Qatar University’s digital leadership

Qatar University’s digital leadership

Qatar University has grown at an astonishing rate over the last three years or so. When CIO Trevor Moore was appointed in 2012, 7,500 students were enrolled: today the number is 18,000 and it’s still rising. To facilitate growth at this rate, the university has had to place IT at the core of its strategic planning – not that this would not have happened anyway. As the oft quoted Gartner dictum has it; any organisation that does not have a digital roadmap won’t be around in five years’ time.

Digital transformation has been taking place in large organisations round the world, starting with technology-driven areas like retail, telecoms or banking. A university is in many ways no different, but it is much, much more complex. While a financial business might be running ten or 15 functional applications, the science and engineering faculties of the university alone need access to hundreds of apps and platforms which all have to be sourced and maintained by the IT department the Qatar University Information Technology Services (QUITS).

Prior to Moore’s appointment, IT was a service department that kept the admin systems going and responded to requests from the academics. It lacked any change management strategy, had deficient internal processes, as he recalls. Constituted that way it would have struggled to keep pace with the hike in student number that Qatar needs to prepare itself for a future diversified economy and meet its 2030 Vision goals. As its first CIO, his arrival underlined the structural role that IT would now play in the organisation.

Though this is a process that’s never over, since education is ever changing and IT evolves at an accelerating pace, it has been punctuated by significant wins. On October 19 2015 Trevor Moore was named CIO of the year 2015 at the Computer News ICT awards. He is quick to insist that this award reflects every bit as much on his team as on himself. “My team do all the work! Without them I would be nothing!”

Having worked in a variety of different sectors, and in every imaginable role from the bottom up, he claims that the job of CIO is the easiest, but only thanks to the excellence of team he has built. “I push them hard, but they are the ones doing the work.” Some niche skills had to be hired in from universities in other countries. But he much prefers to train and promote people internally, something he has done very successfully with young Qatari staff, particularly women. “We have done a lot of training to bring them up to the best professional standards: most of my network team hold the highest accreditations that you can get.”

Having worked in leading private and public sector organisations such as the IUCN, Autodesk and Orange Switzerland, he believes the 110-strong QUITS team is today equipped to stand alongside any other comparable department in the world. “They are highly self-motivated, and I am very proud of them indeed.”

The spine of the new strategy was to build a virtual private cloud for education. “The students are my number one customers, and what they expect these days is access to resources at any time, in any place and on any device. That is what we aim to deliver.” The private cloud gives QUITS the flexibility it needs to manage these student resources and also the demands of research and teaching, while retaining control over data and security. “We developed our Learning Management System, where students can upload information like their coursework and all the information for a particular class and interact with their peers,” says Moore. “Or they can upload coursework and get it checked for plagiarism and other things that monitor educational quality, using any tablet or other device.”

One of the innovations the team developed allowed students to access their coursework over the Learning Management System (LMS). It simplified the students’ access to their grades by the expedient of integrating the LMS with the university’s Banner ERP platform. “Previously when a lecturer marked an exam they would enter it on an Excel spreadsheet, then they’d have to double check it, then someone would have to enter it on the system, then the final grade would have to be approved by the head of department. Only then could the student see it. We took a lot of layers out of that process by having a single point and introducing automated approvals.” This had not been done before, and QU was able to make its mark on global academia by creating a service pack available to all tertiary level institutions in the world.

Much more recently, in October this year, Qatar University launched its quietly revolutionary mobile app QU Mobile. This was just phase one of a three-phase rollout, but it’s already making life easier for students by providing them with GPS to help them navigate QU’s campus that sprawls over more than eight square kilometres. It also allows them to browse the library, log suggestions, or access Banner for HR or admin issues. Phase two, early next year, will add a number of proactive services to allow students to enrol, or opt out of courses, and manage their learning experience.

The way QU Mobile has been configured, with Arabic alongside English functionality, has placed QU ahead of its regional rivals. There are more than 70 universities in the UAE alone and, despite tripling in size, QU punches well above its weight.

The private cloud is still a work in process. It is being tweaked to provide even more functionality – for example the ability for teachers to specify at the beginning of term the resources their course demands and the ability to source these automatically. “That may sound simple, but takes a lot of orchestration behind the scenes to get it to work!” says Moore. Currently, if an engineering professor wants his students to use a specific set of software, this will have to be configured within the IT lab, he explains. “I am trying to get all that into the cloud so the faculty will select the software and it is fed automatically to the students so they can use it on their tablets, iPads or any other device.”

Software defined networking (SDN) is one way of automating the delivery and the security of applications, he adds. Cisco application centred infrastructure (ACI) software was chosen to automate security, increase security and eliminate human error. “There are a few competitors in this market – the reason we chose Cisco ACI was because that was the most advanced in 2014 when we decided on it,” he explains. It allowed him to upgrade the on-campus fibre network from10 GB to 40 GB at negligible cost. “With all the data going round the campus, that was a compelling case. And next year Cisco is bringing out a connector that will take it up to 100 GB!”

There are many challenges around security, he continues. If there’s a threat or a system is compromised, it could normally be locked down across the organisation but you can’t do that in an educational establishment – it would disrupt education. It just calls for a smarter approach, he says.

This kind of complexity is something he thrives on and something he has prepared QUITS to facilitate. “Education presents multiple challenges, and that is what makes it fun,” he says. “Take research. I support the computing power for the research teams, which is a complex area that most CIOs don’t get into. But being a CIO in a university brings all my background together into one role. It is always changing.”

QUITS’ responsibility extends beyond QU, and indeed beyond the Middle East, as all universities today are joined in a global network. Each country has its own National Research and Education Network (NREN), a high speed ISP dedicated to research and education (in the UK it is known as Janet and in the USA as Internet2). The NREN is vital, since regular internet connections have neither the speed nor the capacity to carry research data.

The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology commissioned Qatar University, as the largest Government owned university, to initiate the project and build the first major components for the Qatar NREN (QNREN). “It is now connected globally,” says Moore. “In the past if we wanted to bring an expert to lecture to our students we had to fly them over for a few days. That was costly, but now I can set up a video conference over QNREN.”

In a short space of time, QUITS has revolutionised itself and the university, by transforming the entire IT infrastructure from the ground up. In the process, the department has become leaner and much more effective, at the centre of all decision making and the CIO himself has become a key leader in the organisation.