Agent of Change: An Interview with Vice President – IT, Tariq Al-idrissi

Published 7 October 2013 ~
Photos by Andrew Tan.

Your position at Trent – Vice President for Information Technology – was newly created in 2012. Would you say that its creation was a recognition of the increasing importance of IT to what we do in academia?

I certainly would say that … I was very discerning in coming to Trent, I didn’t need to just take any job, I’m a person that loves a good challenge. I’m a problem solver and a change agent. That’s my defining word, I know what I am is a change agent and a very strong change agent. When I interviewed for the job, there were a number of things that indicated to me that Trent was ready for the IT transformation that it needed. One is there was a strong calling from the Board, the Board itself said we fear IT is not going well at Trent, we fear that Trent is scoring low on IT nationally, and we feel that there’s something that needs to be done about it, and I think that’s a very important thing. The second part which came in the Academic Plan of the institution, was a call not only to hire a new VP, but the call to actually create an IT Strategic Plan[1]. I think both those things were a very important signal to me that, not only on the academic side that the Plan actually talks about it specifically, but on the corporate side, the Board side, the governance side, there was actually a thirst for change.

There was no lack of a need to invest at Trent: I think the Board was very serious about improving the technology aspects of Trent – I think there was a lack of clarity to them about what needs to be changed, and how it needs to be changed. They needed a certain level of assurance that if we were going to spend 4 million dollars doing something, that we were spending in the right place, that it is where the people want us to spend it, and that it’s well worth the return. We did a very close examination, we did surveys, we talked to our students before doing the strategic planning process, we had Town Halls, we talked to faculty and staff, and we gathered a large amount of information that went into the IT Strategic Plan – but at the same time we looked internally at ourselves. Our network cores are significantly old. They’re at a stage where we do need to actually replace them, at a significant cost.

Right, they’re no longer supported…

Yeah, they’re no longer supported by the vendor who holds them, so that is a scary situation for us.

Can I ask about that? Did the Strategic Plan Funding Report[2] say that the Core changeover will not happen in 2013 now? Has it been delayed?

No, the Core changeover will happen in 2013, we’re planning it for the Christmas shutdown. We’re focusing on the Cores this year […] and we’re focusing on ResNet. We’re doing two things towards the network for next year, so it’s a multi-year plan for our networks. On the wireless side, we’re doing a site survey this year, that’s our major focus, we’re actually dedicating dollars to that – so we’re actually looking at where’s our WiFi, how strong is it, is it sufficient, where isn’t our WiFi? I would like to see WiFi in any Trent building … that is something that I will work with faculty on. It’s not that technologically we cannot do it … I have to work arm-in-arm with the academic groups to ensure that we move together with one voice on this, because I’ve been through this before. There may be faculty that feel that WiFi has no place in the classroom. But saying that, there are faculty that are at the exact opposite end of that spectrum, so I need to hear all the sides to see how we’re going to equip it. No doubt though, there is a significant amount of money over the next three years starting in 2014 and moving on, to do a WiFi expansion.

Right, and looking at the budget you received from the Board of Governors, Storage Enhancement and WiFi were the two things where they gave you more money than you initially asking for.

Yes, so with WiFi we did actually change our estimate, we did go through a funding exercise after the strategic Plan, as you’ve seen. As we looked at the Strategic Plan and looked at the funding they’d given us, we did a prioritization exercise with a group that had student, faculty and staff representation, we went through as objectively as we could to actually rank these projects and initiatives, and we started to eliminate the things that people did not feel we needed to do. But what we’ve heard as we were doing that, we’ve heard more about WiFi, we ran some of our numbers again and decided that we did not allocate enough in the Strategic Plan to do a complete WiFi expansion, to include classroom space. Whether we include classroom space is something that we’ll have to work out. I would like to.

