An update to Library and some other things

We loosed our latest release the evening of July 5th. It's a minor update with a number of tweaks and improvements to Library, ISIRs, and the Populi API.

Library


Now you can add images to resources as well as delete resources or individual copies. Also included: automatic barcode generation for resource copies. This feature finds the next available barcode number and adds it to the copy—so it works around your existing resource copies without you needing to double-check (you can also disable the barcode generator).

To enhance Populi Library's cataloging abilities, we also built in a Z39.50 search. Now when you add a resource, Populi Library fetches an image from Amazon.com and other resource data from a number of public Z39.50 servers. You can specify which servers you want it to search, add new ones, and even change the order Populi will search through.

We also gave you the ability to waive a Library fine!

API

Our biggest update ever to the Populi API really beefs it up. Now you can:

  • Add new people and check for duplicates
  • Add and remove roles, tags, contact info, and custom info fields for anyone in the system
  • Add and retrieve Prospect information
  • Retrieve information about recently updated people
  • Request and download backup copies of your Populi data

With the new API functions, you'll be able to add people, sync your Populi people with an external directory service, and send your Populi backups to external web applications to save and encrypt however you like. It also paves the way for us to do some other interesting things down the road...

Miscellany

We added CPS transaction numbers to ISIRs. This information lets the Populi ISIRs importer keep your data in better order. For instance, they prevent you from importing older data. We also organized the display of ISIRs data in various places by the CPS transaction number. This accompanies a number of other, more behind-the-scenes ISIRs improvements.

Additionally, this update is accompanied by some interface niggles and a number of bug fixes, tweaks, arcane performance changes, and so on.

Our own approach to outsourcing software (or, Sticking to what you're good at)

We recently posited that it makes a lot of sense for small schools to outsource IT-intensive assets like their information systems. We think so not just because our service lets you do that, but because it really does save a small college a lot of time, money, and software migraines. And besides, colleges exist to educate, not build software. Small organizations—colleges and software companies, for instance—should stick to their core competencies. It's a key part of embracing constraints.

At Populi, our core competency is providing college management software as a service. We do one thing (though, that one thing does a lot of different things), and it would be foolish to spread ourselves thin designing other software or maintaining other services.

We know this firsthand. Back in the emsi days, a programmer built the first version of the Populi help system. It consisted simply of a custom search that scanned a hand-coded, wiki-style knowledge base.

This worked okay... for a little while. The search did only one thing—it searched—and it still required our maintenance. And writing in a wiki knowledge base was about as much fun as getting caned with a bamboo rod.

More importantly, when Populi got going as an independent company, we knew a lot more about our customer support needs. We needed not just a searchable knowledge base, but also a way to efficiently channel support requests, embed training videos, get support metrics—and make support comprehensible to our users.

Now, we could have devoted one of our developers to expanding our custom search to do these other tasks. But that would have been to the considerable detriment of Populi itself. So, jettisoning the custom approach, we signed up with Zendesk. While Zendesk costs money—money we watch go out the door every month—those are dollars well-spent:

  • We don't have to divert people, time, and money away from Populi to build a support system.
  • Zendesk has a great API, so it integrates seamlessly with Populi—better, even, than our in-house custom search did.
  • Our customers get access to a great support tool—we believe Zendesk enhances the service we offer and helps us make good on some of our core company values.
  • Zendesk provides updates and support for their software, helping us improve what we offer our customers with zero effort on our part.

We've also outsourced* our project management and related tasks to the folks at 37signals, our accounting to Xero, and our email to Google Apps. While none of these are customer-facing like Zendesk, they nevertheless help Populi run a lot more smoothly, which frees us up to do what we need to do. It's safe to say that we pretty much can't live without them.

