Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2014

A technique for advocating change

Communication is a key part of every software analyst’s work.  Some of the time we write formal documents such as design specifications or descriptions of coding standards. We write operational documentation for users and for support staff.  We write blog posts that describe our work, and we write comments in our code and e-mails to our colleagues.   We present our ideas in meetings, in formal presentations and informal discussions.

So it is important to pay attention to these skills, so that we can communicate more effectively.  There are training courses to help us with the basics.  As with any other skill, we can learn through reading about specific techniques, looking at other people’s work, and reflecting on our own work. (In his book Patterns of Software, Richard Gabriel advocates that reading poetry is a good way to improve our writing skills.  His arguments, on page 149, are worth reading for the virtues they espouse whether you read poetry or not).

In this post, I describe one …

Land speed record and inspiration and informal education

The conference was closed by a talk from Richard Noble about the challenge of breaking the land speed record, first with ThrustSSC, the first car to break the sound barrier, and now with BloodhoundSSC, which is planned to be the first car to travel at 1000mph.  This was a story of derring-do and engineering.

One less obvious aspect of the BloodhoundSSC story is the education project built around it.  The UK doesn’t produce enough engineers and is the worst country in Europe for the gender balance in engineering: only 10% of professional engineers are women.    In 50% of all state co-ed schools not a single girl is taking Physics A-level.  Richard attributes this in part to the lack of projects to generate excitement in children.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s kids would see Avro Vulcans, English Electric Lightnings and Concorde flying overhead and some of those kids would be excited by them.  Americans had the space race.  (Later on, of course, British kids had Spectrums and BBC Micros and …

Developing a Distinct and Differentiated Experience Delivered through Employees to Define the Institution

Andrew McMillan used to work for John Lewis, where in 2000 he sent a report to the chairman saying that their customer experience wasn’t as good as it should be because it wasn’t consistent enough.  He was then put in charge of customer service and led the company to its current high reputation.   Nowadays he is a consultant on improving customer experience and he treated us to a high-level view of his philosophy.

Andrew has never given a training course on customer service because he argues that it is a matter of behaviour and ethos rather than training.  The institution has to value the service it gives; value the staff who give this service; and use these values to guide the institution’s recruitment, retention and reward policies.  He emphasised the point about valuing staff; if your staff do not feel valued, your customers will pick up this feeling themselves.

This presentation did not go into many details, focusing instead on the core ethos and illustrating this with several enter…

Shaping the future of universities with a software defined strategy

Next up was a presentation from Bill McGloin of Computacenter UK, who were one of the sponsors of the event.

Bill noted the increasing need to be agile in response to the changes in our environment:  customer demands, new technology, people needing to learn on the move, large data sets, social media, analytics, etc.  Computacentre offer the software-defined data centre and hybrid cloud as an approach to this agility. The rise of commodity infrastructure allows us to put the intelligence into the data centre management software instead of the hardware controllers.

Bill described this as a journey.  Phase 1 offers capital savings from consolidation.  Phase 2 offers reliability through automation, environment management and monitoring. Phase 3 offers operation cost control and agility through IT as a service, with end-user virtual workspaces and self-service.

UCAS - The Cloud Journey

The first session this morning was from James Munson and Andy Gillett from UCAS. James described UCAS’s migration from a locally-hosted service in 2012 to a cloud-based service in 2014.  On results day, UCAS gets 235 logins/second.  They had unhappy experiences in 2011 & 2012 and so needed to change.  UCAS needed scalability, security and control of costs, so they chose a public cloud supplier rather than a private cloud.  Their "Track" application was written in .Net so was a natural fit for Microsoft Azure.  Amazon provided the best service for databases.  UCAS already used Rackspace for their web presence, so they went with a mixed set of suppliers.  If they had had more time, they might have preferred a single supplier.

Their architecture handles DDOS suppression, load balancing, monitoring et al. It is built for horizontal scalability with stateless applications etc.  They use Puppet for automatically managing environments.  The UCAS technology team now has sub-tea…

After a perfect storm and seismic shift, THREE of the Next Big Things in university IT?

