struggle with this question a lot.

We have very permeable border, being open by design, and academia can be used as a vector (for cyberattacks). But I don’t know that it’s necessarily that much worse than, say, what the financial industry faces, or what the federal government faces, or what the defense industry faces. You just don’t hear about it as frequently. I think in some ways we are all in this together.

We have people who come here because they want to hear a concert at Shepherd School. Then we have students who actually come here to school and live here and then we have faculty and staff who are employees. They have different level of affiliation and we can dictate things to them to a lesser (or greater) extent.

So you secure that space through the segmentation of the network — keeping people in different places and using firewalls. That’s been part of our life for a long time.

The criticism recently has been that we have been too lenient, too understanding. So we’re still kind of working through that.

Q: Do you agree with that?

A: We are in the business of creation and preservation of knowledge and the dissemination of knowledge. Locking everything down and not letting information out is kind of antithetical to that, so there needs to be some level of a happy medium between those two approaches that we need to find. The FBI has been very helpful, and having that dialogue is actually helpful.

Q: In an article for CIO Review, you wrote some interesting things about privacy and identity on campus, including this: “Over time CIOs will need to become as knowledgeable about this complex topic as they currently are about the security topic.” Can you expand on that?

A: I was talking about privacy before GDPR, and before (the data scandals at) Facebook. My point was that we were so focused on securing the data that we were not really paying attention to how we were approaching privacy. This was three or four years ago.

There’s a fundamental shift we are going through right now. If you think five years ago, we thought of data as institutional data. Right now we are thinking about the data being about me or about you. You have some level of right to it and what happens to it. And that was the core piece of GDPR: you have the right to know how the data is used.

That privacy concept is shifting our approach to security. We are no longer just putting a wall or a moat around the data. We need to be able to actually tell you how we used it. That’s a very different construct.

Q: So you were prescient.

A: When I wrote it, you could see that something like that was going to happen, right? The whole idea that people are going to willingly give up information about them, you know maybe to get access to Facebook, maybe to get access to Google, that was not going to fly for terribly long. At some point governments are going to get involved. You have states in the United States that are actually enacting legislation.

So let me flip that into how that relates to identity.

Any time you go to college somewhere or you start working somewhere, they issue you an I.D. and you are born anew. There’s no digital identity that you carry from place to place, so when somebody graduates from Rice they essentially leave our system.

But then there’s a completely different digital identity that their work creates for them and so, as we live more of our life in the digital space, you can see a situation where you may want to create a persistent digital identity that shows certain events in your life. Right now it’s maybe a LinkedIn profile, but you can see this could potentially be an application for blockchain or another type of persistent credential.

Q: There’s a growing desire on the part of elected officials to either regulate tech or rein it in, or in some cases even break up big tech. Where do you stand on that, and how would it affect your job?

A: Regulation of the tech companies is a very interesting topic because the whole set of lawsuits around Microsoft in the ’90s.

I don’t know that antitrust, let’s say, is really the way to regulate it, by breaking it up. I guess, in some ways technology is ultimately about consolidation. It’s just going to re-form in some other way.

So I am skeptical of that approach. But I think that when you have a natural monopoly, and I would argue that Google would be a natural monopoly, you really think about how to regulate how the natural monopoly operates until there is a real reason to break it up.

The example usually that comes to mind is AT&T. To make sure these natural monopolies are not abusing that to impede competition, which is a difficult case probably to make in the case of Google.

Or that it’s being abusive toward consumers and I think that’s partly why you are seeing some of these privacy laws starting to come in. It’s more about consumer protection than it is about necessarily being able to artificially introduce competition into something that lends itself to a natural monopoly.

Q: So tech wants to scale, and there’s benefit to that scale, and if you break it up you lose the scale and you lose the benefit?

A: Yes, I think you do.

©2019 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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