Sagebrushers season 2 ep. 18: Vice President for Information Technology for the University, Dr. Sasi Pillay

The Chief Information Officer shares how the rapidly transforming technology landscape is shaping the future of the Wolf Pack

President Brian Sandoval sits next to Sasi Pillay in a podcasting studio. Both people hold their hands in the wolf sign.

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Pillay (right) discuss how technology is shaping our future.

Sagebrushers season 2 ep. 18: Vice President for Information Technology for the University, Dr. Sasi Pillay

The Chief Information Officer shares how the rapidly transforming technology landscape is shaping the future of the Wolf Pack

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Pillay (right) discuss how technology is shaping our future.

President Brian Sandoval sits next to Sasi Pillay in a podcasting studio. Both people hold their hands in the wolf sign.

President Brian Sandoval (left) and Pillay (right) discuss how technology is shaping our future.

Sagebrushers podcast identifier with a sketch of a sagebrush in the background
Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major platforms

In this episode of Sagebrushers, University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval speaks with Dr. Sasi Pillay, vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer for the University.

During the episode, Sandoval and Pillay touch on Pillay’s impressive background working for NASA and dive into topics about information technology at the University including Pillay’s approach, focusing always on the end-user, how artificial intelligence is transforming the technology landscape, what’s in store for the future of our campus and more. In addition, Pillay discusses meeting the technology needs of researchers as a Carnegie R1 – Very high research institution.

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Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 18 – Vice President for Information Technology for the University, Dr. Sasi Pillay

Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and Chief Information Officer and Vice President for Information Technology Sasi Pillay discuss the important role information technology plays on campus for the Wolf Pack.

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Dr. Sasi Pillay: At the end of the day, we are here to serve our students because they are our future. They're the next generation to carry our society forward. So, anything we can do to make their life their learning, not only easy, but a very positive experience, I think we owe that to them.

President Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome Vice President for Information Technology for the University, Dr. Sasi Pillay. I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University of Nevada, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers.

Dr. Pillay is an experienced senior leader for information technology services, serving for over 27 years in various positions across academia and government agencies.  Most recently, Dr. Pillay served as the vice president of Information Technology Services and Chief Information Officer for Washington State University. Prior to that, he served as the Chief Information Officer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, of course, the John H. Glenn Research Center, and then as the Chief Technology Officer for NASA.

Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our university's campus. Dr. Pillay, welcome to Sagebrushers. I am so excited to learn more about your background and explore your exciting plans for information technology here at the university. So, before you joined us at the university, you were the former Chief Technology Officer at NASA, where you were awarded with both the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. Can you tell us a little bit of what that was like? 

Dr. Pillay:   First of all, thank you for the opportunity to serve UNR, President Sandoval, in terms of giving me this opportunity to serve in the capacit,y as you described. My experience at NASA has been a wonderful lifelong desire to work for a great agency like NASA where a lot of things happen for the first time ever.  But when you peel the onion and you take a look at some of the things that are supporting from an IT perspective, we do have quite a few of the things that we deploy are pretty much standard. But then we have unique kind of capabilities as we provide, whether it's in robotics or long-range communications and so on and so forth, where we bring in new technologies and try it out for the first time. And when I was there, we were able to establish a particular group called what we call Advanced Computational Concepts Lab, where we were able to essentially push the envelope for storage, computing network and visualization. So, to be able to work in an agency like that with a lot of colleagues who are a lot smarter than you are is a learning experience for life. And I feel that these universities also offer, and at UNR also offers the same type of opportunity.

President Sandoval: So, you're very modest. Tell us about those awards that you received.

Dr. Pillay: Well, the exceptional service medal I was given because of a lot of the things that I did at the university continue to push the envelope. And you probably already know, I've only been here 10 months, but I'm never ever satisfied with the status quo, so I always ask. And I work, I don't do that just on my own. I work with the appropriate functional leaders to really say, okay, can we do this differently? Can we do these additional things or can we do it different than how we did it in the last 5, 6, 7 years? There's always a reason why people always stay in their lane, but I'm one of those who says I have more responsibility rather than just IT at UNR. It's about moving the university and institution forward. That means getting together, offering IT services, and then dreaming, dreaming together about the art of the possible.

President Sandoval: No, and we are so happy that you're here and you've done so much in such a short amount of time. I think our listeners, they love to learn about the background of our guests and how you got here. So how did you get interested and involved in technology and kind of your journey in life?

