CIO50 2022 #24 Jason Cowie, Curtin University

  • Name Jason Cowie
  • Title Chief information officer
  • Company Curtin University
  • Commenced role January 2019
  • Reporting Line Chief operating officer
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Technology Function 200 staff, 5 direct reports
  • Related

    Perth’s Curtin University has historically taken a traditional approach to technology – physical data centres, many applications (inhouse and commercial), which led to a fragmented and siloed approach around systems and data. This led to a poor digital experience for staff and students.

    In mid-2021, chief information officer, Cowie published a Digital Roadmap to start creating seamless digital experiences for students and staff.

    Cowie says the ultimate goal of all these changes was to eliminate a costly data centre refresh, deal with integration issues and a lack of scalability and automation, an inability to leverage data and develop modern UX and digital experiences.

    By August, Cowie and his team began the first two phases of the technology foundations called the ‘Digital Platform.’ This includes the tech platforms that will house systems and digital services to enable innovation to occur while strengthening cyber security and reducing risk.

    The Digital Platform is a cloud-based ecosystem, powered by AWS digital services, and based on a composable architecture, says Cowie.

    It has the following components:

    - Digital Factory: A tech platform that is highly automated and geared towards self-service delivery.

    - Smart Campus platform: A sensor device platform to connect, retrieve and store information from edge devices across Curtin.

    - Data and analytics platform: A modern data storage platform with advanced analytics capabilities and features.

    - Integrated platform: A modernised, citizen-enabled, API-based information exchange platform that connects applications and data.

    - Experiences platform: A unified set of user experience (UX) platforms that deliver and integrate all end-user functionality.

    According to Cowie, four of the five platform minimum viable products (MVP) have been delivered, with the fifth due by the end of 2022, along with the data centre migrations.

    “This will allow for the shutdown of our primary data centre – allowing an old building to be scheduled to be demolished – and our secondary data centre severely downgraded".

    A more agile and less risky organisation

    The Digital Platform has improved Curtin’s ability to scale technology services up and down to align to the university’s needs, improve decision making, empower staff with self-service tools, and create new digital experiences to meet evolving student expectations, says Cowie.

    “The platform also reduces the time and effort of operational tasks and deployment of new services, makes it easier to manage the tech environment and integrate systems, results in less maintaining data, and frees up IT staff to focus on higher value activities".

    It also provides a high level of resilience, a more secure IT environment and improved business continuity and uptime.

    “It also eliminates business continuity risk, increased system quality and reliability, reducing technology risk by standardising architectures and eliminating legacy debt,” Cowie notes.

    The platform, even at MVP level, allows campus teams and researchers to connect operational technology (OT) devices to the network and provides live data visualisation.

    “This allows us to reimagine our data analytics approach, and long term it will provide an operational analytics sandbox to improve decision making across the university. Our applications are more easily connected and we’ve also seen improvements in the automation of IT operations,” he says.

    Meanwhile, Curtin also launched an AWS Skills Guild, dubbed ElevateU, to train more than 200 staff with skills that will help the university move to the cloud and deliver data analytics and machine learning services.

    It leverages the AWS Skills Builder program and Curtin was the first public sector organisation to be invited to be part of this initiative.

    Cowie says that although the university’s digital transformation vision excited leadership, staff and industry partners, his team made the mistake of not starting training sooner.

    “While this excites our IT staff, it is also very scary as they are building things that no-one ever has, not even AWS,” he says.

    Cowie says the training program was only started after the business case was approved and funding released. In hindsight, he says, the team should have started the fundamental training during the business case approval process,

    “This would have given the team at least 6 months of training and AWS exposure before the project started and the pressure started".

    Cowie notes that there were some key lessons here. Firstly, start early because the uplift required for transformation is huge. "The quicker you start, the more effective you will be".

    Secondly, he says, allow time for staff to learn. Transformations like this require time for staff to adjust to doing bold work rather than ‘business as usual’ activities and some staff will need more time than others.

    Thirdly, show a year-on-year ‘roadmap of training’ so staff know they will continually be supported during the transformation.

    “Doing this will ensure success, keep staff morale higher and ensure great staff don’t leave the organisation,” he stresses.

    Byron Connolly

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