Time Flies in the Cloud

Wow!  I just realized that it’s been several months since my last post and I’m overdue.  A lot’s been happening, both for Citizen Schools in general and the technology function specifically.

For Citizen Schools, the most exciting event is that we’re opening in Chicago this fall in two schools.  As a district, Chicago Public Schools is very excited about Expanded Learning Time (ELT) and we’re getting a great reception from schools, parents and funders.  If you live or work in Chicago, we are on the lookout for staff as well as volunteer Citizen Teachers to teach apprenticeships there (as well as in our other locations).  Reach out to me and I’ll be happy to put you in touch with our staff in Chicago.

In the Tech function, it’s been crazy busy the last few months.  Our fiscal year begins July 1, so there’s the usual round of budgeting and other annual planning tasks necessary to get ready for the new year, but additionally, we made a big decision in February that has the potential to profoundly impact Citizen Schools:  we’re dumping Microsoft Exchange and moving the entire organization (450 + users) to Gmail and (eventually) Google Apps.  And we’re doing it now.  Not in six months or a year, but this spring, with a go-live date of June 21.

As with many  non-profits, we’ve been running Exchange (MS Exchange Server 2003) in-house for a number of years and it’s been a relatively stable environment for us.  As the mailstore continues to expand, it’s easy to add storage.  User maintenance is pretty straightforward.  In the four years that I’ve been with the organization, we’ve had minimal downtime.  So why change?

A few good reasons:

  • We needed to upgrade from Exchange 2003 to a newer version:  With Exchange, you don’t just upgrade, you migrate from a server running one version to a new server running the next one.  We’ve got limited Exchange Server competency, and none in Exchange 2010.  That means either spending the time and resources to get up to speed on the new version, or hiring consultants to do the job for us.
  • Running Exchange in-house has become a business continuity risk:  Of our 450+ users, only about 60 actually work in our HQ office where our ‘data center’ is located.  In the event of a power or internet outage at that location (which seems to happen periodically), the entire organization grinds to a halt.  We’re not in a position to have redundant power and connectivity, so something needed to be done
  • Integration of email to Salesforce:  Although there are several applications that will do synchronization between Outlook and Salesforce, they all require installation and support on the client-side.  None of them were as easy as we needed them to be for our end-users.

Why Gmail?  Pretty much a ‘no-brainer’:

  • Google Apps for Education is free for up to 3000 users.  A hosted Exchange solution was going to be substantially more expensive.
  • An increasingly familiar interface for staff.  Almost everyone has a personal Gmail account, and many of our younger staff already want to forward their exchange email to their Gmail accounts.
  • It’s ‘born cloud’.  In contrast to a hosted Exchange environment which is simply remotely accessing someone else’s Exchange platform, Google is built for the cloud from the ground up.  As we migrate, we’re not connecting Outlook to Gmail – we’re moving 100% to the web interface.
  • Salesforce integration.  There are a couple of great tools out there for integrating Salesforce directly into Google Apps.  We’ve chosen CloudFactor by Appirio, which makes it easy to create leads and contacts, and to log calls and meetings in Salesforce directly from Gmail.  We think this will be a game-changer for user adoption around activity-tracking in Salesforce.

In order to do this migration this quickly, we knew we needed help (as we knew we would for an Exchange migration), so we’re partnering with cloud consultancy Appirio to give us the benefit of their experience.  We’re about half way through the project and so far it’s been AWESOME!  They know their stuff, the price was reasonable and the approach has been spot on for our needs.  I’m really looking forward to getting through to go-live with them.

The second thing that’s been keeping us busy has been an exercise in fire-fighting and rapid Salesforce application development.  Part of Citizen Schools’ business model is our two-year Americorps fellowship.  Our teaching fellows are young educators who are the backbone of our school-based program.  Because of the duration fo the fellowship, we have a new cohort to hire every year of several hundred staff.  We currently use Taleo for our recruitment management, and it became clear this spring, that Taleo was unable to give us the reporting and tracking that we need to manage against goals as well as to link important characteristics of our recruits to their eventual performance as staff members.  As a result, we’ve taken on bringing the core data from Taleo into Salesforce and developing the reporting and analytics within Salesforce.  In the last four weeks, we’ve designed and implemented a data model to support our needs, the business processes to manage data import (still quasi-manual using Demand Tools) and the dashboard and individual reporting to allow regional and national Talent management to know where they are against targets and to develop strategies to hit them.

It’s been a great reminder of the flexibility and power of the Force.com platform and a major reason why I love working with it – being able to deliver significant business value in a short period of time is transformational.

So that’s what I’ve been up to in the last couple of months.  I’m going to try to get back to a more regular posting schedule soon.  If anyone has any requests or questions, please let me know.

Oh and by the way:  Sounds like the Blackbaud Convio merger is due to close today:  boo!

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3 Responses to Time Flies in the Cloud

  1. Daniel says:

    Great analysis! We moved from Exchange to Google Apps for many of the same reasons (except for the free part). Glad to hear you guys are taking the leap!

    • Will says:

      Thanks Dan! It became a pretty compelling argument pretty quickly once we got into the right mindset.

  2. Daniel says:

    I think you’ll also find that the rest of Google Apps will come quickly. We haven’t done any training or push to get people to use Docs but people have already begun using it to collaborate on files.

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