S1:E10 Houston Griffith – Keeping pace with changing student needs

April 5, 2021 |  Case Studies, Data, Remote Access
38 min

He also talks about how IT professionals can keep pace with changing student needs.


Derrick Hirschi  0:00

Hello everyone and welcome to LabStats Tech Talks. I’m Derrick Hirschi, Customer Success Manager here at LabStats, and I’m joined today by Houston Griffith, Senior Manager for Labs and Classroom Computing at Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his team maintain and support academic computing for computer labs, conference rooms and laptops. Thank you for being here, Houston. How are you doing?

Houston Griffith  0:20

I’m doing well. Derrick, thank you for having me. 

Derrick Hirschi  0:22

Good. Yeah, no problem, no problem. I’ve got a number of different topics I’d like to go over with you. We’ve got lab management, we’ve got COVID-19, we’ve got the LabMan conference. To start, can we start, lead in, with how you got your start in computer lab management? 

Houston Griffith  0:37

Sure. So I actually started my career in IT way back in like 2005. But fast forward a few years to 2010, I was attending as a student at Virginia Tech. And I applied for a position with the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. And as a lot of people I work with at VCU, got my start as a student worker. So I was responsible for a small computer lab there. And then we had some other kiosk style computing at a few of the other off campus departments. And that’s really where I got my start with computer lab management in general, in sort of the higher ed industry. From there, you know, I was at Virginia Tech for a few years. And then I transitioned to a role here at Virginia Commonwealth University, managing all of the central computer labs and classrooms for the university. On both campuses, we have two campuses, our Monroe Park campus, which is our academic campus, and our medical college of Virginia campus, which is tied to our hospital system VCU health. And just to be clear, during this interview, I’m giving my own opinions. Anything that I say is not representative of what Virginia Commonwealth University would be representing. 

Derrick Hirschi  1:58

Perfect. Understood, thank you. So let’s move into the future of lab management. Let’s starting, you know, kind of talk about the future, [let’s] start with the past a little bit here. Can you walk us through how your work has changed over the course of the career you’ve just shared with us? 

Houston Griffith  2:12

Sure. So, you know, like I mentioned, I started in a part time role as a student employee at Virginia Tech. And, you know, looking back over a decade ago, to where I am at now…a lot of what we did a decade ago, is either completely irrelevant or pretty much on its way out. Some of the big things that have changed, I think, are to do with how we’re providing services to students. Now, certainly with, you know, the impact of the pandemic, which I’m sure we’ll get into a little bit more later. You know, the traditional mindset of providing x, y and z to students has changed a bit. So, from my view, how my work has changed over the course of my career thus far. For me, it’s also kind of looking at the scope, and how narrow and small the scale was, when I started out, having supported, just as a single school, with a few departments, and over the years, as I progressed, in my career, now to managing basically services to support classroom technology and computing, for an entire university, multiple campuses. There’s a shift away, I think, from doing things that [are] smaller scale and thinking more about the big picture. And now, beyond that, not just managing systems, but also people as well. So, for me, that’s been one way that a couple of ways that my work has changed over time.

Derrick Hirschi  3:50

And so in the last, you know, decade or however long it’s been you’ve been doing this, what tools were you using, say a decade ago that you’re not using? Now, you mentioned a lot of it’s changed? What are some of the things that you don’t utilize anymore?

Houston Griffith  4:03

So the ones that come to mind are tools like Norton Ghost, that was an imaging tool that we used? Yeah. Okay. And I’m sure that a lot of the listeners here are probably familiar with Ghost. Certainly, that whole concept of, you know, create this base image or golden image and then deploy it to systems either, you know, lab computers, laptops, whatever, that has really, a lot of the practice has shifted away from that sort of concept into just install a base operating system and then layer things on top of it.

Derrick Hirschi  4:38

Yeah, using a mass deployment tool of some kind.

Houston Griffith  4:40

Exactly. So I think a lot of higher ed institutions have now shifted their focus away from that. At least IT organizations within higher ed have shifted their focus away from doing things that way towards more of a…I guess you could say ‘scripted’ approach. And that’s sort of a double entendre. They’re scripted, as in the sense that they’re actually writing code like PowerShell, or, or Visual Basic, or hopefully not Visual Basic script anymore. But PowerShell and things like Python, to be able to automate a lot of that.

Derrick Hirschi  5:15

Yeah. Awesome. Yeah, automation of these tools is huge now.