Dr. Pillay: Ever since I was young and I had thanked my parents for that, getting me an education and getting me started early in life. My mom taught me how to read and write when I was three. And that kind of passion for learning has stayed with me all these years. And the real interesting thing, even as a child, I enjoyed taking things apart and probably not very good at putting things back. So, the concept of engineering and how we design things always have stuck with me, and I enjoyed it a lot. And I was able to get a very good education. My dad was a college professor. He did his PhD in England and then he came over to the United States and worked here in very many of the same universities that I now follow. But in any case, that gave me a good understanding and thorough grounding.

And my dad is the one who said computing is taking off, and he was a professor in metallurgy, metallurgical engineering. So, he said, you might pay some attention to what's going on in that area. And sure enough, he was absolutely very right about that. So, I chose my career to use more and more of computing. My undergraduate degree was in mechanical engineering, but in graduate school I changed to computer engineering. That's where I got my master's and PhD in computer engineering. And that was a good, sound advice my dad gave me and I pursued that.

President Sandoval: Parents always have a lot of great wisdom. So, your overall approach throughout your career is always focused on the end user. How do you see that taking shape here at the university?

Dr. Pillay: Yeah, so I always believe information technology is an enabling component. And let's face it, in this day and age, it'll be very difficult to do anything without technology. In fact, whether you are a dirt hauling company or you are pushing the envelope on new technologies for vaccines, are looking at new communication systems in deep space, you are always relying on technology, particularly information technology to deliver those results. So, my saying is that you always have to be, no matter what your business is, you have to be a technology company, whether you're ordering food or not, it's an essential component of your success because with the technology behind you, you can reimagine new ways of serving your customers. At the end of the day, we are here to serve our students, you know, because they are our future. They are the next generation to carry our society forward. So, anything we can do to make their life, their learning, not only easy, but a very positive experience, I think we owe that to them. So, anything that we can do collaboratively together across all these departments, we have schools and colleges, and using IT to enable that collaboration and that ease of use is absolutely critical.

President Sandoval: Well, and that's a great segue to what I wanted to talk about because obviously people are reading about artificial intelligence or AI in the news, they're seeing it somewhat in their lives. And for many, including me, it can be very intimidating because you're afraid of what you don't understand. And I personally feel we need to embrace artificial intelligence, but more importantly, before we do that, we need to understand it. And so, I know we've had conversations about this previously and it's something that we want to have some conversations on our campus and make our faculty staff and particularly our students familiar with it and how it can enhance their lives. So, what have you been working on?

Dr. Pillay: Great question. So, with your support president, we have now established a group of about 25 individuals across the campus representing various departments, various schools and colleges. And we will be actually, after the new year begins, we will be working very earnestly to see how we can actually use AI. And as you mentioned, AI, it has the promise, and it also has the perils. Like any technology can be, I say it's dual use, it can be used for good and it can be used for bad. So, one of the things we want to do as part of this task force that we have established with your support, is to make sure that we are looking at all angles of AI, artificial intelligence on campus, how we can reduce the drudgery of what I would call ordinary work, but at the same time what we can do to learn about what's possible in the future.

But at the same time, we also want to make sure we have a responsibility to educate our next generation of students and teaching them about academic honesty is just as important. So, if a student is writing an essay using generative AI, in my mind, we need to allow that. But those ground rules have to be established by the teaching faculty upfront. So, in other words, use of AI has to be totally transparent. The faculty, if they're going to be using AI for the classes and also allow or set the ground rules as to whether the students can use AI as well. So, in order to not just grade an essay like we historically do, we need to probably take a look at how we are evaluating the students. It might be more taught like a case study in a business school where everybody submits that and we talk about the positives and negatives and how those essays could be made better or the concepts clearer, the conclusions, was there a preamble, what is the problem you're trying to solve? And so many other ways of teaching and learning and evaluation that have to be changed as a result of the advent of technology. So, those are the kinds of things we want to look at.

And then if you're going to be using AI, like I said, we have to be transparent. We got to be careful that there is no artificial bias built into it. And let's face it, most of the data we have collected historically comes from one segment of our population. So, we have to be careful if you're using that to predict the future. Because let's face it, still a majority of the world do not even have access to internet or have the ability for a device to do some of the things that we are talking about, which is ordinary and everyday use in this country or in segments of our society here. So when the data that those people supply is a fraction of what the total world's data possibly could be. So, it's up to us as we design these large language models to support generative AI, we are cognizant of where our limitations are about using past data.

President Sandoval: No, and it's absolutely fascinating and obviously it's not going away.

