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Behind the Scenes at Weinberg College IT

More than Hard Drives and Support Requests

For many of us, doing our work or going about our daily lives is unimaginable without computers, smartphones, or internet access. Technology is now woven into the everyday teaching, research, and administrative tasks of the College. As a result, Weinberg College IT is often at the heart of these fundamental pursuits of our institution.

Our staff explicitly view their work as support and assistance to the educational and research mission of Northwestern. Systems Administrator Tyler McLean says, “I feel connected to NU’s missions through my management of core infrastructure that enables faculty, students, and staff to work more efficiently and with less worry about their day-to-day computer needs.” Like many administrators in higher education institutions, many of our staff choose to work at Northwestern University because of the impact possible here. Another Systems Administrator, Alex Ruiz, believes that “the research and education provided at Northwestern are integral to our society. Not only for our students’ personal and professional development, but the staff also benefit from the academic environment as well.”

While Weinberg College IT staff support the research and teaching work of the College, we likewise directly contribute to advancements in our field. Just as faculty and staff across the College strive to create new knowledge and develop it for new generations, we build new applications, improve vital systems, and educate undergraduate students.

Fundamental Services and Systems
Our team works in four main areas: support, systems administration, application development, and consulting & business analysis. As Director Michael Satut puts it, “our services range from providing basic computer setup through to the facilitation of intense computational research and data storage needs. We build applications to support workflow and process critical to the ongoing work of the College.”

In any given day, our staff members are likely doing the following tasks:

All parts of our team contribute to maintaining and developing the infrastructure, applications, and systems that are critical to teaching, research, and administration.

Student Knowledge and Skills
Our support team relies on the skills and knowledge of our student technicians. We hire students from across the university, with majors ranging from English to Engineering, Music to Mathematics. Our students come in with varying levels of experience in computer support. They gain advanced computer systems and professional skills through in-depth training from our seasoned technicians. Throughout their time with us, students not only learn how to troubleshoot technical issues, but they train other new hires, write technical documents, and communicate with faculty and staff. 

Having student workers helps keep our team connected to the undergraduate population of the university. Support Technician Agata Nartowska sees the impact of her work on students both directly and indirectly. “We support the faculty and staff that drive the excellent teaching and innovative research, we make sure that they have working tools to do it with, and we also help students grow by training the ones who work in our department.” As a former student worker herself, Agata has continued a career in IT that started her freshman year at Weinberg College IT.

We’re proud that many students choose to return to our group quarter after quarter. Every year we graduate at least two seniors who have worked with us since their freshman year.

Communication is Key
One of our most powerful tools at Weinberg College IT is also one of very first tasks that most of us ever did on the internet: instant messaging. Using a software called Slack, our staff and students constantly communicate—answering support questions, following up on a project status, and the occasional meme war. Many of our projects and tasks require input from more than one group, so we’ve cultivated a team where collaboration is a pre-requisite.

Every two weeks, all staff gather to review ongoing projects, celebrate completed work, and introduce new projects. Our staff also serve on university-wide IT working and governance groups. We use our all-staff meetings to share developments on university-wide IT initiatives and get caught up on what our team members are up to.

Building New Knowledge
Similar to an academic department, our staff stay connected to changes in their field and explore new ways to do their work. Over the last few years, we’ve retired our physical hardware servers and have moved completely into virtual servers and cloud storage for all our applications and systems. This is a major development in the field of server maintenance and has required that our staff develop new skills and knowledge. It’s likely, however, that in the College you may not have even known that some of the systems you use were literally moving from a basement on Sheridan to a server in the cloud. Often one of our greatest feats is the invisibility with which we make improvements.

We also look to improve the tools that are currently in the College. Responding to the needs of researchers and staff in the College, Weinberg College IT developers and business analyst staff created SAFER (Sensitive Administrative Files E-Registry). This is an application that enhances the security of Box, so that Sensitive and Legally/Contractually Restricted data can be stored in it. Built by our team, SAFER is now in use in schools and administrative units across Northwestern University.

These kinds of applications and knowledge creation aren’t what is traditionally thought of as the intellectual output of a university. However, in Weinberg College IT, we know that adapting developments from our field to the teaching and research work done in the College is a crucial part of driving excellence in our institution. One of our developers, Eric Weiler, states it very clearly: “My job is to work on software and tools that help others to do their jobs excellently.” From the time of vacuum tubes and punch cards, to current cloud computing and AI, IT will continue to help faculty, staff, and students do their jobs excellently.

 

 

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