As of this past Wednesday, I’ve been at the University of Michigan’s Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) for exactly six months now.  Time flies!


All three lead developers (Ben Hayward, Kris Steinhoff, and myself) started on the same day in May.  It turns out the hiring committee made a good choice: not only do we have a diversity of complementary talent but we also work exceptionally well as a team.  We breezed through Tuckman’s “forming”, “storming”, and “norming” stages of group development and quickly arrived at the “performing” stage where we’ve remained to this day.

I remember the early whirlwind of “onboarding”: I was the only developer who was new to the University of Michigan so I had a bit more to learn about the internal goings on of this huge institution.  But everyone at the Office of Digital Education & Innovation (where the Digital Innovation Greenhouse is officially “housed”) was extremely helpful and accommodating.  It feels more like an extended family than a workplace.

Shortly after we started, we were joined by three very talented summer interns.  One intern had just graduated from the Human-Computer Interaction program in the School of Information and contributed some fantastic User Experience Design work to a number of our projects.  Unfortunately, she had to leave at the end of the summer to pursue opportunities elsewhere, but the other two interns were able to stay on and become our first Student Fellows.  Growing from a traditional internship approach, the Digital Innovation Greenhouse Student Fellows program now has 10 active fellows who span user experience design, software development, and innovation advocacy. It is a joy to work with such energetic and smart young people!

DIG was tasked with taking three initial projects to scale:  the Academic Reporting Tools, Student Explorer, and E-Coach were existing “version 1” tools that we are in the process of scaling up to “version 2 and beyond”.  Development of these tools required us to learn the complexities and nuances of U-M’s Data Warehouse, which store (amongst other things) details about student records that are key to the sorts of evidence-based decision support that all of these tools offer.

I took the lead on the Academic Reporting Tools (ART2.0) project and am pleased with the progress we have made.Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 10.52.02 PM  We rolled out a beta within 13 weeks of our start date and we are now in the process of phasing in beta tests in the form of user research.  I can honestly say that the work I’ve produced for ART2.0 represents some of my best work to date and I’m proud of what we as a team have accomplished with it so far.  I also appreciated the wisdom and dedication not only Prof. Gus Evrard, the faculty innovator behind ART2.0 but also of the entire ART2.0 Steering Committee, without whom we would not have been able to come as far in so little time.

In addition to working with the wonderful and supportive faculty, staff, and students that make up the Office of Digital Education and Innovation, highlights of our journey so far include filming segments about each of these tools for the Practical Learning Analytics MOOC, running a Data Hackathondatahackathon, starting the process of hiring a User Experience Designer, and taking on more direct and advisory roles in other projects around campus.  Co-location of the lead developers and Student Fellows is an important component of our success, as are open lines of communication within DIG and DEI (we have weekly DIG status meetings so we know what’s happening more broadly; bi-weekly check-ins with our immediate supervisor; and monthly one-on-one meetings with our Director of Operations where we can talk about how we’re making progress on any number of personal and institutional fronts).  We are well-positioned to grow over the foreseeable future.

People are often stunned when they learn that I commute from Windsor, Ontario every day.  It typically takes me about an hour each way — not altogether different from the sorts of commutes that I experienced when I lived in Toronto.  dwtunnelI am fortunate in that I have the option of working from home in the case of inclement weather but, frankly, I enjoy the energy of DEI so much that I would rather be physically present.  And honestly, as a father of two young and highly energetic girls I enjoy the quiet time that the drive to and fro’ affords me.  One thing that I’m not used to, however, is the seated commute in a car.  When I was commuting in Toronto I was usually on my bike.  The MHealthy program at U-M really helps in this regard.  The recent team challenge to stay active provided the incentive for me to get a FitBit. Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 10.30.04 PM It’s not always a great feeling to see just how little activity I’ve done in a day but it sure is an eyeopener and it help keep motivation high to keep on movin’.  I found other aspects of the MHealthy program to be helpful too, like the free exercise consultation.  Now that I’ve settled into a groove with work, perhaps I can take some of my energy to focus on my own health and well-being.

So with (American) Thanksgiving almost upon us, this chance to reflect on my first six months at the University of Michigan has highlighted just how much I have to be thankful for!


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