Joaquin Cantu on the challenges of running the UNM-Taos IT Department

By Bill Knief

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You could make a case for the IT Director’s job—IT as in Information Technologies—as being a career to stay away from. It’s not for the faint of heart. You’re constantly vulnerable to circumstances beyond your control—power outages, intentional and unintentional screw-ups and incompatibilities with software, rapidly changing platforms and systems and networks and devices, servers that won’t serve and users that don’t know how to use the devices they just asked you to purchase—but expect you to make it all ok.

But Joaquin Cantu, IT Director at UNM-Taos, seems to enjoy the challenge. He came to UNM-Taos from the Town of Taos, and before that he was IT support for what is now El Centro Family Health, and before that he worked for a Department of Defense agency at Kirtland air force base. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in his off hours he is a Taos Volunteer Fireman.

“You can get a degree in IT, but my degree is in mass communications with a public relations concentration and a minor in studio art,” Cantu explained. “When I was with the DOD they had me setting up a network of laptops to run an exercise, and I realized I kind of had a knack for the work.

“IT is an umbrella term, and even when you are a generalist you are only going to cover just a small portion of the IT spectrum. To give you an example, main campus serves 26,000 people and their IT Department has three or four hundred people, so they are able to specialize. Here at UNM-Taos we have to generalize, and every day is a challenge. The things that cause me the most stress are the things nobody knows about, because people only become aware of them when they’re not working. If the behind-the-scenes stuff isn’t working, everything literally stops.

“One of our biggest challenges is in keeping a knowledge base that is a mile wide and an inch deep, so that you can stay on top of radically changing technologies. You might be trouble shooting a classroom presentation system one minute and diagnosing a network problem the next.

“On top of that, the policy of UNM-Taos is that the IT Department needs to approve every technology purchase. To me that means striking a balance between functionality and economy. The approach I try to take is to start with the goal; what is it that the user is trying to accomplish? Then I proceed from there in determining what the best tool for the job is.

“Another big challenge for IT is the proliferation of malware. Malware is a general term for any kind of software that has a malicious use. Sadly, in a worst case scenario, it can completely take over your computer, mine it for all the data that’s on there, and turn your computer into a zombie to spread more malware to other computers that in turn continue doing the same thing. That software can get installed relatively simply, just by not really paying attention and clicking ok at the wrong time, or by visiting a website. And IT is responsible for doing its best to protect against it.

“People ask me what the educational landscape is going to look like in 20 years, and I have to say I don’t think we can even imagine it. There is so much happening with the explosion in technology, but another major factor is the way people are learning. The high school graduates of today are kids who have grown up with computers. In another five or six years our college freshmen will be kids that have always had a smart phone. So we are trying to keep pace. It’s not so much that we are reinventing education, as that education is having to adapt to the learning options our students have become used to.

That’s a challenge.

“But on the other hand, there is a lot about education that will also stay the same. Who knows? Maybe it will come full circle and we will end up with the digital equivalent of the classical Greek classroom where students and professors engage in formal debate.”

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