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Strategic Directions | Feature

A Foundation, a Company, and an Enduring Community at Kuali Days 2016

A Q&A with Jennifer Foutty

While the conference and the community that developed the original software and pioneered the Kuali movement have been active for more than 12 years, it's been only two years since the advent of Kuali as a new company — now, the software is being developed and offered through a separate, for profit entity. That must have been a big change for the community, which had been creating the administrative suite collaboratively through the nonprofit Kuali Foundation. But the Kuali Foundation's Executive Director Jennifer Foutty says the Kuali community is going strong. She explains that Kuali is now made up of a foundation, a company, and old and new customers, and that all complement each other, both at the annual Kuali conference and throughout the year.

Mary Grush: We're coming up on Kuali Days 2016, November 14-18 in San Diego. How long has the Kuali Days event been running?

Jennifer Foutty: The Kuali Days conference started out a dozen years ago — the first one was back in 2004.

Grush: At the conference or even just as an observer of Kuali, will I notice anything different now about the Kuali movement, which had its beginnings in the early 2000s?

Foutty: You may notice that Kuali now has more distinctly different components, but they all work well together and complement each other. The new way of operating may only be about two years old, but we are learning as we go, how to work together even better.

Grush: What are the key components of the Kuali movement as you see it today? What are the important changes — over the past two years — in how the community interacts and is involved with Kuali?

Foutty: One of those key components is the Kuali Foundation, and being a part of that is very much the way it has always been for institutions. They can become members, get involved, and potentially contribute resources to one or more of the products — Financials, Research, or Student. These may be important technical resources, as this is not merely a vendor user group. Our members generally become very engaged. Many may sit down monthly or even weekly with the company to talk about implementation or to be involved in designing and testing the software. This engaged partnership with our members is as it always was.

So, that community component on the Foundation side still exists. It's alive and well. About 60 schools are now involved with the Foundation in these not for profit collaborative activities.

Of course, Kuali Days is important to this Foundation component, so I'll talk about Kuali Days more in a bit.

The second component of Kuali now, is the company. The company is made up of really solid engineers, who are recruited just to do this kind of work: making excellent software for higher education.

The real impact of the change that happened two years ago when the company came on board, is that the actual software development is done, and the user experience is created and managed by the company. This highly elevates our effectiveness and our ability to deliver what most universities want.

Having the company do the development means we do it much more quickly in terms of delivery. One of the things we had with Kuali before the company came on board, was that our development pace was quite slow. We wanted to speed that up, and we have done that.

And a third, flourishing element of Kuali is our cloud customers. This was an important expansion for us: The company now provides these products to many schools in the cloud for a fee, and so we have a large and growing number of additional schools engaged, enhancing our community. Of course, our old customers may also decide to use the cloud services, so we see overlap there. But the new users and our pioneers are both going strong.

Those are three main components of Kuali and the Kuali community. They work together not just once a year at a user event — they are always engaged.

Grush: Can Kuali Days offer a place for all these elements?

Foutty: Definitely. What's exciting about Kuali Days is that all of these components can come together and work together, and we can make sure that will happen in ways that are important to all of them.

For example, there is a group that told us they wanted a more technical track this year, and we heard them: So, in San Diego this year, we are going to have two different tracks for technology: one for people who provide the operational support for these products on their campus, and another more technical track that we're calling DevCon — the developer conference track. I think before we made our pivot two years ago we might have been moving into some silo issues. We want to be one community across product, functional and technology, and in all different user areas of the technology.

Grush: What do you have at the conference for institutions that may be new to Kuali or just considering it?

Foutty: We want to bring our community together for the people who have been here a while and have worked on the product. But of course we are also most interested in expanding Kuali and talking to people who want to "kick the tires". So we have a newcomers' reception, which is well attended by people who are there for the first time. They get an introduction across the board — who we are, what we do, and what things look like. They get assigned an ambassador, so they have someone who can guide them through what the best sessions are, depending upon their particular needs and wants. We always have introductory sessions to our products as well as more advanced sessions. And lastly, we have an executive track — many of the tire kickers are the CIO, or the vice provost, or maybe the AVP for research… these are mostly CXO people who just want to get an overview of Kuali and our roadmap.

Grush: What might you want to show people who are new to Kuali? I've always heard that a key message is "by education for education".

Foutty: We want to show people who haven't yet been part of the community why we think Kuali is a really good idea. There are some very distinct and unique aspects to Kuali. The community of course is one of those aspects. A couple other things, though, stand out.

We are brand new; new technology. Not all, but certainly most of the other big software vendors are based on products that have been around for years. But because our technology is new, this allows us to be very nimble in the way the technology can be implemented.

And Kuali is extremely modular. You don't have to implement a mammoth system in a 'big bang' kind of way — doing that is too expensive and risky. Because Kuali is so modular, it is much more efficient, and a safer investment. For example, for Kuali Student, you might choose to begin with Curriculum Management, and later move on with Enrollment management, or maybe Financial Aid… or you could do them all together. It's the same with Financials. You might do the Budget area first, then do the General Ledger, followed later by Accounts Payable… and so on. It's modular and it's built around configurable code, which means that you won't need to customize it — so you won't get stuck at some point having difficulty to upgrade.

All these things work together, and because it's new technology it makes the risk so much lower and the installation easier, among other advantages. It's really the way to go for higher education… You are not customizing mammoth software that was originally intended for other markets — the products are in fact 'by higher education for higher education'.

Twelve years ago, the Kuali community had a vision, which included software that was modular, developed by education for education, that would allow institutions to save costs on administrative systems and spend more on their missions of teaching and research. That original vision is the same today. This is really the right thing for higher education, and we just need to communicate these and other points to show institutions that might join us what Kuali is all about.

Grush: What are some of the other highlights or hot topics of Kuali Days this year?

Foutty: One of them is that Financials has at this point been installed in some institutions for nearly 10 years. Thirteen of these — institutions of all different sizes — have shown us that they've had better audits than ever. So, the story around the Financial system is really strong.

The story around the Research system is also very strong: We have more attendees signed up right now, for Research, than for anything else. One reason is that the market is so spare. And Kuali is rich in functionality for research administration.

But I think the biggest story is that Kuali Student is now really moving along in planning its roadmap for delivery. This is something that people had been waiting on earlier, for about 4 or 5 years… Finally, when the company came along, we were able to accelerate our development. At Educause, you may hear some preliminary information, but Kuali Days will have some specific announcements that people are going to get really excited about.

Grush: Do you see a bright future for Kuali, and many more Kuali Days to come?

Foutty: Yes! Kuali is evolving. When we started out more than 12 years ago we had a vision for colleges and universities to spend less on administration, and more on teaching and research. That hasn't changed. We are still open source and there is no vendor lock-in. In the past two years since the inception of the company, we've made a push into cloud delivery, elevated the user/customer experience, and placed software development squarely in the company. But our community values haven't changed, and the Kuali Foundation is still engaging the community. The institutions fund innovation, set direction, engage in setting priorities, provide feedback, and donate code and technical resources. This community is thriving.

Kuali has grown to more than 150 institutional customers. The development pace has quickened. And the user experience is better than ever. I expect to see much more growth and product evolution in the next few years, and yes, many more Kuali Days to come.


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