The Myth of the Full Stack Developer

Many folks are happy to tell you that full stack developers no longer exist.

They aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t really right, either. Because when it comes to finding one, it all comes down to getting the right skillset for the right job. The trick is bringing one in with the specialty skills you need.
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Developing a Headache

Back in February, Gagan Biyani of made a terribly poignant assessment of a particular facet of higher education: we are not in the software development business. We are in the knowledge business, and the other functions that take place on campus are ultimately designed around supporting that goal. What I am talking about is flattening. Ultimately, committing entire teams of people to producing and supporting software for the university is a growing burden for us, and it’s my argument that we need to know when to walk away.

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Web Leadership’s Role in Higher Ed

Last week, I was fortunate enough to graduate in the second annual Pittsburg State University Leadership Class.  This is a program modeled after other similar programs around the state and nation, programs which are designed to groom and cultivate forward minded people into folks capable of stepping up and contributing to the growth and development of the university (Does your university have a leadership program for employees? If so, be sure to mention it in the comments, they seem to be fairly rare.).  About sixteen of us spent the past two semesters meeting once a month to listen to state and community leaders, do exercises, and discuss ways to better position ourselves to impact those around us (not to mention it looks great on a curriculum vitae!).

As I walked back to my office Friday afternoon, certificate in hand, I got to thinking about how critical leadership can be in a web office, and how our role at a university puts us in a position unique from almost anywhere else on campus.  First, it’s important to stress that real leadership isn’t about power, it’s about service.  I cannot stress that enough.  Almost more than in any other profession, in higher education when you are willing to take a leadership role, it means truly committing and putting yourself out there above and beyond your job description.  Maybe you’re sitting on extra committees, coordinating efforts, or taking part in things like a classified senate.  Regardless, becoming a leader requires you to commit beyond your job description and to give yourself over to serving others with the skills you have.  It isn’t just about being in charge of a bunch of people and telling them what to do.  Being a boss and being a leader are different creatures.

The reason we are in such a unique position is because of how connected we are across campus.  Public relations knows a lot of stuff, so does Advancement.  Ultimately, however, most of these entities are limited and restricted from certain aspects of campus.  The web, however, is different.  I’ve stressed before that a good web office sits under neither Marketing, nor PR, nor IT.  Instead, it should be between them all.  A hub, not a spoke.  When you serve as the hub, all things go through you.  PR isn’t particularly interested in the syllabus posting needs of faculty, or the photo gallery requirements of Athletics.  IT… well, they’re IT.  And Marketing’s main goal is to get students and money on campus.  All of them have on blinders.

We can’t work that way.  Recently, a group of about six offices came to me wanting a solution for doing things like storefronts, taking donations, and otherwise using the web to make money.  Great idea, that, because obviously with budgets getting cut, the more we can do to make easy money, the better.  It just so happens that with our web ear to the wall, we discovered at that exact time the Budgeting Office was meeting with vendors for a billing and payment processing system for campus.  Without that connectedness, this first group would have been in the dark, and we would have ended up with two different groups doing two totally different things towards basically the same goal, and spending way more money than necessary.  Instead, we stepped in, got people involved, and worked it out so everyone could benefit from a single tool.

It’s situations like that which have lead me to declare that any time I ever hear the word “web” or “internet” mentioned, I simply inject myself into the meetings and discussion.  If I don’t, there’s no one else here that is, and more often than not the result is people making less than well informed decisions.  In the case of the payment software, I didn’t necessarily have an obligation to step in and put the two groups together, but I knew that action would better serve them, the campus, and my office.  It’s no new thing that on a big campus, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, but a leadership minded web office can serve as the nervous system that sends signals to both, and gets them working together to do things like play the guitar.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

We all have a ton on our plates, no doubt.  But these small things and actions can go a long way to proving and solidifying the importance of a well resourced web office.  Imagine the money that could be saved when web steps in with recommendations for taking certain data operations online, or like in my case, when they hear two different groups working towards the same goal.  Imagine the time that is saved.  No one else has as many feelers out there as we do, and that leaves us in a prime position to take a leadership role, and help serve the campus to keep it running straight and efficiently.  Pick your metaphor: we’re the nervous system, we feel the pulse, we sense the weather changing – it all comes down to knowing how much we can do and offer for campus, even if you don’t have to.

