It sits atop the University of New South Wales' campus library in Kensington, Sydney, conveniently tucked away on the 14th floor. Walk into the new IT collaboration and co-design space and you’ll be greeted by props, airline grey Qantas business class seats (set up as a lounge area at the front door), and a sea of whiteboards etched with detailed text and diagrams all standing in semi-circle position around the room.
Welcome to the UNSW’s new IT LaunchPad. It is a big, bold IT project that UNSW’s chief digital officer, Conrad Mackenzie, said is a new way of thinking; a new way of working - and situated smack dab in what he said is the “spiritual heart of the university.”
“The IT LaunchPad is a facility, it is both a space and a process. It is a capability and one doesn’t go without the other - and its purpose is to offer a neutral, but contemporary way of engaging with technology,” he told CIO.
“That means we can bring the business in. They feel that this isn’t your usual old requirements workshop. I’ve hired experts who are masters at unpacking complex problems and facilitating conversations amongst lots of stakeholders. We can get up to 80 or 90 people in that room in a single meeting.”
Mackenzie said the concept has far-reaching implications for the IT department of UNSW, which employs about 300 people at the Kensington campus. The university has roughly 55,000 students, houses nine faculties and is sprawled across a 38-hectare site in the Sydney suburb of Kensington.
“It is truly a revolutionary way for IT to integrate into the business in an increasingly technology centric world,” he said. ““I’m now putting every single IT involved project through the LaunchPad. There must be about 30 projects that have already gone through there,” he said.
And while some university environments may have similar collaborative spaces, Mackenzie explained they are mainly ‘process redesign.’ “I am far more ambitious than just process redesign. What we want to be able to push through the IT LaunchPad is anything that has an IT element to it, so it could be research data, datacenter moves, it could be redesigning our websites, or it could be rethinking digital marketing,” he said.
“For IT to be a really competent delivery organisation, it has got to start participating in all of the upstream user and business conversations - and we offer the IT LaunchPad as a space to be able to do that.”
Not only will it provide a short-term home to mission critical projects that need to be turbo charged, but he said the collaborative nature of the space enables the team to disrupt old IT ways of working and accelerate innovation.
And he has big plans for the collaborative space. “What I want to do is bind the IT LaunchPad into the meat and potatoes of IT. So it is not just about big strategic projects or grand datacentre moves. It is about the daily operations of IT; it is about recasting the way IT thinks about itself.”
Already, the concept is taking off. “We have had a very positive response from inside IT. People inside IT are beginning to use it as a place to have conversations amongst themselves,” he said. “It is about completely recasting the dialogue. It is about allowing IT to become a first-class citizen in an enterprise which is seeking to digitise as much as possible.”
IT is no longer just about the plumbing and keeping the lights on - it is about driving innovation and looking towards future technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), he added.
“We are not just enabling it. We are beginning to drive different ways of thinking. One of the things I’m very interested in is deploying artificial intelligence into some of our operations,” he said, adding the university has hosted IBM and reviewed the Watson technology, and is considering all of its options in the AI space in terms of open source versus commercial software adoption.
“I’m very keen for the university to not abdicate its responsibility to understand how to design and own these things. It might choose to commission the build from the market, but it absolutely needs to own all of the front end work - and that’s what the LaunchPad does.”
He said AI makes sense in game development, in student and staff inquiry, in service desk and in research.
“We are considering all potential options - and that’s the key for the LaunchPad. It gives the enterprise the capability it has never had before, and I am absolutely certain there is not an IT function on the planet that has this capability as a core part of it.”
At the same time, transformation projects are a key focus for Mackenzie, and fall under the UNSW’s 2025 Strategy plans.
“The university’s transformation project has a $3 billion price tag on it - and IT is a part of that. There’s a lot of recruitment in that, but all of the operational services stuff for both students, for researchers and for professional staff is going to be IT-enabled. We want to be confident that when we are making these investments that we are living within our budget.”
Details of the 60-plus strategy aligned projects (there are 300 transformation projects in total in the pipeline) can be seen on a massive whiteboard in the IT LaunchPad room. They are written up on small white cards, colour coded, and posted for all to see and collaborate upon.
One big strategy project is ACIS, the curriculum management ecosystem, “which is going to deliver to students new ways to discover their degree and do mix and match,” Mackenzie said.
The IT behind ACIS involves a complete system build.
“Firstly we do the high-level design, which allows us to get to the business case really quickly and with numbers that we have confidence in. And that is a really important thing because estimating IT projects is not a happy space mostly. It is really difficult to do. What we want to be able to do is when we are audited we want that estimate to actually match the project expenditure to completion.”
