The adoption of DevOps practices and the implementation of a company software factory, supported by specialized external skills, can represent two interesting keystones for innovation in the university world.
Digitization and Covid-19: the university world is changing
Digitization is spreading within universities and more generally the training sector, offering new opportunities in the field of process management. The new generation applications are redesigning how administrative activities are conducted - think of the introduction of online registry front offices - and training services are being provided, such as the possibility to attend classes remotely.
The recent Covid-19 emergency accelerated the momentum of universities towards new operating models, having to strengthen remote teaching, enrich the functionality and performance of registry portals, redefine the organization of physical spaces and access to offices.
The rapid adaptation to the government's anti-pandemic rules will be followed by the consequent organizational restructuring to define the new normal.
In short, for universities, as for any other public and private company, it is a question of navigating by sight, trying to obtain adequate levels of flexibility.
The availability of an application park open to innovation allows for extremely rapid development consistent with the needs of school staff and students. Together with IT technologies, these are resilient and able to ride digital transformation, and they are the strategic keys for the university of the future.
The Agile method and DevOps practices useful for universities
Fast and flexible innovation is the goal that drives the adoption of Agile methodologies and DevOps practices.
Agile is an organizational model for software development, which allows teams to divide development activities into short and iterative cycles - from one to four weeks -. Each of these ends with the release of an application improvement, such as adding a feature or fixing a bug.
The work is organized in small highly specialized teams, which carry out the activities in parallel.
Unlike traditional approaches, the project, as the creation of an application from scratch or the implementation of an improvement intervention, proceeds by intermediate releases. These are tested and made immediately available to users, without any wait for the definitive release.
Users, therefore, immediately benefit from the changes made to the software and offer valuable feedback that allows developers to correct any errors and straighten the pitch in progress. Furthermore, the software released are aligned with the actual needs of those who use them: an application that is made available after months may no longer be suitable to meet the requirements expressed initially.
DevOps practices, on the other hand, focus on creating a virtuous relationship between the team of developers and the Operations staff, with the aim of speeding up the timing of software release and distribution. The objective is pursued through specific techniques such as Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery, which allow automating the distribution of code changes in any environment. The aim is to achieve further goals of flexibility, in line with the needs of the university and of the users.
The possibility of both speeding up software release times and creating a virtuous interaction between the actors involved in the development process is now fundamental for all universities, which are engaged in competition on an international scale and forced to navigate on sight in depending on the pandemic trend.
The offer of innovative digital services and the speed with which they are made available to users not only represent a key to resilience and modernization but also allow universities to be more attractive to students from all over the world. Remote learning, which has now become a commodity, allows anyone to attend classes regardless of geographical location, putting universities in competition on a global level. Quickly providing valuable applications, as a corollary of remote teaching, is a not negligible competitive plus.
Why implement a software factory in universities
In short, Agile methodologies and DevOps practices represent a fundamental point for the competitiveness and the very future of universities, projected in the construction of the new normal and in the implementation of enabling technologies.
In the coming years, universities will need to provide educational activities both face to face and remotely, enhancing information systems from an infrastructural point of view to support increasingly intense workloads and use of resources. This applies also to the innovation of their applications, in order to adapt to the new teaching methods and bureaucratic management. Staying ahead requires an unprecedented level of flexibility and moving towards Agile and DevOps development brings tremendous benefit.
However, it is hard to find within universities those technological and methodological skills required by the new approaches for managing the software life cycle. Agile practices and in particular DevOps also force a non-trivial cultural change. In fact, it is a question of conceiving a new way of organizing work, collaborating and relating: interdisciplinary groups sit at the table and the interaction between developers, operations staff and users is fundamental.
Implementing a software factory within the university is certainly a winning approach, as it shortens the distances between the different players, allowing them being more reactive while facing change and receptive to needs. However, it is not a foregone conclusion precisely because it requires ad hoc skills.
Relying on a partner specialized in Agile and DevOps issues, inserting it within the structures and company organization, can be a valid alternative. The team of external professionals can thus bring all the necessary skills to the software factory, with the advantage of learning the specific dynamics of the university directly from within and declining the software lifecycle management processes based on the context.
The adoption of DevOps practices and the contribution of a software factory designed for the purpose can represent an important and real accelerator for the university of the future, resilient and innovative.