When the pandemic swept over the Tampa Bay region, the USF Information Technology department rapidly implemented tech solutions to reduce the spread of Covid and offer support to over 50,000 students and 15,000 employees across three campuses.
The department was able to create and deploy applications to help contain the virus and provide financial and academic support to students in a matter of weeks – due to a novel pre-Covid technical strategy.
Following the success of that forward-thinking strategy, USF was recently named the winner of the prestigious Gartner 2021 Eye on Innovation Award for Higher Education. Gartner and other higher education institutions from around the globe selected USF for its excellence in innovation.
“It’s humbling to see that we’re able to compete at a global level for the type of work that we do,” said Alice Wei, senior director for Digital Innovations at USF.
Wei said the new strategy for technological solutions began about eight years ago. She said there was more demand than IT could meet at the time, and they sought to develop a platform that could rapidly respond to ever-changing needs. The goal, she explained, was to become more modular and responsive to feedback, and they were successful before they ever had to adapt to the pandemic.
“So, something that could take two years you could finish in a quarter,” said Wei.
Sidney Fernandes, vice president and chief information officer of IT, said the team adopted the motto of “show me versus tell me.” He explained that it is better to proactively show the client what is possible versus telling them about it and then coming back much later when the application and business context is likely to have changed. He said that idea came to the forefront during Covid.
“You couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen in the next month, much less six months from now,” said Fernandes. “Having that strategy allowed us to quickly create solutions when demanded by the clients, at enterprise scales.”
Fernandes explained the technology had to serve 50,000 students simultaneously while also operating at high speeds, which was key to the idea of hyper-automation and composable architecture.
Fernandes said when the pandemic hit, IT was comfortable knowing they had a strategy in place that allowed them to be flexible and fast.
“We kind of hit the accelerator on the strategy we had in place,” said Fernandes. “We weren’t going out and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, Covid’s hit now we have to change everything.'”
Weis said IT’s strategy is analogous to training for a marathon. She explained that someone would not just show up and try to run such a long distance – they typically train for years.
“We’ve been training our muscles for these kinds of quick reactionary modes for many years,” she added. “So, we were able to flex those muscles very quickly – even before the pandemic.”
Weiss said the changing requirements on how the university wanted to keep everyone safe caused her the most stress through the pandemic. She said the changing requirements led to IT implementing planning sessions wherein the department would try and anticipate what the university would need in the future. These sessions led to creating what Weis called shelfware, prototypes of applications they could implement on demand.
“I think that in itself is something that most organizations aren’t able to think about if they don’t have that culture or technology in place,” said Weis.
Fernandes said a good example of the functionality of IT’s strategy was the virtual advising platform. Before Covid, students stopped into the academic advising office and personally spoke to their advisors. Immediately following Covid, thousands of students had to make appointments virtually and conduct conversations critical to their academic success through Microsoft Teams.
“And Alice and her team were able to launch that pretty much in a week after the dean of the business school called me and said, ‘We need this,’” said Fernandes.
Another new solution was the creation of the Return to Campus Pass. During the height of the pandemic, USF required students to submit and pass a daily symptom tracker.
If students felt well and had no potential exposure to the virus, they received a green pass to visit campus. If students exhibited Covid symptoms or had a potential exposure to the virus, the platform would generate a report to Student Health. Student Health would then call students to assist.
“All of that helped us to keep the case numbers down on our campuses,” said Donna Peterson, dean of the College of Public Health. “It was just a nice, sort of simple and direct way to do that.”
Fernandes stresses that the success of the IT strategy would not be possible without the entire team working together. He called the Digital Innovation team the engine that creates the solutions, but to deploy solutions at the required scale requires everyone in the network infrastructure is “able to pivot on a dime.”
In addition to the concerted effort required to implement the new platforms and applications, Fernandes said the infrastructure team then had to ensure maintenance and operability of both the new and old systems.
“So essentially, all the teams have to be in synch,” said Fernandes. “We use a scaled, agile methodology, which allows you to have various teams that are running very, very quickly to be coordinated.
“My role is to make sure all the oars are rowing in the same direction essentially, especially when you’re rowing really fast.”
Weis said IT receiving the prestigious award validates the innovation happening throughout the university, including departments that people sometimes overlook. She points out that these awards are given annually, yet it takes several years of labor and industriousness to receive an award in any given year.
“So, for us, it’s an acknowledgment of the hard work we put in the past eight years,” said Weis. “It’s really great for us to end the year on … it was a great holiday gift to our team.”