As Co-Founder and CTO of EdSmart, David draws from over 20 years’
experience as a technology leader, investor, entrepreneur and contractor to
global Internet and technology businesses. Prior to his focus on technology,
he worked in arts and entertainment management. He was also Co-Founder
of ArtsHub, the leading online home for arts and cultural workers in Australia,
New Zealand and the UK and, consequently, was featured in the book 50 Great
eBusinesses and the Minds Behind Them (Random House 2007).
EdSmart's Chief Technology Officer takes some time away from wrangling code to give us an overview of our year in technology.
Walk into the EdSmart office and you’ll see a bunch of people sitting at the benches with their heads down and headphones on tapping away at keyboards – or, if it’s me, scowling at some line of misbehaving code!
It’s a strange dichotomy between this sedate environment and our online world because, every moment of the day, the EdSmart platform is interacting with thousands of people around the world. Which is why, from time to time, I post various usage metrics, analytics and statistics to our internal Slack channel to remind everyone at EdSmart just how many people we touch on a daily basis.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people use EdSmart for millions of things – parents submit consent forms; students select their subjects; staff apply for leave; prospective parents apply to enrol their child. And we endeavour to provide the best possible experience to everyone all of the time.
It’s a fascinating challenge to maintain the EdSmart platform and I’m proud of the work we do literally keeping tens of thousands of people happy every day.
Do we get it right all the time? No. One of my biggest tasks as Chief Technology Officer is balancing all the resources – people, technology, cost and time. I have a finite amount of each available, and a million demands pulling us in all directions.
2019 has been a huge year for EdSmart so I thought I would highlight some of the technology projects we’ve undertaken. As a cloud-based system, with continuous deployment development methodologies, we literally push software changes every day; often tiny, little things, maybe an esoteric bug fix, or something silly like a typo.
But along with the minuscule are the big picture engineering projects.
2019 has been the year for rebuilding our data processing platform from the ground up.
Every day, we are reading data from hundreds of sources, and ingesting it into EdSmart to ensure we are holding the latest copy of data from our customers for their students, parents and staff. The total floats around but, generally, that means a daily load of around 100 million individual data elements – phone numbers, names, classes, subjects, emails.
Towards the end of 2018, our old processing platform was really starting to struggle, taking way too long to process each school, no matter how much processor power we threw at it. And this also had a big impact on our hosting costs – not a good thing when we are trying to keep our subscription fees to an affordable level.
In 2019, we completely reimagined how we process data using a bunch of resources available to us via Microsoft Azure to – in the words of our Lead Developer – “stream data transformation and database writes at the database entity collection level with a high degree of parallelism sufficient to provide massive scale-out capabilities when on a platform with the appropriate scaling and provisioning agility.”
For those who speak English, as opposed to 'techgibberish', this means we decreased the processing time for even large schools to a couple of minutes. We can now process an almost infinite number of schools at the same time, and we massively reduced the load on our database.
Twice a year, we hire a security contractor to try and break into EdSmart.
This security contractors conduct both authorised and unauthorised testing. Authorised means we provide them with a username and password into a test school, and they endeavour to access data that a user is not authorised to see. Unauthorised means they just have an URL to EdSmart and then they try using a whole range of nefarious techniques to break into our system and access data.
They also review a wide range of configuration, privacy and security settings.
After these contractors do their best to hack us, we receive an exhaustively detailed report, highlighting any issues of concern, rated from Low to High so we can take prompt action to remediate anything deemed to be of significance, which is usually all the High and Medium ratings. Low issues tend to be minor although, if practicable, we will take action.
We went through a round of testing earlier this year, and we are in the middle of another round as I write this overview. I should make the point that the testing is conducted on a copy of EdSmart, not the main customer instance. We have an exact copy of the EdSmart production platform they use, so at no time are they potentially accessing live customer data.
Azure Hybrid Connector
We ingest data to EdSmart from a range of sources, including direct connections to databases at the schools.
In 2019, we have been standardising on using Azure Hybrid Connector to achieve secure and easy data connections without schools needing to open special access on their firewalls. It’s a great piece of kit, super easy for a school to set up, and enables secure transport of data between us and a school over the 443 SSL port.
One of our projects for the next couple of months is to encourage all our schools with whom we have a direct connection to migrate over to AHC.
Conditional Fields and Validations
For a long time, we’ve been wanting to introduce more dynamism to our forms and, this year, we released two important pieces of this puzzle. Field validations allows you to decide what type of data should be entered into a field – for example, to ensure that the value is a number, or an email, or a certain length of text.
Conditional fields creates dynamic behaviour based on what values are selected for fields. For example, if a particular option on a drop-down list is selected, another field becomes visible, or required, or both.
In 2019, we have been proud to partner with CompliSpace to integrate their SafeTripBuilder risk assessment tool into EdSmart’s forms.
SafeTripBuilder is the easy way for your school to achieve consistent, complete and correct excursion risk assessments. It generates a specific risk assessment for each excursion your school undertakes.
The SafeTripBuilder form acts just like any other EdSmart form, complete with workflows, and can be added as part of an EdSmart Process.
We’ve also launched a partnership with School EasyPay to enable credit card payments on EdSmart forms.
School EasyPay is already used by many schools to manage transactions, such as periodic school fee debits, so they are well versed in working in schools. There are no set-up or ongoing fees for School EasyPay, nor does your school require a merchant account. It’s all handled by the School EasyPay service.
This is a terrific, low cost way for Australian schools to captures credit card payments from parents as part of an EdSmart form.
Each year, we take advantage of the quieter periods in December and January to work on our ‘Christmas List’ – a set of projects where we look at tackling engineering work that might not be possible at the height of the busy months of the year.
During this year's season, much of our projects are focused on performance improvements and getting ahead of our scaling needs.
We're putting the building blocks in place for a fantastic 2020!