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Long hours, big payoff for staffers working on LEAPForward

LEAP staffers in the Big Room

Illinois State staff members working on the LEAPForward Initiative attend one of their morning meetings in the "Conversions Room" at the Professional Development Building in April 2015.

When Illinois State staffer Bridget Curl and her team want to celebrate, they don’t have time to decorate the office, munch on cake, and toast their achievements.

“We do a 5-second clap pause, and then we move on,” said Curl.

Curl is one of 700+ Illinois State staffers who’ve worked on LEAPForward, a multiyear upgrade to the University’s behind-the-scenes information infrastructure. Nearing its final stretch, “LEAP” is one of the largest construction projects in Illinois State history—built with 1s and 0s, not bricks and mortar.

Those working on LEAP have faced unusual pressure to meet tight deadlines and move the project forward. The long hours—4,000+ hours worked over winter break alone—have created a whatever-it-takes camaraderie, especially among those who work at LEAP’s headquarters inside the Professional Development Building (PDB).

“There is a lot of pressure on these people. These are not easy things,” said Matthew Helm, assistant vice president for Administrative Technologies. “Our staff members are making a big commitment.”

LEAP technically launched in 2011, although the past year has been crunch time. The new student information system (Campus Solutions) is now live, as well as a new application for Campus Housing and Dining services called StarRez. With class registration now underway on the new system, the next big milestone will take place next fall when grades are reported for the first time using Campus Solutions.

By the end of 2015, ISU’s antiquated mainframe will be deactivated, and its 44 applications replaced.

“We’re getting to the point in the project where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said University College’s Kirk Hines ’84, M.S. ’93, who is working on LEAP’s academic advising team.

Hines works in what’s called the “Big Room,” a giant cubicle-free workspace inside PDB that’s the nerve center for LEAP. Hines, Curl, and several other displaced ISU staffers are on loan to LEAP full-time, meaning they spend their entire workweek over in PDB, not their home offices.

LEAP staffers in the Big Room

Following daily stand-up meetings inside the “Big Room,” LEAP team members meet to discuss data conversions in the “Conversions Room.”

Most mornings start in the Big Room with a 15-minute, stand-up meeting where staffers give project updates. The rest of the time, it’s hectic, loud, and totally collaborative. If Curl has a question for someone on her financial aid team, she doesn’t send an email. She just looks across her desk.

“It’s easy to problem-solve, because you’re all right there,” said Curl, who will leave LEAP later this month and return to the Financial Aid Office full-time.

LEAP’s smaller teams bring together technical experts and those who know, for example, what kind of questions a student might have about transcripts. People who never would’ve crossed paths otherwise are building close relationships, said LEAP student records team member Amy Secretan ’08, M.S. ’10.

“I love everybody who works on this team,” said Secretan, who normally works in the Registrar’s office.

They’re in the trenches together—after-hours, on the weekends, or over break. Many of the biggest data migrations or other milestones have to be done off-hours. When the new Admissions application went live last fall, more than 70 staffers came in on the weekend to help it go as smooth as possible.

“It’s a lot more than the normal 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.,” said Helm.

Added Curl: “The dedication is incredible. I’m amazed. You get emails from people in the middle of the night, or the early morning hours. Then you come into work and they’re still there working hard.”

Those deadlines are why Curl’s team can’t spare more than 5 seconds for a tiny round of applause. Everybody’s in the same boat, says Secretan, and everybody wants to get it done correctly.

“A deadline is a deadline,” said Secretan, who also teaches in the School of Communication. “If you have to work until 10 o’clock at night to get things done, you have to work until 10 o’clock at night.”

ISU may host a larger celebration once the entire LEAP initiative nears completion. But for now, those on the ground are taking pride in their hard work and seeing LEAP approach the finish line—piece by piece.

“A lot of people have made a lot of sacrifices to make this thing happen,” said Hines, an academic advisor. “It’s important to try and get it right.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.

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