The final talk on Thursday was by Paul Hopkins. Paul commented that many universities are not planning for the world ahead, just buckling down to weather the current storms.  He suggested three potential seismic shifts that could fundamentally change the way we work.

His first suggestion was the rise of the platform-based business app.  A platform such as iOS or Google play runs across multiple devices, provides rich functionality such as document management, & search.  An app uses 10% unique coding but 90% is taken from the platform in which it is embedded.  The same principle could be applied to “ordinary” applications.  Paul built a disability system built on Office 365/Microsoft Dynamics, with interfaces to university data, with the business logic just coded in the workflow.  Paul suggested that open source apps could be made available from an HE app store.

His second suggestion was that you don’t need an on-campus data centre.  As an example, UCA sold the campus that held the…

Flipping IT!

Drew Cook from Lincoln was the second speaker this afternoon.  He used to work for Staples, which grew through mergers to become Europe-wide.  Their IT became very complex so to try and help themselves, they introduced Enterprise Architecture  (EA).  Drew has now introduced this at the University of Lincoln.

IT, as per the name, tend to be about the technology.  Even our organisational structure tends to be based about the technology, with sections for networking, databases, applications, etc.  EA puts business processes at the heart of the activity.  The main framework for EA is TOGAF, which defines an Enterprise as any collection of organisations with common goals, and an Architecture as the structure of components their inter-relationships, and the principles and guidelines governing their design and evolution over time. 

Drew took us through the basic aims of EA, which I’ve blogged about before.  I would love to be able to take this approach.  It ties back to Simon’s presentation y…

Organisational Origami

I’ve got ahead of myself with my blogging.  Andy Youell’s talk was actually the first presentation of the afternoon.  The second talk this morning was from Iain Liddell of Brunel, who was very entertaining.  He opened his presentation by playing Charles Ives’ “They are there" while he set up, which certainly got our attention.   He then showed us origami models of three London landmarks: The Shard, The Gherkin, and the Albert Hall.  He used these to contrast the relative ease of building from scratch with the difficulties of transforming an existing architecture: the Albert Hall shows the old building peeking through.

Iain then told the story of how Brunel had to reorganise following various mergers.  He noted the need to manage computer identities across the institution – and not to build organisational codes into someone’s login name.  Systems need to be aligned to core data.

I really liked his comment, “don’t barnacle the workflow”, by which he meant don’t add exceptions and spe…

A new architecture for the information landscape.

The next talk today was by Andy Youell of HEDIIP.  You may know that the University has to provide information about our students and staff to a number of statutory bodies, such as HESA, UCAS, SFC and a host of accreditation bodies for different professions (e.g. actuaries, social workers, nurses, etc). These data returns take a lot of time to produce each year.  From my point of view they are also quite disruptive because the statutory bodies keep changing their requirements, often at short notice, and we have to respond quickly when the latest set of changes comes through.

If you look at the whole higher education sector, the situation is more complicated still.  There are 523 separate HE data collections (i.e. institutions) providing information to over 93 different organisations. Each of these organisations has their own data definitions and requirements.  

In 2011 the government agreed a requirement to redesign the information landscape in order to reduce duplication and meet the …

Experimental Architecture: Natural Computing & Restructuring our Approaches to Challenges.

The first talk this morning was of a different nature.  Rachel Armstrong is a researcher in experimental architecture (meaning buildings, not computers) and artificial life.  She gave examples of where she and others have worked across different research disciplines to model life-like behaviour from chemicals and to look at new models for computation. She has also contributed to art installations using these unconventional assemblies.

Natural computing, a.k.a. unconventional computing, includes morphological computing, biological computing, and other approaches which are based on life-like behaviour rather than binary logic.  The approach uses agents, parallel agents, non-hierarchical communication, and soft control.  Machines are replaced with an assemblage of agents.  The process combines variable states rather than binary states and the processes may behave unpredictably or collapse or transform at tipping points.

