Re: Information Technology Task Force

  1. Identify the collection of UW essential and broadly utilized IT services.
  2. Determine the most efficient and effective way(s) in which those services can be provided.
  3. Recommend changes to address 2) above.

I'm in my 30th year working in computing support at UW and I (and many others) have long wanted to see a strong centralized support group here. I wish you success in this endeavor, but seriously doubt that it can be achieved.

The group I work for, MFCF, was started in the 1970s to meet the need for additional computing services and support beyond what UW's central computing organization could provide. The other faculties and some individual departments started their own computing support groups for similar reasons.

Many times we have developed software or provided services that could have been (and often were) useful to other groups on campus. Obviously it would have been better if such things had been handled by a central organization, but the existing organization was almost never willing to provide such support. And even more frustrating were the times when they eventually did take over from us and the level of support rapidly dropped and any further development stopped. Other campus groups have had the same experience.

Even when adequate support was maintained, it seems silly that the service hadn't been with the central group all along. UNIX support originated from Math computing as did the idea of standard userids (UWdir), PC lab support originated from Engineering, and amazingly even something as generally useful as the WatCard had to be created by Food Services.

It can be even worse when new services actually do originate from UW's central computing support group. The product is often very inferior, not nearly as good as what it was intended to replace, especially when purchased externally. A dozen years ago the Student Information System was replaced by a product from PeopleSoft. That the company was already facing multiple lawsuits from other universities should have been a hint that this might not have been the best idea. That they had almost no other Canadian clients and their software was based on the American university model might have provided another clue. Rather than providing a better version of our existing services, this product completely changed how we did things, including the terminology that everyone understood. We were forced to stop talking about such things as faculties, departments, and pre-registration. The existing method of scheduling classes was replaced by something vastly inferior and it's only recently that UW has begun to return to the levels of class scheduling that we had 20 years ago. No one was happy with this change. PeopleSoft happens was frequently heard as an explanation.

And this continues. Just last month a new Graduate Admissions Project appeared. Across campus, the people that have to use it are not happy. There is little documentation and it was introduced with almost no warning to the people that have to use it. Even worse, to anyone that knows anything about software, the product itself is obviously badly designed. The reason web-based interfaces are good is because they allow access to the service in a way that is independent of what hardware and software each user has. Web pages should work well from everything from BlackBerries to WII consoles to Macs to PCs, and with whatever browser program each user prefers. But this new GAP package was designed backward. It unnecessarily puts much of the processing at the user end and works only with very specific hardware, operating systems, and browsers. Even a slight variation in the browser version can make it fail.

A long-needed replacement for UWdir is about to be deployed, and it's already obvious that it wasn't designed quite right, violating lessons that MFCF learned decades ago. E.g. people are people and attempting to classify them specifically as students or staff or faculty at the basic database level is futile. The identity database should simply provide enough information that those that use the database can choose how to view each person without that decision neeedlessly, and perhaps incorrectly, having already been made by the identity database software. Or e.g. if one designs to the most general case, the specific cases will usually just fall into place. WatIAM could have provided a field for WatCard numbers in general, but instead it chose to do student-IDs only. So instead of being able to say We can handle them, but no one is providing us with a reliable source of information yet. they must now say We didn't design it to handle WatCard numbers for staff. Perhaps in the future we can add such an extension to it.. In each case, doing it right in the first place would have needed only a trivial change in perspective, required less work, produced an simpler and easier to maintain product, and provided a more useful service.

IST has quite a reputation to overcome. It's had various reorganizations over the years, and name changes (Computing Centre, Department of Computing Services) but the way the rest of the Campus views it has remained the same. Even Alan George himself couldn't turn things around. There is consistent feeling that IST will not provide a good enough level of support for existing services, and will provide something obviously bad when they introduce new services.

There have always been many excellent staff members within IST, and no one questions the organization's goals or motives, but they almost seem to be suffering from a self-fulfilling curse. I really don't know what can be done about it.

My purpose is not to denigrate IST and certainly not any individuals within it, but to point out that it has a reputation that will be almost impossible to overcome. People will automatically resist any suggestion of increasing centralization if it involves IST. If you are to succeed at all in centralizing services it will have to be done independently of IST. A totally new group is needed. It must not be seen as an extension or continuation of the existing organization, and should be staffed and must be managed by people that are not associated with IST. Otherwise I don't see how it could possibly be accepted in a way that will improve overall efficiency.