A reliable wireless connection hasn’t quite made it onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but ask any IU undergrad who’s trying to submit a paper at 11:57pm to hit a midnight deadline, and they’ll tell you it’s pretty crucial.
Mark Spencer would have to agree. As manager of campus network engineering for IU Bloomington and IUPUI, Spencer oversees a team of 12 network engineers who install and maintain network connectivity and services like core routing, Data Center networking, wireless, and VPN for all of IU’s faculty, staff, and students. His team, along with the network operations teams, helps maintain more than 200,000 outlets and 10,000 wireless access points in hundreds of buildings on the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses.
Spencer and his team also help manage a core routing environment that continues to grow by more than 20 percent in bandwidth each year. By guarding the network with firewalls and secure wireless, the team ensures easy access and exceptional reliability for anyone using IU’s networks.
Simply put, Campus Networks empowers the learning and business of Indiana University. After 25 years working in technology at IU, Spencer has the know-how and the unflappable temperament needed for the job. Not that he wants any glory for his work.
“I always say that we do our job best when people don't notice,” Spencer said. “Networks are like running water or electricity these days: Users don’t really think about them unless they’re not working.”
First stop: Bowling salesman
Growing up in Greenwood, Ind., Spencer showed no special interest in technology. As the only child of parents who met and worked at the Internal Revenue Service, Spencer spent much of his formative years focusing on the three Bs: basketball, band, and bowling.
He made his way down to IU Bloomington, where he met his future wife, Jennifer, on the first day of freshman year. (It was a love connection: They will celebrate 30 years of marriage this year.) He opted to live in the Collins Living-Learning Center, not for the artsy/hippie/alternative vibe but instead for its proximity to the Indiana Memorial Union’s bowling alley. As a member of the IU bowling team, Spencer had his priorities. He earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the School of Business and landed his first job—not in technology or in marketing, but as a salesman at Classic Products, a distributorship of bowling products in Fort Wayne.
The bowling bug had bitten him. “Those collegiate years of bowling were pretty great,” Spencer recalled. “Those guys are still my best friends. One guy was the best man at my wedding and officiated at my oldest son’s wedding.”
After a few years traveling a three-state territory selling bowling gear, during which he married his college sweetheart, Spencer and his wife moved back to Bloomington so she could work on her doctorate. And that’s when he started his career in tech at IU. His personal interest in IT began when selling bowling gear, though, as he explored his company-issued IBM laptop.
“I started thinking, ‘OK, there's a lot more to this computer IT stuff than I thought.’ I figured out how to do ‘big’ things like merging a WordPerfect document with a Lotus spreadsheet to create mailing labels. Yes, I was a genius,” he said with a laugh. (It was the early 1990s after all.)
And that’s when the technology bug bit him. He soon got a job at University Computing Services/Telecommunications, first as a technical assistant and then as telecommunications services coordinator. He did this type of work for a few years, but then life intervened. Jennifer was almost finished with her doctorate and needed to complete an internship in Muncie. So the young couple left B-town, and Spencer took a position in the corporate world in Indianapolis.
A career managing campus connectivity
In their hearts, they were determined to make it back to Bloomington. And after just six months, Spencer got another IU job, this time as an information systems support specialist. “Because we had such a strong desire to move back to Bloomington, I took the job and I commuted from Castleton to Bloomington for about seven or eight months.”
From there, Spencer worked his way up, from lead systems analyst to telecommunications engineer/principal systems analyst, and then to his first management role as manager of communications convergence in 2011. With a team of six telecommunications analysts, he managed the campus-wide deployment of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, basically converting all phones on the IU Bloomington and IUPUI campuses from analog to VoIP—all 17,000 of them.
“It was fun in a lot of ways because I got to go out and meet with departments and figure out how they did their business. Changing a physical phone itself is not difficult. Plug the phone in and you’re ready to go. But what made that job interesting was you had to learn how people managed their call flows,” he said. “We quickly learned that the first person we needed to talk to was their front desk person.”
That kind of customer focus is now a hallmark of Spencer and his team as they manage campus connectivity. However, Spencer is quick to point out that he doesn’t perform most of the network engineering himself.
“That is for our fantastic and awesome network engineers,” Spencer said. “I see my role as clearing the runway for the plane to take off—making sure they have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs. When the chips are down, they always step up every time, without fail.”
Those proverbial chips were down for much of 2020, when IU took all classes online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Less than two weeks after that decision, IU announced it was providing free, 24-hour, high-speed Wi-Fi access across the state to anyone who may not have Internet connectivity due to COVID-19-related library and business closures.
Later on in the summer, the Campus Networks team provided the connectivity to IU’s massive COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of Indiana Memorial Stadium and installed countless additional wireless access points to extend the campus network. These days, they are busy helping maintain the network in the campus testing sites in places like the Garrett Fieldhouse.
Whether it’s installing outdoor access points on metal poles during a thunderstorm, working amidst the IU Auditorium’s rafters to extend the network for classes now taking place there, or even affixing access points to basketball goals, Spencer’s team thrived in the pandemic chaos—and thanks to them, IU’s missions of teaching and research did, too.
“My favorite story from that time is of a professor who lost power at his house,” Spencer said. “He was determined to have class that day, and so he went to the lot hot spot at Indiana Memorial Stadium and used his phone over Zoom to teach the class.”