Houston Griffith  5:18

Yeah. So that, but also this in the sense that they’re thinking about, what does the deployment workflow look like from ordering, all the way through receiving and preparing a device for deployment to handing it off to an end user to getting it back and retired. So the concept of Lifecycle Management, there’s tools that can help do a lot more of that, rather than just laying down a base image or installing applications. So like, for example, some of the tools that we’ve kind of transitioned into are things like Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager, which is formerly known as System Center Configuration Manager, for Windows devices. And then for Mac devices: App jam Pro is another one that we’re using. So we’ve kind of shifted away from that idea of using something like Ghost to create that big monolithic, thick image, if you will, to this streamlined approach.

Derrick Hirschi  6:19

And it’s a lot more customizable. Now, you don’t have to have specific images for specific labs anymore, you can just say, “Yep, you need this, you need this, you need this, you don’t need that.” And it’s just that easy to have a more unique software footprint, you might call it.

Houston Griffith  6:36

Yeah, and we’ve seen that a lot. What we used to do was, even when I started at VCU, in 2014, we were still sort of in that, “Let’s create a base image” mindset. And everybody at VCU was still doing very much that same practice. But over the years, we’ve implemented MECM and Jamf. In some ways, we’ve been given a choice. And in other ways, we’ve been forced to adopt this new method, where we find that installing all of the software packages we have available into a base image, it’s not really necessary. I mean, sure, it’s kind of like a broad stroke, just cover everybody with every piece of software, but that’s not really efficient,

Derrick Hirschi  7:16

Gets costly, real quick.

Houston Griffith  7:18

Yeah it gets costly, yeah that’s right! So you know, measuring that software usage, obviously, is something that we want to be able to do, and we don’t need to deploy every piece of software everywhere. So that’s another aspect of it.

Derrick Hirschi  7:32

So we’ve kind of gone over how this has changed your ability to do your work, it’s easier to get more granular control, I suppose you might say over what’s available? What are some of the nuances of your work that have become more important to you over the last few years? Primary concerns, as a lab management professional, they change and everything. What problems do you face on a daily basis? And how do you solve them?

Houston Griffith  7:58

For me, at least, I think it’s, again, kind of going back to what I mentioned earlier. When I started, when I started out, in higher ed, I was just a student worker, and I was part-time. So for me the level of impact of my decision making was very small. Very localized, it was very isolated. It was one school that I was supporting, and serving as backup for a larger college. But fast-forward to where we’re to today. For me, a lot of the decision making is based around, “Well, we have to take into consideration potentially, every student, faculty and staff member who may end up using a tool or service or piece of software, or computer lab.” So for me, it’s also trying to think of all those different angles that we might get questions about. Well, can I use this piece of software in this computer lab or on this laptop? And on a daily basis, I would say, some of the biggest issues or challenges that we’re trying to solve have to do with the logistics of managing those services at that university scale. So certainly, I’m not alone in that regard. There are plenty of other excellent people who work at VCU, both in the Central Technology Services Group, and within the schools and colleges. And our focus is really on trying to understand what the needs of faculty and students and staff are, and [to] try and address those as best we can. But for me, at least, I think the biggest change has been that impact or that scale at which things are happening.

Derrick Hirschi  9:3

So how do you keep track of, let’s say, the needs of this building versus that building, or even this floor of this building versus the lower floor? Like you said, you have to kind of understand who’s going to be using these machines, whether faculty or students or staff. How do you keep track of all that information?

Houston Griffith  9:55

Yeah, so I mean, a lot of it comes down to like our work with different departments. And what software they’re going to need for their computer lab versus another. So just as an example: we use a service management type of approach for some of our customers who have classrooms that are not what we consider centrally supported. Which means it’s the department’s responsibility to find things like service hardware, communicate the availability of those resources to their students. It’s not managed as a central resource. So even though my team does manage all of our central classrooms and computer labs, we also have these non central customers. So, one way we do that is with that agreement, and we’re basically kind of spelling out, “Alright, here’s what we provide, here’s what your needs are, or what you’ve told us your needs are.” And here’s how we kind of go about approaching whatever challenge you have, and solving it with something that we can do within the scope of what services we’re offering.

Derrick Hirschi  10:57  

So kind of a joint effort, then working with the departments or with the people who are kind of more in charge there and saying, “We provide these things, you want this stuff that’s up to you.”

