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Taking the Bull by the Horns

Whether raising blue-ribbon livestock or developing the latest community source software, Lee Belarmino’s success is based on tackling new challenges.

Lee Belarmino

Belarmino on community source:
"What’s important are your ideas, your ability
to produce and get along with the community."

Lee Belarmino isn’t timid about embarking on new adventures, and his career reflects that. At Educause 2005, he gave a talk called, “Community Source ERP: What? Are You Crazy?” Belarmino and his peers at San Joaquin Delta College (CA) have since been instrumental in the development of Kuali financials, the first bold step for community source administrative software.

You’ve worked in information technology for many years. Could you tell us about your background? I’ve been at this for 40 years, starting in California’s Silicon Valley working for a large development service company. But I was ahead of my time with Silicon Valley burnout: I personally had to lay off a lot of good people, and that took its toll. So, I retreated over the Altamont [pass], bought a farm, and went to work at San Joaquin Delta College. I didn’t know much about farming or academia, but I was looking for a better quality of life for my family—I have four kids—and me.

Most of my tech friends said that I wouldn’t last long in academia, that I would be bored and come back with my tail between my legs. But that never happened; I’ve always been super-stimulated. I’m in charge of all the technology at the college—not only the business problems, but the academic. It’s been wonderful. And our family ended up raising rodeo bulls, which keeps me well balanced, between working with technology and living on the farm.

Is there a connection between learning about farming and jumping into higher ed? Is it all about “taking the bull by the horns”? It’s true! You just have to learn to be aggressive and learn the hard way.

What transferred well from your experience in industry? My orientation and foundation is built on development, on providing services to our customers. And I still believe in a very strong ethic of service. Being in charge of instructional as well as administrative IT at Delta, I figured out that ultimately, everything— from registration and computer labs, to back-end processes—has to help the students.

You developed an in-house administrative system for the college, which earned a lot of recognition. Can you tell us more about how that came about? The business systems were not working, and that had to change. But we weren’t just interested in the latest technology for technology’s sake, so we protected our legacy investment in processing on a very large mainframe Unisys system while we did our research on all the major players in the administrative world. We found the choices extremely pricey for what they were delivering. So, we developed our own administrative system—almost a full suite: a student information system, a human resources system, and a payroll system. As the first large-scale administrative system based on objectoriented development, it took a number of industry awards. We do have an off-the-shelf Oracle financial system, though.

Did that development work help lead to your current involvement in Kuali? As part of succession planning, we completed a more recent scan of available administrative packages, which really haven’t made much progress. They’re still monolithic systems; one size fits all. And you can’t get your own functionality, so you end up changing your business processes or changing the system greatly. I was very discouraged by that.

Then, in December 2004, Delta President Raúl Rodríguez and I attended the Open Source Summit [see here] in Scottsdale, AZ, hosted by rSmart. We went to the presentation on Sakai, and things just started clicking. While there, we went to lunch with John Robinson, the founder of rSmart, and Barry Walsh, [director of university information systems] from Indiana University. Barry told the story of Kuali, and I told the story of our development at Delta. Little did either side realize, we were really interviewing each other. After about 20 minutes, Barry said, “What are your thoughts about Kuali?” and our president said, “We’ll do it!”

How d'es that fit into Delta’s priorities? Your institution now has a big commitment as a founding partner in Kuali; is that a risk? Well, it’s a half million dollars, between funds and dedicated resources. But when we looked at our strategic goals for the year, out of 250 initiatives, Kuali came up number one, and it was funded. Obviously, a lot of this had to do with Dr. Rodríguez’s passion for it. But, as he says, Oracle and PeopleSoft have been around for maybe 15 or 20 years at the most. Our partner schools like Indiana University have been around for 160 years, and Delta has been around for 60. So, we’re not worried that Indiana, Cornell (NY), or the others are going to go out of business any time soon. In that sense [community source is] actually more secure than going to a vendor.

What has your institution’s Kuali partnership experience been like, thus far? Initially, we thought we might get swallowed up by the large universities involved. But it’s clear to us now that it’s a level playing field. What’s important are your ideas, your ability to produce, and how you get along with the community. We have more than held our own. Another good thing: We’ve found that Kuali is totally driven by the functional people. They decide how the system should operate and behave, and the developers have to come through.

What’s happening at this point in time with Kuali? We’ve completed our first deliverable, which is our test drive. The approach is service-oriented architecture, where you can tailor the system to your needs and you have the ability to change. And we’ve eliminated anything proprietary: You can get everything you need for Kuali development, free. By July ’07 or early ’08, we’ll have a full-fledged financial system, ready to install.

What about a community source student information system? Is that a possibility, and if so, will Delta be part of that effort? We believe this is the big one, and one we are anxious to do. We’ve had a number of meetings with the other interested schools about whether it’s feasible to build an SIS in pure service-oriented architecture and what kind of attention it would attract. Responses were quite positive. Plus, we’ve identified vendors who may be willing to partner with us on open source code, so we won’t be starting from scratch. But without question, Delta will be part of this next initiative.

Do you feel you’ll continue to “take the bull by the horns” as you approach new challenges like a community source student information system? My president and I have a great partnership, and our team at the college is so good; they’re the ones making this happen. It’s a passion, how much we believe in [community source]. We all believe that we’re onto something big.

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