By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
SM: Let me make sure I got this right. You are saying that you are not excited about what the vendors are doing to cater to your particular business process requirements in higher education?
RS: Not really, but I am excited about the fact that hardware and software are coming together in ways that, in my 25 years in doing this, I haven’t seen. I haven’t before seen the maturity of software and hardware aligned like they appear to be aligning now. From the handheld to the server, there are a lot of very interesting things that are happening. As a CIO, I want to know, how do I bring together some of these stories that I have been telling you about? In any of the individual parts involved in our story, there is no rocket science happening there.
I think what Westmont did differently was that we got rather innovative on how we took certain parts and brought them together in a way that mattered for our college. That is where the cloud comes into the picture. Since our system is cloud based, we can combine things. We have taken a step into this application roll-out that I was talking about earlier. One of the things we wanted at our college was a better way to manage our shuttle service – the first two years you can’t have a car, so we have a very extensive shuttle service. After talking about the shuttle service with the students, we found that one of their major complaints was, they never know where the shuttle was. So, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we just GPS enabled the shuttle and students could look at their phone and figure out where they were and were the shuttle was, because both the phone and the shuttle have GPS. If students could see where the shuttle was, then they could tell whether it was coming toward them or moving away. We got something that would really matter for the students and deployed it. The application that aggregates all of this information, instead of installing it here locally and supporting it, we just put it in Amazon’s EC2 cloud. We took mature categories, and we brought those together perhaps in an innovative way that now serves students such that they use it all the time.
SM: What did you it cost you to build that application – the cloud app – and put it on EC2?
RS: Actually, we bought the entire iPhone app with 17 services on it and we spent $9,000 building it and $30 a month for the Amazon contract, just to deploy the app in the cloud.
SM: What are the 17 services that this iPhone App provides you?
RS: There are 17 functions, and they are some of the other things that are needed on campus. The app aggregates calendars, for example. There are a myriad of calendars on campus – the academic calendar, the athletic calendar, things like that, and we pull more such data together through public APIs and Google’s calendar. We pull over the dining menu also. We are faith-based school, so the chapel schedule is there. Any story posted on our website is also made available within five minutes on the iPhone app.
As I told you earlier, I came here on October 4, 2008. On November 13 of that year, the tree fire happened in Santa Barbara; you may have seen it on the news. We lost eight buildings and millions of square feet of campus; the campus was burnt, but because we had a plan we had no loss of life. Based on that experience, we put in this iPhone app with information about what to do in case of an emergency, a pandemic, a wildfire, a shooter, an earthquake, so that is in there. There is information about the college and things like that, just lots of handy things that would be useful for the people who belong to the Westmont community.
SM: Interesting! You basically have a Westmont portal on the iPhone, and presumably you are going to do that for the iPad at some point and as an application.
RS: Right, and we are watching Android as well. In our environment, Android use is up, but not up enough to warrant the time and the resources necessary to build an application geared toward Android. But once it meets the threshold or gets close, we will move quickly to serve that user base as well.
SM: This is very interesting listening to you on both aspects – how you brought the third-party applications into the environment and how you have built your own cloud apps internally. Let me ask you a question about “blue sky” opportunities. You said that not much innovation is happening from vendors in higher education. But higher education is a fairly large market, right? The entire campus space, higher education space, has thousands of universities or colleges, correct?
RS: That’s correct; it is a multi, multi billion-dollar market.
SM: How does this market operate in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship? Why is it that all of functions you are describing to me, the ones you are going ahead and building using your own apps – I mean, conceivably if there were vendors operating in this space, they would see these opportunities, build applications, and make them available to these thousands of campuses. Why is it not happening? Do you have a perspective on that?
RS: Well, there are companies that are starting to make such applications. They are just starting to do it. I think there are some functions available if you just want to use off-the-shelf. If we go back to our discussion or your comment on innovation, when I think of innovation, we are very specific about what type of innovation we are attempting to pursue. If we go back to the e-mail part of our conversation, you may remember that we didn’t adopt some giant e-mail solution because, at the end of the day, the innovation that was required in my department was simply to limit a disadvantage. We were at this disadvantage because we couldn’t count on the environment to work reliably, but we didn’t need some e-mail system that had 3,000 features on it. We just needed e-mail reliably and fast.