The Storage Enhancement project that we’re doing is twofold. There’s a product called Filer, that we’ll be making available late this year or early next year, and what it will allow students to do, from their iPad or their computer, is actually access their H: Drive from anywhere. It’s basically [like] you’re Dropbox, it uses a sync model rather than a connected model, so once you install that client you can reach your H: Drive from anywhere, you can reach it from any device.

That’s a big change, I know in the past it’s not been easy to reach your H: Drive remotely…

Yes, and the reason again, the reason we make some of these shifts, there’s a pattern to our madness – we’re recognizing that our users are a lot more mobile, our users have a lot more varying devices that we need to cater to, so a lot of these moves are toward that. So that’s part of the Enhancement project. Another part of it specifically for the staff and faculty is we’re increasing some of the storage spaces itself. We didn’t invest in actual storage enhancement on the student side, and the reason we didn’t is Google Apps for Education provides a large amount of space as well, and when we did go to that, we heard from a lot of students that they’d rather be using that method to store their documents.

Right, the school has gone for Google Apps for Education in a big way, and I think that’s been very popular with students…

Yes, and I have to recognize the TCSA did play a part in bringing that need to the IT department.

Right, now one of the main concerns that has been raised about that has been the privacy question – is Google able to data-mine students’ uses of the Apps system and use that information for their commercial business?

Right, that’s a good question. We have a number of privacy arrangements with Google. Google is able to – whether they’re able and whether they will are two different things. Google is able to mine our data. What we have is an assurance that Google actually respects our privacy through the Google Apps. It’s not the same as your Gmail account. You’ll find that in your Gmail account you may reading an email, say I’ve just moved to Peterborough and I’m reading an email from my moving company, and on the side of the frame there’s an ad for AMJ Campbell [a large moving company], and you’re thinking ‘How did they know?’ They’re not reading your mind, they know exactly what you’re doing and exactly how. So, we do have an assurance and a privacy statement from Google that says that our data will be kept private, our data is owned by us – which is a very strong tenet – any information requests for our data will actually, when possible – and I want to use those words – will come to us first to contest. The only time that we’re aware of that it is not possible to actually tell us, is when it’s what’s called a National Security Request through a National Security Letter.

So, it’s interesting because we just went through some research around this area, specifically because we’re actually moving our staff and faculty to [Microsoft] Office 365, so we took them in a different direction – but we did a lot of research around privacy and data. What we did get from Google is, Google and Microsoft and a number of other large companies started to publish what are called Accountability Reports in the last number of years. In those reports they actually talk about how many requests they receive, what types of requests and so on. So what we did find, from looking through the Accountability Reports, is US government requests for data last year for all of Google’s products were around the 12,000 request mark … only 0-999 of those requests were related to National Security Letters. So, worst case scenario, we can assume 999 requests actually were related to the Patriot Act and so on. This is out of 288,000,000 accounts.

So, is there an inherent risk? I would say, there’s a risk in everything. But we actually have to weigh that risk against the magnitude of the risk, the likelihood of the risk happening. The other flipside to that is, email as a communications medium was never a secured way to communicate in the first place. It’s wasn’t created to be that. Email as a protocol exchanges plain text – in itself as a protocol of communication it is not secure. There’s a report I was reading from the Lakehead arbitration regarding the Google Apps case brought by the faculty, and the arbitrator ended up this humongous report by saying ‘Email is no more secure than a postcard.’ I think [there needs to be] an educational process. If we do anything other than that, put an encryption system – which we do, we encrypt the data between us and the providers – but if we go a step further than that, and we start exchanging security keys, it’s no longer email, it’s something else. It’s electronic communication, but it’s no longer what email was or is. I think we do as much as we can within our contracts to ensure that we can protect – and the contract that we have was actually not the vanilla one but one that was made for Canadian institutions and was negotiated by McMaster. Because we’re a small institution, you wait until the big institutions make those negotiations and you ride their coattails.


Someone’s surely going to complain if I don’t ask a question about Macs – so just briefly, what’s new with Macs at Trent?

