John Chan ’82 has maintained close ties with Marlboro College, including as a trustee since 2006 and an alumni trustee before that, but he is getting to know the college on a whole new level this year: as acting chief information officer, a temporary, volunteer appointment. John, the executive director and head of informatics and technology at Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research, is generously bringing his decades of experience in information technology to bear in an assessment of the college’s IT systems and needs.
“I see my role as someone who can bring about a comprehensive view of the current state, assess the near-term risks and opportunities, and articulate a course of actions,” said John. He spent several days on campus in April, meeting with the various groups and departments that use Marlboro’s IT resources, and is continuing his assessment remotely with the support of the IT department.
“As I have known for years as an alumnus and trustee, Marlboro is a community of passionate people with strong commitment to the college’s mission,” said John. “Everyone I have talked with has reinforced my belief in the college. They were all very generous and patient in sharing their knowledge.”
Although his evaluation is still a work in progress, John’s early assessment is that Marlboro’s system overall is too complex, with many years of incremental add-ons and repurposing leading to an accumulation of what he calls “architectural and technical debts.” These debts add complexity, and require users and operators to do more and more work “hacking” to make systems do what they want, reducing their overall productivity. They increase the likelihood of system failures, either in the traditional sense of crashing or being unable to adapt to changes.
“I have to say that the biggest hurdle we need to overcome is with mindset,” said John. “The fact that people at Marlboro love the college, and are committed to do whatever it takes to get things done is both an asset and a liability. Passion, commitment, and can-do attitude are necessary but not sufficient. We need to pause from adding more functions to our overly extended, outdated systems, and plan a staged migration into a simpler ecosystem of interchangeable and cloud-based systems of hardware and software.”