It was a fascinating talk, full of ideas of how both computing and bui…

And now for the next crisis

The final talk of the first half-day was from James Smith of Birkbeck.  James first gave some background about Birkbeck, which is rather different from most universities in that it focuses on continuing education for people in work.  More than half of Birkbeck’s classes start at 6pm and many of their classes use rooms from other London institutions.  When James started there, people often told him that “Birkbeck is different”, which although true was often “used as an excuse for everything that was wrong with the place.”  Although it does face particularly challenges, especially as a result of funding changes since 2007, much of what James described about IT silos was familiar to many people in the audience.

To address the problem of silos, Birkbeck started with some targeted developments such as an identity database and a teaching resource manager (which included personal timetables for students).  Following those successes, they are now looking at process improvements.  They use a f…

The name of the game is… partnership.

The next talk was by Simon Walker of the University of Greenwich.  Simon gave several examples of how the Greenwich Connect programme is attempting to use IT to transform teaching and learning.  Some of the ideas are ones I’ve heard elsewhere, such as flipping classrooms, lecture capture, Box of Broadcasts, etc.  Others were new to me. 

For example, Greenwich give an ipad to each of their science students, to replace the traditional lab book and to allow common apps.  One academic worked with a developer to produce an app that can display the screens of all the ipads in a tutorial group in a grid on the classroom’s screen so that the tutor and the class can compare everyone’s work.

Greenwich Connect recognises that personal networks are a key part of how people find jobs.  Some of their students begin University without such networks and leave without developing them.  Simon suggested that an emphasis on collaborative learning and social media can encourage people to form better netw…

Strategy at the Heart of institutional transformation

I'm attending the UCISA CISG 2014 conference in Manchester.  I will attempt to blog about each presentation during the conference.  First up was Andrea Nolan from Edinburgh Napier University.
Andrea argued that a university needs a compelling vision of what it is trying to achieve; a vision that people can agree with and work towards.  IT is a key part of transforming visions into reality.  For Edinburgh Napier University, a particular concern is support for student success and for transnational education.  Andrea identified social media as a key technology for building a sense of community.
Andrea used the term “student success” rather than “student experience”.  Are students achieving what they expected, getting good jobs at the end of their course, as well as enjoying their time at the University?

One comment particularly stood out for me.  Andrea asked how Edinburgh Napier could make “home” students feel part of an international online community.   Usually when people talk about…

First demo of the new University web site

The project to develop a Drupal content management system for the University's web site reached a significant milestone last Thursday, when the project board were given a demo of the first web site to be migrated to the new platform. It looked good.  The display automatically adjusts to the size of the screen (responsive design) and the navigation has been redesigned to be simpler and to accommodate this adaptive behaviour. 

For editors, the system is much easier to use.  You can log in from any page of the website and start editing it then and there - if you have the right permissions.  The content editor is both more flexible and more straightforward.  The first users are describing the interface as a joy to use (and this is before the team have finished tidying it up).

Behind the scenes, this was a close-run demo.  The content was migrated only the day before and the editors were working frantically to tidy it up on the morning before the board meeting.  We would all have prefe…

Visitor from Trento

We have a visitor from the University of Trento in the department for the next two weeks.  He is visiting under the ERASMUS scheme, which supports staff and students who want to teach or learn at partner institutions across Europe.  Our guest is here to learn about our approach to software development and how we implement our portal, identity management, and business intelligence systems.  In return, we are learning how his home institution go about these same tasks with a much smaller team.

Although I had heard of the ERASMUS support for students, I wasn't previously aware of its support for staff.  It may be interesting to find institutions elsewhere in Europe who we could visit.  ERASMUS also supports teaching staff who want to teach for a period in other institutions.



Tribal University of the Year

I'm very happy to pass on the news that the University of Edinburgh has been named "University of the Year" by Tribal, the vendor of our student record system.  This reflects the huge effort that we have put in to improving our student administration systems and processes.

Over the past year, we have rolled out systems that let students register online and update their personal details online, which has simplified their dealings with the university administration and improved the quality of the data that we store.  We have used new technology in our user interfaces to make them easier to use and more visually appealing - this technology that was not straightforward to integrate with the Tribal system, so this was a harder task than it may have seemed from outside.  We have also provided an common interface for the final marks of all courses to be uploaded to the student record, making them available earlier.