Dr. Pillay: No.

President Sandoval: And so, given that you're an expert in the field, what do you see two years from now, five years from now? Is there any way to predict?

Dr. Pillay: Well, yeah. So, it's like learning for a human being, but the learning for AI models are exponential. So, these systems are only going to increase and continue to increase in capability. All the more reason that we are designing with what I would call societal norms in place, and that is the responsibility we have. So being transparent, avoiding bias and making sure it's addressing the needs of our society is critical because it very easy to unfortunately abuse new technology as well.

President Sandoval: So we’ll shift gears, we could probably spend the entire show talking about that, and it is fascinating, but back to our campus again, I've heard you have a fellowship program focused on helping our student workers for IT transition into the workforce. Can you elaborate a little bit on that program?

Dr. Pillay: Yeah, so we are just in the planning stages of that. We have ad hoc methodologies by which we hire students. We would like to hire students at the sophomore level, and we are completely open. We are not just hiring students who are in computer science because this is one great way to diversify and create a path and create a pipeline for all people to contribute to IT. So, whether you are an art history major or philosophy major, there is still a place for you to work as a student in our organization. And then by the time the student graduates, after having worked with us several years, we want them to be able to, and we'll coach them and get them to apply to pass these industry-based certifications like Cisco networking as an example, or being an Amazon or Azure in Microsoft, a cloud engineer and things like this.  Some of the projects that we are doing, they can also work with us side by side to do that. So, the idea of that is once a student is able to graduate with their chosen discipline, they're also able to get a degree, sorry, a certificate, which is industry recognized. Then their ability for them to command a very good paying salary right out of graduation is immense, and they can still pursue their vocational interest they have without having to sacrifice either. So that's our plan. Then once they graduate, we also want to offer them an employment for a couple of years in our department. It's almost like a postdoc. And that also gives them an opportunity to continue to get a master's degree at UNR while they continue to hone their skills. So, you can imagine the pipeline all the way from sophomore, all the way to graduation, then an additional two years with us. And that employee, if they do decide to leave us, is now fully trained in very many aspects of the practical aspects and the theoretical knowledge that they need to be a continuous contributor.

President Sandoval: No, that's wonderful. And it plays in, I talk a little bit about the University of Nevada, Reno being a land grant 2.0. We are an original land grant university celebrating our 150th birthday, but we also have to keep up with the times and technology, and we want our graduates to be ready for the workforce and the technology that's associated with it. So, as a Carnegie R1, very high research institution, what do you see as the priorities we should be focusing on as we move into the coming years?

Dr. Pillay: So, a couple of things, and especially in terms of research. One of the things we want to do is to provide the opportunities for our faculty and researchers to experiment and evaluate their projects in multiple different platforms. Historically, those have been like wet labs, but what we want to do is to give them the opportunity to move those experiments into cyberspace.  And high-performance computing along with high-end networking, storage, and visualization will help them to do that. Even in the biological side of the house, you can accelerate generations. So, if you're studying fireflies or whatever, it takes a natural time for generations to happen. But in cyberspace, you can actually design the algorithms so that you can accelerate that in cyberspace, but it requires a lot of work, a lot of algorithms and a lot of modeling and simulation, but those are all within our reach. There are a few researchers around the country, around the world who are already starting to do that and being able to do that. Then of course, adopting the use of the cloud so we have unlimited resources to be able to expand what we have on-premise would also be appropriate.

President Sandoval: No, that's wonderful. And I am just so excited that you're here and providing our students with these opportunities. We're almost out of time. You've come to us, you've been with us for nine months, come from Pullman, Washington, Washington state. What's your favorite part of Northern Nevada?

Dr. Pillay: Oh, I think the serene beauty of the environment is unsurpassed. I think every day just coming, getting up from my home and driving down the hill and just looking at it, it really gives me time to reflect on how beautiful this area is. And then of course, nobody has to say much about Lake Tahoe, it’s certainly a stone’s throw away. The beauty of the environment and the people. I find the people here to be extremely friendly and helpful. My wife and I have a wonderful time staying here. One thing I would say, previously I had to drive 45 minutes to Costco. Now it's only 10 minutes.

President Sandoval: Well, we are ecstatic and honored that you're here, and unfortunately that's all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers. So, thank you again for joining us today, Dr. Pillay.

Dr. Pillay: Thank you President Sandoval and thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve this community.

President Sandoval: So, please join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our university special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval and Go Pack!


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