University of North Texas System’s CIO Improves Student Experience and the Bottom Line

Rama Dhuwaraha leads IT shared services and is working on a number of initiatives to improve life for faculty and students

Rama Dhuwaraha’s first job was an unpaid internship at Morgan Stanley. He worked for a man named John D’Amato who came from a coal mining background, and Dhuwaraha would joke with him that he could only put in four hours a day because he had to go out and make a living doing something else to pay the bills. D’Amato shaped how Dhuwaraha sees business today. He also gave him the opportunity to work with a startup. Dhuwaraha started running everything, from finance to engineering to project management—all skills he later took with him when the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, was looking for a chief information officer.

Dhuwaraha was still fairly green when he walked into the mayor’s office in 2007. The mayor at the time recognized that the city needed the position filled in order to address a failed PeopleSoft implementation. The city council also needed someone at the helm to focus on major technology needs and provide universal technology leadership, beyond the purview of a director. Dhuwaraha took over the PeopleSoft implementation in the midst of that and turned it around.  He also dealt with issues related to ERP implementation there. “It was an extremely challenging job because these are scenarios you don’t practice for. You go into it pretty much with your life experience, and you’re trying to work things as they happen and turn it around,” he says. “It’s even more challenging than a corporation because everything is so public. You’re dealing with the media in a small town. If you walk into the grocery store, they recognize you based on these council sessions, and your life changes. I think all of that prepared me to deal with the public sector.”

Today, Dhuwaraha is the associate chancellor and CIO at the University of North Texas (UNT) System, one of the nation’s largest public universities. He’s passionate about technology in the public sector because it’s all about how he influences and makes changes in people’s lives. “Technology is great, but by itself, it doesn’t do a whole lot,” says Dhuwaraha. He gets immense satisfaction in being able to impact the students and faculty at UNT.

“Our surveys show that between 87 and 93 percent of our students have mobile devices, and a majority of them want their services provided in some form or fashion on a mobile device.”

Currently, Dhuwaraha is working on a slew of initiatives that he hopes will improve the university’s business platform, general functions, efficiency, and bottom line. The first is an infrastructure project that will give UNT institutions what he calls “the Amazon Experience.” The premise is that UNT will have a server and storage memory to compute and have working services. It will allow departments to seamlessly order various web services instead of individually calling teams and putting them together. The university would have a portal that would be accessible to all three of its campuses under this system.

Dhuwaraha also has a few committees working on mobile applications. Many of the university’s applications aren’t mobile-friendly, and the team is in their infancy in making some of those applications mobile-friendly. “Our surveys show that between 87 and 93 percent of our students have mobile devices, and a majority of them want their services provided in some form or fashion on a mobile device,” he says. The team will also focus some of their energy on data warehousing this year. Dhuwaraha believes it’s going to change the way UNT does business, as well as how the system uses data and analyzes its internal information.

The university’s PeopleSoft is also getting a facelift. The upgrade will improve the finances of the business and will be UNT’s enterprise resource planning system—handling HR, finance, and campus solutions. Since UNT is a public university, this is a huge improvement that will increase transparency and compliance, says Dhuwaraha. It will also help the university perform accurate costing at granular levels, which is something most universities are unable to do. Say a student wants to know how much graduation costs, but doesn’t have an account set up accurately. Under the old system, the university couldn’t perform accurate costing. The new PeopleSoft would change that to improve the university’s financial position.

These changes are important because they will directly impact and benefit faculty, staff, and students, says Dhuwaraha. He also makes an impact with an initiative called CivChoice. The platform organizes charitable donations so that a bulk goes directly to the cause, rather than administrative costs. “I think the marketplace today has a lot of inefficiencies to raise money for nonprofit organizations, and they spend a lot of their time raising money and managing it when the money should go to the cause directly,” Dhuwaraha says. “If you have an organization that says it’s going to fund issues that are important to the donor, then the money needs to go to fix that issue. That’s the goal and the mission. If 80 percent of the money raised goes to administrative things like bookkeeping and marketing, then it really defeats the purpose.” With CivChoice, the only cost that goes to the bank is the transaction cost.

Throughout all of this, Dhuwaraha has had to evolve with the increased expectations of a CIO. He’s learned how to solve more operational problems and expects to be more involved with marketing and financial issues. He’s also learned how to reflect and appreciate both his time and his role. “One time when I worked for the city of Lexington, I went to Ohio State to talk about how systems are playing a greater role in business, and how business thought leaders needed to start focusing more on that,” Dhuwaraha says. “I’ll never forget the guy who came up to me after the talk. He was the first one in his family to get his bachelor’s, and he said that if he were to plan out his life and career, that he hoped he could follow mine. I just thought how inspirational that was, and I always reflect on that moment.”