Entre Nous with Sylvia Franke

Entre Nous with Sylvia Franke McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 7, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 11
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 40: 2007-2008 > February 7, 2008 > Entre Nous with Sylvia Franke

Entre Nous with Sylvia Franke, Chief Information Officer

Old school excellence delivered by new school technology

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"I like the dynamics of a university. It's a community where ideas percolate upward," says Sylvia Franke. "I like the fact that, at the end of the day, we're supporting professors and students and people who are conducting leading-edge research. There's no better work environment out there."

Sylvia Franke did not follow the beaten path en route to being appointed McGill’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) exactly one year ago. For starters, she earned a law degree from the University of Toronto years before she even started a Bachelor’s in Computer Science. She also spent four years as McGill’s Registrar immediately before moving to her current position. And, without doubt, she’s probably the university’s only administrator to have once earned her living dodging Toronto traffic as a bike courier. This breadth of experience and ability to adapt to new situations are precisely the qualities needed to thrive in the ever-changing, blink-of-an-eye world of information technology (IT). Franke sat down with the McGill Reporter recently to talk bandwidth, agnostic-platforms and lessons learned on an assembly line in the little town of Simcoe, Ont.

What were the highlights of Year One as CIO?

We hired two new directors in the IT management group. Sharon Roy is heading up a new group called Content and Collaboration Solutions that deals with web services, graphic and multimedia design, and learning technologies. And Larry Tansey is leading the Project Management Office that oversees things like project methodologies and major campus IT projects.

We’re also expanding our understanding of who our clients are. A few years back, IT at McGill was going through a complete revamp of our enterprise software – so there was a real focus on our core administrative systems. This past year, I’ve been pushing to really expand our understanding of who is part of that enterprise.

Any particular client groups you’re targeting?

McGill is a research-intensive university. On the IT side, we now have the people in place to partner with Research Operations to give better support to our researchers right from the pre-grant stage in terms of capturing information about their research activities for grant applications.

The Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning found that students want a much more interdisciplinary and commonsense approach to advising. While IT is not a prime player there, we’ve initiated some interesting projects. For example, we’ve been providing support for the implementation of new software for our career centres – the idea being we want to offer support for the full student lifecycle, from when they are prospective students right through to when they are looking for their career prospects.

What’s on tap for 2008?

This is an important year for a key project of ours that has been percolating for a few years now – the Enterprise Data Warehouse Project. We will deliver higher value-information to decision-makers on campus – data that is comprehensive and that can be accessed through web-based business intelligence tools. Together with the planning office, we will launch a pilot this spring.

We also need to establish better links with our academic departments because they have something that is very, very exciting – the students who will become the next generation of IT workers. Be it in the Department of Computer Sciences, the Faculty of Management, the Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering, or the Faculty of Education – these are the groups that really are creating our staff of the future. I’d like to develop some sort of mentorship/internship program.

Working alongside these students would be beneficial for everyone because it would give us a chance to see how disciplines are changing and where our skill-set needs to change while providing the students with a real-world environment where they can apply their skills.

Increasingly, it seems as though IT is moving on to the Internet in a way that could become platform-agnostic. Are we going to see more varied ecosystems at McGill?

I think so. Our networks group is working on the next stage of unified communications – the unification of voice and email – and they’re talking about using the web as the delivery mechanism. The Content and Collaboration Solutions group is all about using the web for managing documents, committees, collaboration opportunities and our teaching spaces. Then you look at our administrative systems which are being developed through our applications group, Information Systems Resources, and it’s all about web delivery. One reason why I am really excited about opening up a conversation with the faculties is that there is a lot of room now for distributed software development and we can probably engage students in projects using web technology that we would never have had as an option 10 years ago.

There is an increasing emphasis on sustainability at McGill. How will IT contribute to this effort?

On a personal side, I’m really pleased that the university is pushing a sustainability agenda. I think each of us can play a role in the way we live our lives and the daily choices we make. It’s nice because I can let my personal convictions drive some of my professional interests on this issue.

Obviously, IT is a major consumer of energy just for the power we use for computers and the air conditioning in the data centre. Of course, because our mandate is to increase the efficiency of those systems, we are nicely aligned with the sustainability initiative.

More than that, one of the reasons we created the Content and Collaboration Solutions group is that IT is entering a new and interesting era of social networking. When we created email, we created a monster – [laughing] a wonderful monster, of course, but one that has created what one of our professors has called “cyber-clutter.” Our challenge is to help people use technology in a more interesting and efficient way. If we can give them the means to collaborate electronically while working with colleagues from other universities, there is a real opportunity to save on travel costs. Within the university, we will save on things like printing.

Were you really a bike courier in Toronto?

[Laughing] That story’s been around so long, but there really isn’t much to it. It was in the ’80s and I had just come back from a long bike trip in Europe. I was fit and strong, so I tried being a bike courier. But it wasn’t for me, so I only lasted a few, albeit very exciting, months.

What triggered your about-face going from law to computer science?

I actually got my law degree about eight years before my computer science degree. I was working as an administrator in the Electrical Engineering Department of U of T and I was so inspired by my interaction with professionals in the IT world that I decided to pursue my studies in computer science.

Were there any inklings of this interest when you were younger?

When I was in high school, computer science was not as obvious a discipline as it became 10 or 15 years later. But I was always very interested in math and that interest got me to attend a one-day tutorial at the University of Waterloo on what it meant to be a computer programmer. We got to create our own computer program and run it on their mainframe and it was a very exciting moment.

Speaking from the other side of the Great Technological Divide, I haven’t often met someone who uses the words “inspired” and “exciting” when talking tech.

I think what excites me about IT is the way in which you can use it to support business processes and other activities. But the other thing that excites me is how dynamic the field is. Technology can do a lot to inform the way in which we accomplish our education or administrative objectives.

But the really inspiring thing is that we’re all learning it from our kids and our sisters and brothers and friends. Age is no barrier. By the time my son was 14, he had already authored several Wikipedia articles. He wrote something on an 18th-century cello composer. You ask yourself ‘Where did that kind of initiative come from?’ It wasn’t a teacher initiative or a Mom initiative – that was just the Internet giving him a space to let it happen.

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Sylvia Franke’s first job

My first summer job was working on an assembly line in a factory that made tubing. When that buzzer went for the morning break, it gave me a real appreciation for how hard work can be. But it also made me realize how important teamwork is – everything I did depended upon the person before me in the line doing their job.