By Derek Shue and Brendon Phuong. This month Wes Johnson, executive director Campus IT Experience, UC Berkeley, received the EDUCAUSE 2023 Rising Star Award in recognition of his “collaborative and creative approach to problem-solving, stellar interpersonal and communication skills, dedication to personal and professional growth, and commitment to advancing DEI-focused hiring practices,” according to EDUCAUSE. The UC IT blog news team enjoyed a thought-provoking interview, covering the importance of mentoring others like him, as a black man, and his views on management and leadership, derived, in part, from his work in rap performance and production.
[Editor’s note: the interview transcript, below, was edited for clarity and based on a recorded interview.]
Early career and the opportunity to move into general management
Wes Johnson, began his 13-year journey in higher education working in finance at the University of Georgia. During that period, a new Chief Information Officer (CIO) was appointed. This change allowed Johnson to transition into a project management role within the CIO’s office. He shifted his focus to the student information system, where the team was undergoing a major enterprise resource planning (ERP) change. This transition marked Johnson’s move from project management to general management. In December 2022, Johnson was hired as executive director of Campus IT Experience of UC Berkeley, a new role that ensures students get access to the tools they need to help them succeed.
Winning the EDUCAUSE Award: opportunity to be a role-model as a black man achieving recognition
I’m honored and surprised by this recognition, which is unlike any I’ve received throughout my career. This award is special to me because I was nominated by my former supervisors, Jen Stringer, Tim Chester, and Jonathan Hardy. The significance of this award extends to my family as well, particularly because EDUCAUSE allowed me to include them in the award ceremony. This holds particular importance for my family, as I strive to serve as a role model for my children as a black man.
Contributing to DEI by openly sharing his experiences
One of the most significant ways I can contribute as a person of color in my role is by openly sharing my experiences and insights with others who might find themselves in similar positions. My goal is to engage in meaningful conversations with individuals who have similar experiences and perspectives, establishing a strong connection based on our shared backgrounds.
This connection enables me to communicate in a way that resonates with them because I genuinely understand their experiences. It fosters a level of trust that is built upon our common backgrounds. Based on this, I hope to pass on the knowledge and insights I’ve gained so that those who follow in similar roles can start with a more comprehensive understanding than I had when I began.
Passion for supporting students who care about tech
I find the opportunity to engage with individuals and hear their thoughts on the direction of technology on campus very meaningful. It’s energizing to discover that people are invested in, and care about, the way technology is evolving. Often, students are thought to simply pay for their education and not be concerned with the broader technological landscape but that’s not true. I actively participate in committees with students who are deeply interested in the services we offer and how we provide them. They raise critical questions about whether these services meet the diverse needs of our student population, aligning with our commitment to diversity and inclusion at UCs. As a first-generation bachelor’s degree holder myself, I’m personally invested in making higher education accessible to a wider range of individuals, including those from underrepresented backgrounds.
Routines include bringing a personal touch to management
My routines include regular meetings with my colleagues as part of the executive leadership team, where we discuss organizational matters and collaborate on strategic planning. In addition, I host regular management and staff meetings. In these meetings, I like to bring a personal touch and ask everyone how they are doing, not just in terms of work but as individuals. I’ve found that this fosters open and productive discussions.
Other routines include maintaining a running list of tasks using Google Tasks to stay organized. Every Friday, I block out time on my calendar to review what I’ve accomplished during the week and what’s left outstanding. This reflective time helps me consider if there are things I could have done differently and allows me to plan for the upcoming week.
Preparing for the complex challenge of a new generation setting the stage for what they expect from IT services
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a big topic right now and is going to have a significant impact on what we do. It’s not just about the technology itself but also how it shapes customer expectations. We’re dealing with a new generation that grew up with technologies acting as a central part in their lives. Their expectations are a lot different from previous generations. They’ve learned to interact with technology through platforms like Instagram rather than traditional education settings. This generation is setting the stage for what they expect from services like ours, but we also need to continue supporting older generations with different expectations. It’s a complex challenge, and we have to consider how the instant access to vast amounts of information is influencing people’s expectations of service response times and problem resolution.
Outside work – family & life as the rapper, “WesdaRuler”
Outside of work, my life revolves around my family. I married my high school sweetheart who, like me, shares strong ties to Athens, Georgia. My wife was born and raised there, and I moved there during high school since my father worked for the Air force. Athens has a road called Baxter Street that’s meaningful to us. She was born in the hospital on that road, went to elementary and high school there, and it’s where I proposed to her. We have two boys together, ages 10 and 7. They keep me busy and happy everyday. We also have a dog named Broly, named after a character from my favorite anime, Dragon Ball Z.
I’m also passionate about music. I’m a producer and rapper, and my stage name is “WesdaRuler.” I’ve had the chance to perform with famous artists like Killer Mike, Egyptian lover, drive by truckers, and of Montreal. I’ve even won some music awards in Athens, Georgia. Since moving to Oakland, I’ve continued to make music and have performed a few times here.
Where music, management and tech come together
A lot of what I do in my professional work has been influenced by my experience in rap. I credit rap for shaping me into the leader I am today, more so than my higher education background. One key skill I learned from my music experience is the ability to take complex information and distill it into a compelling story. In the music world, when you have a limited time to perform, you need to engage the audience, convey a message, and make them care about what you’re saying in a short span of time. This skill has translated well into my role in presenting service metrics. Instead of just presenting numbers, I focus on why they matter and how they add value, similar to how I engage an audience through music.
Technology plays a crucial role in what I do, especially in music. I don’t have a traditional setup with a soundboard and instruments, but I rely on technology. My laptop, along with audio processing software like Ableton and USB-connected keyboards, allows me to create the music I do. Without technology, I wouldn’t be able to make the music I make today.
What resources have been particularly helpful
I’ve taken advantage of numerous resources and recommended them to the students I work with. These include LinkedIn training modules on IT Service Management and leadership. Other programs include the Next Leaders Fellowship which focuses on leadership journeys, particularly for underrepresented groups. This program provides a unique blend of leadership strategies and personal experiences, which adds a meaningful dimension to the learning process. I recently graduated from the MOR Leaders Program, which helped me learn valuable tools for effective leadership. The program covers a wide range of topics, including leading with your values and personal branding. For anyone looking to advance their professional development, I highly recommend these two programs as excellent resources for students and aspiring leaders.
Executive director of campus IT experience
Marketing and Communications Intern
UC Office of the President
Marketing & Communications Intern
UC Office of the President