These improvements have been enabled by the partnership created…

Planning for Student Experience Services

Yesterday the Student Systems Management team met to review the draft “Strategic framework for Student Experience Services” and consider how our work can support this plan.  The discussion ranged over a number of topics.

One recurring theme was how to join services and information so that students can find what they need (sometimes even before they know they need it).  The recently released Path tool (requires login) is a great example of this: it shows students which courses they may need to take as precursors for others, while also showing them alternatives that may be available from other schools.  If the feedback option is enabled, they can see moderated comments from other students, such as recommendations to read a given book before starting the course.  This helps students navigate their way through the complex set of options available to them.  It also makes this information available to personal tutors, who otherwise may only have a partial view of the possibilities.

We can and…

Development Services blog

Development Services have a new blog.  We are using this as a place for members of the section to share information, experience and thoughts relating to our work.  Anyone in the section can contribute posts.  We expect most of the posts to cover technical material, such as useful coding techniques, experience from particular projects, and so forth.

See http://www.appsdev.is.ed.ac.uk/blog/ .

Why Agile has Failed?

Following from my previous post, this is my response to a second thought-provoking article that criticises a codification of agile software development into rigid project management frameworks.  In that article, Mike Hadlow asks why agile has come to mean just management practices (stand-ups, retrospectives, two-week iterations and planning poker), divorced from any base in technical practices.  He bemoans projects in which non-technical people are given the role of Scrum Master, enforcing agile rituals without understanding what the team are actually doing.

I can see that Mike's scenario would be problematic.  I have seen examples in our organisation where some non-development staff may have thought they could control an agile team (e.g. as a business analyst) but the structure of the agile team has (correctly) worked against them.  In general, it is certainly easier to explain daily stand-up meetings and two-week iterations to non-technical people than it is to educate them in t…

The Dark Side of Scrum?

In the last week I've seen a couple of blog posts that bemoan a codification of agile software development into rigid project management frameworks.  Both are interesting and caused me to reflect on our own adoption of agile - because to a fair extent we are doing exactly what these posts criticise.

The first such post is titled The Dark Side of Scrum.   Thomas Scranz asks why, if the first principle of the agile manifesto is that we value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, have people adopted Scrum as a dogmatic codified interpretation of agile?  I will note my thoughts in this post. (I hould clarify that we're not following Scrum per se; our process started nearer XP and has adopted some notions from Scrum and DSDM along the way).

Thomas first argues that with continuous integration and automated testing tools, we can move beyond fixed two-week time boxes to a faster and more flexible delivery cycle.  Well, that may be true for an organisation where agile…

Upgrades & integrating vendor software

The last month we seem to have spent a lot of time dealing with projects to upgrade various  systems.  We run a large number of such systems, covering everything from virtual learning environments and wikis to student record systems and timetabling, and also encompassing underlying middleware software.  I say "vendor systems" but some of these are open-source projects maintained by a global community.  Others are traditional vendors, ranging from large multi-national corporations to niche vendors of HE products.

We have encountered problems with a number of systems, from various sources.    Some of these have been bugs in the third-party software.  I won't name the systems, nor even say what functions they perform, as I don't want to bring any particular vendor into disrepute.  Other issues have turned out to be caused by mistakes in our own systems.  In one failed upgrade, we kept the existing system running on one site while we upgraded the system on the backup si…

Enterprise Architecture at York

Friday last week was a bit different from the usual, as I went down to York to sit on an interview panel.  York are recruiting a full-time Enterprise Architect (similar to the post that Nikki Rogers holds at Bristol) with responsibility for shaping the whole contribution of IT to the university's business and my role was to provide an external point of view.  I was very interested to learn more about their plans and to compare the architecture situation at York with our own experience.

Each of the candidates had to start their day with a ten-minute presentation about how they would persuade senior managers of the benefits of enterprise architecture.  These presentations were interesting in themselves and I may borrow one or two of the ideas put forward. 

Obviously I can't say much about the interviews themselves, but I will say that this is hard role to fill. The ideal candidate would have a breadth of IT experience, ability to engage confidently with senior managers, excellen…