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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Dave Robinson

Part of an ongoing series about the people who inhabit or have inhabited Grinnell’s campus.

Dave Robinson is Grinnell’s Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO) and the director of Information Technology Services. Given (a) that he serves those roles, and (b) what I feel and write about technology on campus, you might think that he’s someone I argue with regularly, and don’t particularly respect. You’d be wrong. Dave is one of the people I most value on campus. Let’s explore why.

Many of the reasons have to deal with our personal interactions. Every time I talk to Dave [1,2], I find that he is both willing to listen to my perspective and to explain his own perspective. As importantly, I find that he is willing to distinguish what he might do as an individual, and what he should do as our CITO. Dave is thoughtful and informed.

Because Dave is thoughtful and informed, he also helps me think about issues in different ways, and from different perspectives. So, while I really hate Proofpoint, he’s helped me come to realize how important it is that Grinnell has software like Proofpoint in place [3]. And, as he suggested to me when we first talked about it, I’m seeing an increasing number of institutions adopt similar software. It’s not the cutting edge I’d like to be on, but it’s nice to see Grinnell as a leader, rather than just a follower, in software systems. Similarly, when we’ve talked about concerns about data security for my own data, he’s helped me realize that some of my concerns are, well, a bit misguided: Sam, think about it. We’re trusting the College’s financial data to this backup system. Don’t you think we can trust it with your data? [4]. I will also admit that too often I find that I plan to do something and, after hearing Dave’s response of something like It is in your rights to do something like that, but have you thought about …, I change my mind.

I appreciate that Dave generally knows what he doesn’t know, as well as what he knows [6]. So, if we’re talking about something (say, related to Linux), he’s willing to defer to other expertise. Here’s an important example, and one that shows why I feel lucky to have him as a colleague: The department and the College are doing an analysis of our Linux systems.
Dave identified some consultants. The Department identified others. Dave did a thorough study of the consultants we suggested. When we raised questions about the general ability of Linux consultants to understand how we use Linux systems, Dave identified ways in which we could better assess the ability of consultants to incorporate that in their analysis. I would perhaps even venture to say that Dave is more willing to admit what he doesn’t know than I am.

As I said before, Dave also listens and is willing to take action when he (or ITS) has done something wrong. One of Dave’s first experiences with me on campus was a series of complaints I made about a new piece of software that we had installed right before he arrived. Dave took my concerns seriously, went back and discussed issues with appropriate people, and, I believe, even ended up renegotiating our contract with the vendor. Few new administrators are willing to take complaints that seriously.

So, while Dave and I don’t always agree, I don’t ever feel that we need to argue. We have reasonable discussions, and I appreciate that. I particularly appreciate his response to this essay, I want to respect that this essay is about your thoughts and impressions, so I have tried to limit my comments.

But my reasons for being glad to Dave at Grinnell go beyond our personal interactions. Some have to do with his life outside of work. For example, I know that Dave does woodworking with his daughter (or at least I hope he still does). There’s something special about a father who helps his four-year-old daughter use a router. (And yes, I mean that as a positive.)

Dave also has two cool email addresses: Both [8] and

More than I appreciate Dave for the ways he interacts with me, I appreciate him for the general work I see him do at Grinnell. He’s in an incredibly difficult position. Grinnell has been under-resourced and at the tail end of the curve in technology for as long as I’ve been at Grinnell [9]. That’s a lot to catch up on. In addition, he’s following up on two directors (neither of whom is still at Grinnell) who were widely disliked on campus [10]. Each built mistrust among the faculty about whether ITS was really there to support the institutional mission. Both built fear among the ITS staff. That’s not an easy position to walk in to.

But Dave is working hard for his staff and for the College. He’s fighting hard to teach higher-level administration (and, I’ll admit, me) about our real technology needs. He’s been creating good new processes and procedures. He’s also willing to try new things. For example, I’ve found that Dave has made ITS a leader in thinking about how to deal with implicit bias in staff hiring procedures.

We’ve recently had some campus discussions about shared governance. Dave strikes me as someone who represents what I hope for in shared governance. He tries to be appropriately consultative. He’ll listen when people come talk to him about things [11] and will consider sides and explain rationales. He tries to work with others, rather than on his own.

I was on the committee that hired Dave. (It’s actually the committee in which I started wearing my Curmudgeon nametag.) We clearly made such a great decision in getting him to come to Grinnell.

I feel like I should end with something really obnoxious, like Look, Dave, I said nice things about you. Can we now disable Proofpoint on my account? But I’m serious. Grinnell is lucky to have Dave as CITO. I look forward to many years working collaboratively.

Now if I can only get him to follow up on the suggestion in his interview that he might be able to teach a CS course in Web development [12]. And maybe, at some point, he’ll admit to his long and distinguished basketball career and also tell me why he left the Modern Lovers to join the Cars [14].

[1] Or send email to Dave.

[2] Or, on occasion, rant at Dave.

[3] I still wish that Proofpoint understood that they also have a responsibility to the end user. I get the sense that Dave feels the same way.

[4] Of course, the College also trusts important data to Microsoft products, so maybe my answer should be no [5].

[5] All biases against Microsoft products are my own, and do not reflect those of ITS and many other people.

[6] Okay, there’s one notable exception. Soon after we agreed to allow ITS to Firewall some of the MathLAN services, all of our pages disappeared from Google search results [7]. I emailed Dave. Dave, who has done a lot of Web development, wrote Given Webcrawlers use the same ports and protocols as a normal Web visitor, I don’t believe the firewall changes would have prevented access. But his belief was wrong. Our Firewall administrator had permitted the former, but not the latter. However, working together, we got it fixed quickly. I reported the problem at 9:30 or so at night; it was working again by 8:00 or so the next morning. And I do mean we got it fixed quickly, both sides provided information and suggestions.

[7] I’ve had pages at Grinnell for longer than there’s been a Google.
In the early days of the Web, my pages actually got external links. And, I had a lot of interlinked pages. So my PageRanks were pretty damn high. Was I pissed that my pages disappeared? Definitely.

[8] I really wish I’d trademarked the Name plus capital R thing.

[9] The CS department is not behind the curve, but the College as a whole has been.

[10] I happened to really like our last non-interim director, but I think I was in the minority.

[11] He’ll even listen when I come talk to him about things.

[12] I expect that for the next few years, he’ll be much too busy getting our technology up to snuff, as it were. But maybe eventually ….

[14] Those were jokes that refer to two other David Robinsons [15].

[15] Or should that be Davids Robinson?

Version 1.1.1 of 2016-11-08.