A few weeks ago – hot on the heels of a ‘big birthday’ – Duncan Corbett, Project Manager for Enterprise Foundation, celebrated his 17th year at Scientia. The occasion was also marked by an exciting new chapter beginning in the history of the Company. He explains all in this guest blog:
When I arrived here in 1999 to help train users of our software, Scientia essentially had two products: Syllabus Plus Course Planner and Syllabus Plus Exam Scheduler. Some of you reading this may have already been users of those products as far back as the early 90s. I think it’s those long-term users who coined the term “Classic” to refer to those original products in much the same way as people use the term to refer to a much loved older model of car. Much has changed in those 17 years.
In 1999 the internet was only 10 years old. If you were lucky you had an Intel Pentium II processor with a speed measured in MHz. It was probably running Windows 3.1, NT or – at a push – 95. Windows 98 was still seen as uncharted waters for most. Your mobile phone, if you had one, had a small screen, buttons with numbers on and you used it to make phone calls or to play “Snake”.
Shortly before I joined, Syllabus had moved to a tab-based interface, with logical groupings of properties being displayed on separate tabs. Prior to that the controls for every property of an object had been crammed onto a single page. In spite of the fact that this meant you needed 20/20 vision and rock-steady mouse control to do anything, some users were uncomfortable with the move to tabs because it required more mouse clicks to get to the information they wanted.
In 2004 we released our Web Room Booking solution, enabling students and staff to make ad-hoc room and resource bookings themselves through a web browser, reducing the burden on admin staff and giving greater transparency to the process. We also introduced browser-based data collection tools to gather the timetable requirements of stakeholders; previously most customers were using paper forms that required manual data entry with the associated risks of misunderstanding and error. Similarly, in Student Allocator we delivered a browser-based solution that enables students to choose modules and activities, broadening participation further whilst reducing cost, time and duplication of effort.
Possibly our biggest leap until now in the development of our timetabling solution came in 2007 with the release of Syllabus Plus Enterprise – or Enterprise Foundation, as the core suite of software scheduling tools is now known. This is essentially a re-working of the user interface elements of Syllabus Plus. It provides a more modern look and feel, a more task-centric, rather than data-centric interface, and a more granular set of permissions. This meant that Enterprise Timetabler, for example, might be given to users that would not have been trusted with Syllabus Plus Classic for fear of the damage they might do to the data.
Meanwhile, back in the world of technology, the big shift in computing has been the trend towards Cloud-based solutions and the supply of software as a service. Before the advent of Cloud computing you would need to source and maintain sufficiently powerful hardware to cope with your maximum demand for computing power; implying a level of built-in redundancy. A Cloud-based solution means that the software provider supplies and maintains the computing power and the supply can flex to meet your requirements. Enterprise Activity Adjuster (EAA)was our first toe in the water with respect to this new technology. I can remember vividly standing in a lecture theatre in Auckland, New Zealand, using a prototype of EAA to make a change to an activity in a Scientia Database hosted in the cloud; the server was actually in Dublin, Ireland. It struck me at the time that, without leaving earth it would be difficult to pick two places further from each other; a powerful demonstration of the potential of the Cloud.
Since then we have made further forays into the world of Cloud-based solutions: Resource Booker is slowly gaining market share from our highly-successful Web Room Booking solution, empowering students and staff to manage their own room and equipment bookings. Publish enables staff and students to receive personalised timetables directly to smartphones, tablets and laptops, letting them view their timetable in the browser or calendar apps of their choice.
And that brings us back to the new chapter in Scientia’s history that’s about to begin. In March this year, at our annual EMEAA User Conference, we announced the development of an entirely new, Cloud-based scheduling solution. That’s exciting: despite the fast-paced nature of the technology industries, it’s not every day that you are afforded the opportunity of spear-heading a completely fresh start on a company’s core product. A store of enhancements that I’ve been building over the course of years, all of which would be too disruptive to introduce to the current solution, are now back on the table.
No doubt there will be challenges. Customers will naturally have questions about data security and privacy. This will, of course, be a vital component of whatever the new solution looks like, but holding large datasets securely in the Cloud is not an issue that Scientia uniquely has to address. It’s an issue that is common to all Cloud-based solutions, some of which are dealing with data that’s much more sensitive than the timetable information we are managing.
It’s natural that we approach change with caution. I can remember talking to users in my early days who were uncertain how they’d manage with the move to “this new-fangled tabbed user interface”, but I don’t think that any of us would now vote to move back to the cluttered single window approach. We recognise that the change has brought improvement. Similarly, reimagining our scheduling solution for the Cloud is not just exciting for me – it will also bring benefits to our customers: the 400+ tertiary education institutions worldwide which rely on Scientia’s products to maximise the use of their resources while providing students with an excellent education. A timetabling solution based in the Cloud will bring a lower total cost of ownership, and improved scalability. Free from the constraints imposed by legacy software, we can design for easier integration with other software, easier localisation and improved performance. What’s not to like?
Our developers are currently busy planning the development project and thinking about the first prototype application that we’ll use to test our new Cloud-based scheduling engine. I’ve already had the opportunity to share my aspirations with them so that we ensure that those goals are not excluded by anything we do in the early stages of development. We have promised our customers a detailed development plan in July so look out for an update from me then.
Duncan Corbett is Product Manager for Syllabus Plus Enterprise.