Therefore, it is critical to be able to build a sound business case (as quickly as possible), for tech projects like ACIS - and getting the business and IT groups together, particularly through the IT LaunchPad room, is crucial, Mackenzie said.
“This is a wild ride. It is tremendously exciting. I think the big opportunity here for us is to fundamentally reignite the conversation between IT and the business. So that IT is not just a service provider - IT is now seen as a partner. And we all talk about partners, all of the time. But partnerships are a very difficult status to achieve. I think the IT LaunchPad is the key to achieving a fantastic relationship with the business.”
Big tech plans underway
Already, the IT LaunchPad environment and collaborative capability has enabled discussion and action plans in terms of some hefty tech proposals. Newly appointed director of infrastructure and operations, Vladas Leonas (formerly of Transport for NSW), said he has assembled about 30 people to discuss the university’s datacentre.
“We put 25-30 people into the LaunchPad and we suggested the team look at a very interesting goal of moving the datacentre in six months. Everyone laughed and said, ‘This is impossible.’ We have quite a complicated datacentre - we have about 500 kilowatts and about 130 racks of equipment. There are two major datacentres on the premises and a couple of small ones.
“And guess what, two months later and after 25 sessions, they have put in front of Conrad - and they were all smiling and all happy - a plan to how we can move the datacentre in six months.”
Mackenzie said the plan to relocate is remarkable given “this was a group of people who were very proud of their own datcentre.”
Leonas said the plan involves striking up a relationship with GovDC, a virtual entity owned by the Department of Finance and Innovation.
“Our current datacentres are substandard. They are probably Tier 1-plus at best. All governments, state and federal (and we are half state/half federal government) have chosen to move into Tier 3 datacentres, and GovDC is a Tier 3 datacentre. It is a no-brainer for us. It has been negotiated and built against state government requirements. We will co-locate initially. We are going to move everything there, consolidate the datacentre, and we will have two spots, primary and secondary.”
Mackenzie said he’s inspired by the way Leonas has used the IT LaunchPad to date.
“What I’m trying to do is enable the IT function to have a completely different conversation with itself and its customers - and Vladas is a great example of what he’s doing with the datacentre. He is having an internal conversation with the team, and they are using the LaunchPad to design something they never thought was possible.”
Relocating the datacentre is no doubt a massive endeavour, Leonas admitted, saying it would be his top challenge at the moment. Thankfully, he said he's no stranger to massive transformation projects - up until recently he was leading the charge at Transport for NSW and helping to completely rebuild the entire IT infrastructure with 30,000 seats - and is excited by the UNSW challenge.
“It is a challenge to ensure that we continue to deliver this three-legged stool, keep the lights on, deliver a large number of projects, and simultaneously move the datacentre. The number of moving parts is very big so it is an interesting challenge.”
No doubt, there’s lots to consider in terms of the datacentre, Leonas said, explaining the aggressive time-frame targets means the team is looking to do minimal transformation.
“We will do lift and shift as much as possible. We expect to have some transformation on the storage side, and we are looking to move into the storage-as-service model of delivery, rather than starting another cycle of buying more kit. We are looking to gradually move more and more into as-a-service as much as it does make commercial and other sense.”
Meanwhile, his other big tasks include moving storage to as-a-service mode; making the service management robust, solid, predictable and sustainable; and reviewing the network, which caters to 1,000 learning spaces.
“Our network is huge. It is the largest Wi-FI on-campus network in Australia. Although it has served the university well in the past, with 2025 in sight, we want to review it and see whether our network architecture, and the way we run it, will suit the needs of the university in the foreseeable future.”
Additionally, on the service delivery front, the university is setting up a “one-front door” program, which aims to have only one front door when anyone needs anything from IT, Mackenzie added.
“The service desk is able to capture that. Its responsibilities have been expanded and over time we are going to use that service desk to respond in near real-time when we take on audio visual,” Mackenzie said, adding the team is also moving towards Office 365.
And with the datacentre and other IT plans well underway, and the IT LaunchPad making its mark on the university, both Mackenzie and Leonas are proud of the work already achieved - and the future possibilities for transformation at UNSW.
“This is so exciting. I think of this as nation building,” Mackenzie said. “We have an opportunity to work on so many amazing things that you would never get a chance to touch in the corporate sector, or the government sector, for that matter,” he said.
“You can have a conversation about 3D printers in the morning and then have a chat about genomics databases and managing the data flow out of $1 million microscopes in the afternoon.”
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