Sometimes, however, we find ourselves going in-house after using other software. For instance, we once used Freshbooks for invoicing, but now we route our customers to our in-Populi payment system. Now, Freshbooks is a great product,** and it really fit the bill for a time. But the same things that drove us to outsource other things—reduced cost and a better experience for our customers—drove us, in this case, to roll our own:

  • We were asking our customers to use Populi for their work, to view an invoice in Freshbooks, and make payment by yet some other means. This needed streamlining.
  • We couldn't offer automatic payments—something that's expected of web-based software.
  • We spent too much time manually creating invoices and troubleshooting problems; our new system cuts down on that, for instance, by showing you which students you were charged for.
  • There was too much room for manual error; for instance, we had to re-enter invoice amounts into our online banking every month in order to do ACH drafts.
  • The guts of the system were already there when we added online payments. It didn't take a lot of work to turn that into our own invoicing-and-payment system.

This post is subtitled, "Sticking to what you're good at"—both our use of Zendesk and our move away from Freshbooks were both done with this in mind. Zendesk makes Populi better by making it super-simple for our customers to get support. Scooting in-house for invoicing helped us simplify our customers' bill-paying experience, and gave us another opportunity to improve what we do.

In other words, we certainly don't preach outsourcing for outsourcing's sake. Outsource when it makes sense to—and, as we've already said, we think it makes sense for small schools to outsource their information systems (to us, hopefully!).

* Lemme just get this out of the way: when we say "outsourcing", we hope you know that we'll NEVER outsource development or support. Put another way, never outsource your core competencies!

** Our own Mark Ackerman says that Freshbooks "is nearly flawless."

Google Apps dropping support for some browsers August 1

Google recently announced that they'll be dropping Google Apps support for older browsers on August 1:

As of August 1st, we will discontinue support for the following browsers and their predecessors: Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 7, and Safari 3. In these older browsers you may have trouble using certain features in Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Docs and Google Sites, and eventually these apps may stop working entirely.

If there's one thing we always jump up and down about, it's that you should keep your browser updated. Browser updates improve security and functionality, and as more and more of our work moves to the web, this is more and more of a crucial issue. You could say we're pleased with Google's decision in this area because of the incremental improvement it may help bring to the web as a whole.

So, if you're using Google Apps for Education (with which we integrate, in case you didn't know), you'll need to make sure you're running an up-to-date version of a supported browser on August 1. That's about seven weeks away! To give you a leg up:

(Since we're giving you a leg up, we're not providing a link to download Internet Explorer... though we do support IE8 and IE9)

Our new Financial Aid features

In the wee hours of Wednesday, June 8, we released our overhaul of Populi Financial Aid into the wild after months of development, testing, and refinement. The new features (together with the U.S. Department of Ed's proprietary EdExpress software) will let your Financial Aid office handle the entire aid process—everything from importing ISIRs to managing aid applications to batch disbursement of funds. We previewed the new stuff in some recent posts; here's a summary of what we just released:

Navigation overhaul

All of Populi Financial has been moved over to the new tab-based layout, which clarifies the navigation (and works better on mobile devices).

Aid applications

We built out aid applications so your aid office can track FAFSA data for each applicant, attach files to applications, and interact with student applicants from the application or via email. Students can upload files, ask questions, and accept or decline awards.

ISIRs imports

The new ISIRs importer converts the gobbledygook text file into all kinds of useful information for your school. FAFSA data automatically creates aid applications. Updated files plug new data right into existing apps. You can even create new Prospects if you receive an ISIRs file for someone you haven't heard of before.

New workflows and reports

Use Populi Financial Aid to track Federal Work Study awards. Create batch disbursements and aid refunds. Automate your disbursement schedules for the entire aid year. A new academic progress report lets you find students in trouble. Existing reports have been combined and redesigned to give you a wider, more comprehensive look at your school's Financial Aid data.

Other stuff

As usual, we took the opportunity to work in some bugfixes and performance improvements. We've made some architecture changes that will enable us to do a lot of cool things with future development.

And Financial Aid now has its own forum in the Populi help desk.

