As Temple University has transitioned to being fully online, the IT team has responded to the challenge with innovation, collaboration and grace. As the leader of the team, I have been awed and very proud. And it is not just the IT team that has risen to the occasion. The entire Temple community has come together.
Within days, our IT team significantly expanded our remote secure access services to our systems and specialized software. We gathered and distributed laptops to students, faculty, and staff who didn’t have their own equipment to move to the online world as we closed the physical campus. We partnered with colleagues across campus and our vendors to rapidly provide training to the campus. We shifted to a virtual help desk over a weekend without any interruption in service to the campus. We have done all of this while improving our satisfaction rate as measured by a post-service survey to over 97%.
Why were we able to make this transition in such a smooth way?
The answer is clear from the feedback that I have been given from the team and across campus. We had already moved our primary learning platforms to modern cloud solutions that made the transition much easier. And we have been practicing for this kind of emergency for years as we have formed a creative and collaborative culture in ITS.
Specifically, we already had flexible work guidelines that encouraged everyone to work with their managers, teams and customers to identify how they could provide seamless service when they worked remotely.
Our help desk had moved to a software call center last November to enhance our support and give that team the ability to participate more fully in the flexible work guidelines. This meant that our help desk had practiced and tested working completely virtual before they had to to comply with the shelter in place order.
Our teams had practiced being innovative and thinking out of the box in our weekly Wonderful Wednesday/Whenever time. Many of the ideas that we implemented in response to the pandemic crises came from the research and exploration individuals had already been doing.
Because our team had practiced, we were prepared and have been able to respond to requests quickly and creatively. Instead of scrambling to figure out how they would be able to do their job from home, the ITS team members were able to focus on helping the rest of campus move to the new paradigm.
As you reflect on the unprecedented changes that the pandemic has caused, what had you practiced that helped you and your teams make the transition? What can you start practicing now?
One of the foundational practices in DevOps and Agile is to support team members who have ideas for improvement. This is difficult to do because we have a lot of work to get done and trying out new ideas creates more work. When the idea crosses organizational lines and normal job duties, it is even more difficult to take action. We have implemented Wonderful Wednesdays as a way to give time to explore ideas and practice creating self-organizing teams. A recent example reaffirmed to me why this practice is so important, especially when you are trying to transform the way that your team works.
Like most organizations, we have a help desk with software that we use to track all of the requests for support. This software is managed by the help desk team. One of our new help desk team members, Dominic (Dom) Malfara, was looking for ways to be more efficient in updating the software. He wanted to be able to upgrade the software in the middle of the day and be able to quickly recover if any part of the system went down. He reached out to our infrastructure engineering team, who were investigating how to use Kubernetes containers to automate and modernize our server environment.
That team embraced Dom, recognizing that if they could containerize our Remedy environment, which consisted of many servers with a vendor that didn’t support containers, it would be an ideal environment to learn for the entire team. The team leader invited Dom to the team’s daily stand-ups, Trello board, and Teams channel. Throughout the project the entire team was inclusive and accommodating. Despite org chart lines, Dom felt like he was part of their team and it was exciting working towards a goal with them. The infrastructure team reprioritized their work and helped Dom identify all of the layers of systems and management tools needed to fully automate and containerize the Remedy servers.
This took several months and required full support from the leaders on the help desk and the infrastructure engineering team. Doing this required more time and more people than a traditional upgrade of the Remedy servers. It required making the time to experiment.
Dom was successful in containerizing the Remedy environment. It did not go perfectly. We had a bit of user interruption throughout the day as we made the transition. Through the problems, the help desk leadership team didn’t yell or blame anyone, but instead asked what they could do to help. Various team members posted screenshots or descriptions of things that were broken, allowing Dom space to focus on calmly fixing things so they would not happen again.
The results have been everything that we hoped for and worth the investment of time. We halved the needed hardware. Upgrades are now done by building parallel environments which mean we can fully test the new production environment and roll over and back between the old and new environments in seconds. All the hard work now occurs up front, and not during a maintenance window where people are prone to rush/make mistakes. Because the work is now automated and reproducible, bringing up a new test environment takes minutes instead of days. We can monitor the system load and scale instantly when needed.
A couple of weeks after the transition was done, Dom did a presentation during Wonderful Wednesday teaching others across ITS. I went to the presentation and was in awe of the amount of learning and technical knowledge that was required to make the transition. It was one of the highlights of my year.
Thanks to Dom raising his hand and the infrastructure team fully supporting him, we have a roadmap on how to make the rest of our infrastructure more efficient, modern, and scalable. As a leader, it reinforced to me how important it is to support those individuals and teams who raise their hand and give them the time and resources to learn and make your organization better.
Here are my questions for you this week.
How do you support individuals who raise their hands with an idea?
How do you treat others who come to you with an idea that requires you to change what you are doing?
Is there a project you are working on currently that someone could collaborate with you for mutual benefits if they only had some way of knowing about it?
Epilogue: As part of the process of writing these blogs, I always ask for feedback from the people who are mentioned in the blog. I wanted to include this email from Dominic to me about his view of the experience.
Thanks for sharing, I just wanted to share some quick notes on the overall experience because it was really special to me. Our self-formed team was definitely influenced by all of the changes made to the culture and how ITS members are reacting to that:
Wonderful Wednesday allowed me the freedom and time to invest in pursuing something innovative instead of doing things how we always have, WW got me quick buy-in from Jim and Paul because instead of battling with scheduling time to prove value in something and how it prioritized with our other work, I was able to use that reserved WW time to learn skills and proof of concept this project. I was excited to work on new technologies and make life better for us and that energy didn’t go to waste having to meet and debate and formalize things. Natural experimentation took its course and we got to follow an informal guideline of what we wanted to accomplish and how we were going to do it
Slack/Teams promotes open communication across the organization so it is now commonplace to talk to others in ITS, I get to interact with members of IT that I might not even meet otherwise. Help or knowledge with something is a message away, and with group chats I get visibility into what people are working on, instead of knowledge being hidden in email chains that I wasn’t CCed on or meetings I wasn’t a part of (the all-staff meetings, summits, and What’s New newsletter all influence this as well). I heard that Infrastructure Engineering was already exploring Kubernetes and we got to learn that together.
Leaders like Jorj, who doesn’t have a reporting relationship with me, but acted as a strong mentor and helped break down any barriers I faced along the way anyway. People like him that are genuinely interested in the technology and making Temple a better place are really inspiring and I hope I can pay that forward and influence those around me
Thanks again to Jorj for all his help and mentorship, and to you for the culture you are creating in Temple ITS! This project wouldn’t have been possible without it. I have learned a lot of valuable career skills and the failures/mishaps along the way that gave me real world lessons and I honestly had fun doing it! 😄