Student information systems (SISs) are essential for tracking students, programs, admissions, financial aid and grades at universities nationwide. Accelerated by COVID-19’s remote-learning transition, SIS flexibility and efficiency are crucial to ensuring that large university systems best serve both student development and the school mission.
But with multiple systems, apps and servers, it’s challenging to untangle inefficiencies and get IT teams to think strategically toward the future, rather than simply responding to the inevitable outages that emerge with each registration cycle. After all, when systems go down, students cannot use the university’s resources in ways they expect — and internal teams get stuck with troubleshooting.
Technology is a core component of UTSA. The transformation of the school’s IT department from an error-resolving team to innovation agents not only helped UTSA fulfill its purpose at registration time but also advanced the university’s larger mission. AppDynamics sat down with Nassos Galiopoulos, Chief Technology Officer and Deputy CIO at UTSA, and Kendra Ketchum, UTSA Vice President for Information Management and Technology, to discuss how they did it.
Here are some highlights.
AppDynamics: What’s happening in the education space that drove this transformation, and what’s the importance of visibility across your IT stack?
Kendra Ketchum, UTSA: Higher education is notorious for aging processes and hardware — things that aren’t lending to the success of the business. This includes technology outages and SISs that are based on the tacit knowledge of one employee who was there to define them, but then that tacit knowledge leaves the organization when the employee leaves. These SIS ecosystems are hodgepodges that become very complex.
When I arrived at UTSA, it was my third week here, and our SIS went down during the most important time of the year: student registration. What’s interesting is that we had just had our first successful reduced time of registration for summer with zero incidents to report — and UTSA used to have an outage every registration cycle.
Nassos Galiopoulos, UTSA: When I joined UTSA, Kendra was already focused on figuring out how to help students spend less time registering for classes so they could get right to their schedules. The concept she presented was, “Think of it as we are the digital backpack of a student. They’re on campus and we are with them, wherever they need to go, and they just need to reach out and get what they need.”
Optimizing the student experience was the main vision Kendra brought in, and then that broke down into different levels of effort. First was to make sure the system is reliable. The second one was to optimize it. And the third was to ensure it caters to students’ needs depending on what stage they’re at in their educational journey.
AppDynamics: What were the key priorities for your team and the organization?
Nassos Galiopoulos, UTSA: Kendra reached out to me and said, “Nassos, reliability of the environment is your number one priority. I need it to be functional, responsive, secure and so forth.” So there were a lot of organizational changes that happened as part of this strategy, bringing in people who understand academics, marketing and communications — those from outside the IT world — into the department.
Kendra Ketchum, UTSA: We brought in a digital customer experience group and a strategic services group, where our business analysts and business relationship managers live. They were being told by users of those systems, “We’ve got to get better processes. Our student experience is not good enough.” So we created the digital customer experience under the same umbrella of strategic services to ensure that when we build a widget, students and faculty could use it for its worth and value, which is needed to drive value back to the organization.
Our enterprise applications area is the core group running every application for the university. But what really helped us was the ability to take the strategic services group and look at whether testing was done, workflows were correct, and new tools were being adopted at high rates.
I keep trying to get out of the outage business. Instead of fixing apps when they go down, I want the team to find out exactly how our applications are being consumed, then empower our customers and employees.
AppDynamics: What was the business driver for these changes within the university? For example, improving registration and retaining students?
Kendra Ketchum, UTSA: It was both of those things and more. This particular initiative mapped back to one of the core strategic functions of the organization: being a module for student success. We needed a responsive system that integrated multiple cloud-based and on-premises apps to give our students quick access to registration, financial aid and more — all the processes and activities to help us be each student’s success exemplar. We had to get into truly serving our academic and business enterprises. Our students, faculty and staff benefit from this as well.
Nassos Galiopoulos, UTSA: It’s odd because even during COVID times, we saw an increase in enrollment. One major business driver is students’ need for financial aid. The sooner we can process financial aid awards and send out a letter informing students that they have been admitted and are financially covered to start their education, the more we can increase our enrollment numbers.
AppDynamics: What role has AppDynamics played in helping your organization gain visibility and make these services come to life, within the context of this broader mission?
Nassos Galiopoulos, UTSA: When we started using AppDynamics, we expected many errors but found an extremely low 0.01% error (rate). The AppDynamics team was scrambling and said, “Is there anything wrong? Are we missing something?”
But the value is being able to pinpoint where the 0.1% error is at the code level, and then having a conversation with a vendor on where they need to address the bugs. Before AppDynamics, we spent a lot of time trying to validate our own environment and escalate errors to the engineering team on the vendor side
(With AppDynamics) the timeframe for troubleshooting went from three weeks to one day. I was able to grab the code, escalate the ticket and say, “This process takes 58 seconds and we need it to be under 30 seconds. Here’s the code.” And now the vendor can quickly process these types of requests.
Kendra Ketchum, UTSA: Not only did (AppDynamics) leverage our own maturity in the organization for us to learn about our systems and processes, it also allowed us to gain knowledge and insight to get to that endpoint faster.
AppDynamics: With your focus on innovation, what’s on the table for the future?
Kendra Ketchum, UTSA: If we can use new tools for orchestration and automation, we can leverage people’s time that was normally taken up by tedious tasks that weren’t orchestrated for more innovative, net-new demand.
It always goes back to true demand management within technology and resource capacity management. All of those things matter. Our internal team was really supportive of solving latency issues but didn’t have the resources to be able to handle what, before AppDynamics, was an extremely labor-intensive process that necessitated looking at every line of code individually each time there was a new problem. We’ve got to build ecosystems that are warranted for use, not a bunch of one-offs.
Nassos drove us to get out of that one-off business and lay out full life-cycle management from the start of a process to the end — and, importantly, free up time for innovation. Now our team is going out and saying, “Hey, what could we do on ideation?”
Their operational run rate when I arrived was about 96%. Our goal was to get them down to where they were doing ideation and innovation at 40% and then operation at 60%. The only way to do that is through automation and orchestration.
Before Kendra and Nassos, the UTSA team focused on operational issues and lengthy outages during the worst times. With little time for vision, they were like many IT teams in higher education — maintaining the status quo rather than transforming the lives of their students, instructors and researchers. The result? IT was a commodity. The UTSA team has morphed into an innovation machine using a service-driven mindset. With expanded teams, a broad cross-function mindset and a boost from AppDynamics, these IT innovators have become agents of change.