From the CTO

21 November 2021
By Janet Scannell
Janet Scannell
Janet Scannell

When I started at Carleton, a faculty member told me that she liked some of the things that technology let her do in the classroom, but that she didn’t like the complexity it added. She said that in the new world she was more reliant on people and processes that were outside her domain which added stress and uncertainty to what used to be a very dependable classroom experience for her. Given our increased reliance on technology during the pandemic, this seems like a good time to acknowledge the impact of this complexity and to talk about how ITS is continually learning and evolving.

The first 10 years of my career I was a mechanical engineer responsible for the design and development of the connectors and cable assemblies in mainframe computers. My company had some products held to military grade testing, and in every building we had a display of our “Mean Time Between Unscheduled Interruptions” (MTBUI). We could go for years without our customers having a single service interruption. To make that happen, the company invested in 2000 employees to maintain only two products – the model in production and the new one in design and development. 

It was a shock for me when I moved to a software startup for 5 years and then to higher education IT.  Commercial grade technology products have lots of Unscheduled Interruptions. The software we use every day is sold with thousands of known bugs. There’s a joke that if Bill Gates designed cars they would stop fairly frequently on the highway, but that’s ok — you just turn it off and restart. 

Carleton has about 400 software applications in use by our community members and more being added every day to support not only teaching & learning needs, but also all of our specialty areas – food service, athletics, marketing, fundraising, utilities management and so on. And the IT foundation for these services is constantly changing and growing – new computer models and operating systems, browser updates, the addition of wireless networking, the addition of two-factor authentication, etc. It’s all good, but it adds complexity.  

And as we’ve all experienced, sometimes our technology cars do stop on the highway. It could be a network outage due to a construction backhoe clipping a cable 100 miles from campus; it could be a bug from one of our hundreds of IT vendors; it could be a mistake from someone in the IT department, or we may never know the cause. In every case, the staff in ITS are very aware of the impact on the Carleton community. We simultaneously feel terrible and we jump into action – with some of us working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible and others focusing on keeping the community apprised and offering work-arounds when possible.

Over the past eight years of newsletters and annual reports, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about what happens next, including how we strive to learn from outages in order to make our environment more robust. Two other articles in this newsletter will do that — one describing the complexity that led to a recent Moodle outage, and the other describing recent strengthening of how we manage planned changes. 

We can’t completely avoid unscheduled interruptions, but we can, should, and do learn from them.

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