Yeah, so with Macs we actually put in BL 210, which used to be an older Windows computer lab, we just changed that into a Mac Lab. We’re also going to be putting more Macs in the library, we’re actually creating a bistro bar of Macs at one spot, just walk up stations. We want to support both environments, Windows and Macs, and the Journalism Lab was actually our first foray into Macs… a lot of the infrastructure on the backend we have to figure out and it’s good we’re not the only ones, we relied on other institutions – if you know OCAD University, because they’re an architecture and design school a lot of what they’ve done is only in Macs, so we’ve shared experiences and so on.

Now, both in PCs and also in general the kind of devices that are found in academic use are so much more diverse then where it was a few years ago…

It’s changed, and I think, certainly what we’ve been doing in the last year, especially with the advent of the IT Strategic Plan and the work and the initiatives around the student plan, is to actually meet those changing needs. If we look, you know, ten years ago, concepts like consumerization [of electronics] didn’t exist. Usually when people came to a work environment, they got a computer, usually a desktop from their employer, they sat down and they worked. Very few students came with laptops, those that did only came with that as their mobile device, there really wasn’t much more. I remember residences in the mid-1990s and moving in with your desktop and your big CRT monitor, times have significantly changed. We did a survey of residents this year before we just revamped the residence networks not too long ago…

Is that because you took on the ResNet Internet service provision?

We did, but when we took it on, we actually sent out a survey and we said ‘What devices are you using? What are you bringing into residences?’ 7 out of the 1,100 that responded used desktops, it was flabbergasting, I couldn’t believe the number! It was extreme – everybody came with a laptop, but what we also found is there was a lot more than that. People were coming with their PS3s, their WD TV devices for TV and Netflix, their mobile devices, their iPad and smartphones … There’s a centre called the EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research that actually estimates that the average resident student comes to university with about 12 devices, between their printer, their phone, their iPad, their two computers and so on, it’s uncanny.

So we’ve had to respond to that. And I think… we took a very good look at ourselves in the IT Strategic Plan, we said are we really where our users expect us to be – so we’ve become a lot more user focused. We’ve decided to take the approach that we are, as a vision, we are who we are because of the users that we service. We just established a baseline for that, we did a first annual IT satisfaction survey. And the response rate was again, 1,108 students, faculty and staff responded to our user satisfaction [survey], we’re just compiling the results now, but that’s going to establish our user satisfaction baseline. So our aim, and we’re going to learn a lot from that, we’re going to learn from our students what works and what doesn’t, what they’re happy with, what they’re not happy with. We’re going to learn from our staff and our faculty exactly those very same things. And we’re going to embed those [lessons] into our planning through IT Steering [Committee] and some of the groups that actually guide IT within the organization.

We have a three-year strategic plan based on feedback, and there are fundamentals in that Strategic Plan that deal with our infrastructure, our network […] when we did the residence survey we found out for example that students were truly unhappy with the service they were getting [from ResNet]. The hours, the response that they were getting from the provider, there we’re things like, you know, ‘We’ll get back to you’ and nobody ever does. There was actually a lack of accountability of whom the problem was owned [by]. So when the students weren’t getting the answers from the provider of course they were calling us. And we tried to help as much as we can but it wasn’t our network. So we decided to take that in-house and say, we can do a better job.

We’ve extended our hours – we announced in a tech bulletin not too long ago our extended Help Desk hours so we’ve not only helped our residence folks, we’ve helped everybody else that needs IT support with longer hours of operation at our service desk. We’ve revamped the look of our service desk – if you go up to the library we’ve actually made it bigger, we can fit more people in there, [and] there’s an adjoining room right across from there where all our service staff are going to be located.I don’t want people to be hiding in the back rooms, I want IT to be right where the people need IT.

