Laboratories of Democracy

Back in the mid-90s, I worked at Centralia College in Centralia, Washington.  It was my second time moving away from Oklahoma, and the first time where the experience changed me and helped me develop into the leader I try to be today.

It also taught me about the many different names for rain, as well as spars, skids, and not to follow logging trucks too close on the Interstate, but I digress.

One of the highlights was being a member of the Club: the Washington State Community & Technical Colleges’ Information Technology Commission, and later also the CTC Information Planning Group.  We were a group of IT Directors at 32 community and technical colleges all around the state; all working under the same umbrella of educational services to our communities, but our greatest strengths were our technical diversity, and the opportunity to get together 4 times a year, break bread with our peers and kick the tires on new projects.

We all had the same administrative software for student services, payroll, grades, enrollment hosted in Bellevue, but each college was able to choose how they ran their own shops — home rule.  It gave us all freedom to experiment.

For example, a colleague of mine in Walla Walla was a dyed-in-the-wool Netware devotee.  Andre was able to create an amazing system (in 1996) with single sign-on, drive-letter mapping based on discrete permissions, etc.  It’s commonplace now, but in the Windows95 world that existed then, it was over the top.

Because I was an old hand at the Internet (due to my coming from a Research and Doctoral institution who had a MIDnet T-1 installed not that many years before), I was able to give every Centralia employee an Internet-attached mail account.  I maintained the listservs for several of the state commissions because it was easy.  We were also able to join our satellite campus in Morton, WA to our main campus internet and phone system over a 56K Frame Relay circuit.  We created a self-insurance program that allowed for full repair/replacement of all academic and administrative computers within 5 years.  Oh, and did I mention we were primarily a Mac shop?  And did our own warranty repairs, which paid for 0.75 FTE of a technician?

I could go on.  We did a ton of cool stuff in a very short time.


The state was providing funds then to build out an Ethernet and fiber infrastructure to all schools at that time, so we got to learn about boring cable tunnels to the Technical building two blocks away — and chewing up a homeowner’s sewer line in the process. Our peers at other schools got to learn from our mistakes.

I like to think that all us WA State schools, given a bit of R&D rope, were able to produce better products and better employees.  My teams, there and everywhere afterward, have been given opportunities to experiment and build better mousetraps, which produces better technicians, analysts, and managers.

A decade earlier when I was a Project Manager at Capital Systems Group, my Boss turned me on to a book called “Laboratories of Democracy,” which highlighted ways in the post-Reagan era the real action of policy experimentation was taking place in the states.  I’ve always thought that we do this in our own small ways in our own orgs.  Moreover, I equate that sentiment with an important network security tenet: don’t create a monoculture in your environment.

In the world we live in now, we’re constantly being probed for security vulnerabilities based on ways in which we’re all alike — the Equifax break-in took advantage of a known security hole in Apache web servers, and all it took was computer-generated patience to knock on countless doors to find the one out there that hadn’t yet been locked — patched.  The monoculture of us all using Windows PCs on desktops, and Windows servers, or Apache web servers, creates a potential vulnerability.  If you understand that an entire planet planting the same strain of wheat is risky,  using the same technology as your peers down the street can be risky in this new world.

The same theory can apply to your staffs:  diversity is a good thing.   A few years later I moved up I-5 to the University of Washington, Bothell.  One of the computer science faculty there was working on a research paper on the skills and capabilities of System Administrators.  To oversimplify quite a bit, we learned that the Windows SysAdmins at the various UW campuses were, at that time, less well paid and had less deep knowledge than the campus unix admins.  Together, they each filled a valuable role but in that ecosystem they couldn’t be swapped out…one could maybe generalize and say they were symbiotic within that environment — the unix geeks had been there forever and had built many of the systems, and the Windows SysAdmins freed them up from a lot of the pesky day-to-day activities that were more user-focused.

As a manager, I keep all this rattling around my head, especially whenever I join a new organization.

One of the other innovations I take with me was a study on “broadbanding” of job responsibilities.  The State Board commissioned it and it still holds up quite well to help build a track for tech workers from the beginner Technical Specialist I (or Help Desk Tier 1) on up, depending on their interests.  Over the years I’m surprised I haven’t encountered any newer versions of anything remotely similar.

It was fascinating, being a witness to the Dot Com Boom in Seattle when even my student workers had business plans…

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