Houston Griffith  11:06

Right, and it’s always sort of a give and take. There’s always some level of negotiation on what you’re being asked to do versus what we’re able to actually do. So, in some cases, it comes down to, “Alright, well, we can procure the hardware, and we can set it up for you. But there may be something that you need to do on your side to either assist your students or your faculty, and getting them additional support they need.” One of the big things we’ve been dealing with recently is we’re working with our School of Medicine to find a creative solution for their exam, and testing events. And that’s the sort of example where you’ve got a bunch of different programs for people who are going to be physicians very soon. And they need to be able to take this really high stakes examination. So we’ve been trying to set up an agreement with them, where they can just simply reach out to us and provide some very basic information, we can get the software that they need, from their Accreditation , install it, certify it, make sure it’s good to go, and then the students can actually take their exam. So it’s, a lot of it to me is less on the technical side of things and more on the logistics, how do we actually communicate that this service is…this is what the service that we’re providing covers, and the things that we’re doing versus the things we’re not able to do.

Derrick Hirschi  12:30

Well, and not to mention managing the testing environment, you know, making sure that there’s limiting opportunities for something like cheating or things like that. There’s a lot of factors that would go into that, that require a lot of coordination, I imagine.

Houston Griffith  12:42

Yeah, absolutely. And again, that’s kind of going back to the: what are our responsibilities as a service provider? And what are the responsibilities of…we’re providing that tool for them to use or that toolbox of tools. And you know, it’s really their job to actually pick the tools up and use them. So that’s kind of the way that I view the relationship from my point of view.

Derrick Hirschi  13:04

Interesting. Interesting. Let’s change track  a little bit. Let’s talk a bit about the Covid-19 pandemic? Can you once again, let’s start at the beginning. Can you walk us through the first few weeks of the pandemic at VCU? What were the action items? What emergent items need to be addressed? And how did you navigate those?

Houston Griffith  13:22

So it was sort of a scramble, as I’m sure it was for everyone.

Derrick Hirschi  13:27

(Laughs) You’re telling me.

Houston Griffith  13:29

We were actually in the middle of spring break when that announcement came down. And the university’s first action, I believe, was to limit in-person classes. And basically, what we did was we sort of transitioned from this model of, “Oh, we’ve got all these projects in the pipeline. And we’ve got all of these tickets that we’re still working on for classroom or computer lab issues” to “Stop, drop everything, do nothing but prepare loaner laptops.”

Derrick Hirschi  14:00

Yeah, they didn’t matter anymore. You know, you gotta fix these desktops and no one’s gonna use them.

Houston Griffith  14:06

Exactly. So, you know, we reached out to a few of our departments that we had been working with, through the service agreements, as mentioned and laptop carts, a few of them did offer to donate their laptops to us temporarily. So that was great. You know, we had the ability to prepare more laptops to meet the demand from students who actually needed them. And we continue that program, even though today, we’re still loaning laptops.

Derrick Hirschi  14:31

So did you guys have enough for those early days?

Houston Griffith  14:34

Uh, no. You had to reach out to those other departments. We did purchase some Chromebooks, but what we found is that initially we had, I think around 60 or 70 laptops to begin with, and that just wasn’t enough to meet the demand.

Derrick Hirschi  14:53

That doesn’t sound like very many.

Houston Griffith  14:56

A lot of them were already checked out, you know, and we had students who just held on to them and we told them, that’s okay, go ahead and keep them. But the students who didn’t have one, we only had really, I think two days of on-campus actual support available. And then from there, it was just: everything transitioned to shipping. So we were literally taking requests in, triaging our IT Support Center, our help desk, folks, they helped us immensely with triaging and checking eligibility requirements and all these other things.

Derrick Hirschi  15:27

It’s unheard of what everybody had to do just to get by, it’s crazy. 

Houston Griffith  15:34


Derrick Hirschi  15:35

So, we talked a little bit about loaner laptops as something you guys are still doing. Are there any other challenges you guys needed to address to accommodate students? Did you have other ways of getting resources to students other than these loaner laptops?

Houston Griffith  15:48

Yeah, so one of the bigger things that we’ve been kind of working on in the background is this idea of solving for, you know, software delivery, not just for the BYOD side of things, the bring your own device, that concept that students bring their own laptop, and the university is in some way able to deliver software to those devices. We’re not just trying to solve for that, it’s also we realize that sometimes a laptop just isn&