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Backfill: Prioritizing Staff Expertise for the SIS Project

There are many resources and strategies that the Student Information System (SIS) Project is utilizing to design and implement the new applications and tools that the university will be adopting as part of the Enterprise Systems Renewal (ESR) Program. Backfill is one of those strategies. In short, backfill is the approach of freeing up time of current staff (subject matter experts or SMEs) to work on the project. Since the day-to-day work of that staff member still has to get done, another individual(s) is identified to temporarily take over their work so that they can be dedicated to the project. 

Knowledge, investment, flexibility and patience were the key themes that arose during my conversations with Kevin Chou, Deputy CIO and ESR Director, and Cindy Lyons, University Registrar and SIS Project Change Lead, when I spoke with them about the ESR backfill strategy and their experiences in implementing it.  

Kevin is extremely passionate about backfill as a paramount strategy to the success of ESR. Not only does Kevin explain that backfill is more cost effective overall, but he firmly believes in the opportunities that backfill provides and how it showcases UC San Diego’s commitment to existing staff and their expertise. 

Additionally, Cindy expressed her support for the backfill approach of the ESR Program saying, “I think the way that UC San Diego is doing it is the right way, because we are capitalizing on the expert knowledge we have in-house to do the work, and this ensures overall project success.”  


According to Kevin, gaining and retaining knowledge are the primary goals of employing a backfill approach. Kevin confirms that the ESR Program placed critical importance on establishing a strategy that “would have UC San Diego involved in the learning process as early as possible.” 

But, what does this mean exactly?

It means that if we had instead employed another strategy that relied on external consultants to do the heavy lifting, UC San Diego staff would be at a disadvantage because we would not be engaged across the entire project, guiding and learning from it, before the processes and systems are implemented. Additionally, we would have spent hundreds of hours teaching consultants about our business processes, only to then rely on those consultants to teach us about the new processes and technologies. 

While this is an approach often used in large software implementations, it is ultimately a drawback for the system users, which is something that UC San Diego wanted to avoid. Working with UC San Diego staff with years of experience and knowledge as the primary experts on the projects means that we, the end-users of the system or application, are involved in the learning process from the beginning—that our people are the ones gaining the knowledge up front and will be the ones to deploy that same knowledge to use the new system. This way, we are “retaining the knowledge here at the institution, rather than having it leave with the consultants,” Kevin explains. Furthermore, using our in-house experts also allows us to build and configure the applications and tools in a way that meets UC San Diego’s unique business needs and processes, which is another great advantage to us in the long term. 


The backfill strategy also shows UC San Diego’s investment in its current talent. The ESR Program strongly believes that the SMEs we have are the most qualified and equipped to inform the project and make the decisions that will shape the future of the university’s applications and tools. Rather than spending millions of dollars on consultants, the ESR Program strategically chose to invest in hiring backfill positions, so that the SMEs could step away (partially or fully) from their daily work and have the opportunity to be committed to the project. 

Furthermore, a backfill strategy creates opportunities for the staff who assume the backfill roles, creating experiences that otherwise would have not been available. As a supervisor, Cindy shares with me about the ways she has been able to identify creative options and solutions within her own department: “It is an opportunity for professional growth for some individuals because they are stepping into a different role,” she says. 


Just like with any strategy, there are benefits and challenges to backfill. To be successful, backfill requires immense flexibility and adaptability from staff and especially from supervisors. When I asked Cindy what she has learned from employing the backfill strategy as a supervisor, she says, “Be prepared for the unexpected because things will not go as planned and you have to be able to adapt and think creatively.” 

Project priorities may change, the person you hired for a backfill role may leave, other staff in your department may move on to other opportunities—all of these scenarios require a supervisor to be reassessing needs and to strategically identify new solutions to address gaps. With that, thankfully, there are many people like Kevin and members of the SIS Project team who are available to assist supervisors in identifying solutions to meet the unique needs of a department’s backfill request. 

“The role of the supervisor, and their belief in the strategy, is paramount to the execution,” Kevin elaborates. The supervisor’s approach in addressing backfill needs will ultimately shape how the department views the strategy and will frame the perspective and the attitudes of the staff on the project.


Probably equally as important as flexibility is patience. Patience is required by supervisors in order to identify the right backfill option for their specific department needs. There are many factors to consider when reviewing backfill options, and each backfill strategy will be entirely unique to each department. The strategy of backfill often means moving people into different roles and bringing on new people to the department. “It takes time,” Cindy confirms, “and you have to consider training time and build that into your backfill plan.” 

The SIS Project team is acutely aware of the time required to hire and onboard a backfill position, which is why the team works hard to engage departments early on in recognizing and fulfilling backfill needs. The SIS Project change management team, with direction from the SIS governance committee, prioritizes backfill as both project readiness criteria and go-live readiness criteria. This means that at various stages throughout the project (at kick-off, before design meetings, before launch/go-live, and during key project milestones), the SIS Project team works closely with the department to ensure that SMEs are adequately backfilled in their department so that they can focus on the project. 

The backfill strategy is not a perfect one, and it has its challenges both for staff and supervisors. The ESR Program did not make the decision to use this strategy lightly. They gathered information and lessons learned from other universities and similar projects to help inform their decision-making process. Ultimately, backfill means moving people around. It may necessitate hiring and training new people. It requires supervisors engaging their staff, being transparent, and setting appropriate boundaries and expectations. It is work—hard work—but it is the hard work worth doing because it means that we can include the right people in the project from start to finish, ultimately mitigating potential challenges in the future and setting up our staff for future success. 

Category: Student & Faculty, News