Be the Graphite not the Gum
For folks working in higher education, it’s that time of year again. We are all preparing to welcome (and welcome back) our students and start the fall semester. Watching the students get to various offices and step through the myriad of processes, I can see that there are some things that work well and others that don’t. Some of these things are one time activities, so if they aren’t completely smooth that might be OK. But some are ongoing activities, and if they aren’t going well they will serve as a constant irritant for the student’s entire stay with us. It’s like gum on the bottom of your shoe. As an individual event this isn’t a big deal. But every step after that is a reminder that you stepped in gum, and at some point you’re going to have to stop and deal with it.
While many of these processes aren’t specifically IT things (some are though), I spend a good deal of my time trying to understand how technology can help ease some of the pain. That process reminds me of my younger days when I built pinewood derby cars. You know, these (and yes, those are originals):
I’m sure there’s lots of physics and aerodynamics that goes into making one of these go really fast, but in my experience the main secret is graphite. Any little burr in the nail axel or rubbing of the wheel again the pine slows the car down. The right amount of graphite in the right place makes almost all your problems go away.
We used to send warning emails to faculty and staff when they got within 10% of their 100mb mail quote on Exchange. Gum. Once we moved to Google Apps, I dared anyone to generate enough email to fill their quota (which at the time was 10gigs – now it’s unlimited). Graphite. Our wireless network was set to require you to re-authenticate every time you went to a different building AND every day. Gum, gum, gum. We made a small change so that one authentication would be good for all the buildings and it would last all semester. Nice big squirt of graphite. If a faculty member brought their own laptop into a classroom, they had to unplug one of the other devices to use the VGA cable (which almost never got plugged back in). Big Red Gum. Now we have a VGA/sound cable available for laptops in every classroom (and are moving to AppleTVs for wireless connectivity). Whole bottle of graphite.
Every institution has these kinds of challenges, and not all the solutions have to big or hard. As the new semester starts, I encourage everyone to find ways to be the graphite, not the gum.