Photo Credit: CC BY 2.0 pedrosimoes7

Evolving in a Recession: Opportunity in Open Source

Raise your hand if you see your budget on the chopping block for next year.  The current topic de jour has been how so many school’s are being asked to do more with less.  Budget crises from state to state have everyone scrambling to find ways to cut corners, and trim fat.  Some people are lucky enough to be well past a recent redesign, and have frameworks and tools in place for the future.  In those cases, be glad you got on the boat early.  But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a lot of schools needing to evolve, or looking to retool.  One thing that is seeing renewed interest, are the potentials of open source software to help drive web sites.  For nearly any tool you use: CMS, calendar, E-learning, project management – there is some kind of open source alternative.

dotcmsAdmittedly, just because an open source alternative to commercial software exists, doesn’t mean it is good.  But, let’s look at a content management system, for example.  If you’ve ever had the chance to talk content management systems with me, you know I am a big proponent of dotCMS.  Why? Because it’s free, awesome, and crazy easy to use.  I have three words for you: Enterprise Open Source.  You might have heard about similar offerings from the likes of Drupal, who recently began offering a line of professional support for their open source CMS.  This is also basically what you pay for with things like Red Hat Linux.  The idea is that the software is free to use as you please, but if you need a backbone of support, you can pay for that, too.  Why this works so well for the likes of us is that it allows us to offer professional tools for a small (or no) line item on the budget.

Why is this important?  Simply put, have you priced things like RedDot or OmniUpdate lately?  Not to say they aren’t great systems, they are, but a lot of schools could see themselves coming into a demand to update their sites’ infrastructures without much in the way of financial support to cover such a change.  And while the temptation might be there for some to try and shoehorn a large and complex site into something like Joomla, it’s a good idea to know that there are better alternatives out there.  And CMS’s aside, if you are looking at applications for other areas of campus like community development, portals, CRM, etc, those costs can really add up fast.  Slap on top of that annual support costs and all you’ve really succeeded in doing is creating a great big money pit.

opensourcevectordiamondWhat dotCMS offers universities is a broad scoped tool, with granular permission controls, varied template designs, flexible content creation and repurposing, and an open source code base to build upon.  More importantly, being open source, there is a growing and very valuable opportunity for schools who have adopted it to begin networking.  These schools have the chance to pool resources towards goals.  Maybe that means taking several small amounts of money to do a “group-buy” on a desired feature (dotMarketing will custom code about anything you want and commit it to the code base, but if it’s off the normal roadmap, or a low priority, money obviously changes said positioning), or if the schools have committed Java developers, they could work on creating Viewtools and servlets that could then be shared between everyone.  It’s this spirit of communication, collaboration, and extension that makes a tool like this substantially more valuable than some closed source counterparts.

Enterprise support entirely aside, I am trying to encourage schools who have already adopted dotCMS to consider such a partnership.  There’s a group on the UWebD Ning site, and we’ve set up some basic help forums for the software.  My hope is that through collaboration, we can do a lot to help ourselves.  Users have a valuable opportunity to embrace and extend in ways that simply are not allowed or possible with commercial enterprise systems.  Imagine the driving force a network of committed schools can apply to open source projects that we see value in.  Not only can we make them better and grow them quickly, but we can expose people to the products.  Why do you think Apple loves getting contracts with schools?  When you get your product in front of people for hands on usage, when the time comes for them to make their own choice on what to use, what do you think they’ll choose?

collabtiveSome schools have created similar approaches to CMS development with things like Zope/Plone, and there’s no reason we can’t do the same in other arenas.  We are in the market of knowledge, and it only makes sense that universities should be the breeding grounds for supporting open source initiatives.  That’s the very spirit that drives us, and it’s the way we can really begin to carve out a valuable niche for ourselves going into the future.

Better still, consider how you can take and apply this kind of mentality to other tools.  Maybe you use SugarCRM, or Collabtive project management,  or Moodle E-learning software.  Any of these tools could give you the chance to build with others.  As an office, our two man staff can’t cover a lot of ground, but if we can combine our efforts with other schools, suddenly we have some horsepower to apply to needs.  Now, that doesn’t me coordinating such efforts is either easy or fun, but once established, they can become invaluable lines of communication and development.  Ultimately, universities are well-oiled machines when it comes to spending money, and we’ve spent a lot of years thinking that any problem worth solving is worth paying someone to solve, but that’s just not a model that appears to stay solvent as we move into the future.  Open source software gives us the chance to not only do more with less, but to simply make ourselves as individuals and employees, more valuable.

Look at it this way: anyone can form a committee and hire a company to do a job, but if you are specifically skilled at developing products, and have a resume full of OSS building experience, and you can show how that translates into saved monies, you’ll be pretty darn secure into retirement.