So that’s changing. Our service attitude, our user satisfaction’s changing. We’re actually in the next number of weeks introducing Chat support. So you’ll be able to go to our website, you’ll see if an agent is logged in, click the button and chat live with an agent. The product that we want allows us to, as we’re chatting with somebody on their computer that they may have an issue with, if we can’t resolve the problem with just chatting we can actually escalate to a LogMeIn session, where we can actually, with their permission, take over their computer and help them out that way. So we’re changing our support, we’re saying we know not everyone will run, during their 15 minute break, to Bata Library to get support – what if they can just start a chat session with us and we’re able to help them that way.

Taking that on is a fairly significance increase in the scope of your department, have you expanded?

We have expanded our numbers, in the last year we’ve seen three new service desk positions, front-line positions […] We’ve added to our web complement and mobile device support in the backend, we haven’t seen the fruit of that but that’s coming very soon: this fall we’ll be releasing a mobile app for use by students, it’ll integrate directly with our back office system; so either they’re going check their grades, look at announcements, they can do that through their mobile device and there’ll be a Trent U. app that they can do that on.

Will it be available for Android and Apple?

It’ll be available for Android and Apple but not Blackberry…

Poor Blackberry… [laughter]

… other mobile devices will be able to access the service through the web client but native apps for Android and Apple for sure. […] So we’ve made some major changes. We’ve spun off a completely new department with the Dean [of Arts & Science] called Distance Education – it’s a dual-reporting team that reports to IT and to [the Office of the Dean of Arts and Science.] We’ve an increase in distance ed. courses almost 600% since last year; we can’t in IT take [full] credit for it but this certainly has been a joint effort.

According to the Strategic IT Plan report, in comparison to other university Trent’s traditionally been near the bottom in terms of money spent on IT per student/staff member, and also as a proportion of overall revenue. Having said that, you did get a budget of 3.8 million over the next few years – do you feel like you have the money that’s needed?

So we have seen an increase in staff and an increase in funding, that’s a strong signal of support from senior management and from the Board. Those numbers are going to increase. September 30th of this year we’re actually submitting our new benchmarking numbers to the CUCCIO[3] organization, and at that time we’ll find out where we are nationally – I suspect we’ve moved up, to where the average is or even a bit above the average. We actually a lot better than some of our East Coast counterparts anecdotally. Trent is fortunate enough to have this much money to invest in technology … a lot of schools our size are very much struggling to gain those dollars.

The IT Strategic Plan identified innovation as a key priority. Is there anything you can point to, either in the future or presently, that evidences that?

Right. We talk about in the Strategic Plan, innovation not only in the technology, but in the methods. We’ve seen new technologies come out – we’ve started to utilize BlueJeans web video conferencing for meetings within the staff, we’ve seen those sort of innovations. We’ve actually made available Qualtrics across the board, our survey tool that’s available to any[one]. I’m a huge believer in survey tools – people say ‘it’s just a survey tool’ but it’s not, it’s the ability to ask a question! It changes the dynamics. I can ask a question of a group of people and collect information. I think our move to Filer and to sync mode, although people will say there’s Dropbox and what’s innovative about that, but institutionally, in academia this has not happened at other institutions, you’re not really seeing those technologies being pushed out to students or end users in that way. We’re trying to push the envelope in that as well.

In terms of being innovative in our methods, we’re seeing a huge focus shift within our service desk and our team about service and centralizing ourselves around the user, and I think that’s innovative – it doesn’t sound like [much] but it truly is, you’re changing human behaviour. The same individual that walked in for years and assumed that this is what brought value to them in terms of how they do their work […] they walk into their environment and they say ‘if I walk in today and I do X then I’ve done a good job’, but then you tell them, ‘that’s okay, but you really needed to do Y’, you need to be more user focused, you need to be more service-centric. That’s a very different way of thinking; it’s a human resource change.

[1] Strategic IT Plan, Trent University –

[2] Strategic Plan Funding Report, Trent –

[3] Canadian University Council of Chief Information Officers –