How Academic Information Services Engineering Works

A year or so ago, when IT was reorganizing its website, I was asked to write a blurb about what my team does. I can’t remember the exact circumstances—though it was likely a busy time—but I do remember that nobody was really satisfied with the result that lives on our Academic Information Services Web page: “AIS’s engineering team, a group of individuals with a wide-ranging set of skills, takes care of all the computing, hardware and software needs of William & Mary’s faculty and academic department staff.”

Looking back on it now, I do like that the core of the sentence is, “AISE takes care.” But I think that message is lost in what was supposed to be a short but meaningful description encompassing all that we do, but ended up being a generic and rambly-sounding statement. (I also highly doubt I originally wrote it without an Oxford comma, but that’s just me.) Recently, though, I was inspired to realize what I was actually trying to say: “The goal of Academic Information Services Engineering is to keep faculty productive and comfortable in their use of Information Technology.”

Ah, that’s much better. It’s pithy, open-ended, and captures something that the previous version doesn’t: not only what we do, but how we try to go about it. You see, my team has a certain focus and ethos that has nothing to do with computer skills. Computer skills are just the baseline, our foot in your door. A faculty member has a question or problem—a corrupted email attachment, let’s say—and calls one of us. Maybe some phone support takes place (Did you try this? Can you read that error message to me? What does the screen say now?). But if the problem is complex, or the faculty member is frustrated and just doesn’t want to deal with it, and the technician doesn’t have an appointment pressing, then the response often becomes “I’ll come over right now.”

Pronounced "Aces?"

Pronounced "Aces?": Image courtesy of Steffen Rusten:

I say, “technician.” But that’s not how I think of us. We’re AIS Engineers—AISEs—which I pronounce “Aces” in my head, but I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that because it’s kind of cheesy. “Support Engineer” is what most of our official job paperwork says. But in practice we don’t go by a collective noun most of the time because we don’t need to. Faculty don’t make appointments with us for a visit from “a tech,” they get a visit from Jeff or Mark or Joe or John. That’s how most faculty know (at least one of) us, and if you don’t, we’ll be glad to meet you.

Faculty Relationships

One of the great strengths of our academic support model is that each one of us has an area of responsibility within the College: Sciences (Jeff), School of Education (Mark), Social Sciences (Joe) and Humanities (me). Not only do we thus develop a sense of what our clients’ goals and needs are within their fields, but we also enjoy the opportunity to develop relationships with the people in the departments we support. Greetings and small talk are exchanged with faculty in hallways and on the sidewalk. Among ourselves we often joke about the “I’ve been meaning to call you” phenomenon; you see your AISE in the hall, and that familiar face calls to mind that niggling issue that keeps cropping up but never breaches the threshold for picking up the phone or firing off an email. And chances are that if an issue is that trivial, it’s just the sort of thing that can be resolved with a bit of advice or a short impromptu visit.

That kind of support doesn’t end up in any trouble ticket. It is part of no statistic. It just is.

While we’re working on your problem (or transferring data to your replacement computer, or hooking up your new printer), we might strike up a conversation about what you’re working on, or ask about how the project we talked about a month ago turned out. You might mention that you need to integrate some video into a presentation you’re giving at a conference in a few weeks. Well, depending on who you’re working with, we might know something about that or we might not (such is the nature of specialization, alas! even among jacks-of-many-trades); but any of us will know who has expertise to advise and assist. And if we don’t we’ll find out. And if there’s no one, we’ll probably research it ourselves.

More Than Engineering

The entirety of AIS is a lot more than engineering, and collectively the department’s skills range from Web programming to high-performance computing to classroom technology integration. Beyond AIS, we also know our colleagues in IT—professional Windows and UNIX engineers, networking experts, security specialists…the list would be longer than this article. Good relationships with our IT colleagues are just as important to what we do as good relationships with our faculty: technology is complex and varied, just as the activities of faculty are complex and varied. AISEs are often the first point of contact for issues or projects that connect specialized expertise from different departments within IT, and without their support, we couldn’t even begin to do what we do.

That’s a lot of possibility coming out of needing a bit of help. A business major might call it networking. I think of it as building relationships. I’ve seen sidewalk conversations grow into new classes being taught, new Web-based projects that go on for years, and instruction changing in imaginative and positive ways. That doesn’t happen when some anonymous techie comes to whack for a minute on your computer and disappear. It comes from interacting with people you know, people who are interested in more than bits and bytes and wires. That is how AIS Engineering works, and it’s something we’re proud of.

Oh, and I got that email attachment to open.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.