Ignite 2023: Rik Vanmechelen

Putting a Man on the Moon: Connecting Our Work to the Mission

MCN 2023 Conference
November 8, 2023
World Café Live, Philadelphia


Before I start, I'd like to share an anecdote. When President John F. Kennedy visited NASA, he spoke to a custodian who was holding a broom and asked him what he did. The man responded, I'm helping to put a man on the moon, Mr. President. And with that in mind, I'd like to share my journey over nine years working at the Museum of Modern Art, where I started out as a developer working in digital media.

But halfway through my time, I transitioned to the IT department, becoming the head of enterprise applications. A role so mundane, you can literally do it in any industry. From marketing, to big pharma, to community colleges. So my journey goes from the colorful world of art and design, to the gray offices of IT.

In my role, I had been immersed in the world of digital art. Contributing directly to the exciting projects that showcased our incredible collection to the world. And it was easy to see the impact of my work. I was helping bring art into people's lives. Making our collection accessible to all. Hell, we brought our entire exhibition history to moma.org, making tens of thousands of exhibition installation photos and hundreds of catalogs available. For all exhibitions dating back to 1929. We even used machine learning to detect the art in those installation photos. This was back in 2016. So, why would I trade all of this fun and tangible work in for a boring job in IT?

Career growth? Uh, yes. More money? Sure. Um, the potential to have a more significant impact on the museum's mission? That was not something I was expecting to find, um, in this role. But here I am, Head of Enterprise Applications. And first, I had to learn the boring basics. We managed Salesforce. We integrate retail into our accounting system.

We financially optimized our digital member cards. We got a chance to build a new membership portal. We were thinking about our online member experience. We were thinking about our long lines, and how to get people through the doors, past the lobby, and into our galleries more smoothly. So I started to see the connections.

The lines drawn between the work I did in IT and the experiences of our visitors and my colleagues. The tools we built, though behind the scenes, are integral to the museum's functioning. It was my duty to spread the gospel of digital integration. In my world, there is the holy grail called Customer 360. This fully integrated customer data platform. And apart from being a cheesy buzzword, it was my tangible way back into the museum's core mission. In IT, it's our role to ensure that these different systems can talk to each other, right? However, I think the more important role we have is to make sure these different departments can talk to each other. Because we all know they sometimes run around like these horses with blinders on and only see right ahead of them and not what the other teams are doing. And so that was the first way I started feeling connected to the museum again, by working with these other departments, these other people who were working directly on the museum's goals.

But our role should go further than that. As we work with these departments, we learn about their audiences and we start seeing the connections not just to the internal teams, but to all of the patrons, visitors, shoppers that interact with us. And so my world shifted from just seeing the mundane CRM and financial data to the people connections that were hidden inside of that data.

And that was the second way I started to feel my connection with the museum grow. The third way is with my own team. While it's my job to orchestrate these cross departmental insights and collaborations, it's my team's job to actually do the work and write the code to make all of this stuff happen. So I have to serve as a human bridge between my team and the museum's mission.

And while my developers could work anywhere, they are here, with me, at the museum. Working together to bring better experiences to everyone. And so if there's one thing to take away from my brief ramblings, it would be this. We all do our best work when we realize our impact we have on the work of our colleagues, the connections we uncover to our visitors and patrons, and understand how vital our part is to the museum's mission.

And that is how we put a man on the moon. And I'd like to give a big thank you to ChatGPT and Adobe Firefly, and of course to nikhil and the whole MCN crowd for allowing me to be here. So, thank you.