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The Design Architect, A New Role for New Challenges

Note: This is the second article in a series about the three different architect roles on the SIS project. If you missed the first article, you can read it here: The Dualities of an Enterprise Architect.

In a stream of seemingly unending Zoom meetings, my favorite type of meeting is one in which I have the opportunity to learn more about my colleagues and to see the passion and enthusiasm for their work.

Today I am lucky enough to be in one such meeting. I am joined in Zoom by two of my colleagues on the Student Information System (SIS) Project team: Dr. Dave Garrison, the University’s Senior Associate Registrar, and Andrew Kaplan, the Director of Student and Client Services and Registrar for the Division of Extended Studies.

They are joining our meeting from what appear to be their respective remote workspaces. The bright light filtering into Andrew’s workspace and the yellowish paint on the nearly bare walls behind him combine to tint his videofeed a color that makes me think of a warm summer breeze or an afternoon spent in the desert heat. The walls behind Dave seem to be a cool, grayish-blue color, but it’s hard to tell because there’s not much wall to see; space not taken up by a large, blind-covered window is taken up by the proudly displayed artwork of his children.

Andrew and Dave are the two Design Architects for the SIS project, and as I begin discussing with them, I am embarrassed to admit that I know very little about the specifics of their role, despite us having been team members for over a year. It turns out that I am in good company, though, because their role is a novel one created specifically for the SIS project, and even they are still in the process of figuring it out.

Making It Up

Dr. Dave Garrison, SIS Design Architect
Dr. Dave Garrison

“Andrew and I are defining this role as we go along,” explains Dave, “and it's great to have him as a partner. It helps to have someone else to reinforce that you are on the right track.” The two have synergy as teammates and sharers of the same role, which becomes apparent by each one’s tendency to elaborate and build on the other’s ideas and comments.

Andrew jumps in when Dave pauses. “It helps to see someone else struggle, too,” he says with a laugh. Then he quickly adds, “Not that I want to see Dave struggle. I don’t. But when I struggle with something and I see that it's also a struggle for him, that’s an affirmation that I am on the right track, even if it’s difficult.”

The more I speak with the two, the more this seems to emerge as a theme in their role: being willing to work through the tough spots on an institutional level, a project level and a personal level.

“I see this role as a kind of super design lead,” says Dave. The size and scope of the SIS project is such that an additional role is needed to help with the system design. In addition to contributing the design documents for the new system, Andrew and Dave will also work to identify and prioritize areas where change may be necessary. This will be especially important because the new SIS will bring all facets of the university together in one system.

Dave and Andrew are certain their role will continue to develop and change as the project evolves, but both view that positively. “I would prefer to be able to make it up as I go than to be trapped in a box,” says Dave. “I like knowing the end goal and being allowed to figure out how to get myself there.” For now, at least, they see themselves as information gatherers, consensus builders and decision-makers.

Tackling the Tough Stuff

Andrew Kaplan, Design Architect
Andrew Kaplan

“We’re here to understand the processes and the needs of the various stakeholders on the project and to figure out how to bring everything together,” says Andrew. When the project moves into the design phase, they will be decision-makers, deciding how to make everything come together to work in the new system, especially where there are differences in how various divisions, schools or departments approach the same processes. But, even though they are decision-makers, that doesn’t mean they’ll be making all the decisions.

They’re both quick to point out that decision-making is a process, one which involves collaboration and change management. Andrew notes that this has been a significant shift in his thinking since he first came into the role. “I thought we were going to decide how the new processes would work based on the stakeholders’ needs and the capabilities of the new system,” he says. “I now understand that it’s our role to help people recognize the need for change and then to collaboratively create that change with them.”

Dave adds that it’s really helpful that the project is well-resourced with a change management team. “We’re going to need to work closely with the Change Leads to ensure that the correct people participate in the process and are informed of any changes.” Change is hard and often uncomfortable, and, Dave points out, change management is something everyone has to contribute to even if the team has change management resources.

Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortable

“I had a boss who liked to tell me, ‘You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,’” says Andrew, “and I think that is the name of the game right now.” Comfort, he explains, is knowing exactly what is coming for the project and how to tackle it. But reality is rarely predictable and, so far, the SIS project has not been either. Even for those on the project team, the process has taken some unanticipated turns.

“I was hoping that by this point we would have been further along in the process,” says Dave. “I understand the decisions that have been made such as closing the initial RFP without an award, and I agree with those decisions, but it still feels frustrating sometimes. And if it’s frustrating for me, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for stakeholders who have not been as closely connected to the process as I have had the privilege to be.”

Dave is not alone in his feelings. In conversations with other team members, I have heard similar sentiments expressed. The process of choosing a new SIS vendor is taking much longer than some on the team expected and has turned out to be much less straightforward than anticipated. This has opened up some space for disappointment, frustration and even doubt to arise. Thankfully, the team has one another for support in processing these feelings.

Andrew points out that timelines are naturally longer when decisions are made via consensus building and that the decision before the university is neither easy nor insignificant. “A little discomfort is not a bad thing when you are talking about a decision that has far reaching consequences, very real risks and the potential to deeply affect our students’ educational experiences,” he says. But even if the process can be bumpy and unexpected at times, both Dave and Andrew remain hopeful.

Counting on Community Strength

For Andrew, the most rewarding part of his work on the project has been connecting with new colleagues across the university and seeing firsthand the incredible effort everyone makes to ensure our students have the best possible experience, even despite, at times, less than optimal systems or processes.

Dave sums it all up with a metaphor. “They say that when you get tossed into the water, you either sink or swim. Here, we have a whole community of people who got tossed into the water and didn’t just swim, they built themselves a fleet of boats.” It’s going to be challenging to bring all those boats together to build the armada that is a new SIS, but he’s encouraged by his colleagues and their skills, expertise and make-it-happen attitude.

“We have such capable people here, who are able to really think creatively about problems and to adapt to almost anything. That gives me hope.”

Category: Student & Faculty, News