When I joined ICPSR in 2002 the technology team - called Computer and Network Services - had eight people. In addition to myself, there was an administrative assistant, two software developers, three systems administrators, and one technology generalist who did a little bit of everything. Longtime ICPSR staffer Peter Joftis was also on the team, but soon left to lead ICPSR's Child Care and Early Education Research Center.
The team managed about 75 desktop workstations, a small number of servers, the local area network (LAN), a dozen or so printers, and no doubt a handful of other technology assets I've lost track of over time. With only two software developers the team spent most of its time delivering incremental changes to the web delivery system, and tending to core infrastructure, such as our database and web applications for managing information about the membership. At the time we were very much a classic IT shop.
People worked very hard, but we were on the margin of the business. And we were perceived that way. The IT people were the ones who fixed your PC when it had a virus. They patched computers when Microsoft announced yet another security flaw in Windows or Office. They took care of backups, and retrieved that file you deleted accidentally. These were valuable services to be sure, but they weren't core to the business. They don't think up solutions to our problems; they just implement the technology solutions we think up. We were not partners.
Because ICPSR is so clearly in the information business, but made almost no entrepreneurial investments in information technology, 2002 was a very dangerous time for the organization. But what to do?
When interviewing for the position it was clear that the team fell into two distinct functional subgroups. One group delivered those classic IT support functions, and the other group delivered new products and services.
It would be important for the first group to remain about the same size, but expand its capacity to support more of everything: more servers, more storage, more desktop workstations, more printers, etc. And so we would need to invest in tools and processes to build this capacity without adding significantly to the number of people on the team.
And it would be important for the second group to grow. A lot.
One, it would need to be a bigger team. The capacity to deliver new products and services, to explore new technologies, and to automate the many manual processes at ICPSR all needed to be expanded dramatically.
Two, it would need to be a more partner-oriented team. The team needed to expand its ability to work hand-in-hand with data processors, archive managers, and grant writers to understand key business problems and opportunities, and to recommend and build solutions to address those needs. Many of the software developers would need to become project managers and systems analysts.
And, three, it would need to expand its repertoire of technologies. The team had been working largely in CGI/Perl to build web applications, and Perl alone to build command-line utilities, and those were the appropriate, dominant technologies of the 90's. But by 2002 there were many other technologies available, and the team needed to select the best, and build its collective muscle around them.
Next: The team evolves