Thoughts on outsourcing IT to us vs. going in-house

As we're wont to say here, we built Populi to put good software within reach of small colleges. We do that, in part, by giving them access to high-octane technology, otherwise out of reach to most schools, but made affordable by the wonders of economies of scale. This lets our customers offload much of their IT burden—infrastructure, processes, and maintenance—to us. Of course, there's more. Gliding atop those servers and databases and terabytes of storage is some elegant, easy-to-use, ever-improving software that helps a small school do more with its data. And, there's yet another layer: the people who use Populi have access to the people who run Populi. Need help with something? Wanna know how something works? Did something break? Support is always near at hand.

That, in a paragraph, is what's for sale here: high-end technology, excellent software, and people to back you up. And if it doesn't work for you, there's no long-term contract forcing you to continue.

Every now and then, we lose a sale not to an established competitor, but to a school's in-house IT staff. Now, don't get us wrong—if Populi doesn't fit, don't try to wear it (to abuse the old proverb). If a school needs something different than Populi, we're the last ones who'll try to talk you into signing up. But the decision, from what we've heard, usually has little to do with service or functionality. A lot of times when a school says, "We're gonna build it ourselves..." the next line is usually something like, "...because we wanna keep expenses down."*

Now, on the surface, this might make some sense. Your 400-student college didn't get that way without some sort of IT staff and technology investment. And if IT is already baked-in to your institution, then you already have a lot of what you need covered. A little extra development time, judicious use of free open-source technology, a stopgap Access database in the meantime...

Yeah, it could be done. But what will you end up with? Going by our experience, here's the bare minimum of what you'd need to build something comparable to Populi:

  1. A team of ten to twelve full-time employees.
  2. Ultra-conservatively, about a million bucks.
  3. Four years of continuous design, development, implementation, and refinement.
  4. A roadmap for the next several years of the same.
  5. Dedicated support staff, including a full-time writer to manage documentation (we'll assume you won't need to maintain a blog or a Twitter feed).
  6. A well thought-out approach to user interaction design.
  7. Top-end, incredibly secure servers, data centers, backups, file storage, etc.

Here's some of what you'd need to make the month-to-month cost comparable:

  1. No dedicated staff on your payroll (but wait... what about point #2, above?).
  2. Server and infrastructure costs shared among 90+ other colleges.
  3. The ability to deal with problems quickly so your operations don't grind to a halt.
  4. Nimble, proactive security protocols to ward off information thieves.
  5. Justin Bieber haircuts for your staff.**

Now, let's put this in stark economic terms. Say you take a look at what Populi would cost your 400-student college over a five-year period:

  • During the 9-month academic year, you're sending us $2,899 a month (under the Medium pricing plan)
  • During the 3-month Winter and/or Summer downtime, you opt for Small, and send us $199 a month.
  • So, for the year, $26,688. Over five years, you've parted with $133,440, give or take.

So, over five years, you've spent on Populi what you'd spend on—let's assume your saintly staff works for peanuts—three annual IT salaries. All you need now is another seven people, items 2-7 from the first list and 1-5 from the second list. And someone to take over what your three IT guys were doing before you pulled the trigger on a new, in-house system.

So, yeah: we built Populi to put good software within reach of small colleges... because the service we offer—taken as a whole—is generally out-of-reach by other means.

Post script: Read about our own approach to outsourcing software here. To summarize, don't outsource just to outsource—make it part of your strategy to focus on your core competencies.

*The decision to build in-house sometimes comes down to finances, but often also hinges on a perceived need for a different kind of feature or a different way of handling a certain workflow. We'll look at that in another blog post.

**Isaac and Toby like to get their hair cut every three days! It's a good thing that expense is spread out over 90-something customers.

Videos of some upcoming Financial Aid workflow changes

Covering Aid by Year, Batch Disbursement, ISIRs Imports, Aid Classifications, and Aid Year Schedules

We recently posted a brief rundown of the exciting new financial aid features we will soon release. And now, here's a couple of videos demonstrating how we are improving the process of adding and disbursing aid on student accounts. To summarize, currently we treat Financial Aid as a payment method managed strictly on a by-term basis. But soon Populi will let you handle Aid more accurately: you'll be able to manage awards on the by-year basis and manage disbursements on the by-term level. This will permit all kinds of really handy automations and ought to really speed up your financial workflows.