By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
SM: I think when you talk in terms of e-mail or CRM, the basic e-mail or CRM, these are horizontal functionalities. You would definitely have an advantage if you use somebody else’s solution that has been built, tested, and scaled, and something that is scalable on this level has the right kind of support. There is no reason to reinvent that wheel for higher education specific solutions if there is such horizontal functionality available today. There are certain functions such as your fund-raising function, or, say, the new admission process, communicating with prospective students and parents, and all of that. There are those vertical processes, business processes that are specific to higher education institutions or campus processes. The shuttle example that you just gave is a campus example, right? All campuses have this issue, most campus would have similar issues, most campuses have shuttles, and in a sense I would say that there are many vertical business processes that are specific to higher education or specific to campuses. Where conceivable, there should be entrepreneurs working on these processes. I think I’m hearing you say that you haven’t found off-the-shelf applications addressing your issues, is that correct?
RS: Right! Yes, there are shuttle kinds of problems, but there wasn’t a shuttle program that ran on a phone, and students aren’t going to go back to their rooms and sit in front of their computers to see where the shuttle is. It had to come, this change over the past 18 months to two years that is the dramatic decline in browser and dramatic increase in Internet activity that comes from handheld devices. This has yet to be effectively wrestled with and corresponding services delivered. That move, the amount of time that is being spent with Internet in your hand, I don’t see interesting applications and function-specific applications that are really moving that category forward.
SM: Do you see higher opportunity potentially there?
RS: I often joke with a couple of vendors I am close with about how we will never be a software company, but we do have software development skills, and how they will never be a university and a college but they do have, having spent so much time with us, good instincts about what would matter to a college or a university. I think we are going to choose to work on the unique advantages that the college could enjoy in serving its constituent base. Therefore, we are investing in trying to get out of some of this 24/7 work that is part of being an IT staff. We could move it to the cloud, and now the IT team has time to think and work on other areas, and as a result we are starting to move forward and do some interesting work in the applications area that has shown promising results. Imagine doing all that without additional budget or staff; that is the promise that the cloud brings for universities such as us. There are some software things that we can now do, that we should do, [such as] buying a product from someone and trying to make it work for us. There are areas in which we will continue to do that, but we are going to branch out because we know who we are, and we’ve got the talent. Now we have the time, and because these applications are so specific to functionality, it isn’t like we have to have ten months of a project plan and have a complicated model for software development. We can rapidly build something and give it to our constituency base, test it, adapt it, test it, adapt it. And with the available application distribution models, the app store and the Android store, the rules have changed dramatically, and they have changed in our favor.
SM: This is a very interesting psychographic you have just described. Because we largely work with entrepreneurs we know this, and the reason I invited you to this conversation is to give entrepreneurs a view into of what is happening in higher education through your mind. From the point of view of entrepreneurs, you are the type of IT user or IT customer we call a “lead user.” You have a good idea of what it is that you are looking for, and you are building some of it yourself because vendors don’t have those solutions ready for you yet. You are the kind of user from whom vendors learn the most about they should be building, because you have many peers on many other campuses who are not taking that step of building their own applications for the iPhone!
RS: Yes, I don’t understand why. Who will aggressively experiment in this area given how quickly it is taking off? I was just going to say, [more companies could adopt practices such] as Google giving engineers one day a week where they just get to innovate.
RS: It’s a fascinating concept. There is a lack of innovation to explore or to lead, those will be other quadrants, and we are trying to find a little bit of time every week to dedicate to innovation. We take these really smart people who are in IT and who are trapped running archaic systems and services and monolithic software and we are able to peel a little bit of that off. I can take that brain trust and say, we have prospective students and they are asking these types of questions, what should we be doing? And if we can find it, buy it, and deploy it reasonably, that makes sense, but if it is not there, the software paradigm has changed enough that a college like Westmont can get in the game with minimal investment, in ways that enable use to build interesting things for our user base.
SM: What are some of the vendors that have caught your eye and people whom you can have this conversation with? Who are the ones who are likely to be your thought partners and the people who are going to be building interesting stuff for you?
RS: Meraki is an awesome company, and they inspire me in everything they do. I go up to their corporate headquarters and I spend a day with them every so often to discuss what they are thinking about, what they are working on, and so forth.
SM: Is Meraki a Silicon Valley company?
RS: Actually, they are in San Francisco but still the Silicon Valley area. It’s a great company. As for the folks from Cast Iron, now IBM, it will be interesting to see how the orchestration goes forward. They have just started this relationship because the acquisition happened only a couple of months ago.