Before the Pandemic, the University of South Florida Went to School on Low-Code. Now it's Paying Off, Part 2

Roland Alston, Product Marketing Manager
March 28, 2022

 

Not to get all gloomy about it, but the pandemic accelerated the largest declines in college enrollment in more than 50 years and slammed colleges and universities with $24 billion in COVID-related debt. In other words, COVID was a wake up call for higher education. The good news is that before the pandemic, innovative schools inoculated themselves against the crisis with scalable solutions that provided students remote access to university services, improved retention and graduation rates, and even prevented coronavirus spread. The University of South Florida (USF) is a case in point.

Nine years before the pandemic, USF technologists adopted low-code development as a vehicle for automation and digital transformation. “Back then,'' said Sid Fernandes, USF’s Vice President and Chief Information Officer, “we felt strongly that if you had an API (application programming interface) engine and a low-code platform on top of it, you could respond to business needs faster. The ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems we used in the past weren’t able to do that. So, we bet on low-code and it paid off during the pandemic,” said Fernandes.

    In the final installment of this two part post, Fernandes kicks off the conversation with an overview of how he and his team partnered with USF officials to score some quick wins with low-code on the way to implementing a sustainable digital transformation strategy before the COVID crisis began. Some of the commentary has been edited for clarity and brevity.

     

Question:

Looking back, how did the leadership of USF initially react to the idea of low-code development? Did they embrace it, did they resist it?

Fernandes:

There was a lot of excitement about the speed of low-code. We delivered solutions quickly and the provost was excited about that. It resonated with him. So, we were able to score some quick wins. The escape velocity when you start something new is actually quite low, because there aren’t a lot of people holding you back. But then, when you’re nine years into your digital transformation journey with low-code, it’s time to focus on making the program sustainable. That’s where partnerships come in. You have to expand the ecosystem of people who use the platform. And that means your partnerships have to be even deeper.

Question:

Switching topics, Forbes reported that up to 20% of technology budgets for new products is diverted to resolve issues related to technical debt. How does technical debt manifest itself at USF? And how do you plan to deal with it in the future?

 Fernandes:

We’re in the mature stage of our low-code strategy at USF. That means we’re working on products that are nine years of age, so we’re working on technical debt. We’re asking questions about application rationalization, what we should not be doing anymore, and whether specific applications are actually being used? But that’s part of innovation—figuring out what things need to die so you can innovate. Looking ahead, we see low-code transformation as critical to the future capabilities of USF. Systems considered legacy ERP are now catching up. They can provide more solutions, but there are always gaps.

Question:

So, what’s your playbook for dealing with the gaps you mentioned?

Fernandes:

It’s about how you scale demand with those gaps. Also, how do you reconcile as your ERP systems start to catch up and deliver some of the things they couldn’t do before? Maybe you don’t have to do this particular solution in low-code because it’s already pre-delivered by the platform vendor. But there are also other things we need to do to be able to rapidly respond to changing business needs. The question is how do you mesh those things together with technologies like AI and RPA to give your clients more complete solutions?

Question:

So, what’s the answer to that question? How do you mesh those capabilities? And what role do you see low-code playing in that?

 Fernandes:

We have a sophisticated technology team that can deliver increasingly sophisticated solutions. This is why it’s so important to have people like Alice Wei leading these efforts. You have to have a framework for execution. We use the scaled agile framework (SAFe) which is a method for managing multiple scrum teams at scale to deliver value. Technology without an execution framework is pointless. Just an execution framework without technology is pointless. And I think you have to be fairly agnostic towards what lives and dies and be relatively ruthless about it for low-code to succeed. As we move forward, I think low-code is going to be critical, but it’s not the solution for everything. That’s my perspective.

Question:

So Wei, talk about your perspective on digital transformation at USF and higher education in general and your experience on the execution side of things.

Wei:

When Covid hit, we bought the pre-built CampusPass solution that we deployed on top of our existing Appian platform. We decided on that approach as an alternative to building the application in Appian ourselves because we wanted to save time. We wanted to start with baseline functionality and just choose the specific features we wanted to prioritize as releasable now or in future iterations

From an execution perspective, that’s different from other low-code implementations that we’ve done before. But it bought time for the business to make some decisions about how they wanted the CampusPass solution to work. It also allowed us to focus on things that CampusPass didn’t offer out of the box but were important to USF. That allowed us to spend our development time focusing on specific functionality rather than the general purpose of the application.

Question:

So, what kinds of functionality did you end up adding to the CampusPass solution?

Wei:

We were able to predict certain functionality that would be needed downstream and build and release new functionality rapidly.  For example, we didn’t think about capturing vaccine status data because vaccines weren’t available yet. But with our strategy, we were able to do some minor tweaks to CampusPass to solve that problem once vaccines were approved. The intentional strategy of buying a pre-existing product (CampusPass) and adding customizations in house to enhance it paid off.

Question:

Fernandes, I want to revisit something you mentioned earlier. You talked about the importance of building partnerships to win support for adding low-code to USF’s digital transformation journey. Tell me about your playbook, your process for doing that?

Fernandes:

When we selected Appian as our low-code vendor, we needed a place to test out our business process automation approach. The dean of the College of Public Health and the head of Finance supported us. So, our team built a solution they could see in about four weeks. That kind of speed blew everyone away in terms of the capabilities of low-code development. When the dean of the medical school saw the solutions, he said he wanted to work with us to solve a process problem related to getting medical students credentialed at a hospital.

It was a problem they had been trying to solve for years. We solved it for them in about 90 days. Then, we took the show on the road and talked to every dean at USF about low-code development. So, that’s what we did—21 demos. We won consensus, and we decided to launch Appian university wide. We didn’t just tell them about low-code. We showed them what it could do which made adopting low-code that much easier. Once you get that kind of momentum going, the challenge is not convincing people to embrace low-code, it’s trying to control demand. 

    (If you missed part one of this two-part series, you can read it here.)