As a teenager, Eric Dirst started out making money in the usual ways of people his age: he mowed lawns and worked as a fry cook, which, he says, “really teaches you what you don’t want to do.” Luckily, a 14-year-old Dirst was introduced to the world of computer science. And, thanks to a teacher who was passionate about the subject, Dirst was able to enroll in three programming courses in high school.
By the age of 16, Dirst had gained the know-how that allowed him to join the small IT department of the county office, taking his very first step toward a successful career, which today has landed him in the CIO position at DeVry Inc. But even as an adolescent, Dirst found himself in a position of senior leadership with a small staff of three, managing the budget and the outsourcing of work to another county. It was this job that helped Dirst pay his own way through college at Northern Illinois University.
After graduating with a double major in operational management and computer science, Dirst enjoyed the next 10 years working in consulting, an area that had always attracted him, and he rose through the ranks to eventually manage a consulting practice. When the dot-com boom hit, Dirst, like many others in his field, pursued a start-up that ultimately didn’t make it. Dirst finally left the company when a call came from a friend at Allied Van Lines. Dirst became the vice president of the moving company’s IT department, and the position marked his smooth journey into the executive realm.
Today, Dirst’s dedication to and passion for his work is illustrated by the large scale and award-winning projects he has overseen for DeVry, including the overhaul of the student-information and customer-relationship-management systems, which earned DeVry an award from Information Week magazine as a 250 Top Innovator.
When Dirst joined DeVry in March of 2008, he quickly learned how important it was for the organization, which has 98 different locations in North America, to become more customer-service-oriented toward its students. To improve the company’s responsiveness to student inquiries, Dirst led the effort to implement a new student-inquiry-response system, which leveraged “a lot of cloud technologies from great vendors such as salesforce.com, DocuSign, Eloqua, and Appirio,” he says. Prior to the new system, DeVry’s average response time to a student inquiry ranged from as fast as three hours to as slow as four days. With the first release of the new system two years ago, the response time saw a 4,000 percent improvement, dropping the wait to an average 10 minutes.
Getting to Know
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
When asked to take a new opportunity by senior leadership, the answer is always yes, even if you’re not really interested. You never know what it can lead to.
What’s your greatest passion outside the office?
I’m a big runner. I’ve done five marathons, two half Iron Mans, numerous other triathlons, and lots of half marathons.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’d like to see myself as COO of an organization.
If you had to do something other than be CIO of a company, what would it be?
My joke is always that, when I retire, I’m going to be a database administrator, and work remotely from the Florida Keys. It’s not a team-based role, so you can focus on one thing and one thing only.
What is the one thing you would change about your industry?
I’d love it if all institutions were evaluated more on the outcomes of their students—whether they got jobs or not. We do measure that and talk about it, but not all institutions do. And I think that’s a disservice to students, and they should know that kind of data.
“By the end of 2012, we had it down to 1.5 minutes,” Dirst says. “Our best callback time is under 30 seconds.” A favorite anecdote of Dirst’s, about a student looking for help in applying online, conveys the speed at which the system works. “[The help process] is a multi-page web form where you get asked a lot of questions,” Dirst says. “After you complete page two, we start routing behind the scenes. We were able to call the student back before they even finished filling out all the web form pages. The student was delighted.”
Dirst also took on the consolidation of an online-learning platform by upgrading an innovative program called iLabs, which allows students to access a virtual desktop hosting more than 130 various pieces of software required by different classes—from MS Office to the Adobe suite to specific chemistry lab-related software packages. The platform is currently used in 594 courses, and 200,000 students access the system each week. The breadth of the systems plays to DeVry’s advantage. “It keeps our costs low, so we can negotiate licenses with vendors,” Dirst says. “And our students can use this anywhere without having to install each vendor’s software. We really believe in hands-on learning, so that you are effective as soon as you start your job, and we use this environment for both our on-site and online students. We are very proud of the iLabs environment and are always looking for ways to enhance it.”
Beyond that, in just 12 months, Dirst helped a team consolidate platforms of three newly acquired schools in Brazil, and also oversaw the construction of a data center, the creation of an area-wide network, and the implementation of an automated recruiting process for the new campuses. The result? A 24 percent growth in revenue, 10.6 percent increase in student satisfaction, and an impressive 124 percent rise in operating income. As always, Dirst defers to his team in the success of the projects. “Yes, I’m the leader, but it takes a team effort,” he says. “Our team in the US and Brazil partnered and delivered an amazing amount of work in such a short period of time. I’m the person who gets things out of my team’s way so they can be successful. It’s always about the team.”