by James Hutchinson

UWS farewells public service veteran

Mar 15, 2011
CareersEducation IndustryGovernment

Mick Houlahan is tired.

After 20 years at the helm of information systems at the University of Western Sydney, the IT director will retire this week. The trials of the past two decades, however, are likely to retain their mark on his memory for some time.

Houlahan came to the University of Western Sydney in 1991, already armed with 20 years of experience in the public service. He had toughed it out as a programmer in the Department of Education during the dawning years of the 1970s, had helped integrate some of the first bespoke software for the NSW Department of Health (then the Health Commission of New South Wales) and managed computer and information systems over at both the Department of Agriculture and Fishers and NSW TAFE institutions.

But the University of Western Sydney was a different beast altogether. It may have been a university in name, but in 1991 the institution wasn’t a single body; each of its three campuses operated independently. Each had its own IT manager — as well as a central manager at Westmead — with their own IT teams, integrating different systems separately and often in opposition to each other.

Worse yet, the Nepean campus had one of the slowest technology adoption rates among universities at the time.

“When I walked in on my first day I thought I’d stepped back in time about 10 years technology-wise,” Houlahan remembers, not so fondly.

The view was bleak. A single computer lab equipped with Rainbow computers — Digital Electronic Corporation’s infamously unsuccessful move into the desktop PC market — was already obsolete upon Houlahan’s arrival. Then there were the servers, which IT staff maintained by keeping physical batch backups that had to be restarted from a specific point when they fell over. There was no networking between buildings, let alone campuses.

Houlahan clearly had a job ahead of him.

“When I took on the job the boss said ‘we need help’. While I didn’t quite have an unlimited budget, there was a lot of support from her.”

As one of his first tasks, Houlahan oversaw a five-year project to link buildings by Ethernet and connect the Nepean campus to the Australian Academic Research Network (AARNet) at a rate of two megabits per second (Mbps) over leased Telstra lines that cost up to $50,000 per year at the time.

Engineers at the university also began hand-building and deploying short-length microwave links, first a 200-metre link between the north and south campuses at Westmead and, later, a wider Sydney-wide link connecting campuses at Campbelltown, Bankstown, Penrith, Westmead and the along the Hawkesbury.

“There was funding identified off the top to fund uni-wide initiatives,” he says. “The AARNet was one of the early ones… there was a push towards having university-wide systems. There was a lot of resistance from the members.”

The first attempts at conformation of IT systems came in the form of a shared services arrangement between UWS and a consortium of 12 universities that led to a deployment of Oracle database and financial systems, as well as the Callista student management system developed at the time by Deakin University.

According to Houlahan, however, the most taxing aspect of his career is what is simply known among university staff as “the amalgamation”. Overcoming the political struggles between staff and campuses, the university finally became a single entity toward the end of 2000, leading to the sacking of individual IT managers and Houlahan’s move to become university-wide IT director, a position he has held since.

But the promotion and accompanying pay rise did little to soothe the pain that followed — the new IT team, formed from the remnants of each of the three campuses, had six weeks to deploy Novell on PCs at the Macarthur campus, at the time the least compatible of the three campuses in terms of infrastructure.

“My overriding instruction was that a student at any campus could enjoy the same degree of service,” he says. “I got the job in June 2000 and the go-live was January 2001, so in six months we had to do a lot of re-engineering.”

An IT review in 2006 and a restructure across the division in 2009 also proved to be major challenges, ones Houlahan admits lead to a slow-down in the university’s ability to adapt to changing student behaviour.

But across the different trials and challenges the university has faced over the past 20 years, perhaps the most remarkable thing is the number of support staff hasn’t significantly changed. Despite a near-doubling of students at the Nepean campus alone since Houlahan joined, about 150 IT staff continue to support a portfolio of applications that has grown from 35 to 140 in the past seven years.

It’s one of the reasons Houlahan is looking to make his exit from the industry. For him, IT as a whole has changed from a “techie” area to one where the politics and personnel management take priority.

“[It’s] moving more and more towards that sort of service-based approach,” he says. “In the 90s you didn’t have a lot of demand from the business to be able to respond quickly to service requests.

“The expectation is IT will be able to help with all of this stuff — in other words if I have a problem, I’ll ring you and you’ll help me out.”

In other words, Houlahan is tired. He’s proud of the achievements that he and his team have contributed to and overseen, but the changing face of IT and the chief information role has become a different animal to the one he is used to.

“When the crunch started to kick in, it stopped being fun,” he says. “It [has become] a case of trying to manage expectations and budgets and people; it’s the job, but it wasn’t the job I got into IT for 40 years ago.”

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