Ryerson goes Google

Photography by Joseph Hammond
Lighting assistant, Jacob Louvelle-Burt

[W]hen Brian Lesser was first hired at Ryerson’s Computing and Communication Centre in 1995, he noticed a problem: CCS wasn’t so much a service for students as it was a secretive department locked away underground.

“There was a problem with the email system, and I remember talking to my friends who were teaching, and they were enraged by these problems. My manager at the time said there were all of these things they were doing to fix the problem, but they weren’t telling people about it,” Lesser recalled. “There’s this tendency for IT teams to just look at problems from a technical level, and not from the view of the user. It’s one thing to say we can see some saturation in network access points, but it’s another to say people can’t do their work because of it.”

That’s just the kind of guy he is: a man with genuine interest and curiosity in the demands of students. When he assumed the position of director in 2010, he tried to change things around and incorporate that mentality to CCS management.

As we spoke, it became evident to me that Lesser not only possesses a clear grasp of customer service, but also understands the world he’s immersed himself into through the years.

In 1982, Lesser graduated from Ryerson’s Photographic Technology programme, no longer offered by the school. His degree earned him a job at Xerox Research, which exposed him to some of the big industry names, as well as concepts that flood the market today.

“I remember I could work on my desktop at work, which was huge at the time. I could drag and drop documents to printers in other rooms. And if I travelled, my desktop would follow me,” he explained. “Ubiquitous computing is what was happening then and it’s what is happening now. It’s interesting watching it evolve and becoming more pervasive, but this concept has been around since the 70s and 80s.”

Lesser also expressed surprise towards the way ad-fueled social media has come to be. But sites such as Twitter, Lesser said, are valuable when you’re in a position such as his.

One of Ryerson’s most active tweeters, Lesser uses the online platform as a tool to find some of the finer issues with CCS. On the WiFi complaint side, Lesser finds Twitter to be exceptionally useful – understandably so. Issues come up several times due to the number of mobile devices on campus has skyrocketing over the last couple of years.

“Social media helps us understand what’s going on. One thing you can do on Twitter is letting students know you’re working on the issue and giving them some tips, even if they may not be ideal,” he said. “If I actually reply to them even though they aren’t following me, sometimes I’ll get 60 or 70 percent of the people respond.”

On a normal morning, he’ll check Twitter early as he drinks his cup coffee and play catch-up in whatever ways he feels necessary, a luxury he won’t get a chance to have again until the end of the day.

That also means Lesser has little to no time to practice his other passion, photography.

Referring to photography as an addiction he is trying to control, Lesser says the things he enjoys doing with it take too long.

“One of the things I am fascinated by is taking a series of picture at different places or angles to create a collage. It can take hours to assemble one of those, and I make them every now and again. Because, otherwise, why is Ryerson paying me if I’m spending so much time with it?”

His days at work vary tremendously, but he was sure to let me know there is no such thing as normal day. Some days he might be booked with confidential meetings, while others he might be asked to sit at a hiring committee. Though, he admits one of his favourite job perks is sitting on the steering committee of the Digital Media Zone (DMZ).

The DMZ provides researchers and business entrepreneurs with funding and mentoring for media-related start-ups. And while the student pitches are never curveballs to Lesser, the packaging is sometimes a bit surprising.

“You see some ideas and think they couldn’t possibly work, but I often look back and figure I could be wrong. Nobody has a crystal ball. But are these smart, dedicated people that are really going to do something? I’m looking for really fabulous people that really want to dig in and do interesting stuff.”

The downside to being director: he gets to do a lot less of what he likes to do.

“I’m less involved in the operations now and more so in planning and budgeting. But in my working life, I’ve been happiest when I’m just left alone programming.”

And so it is that he responds to interviews somewhat allergically. The nervous laughter and constant shifting made it obvious that it is just not his element. But it was when we talked about what he loved that he started to open up.

Leading me through the expansive underground maze of cubicles that is CCS, Lesser showed some of the facility’s technology. Walking through impressive rooms filled with whirring routers and even louder ventilation, he chattered excitedly about the complex nature of CCS infrastructure.

But such complexity is part of the problem, he says. With a constant demand for new software and services such as Blackboard, the system becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

“One of the reasons we bought Blackboard is that teachers came to us and said they needed to be able to teach online or post notes.”

But he had no qualms admitting that Blackboard is not the most efficient programme, saying that plans for improving online academic tools are on the table. However, the university can only take so much change with the recent transition to Gmail.

Talks of adopting a new Email system began years ago before Lesser became director, and he believes Ryerson has finally found the key-in.

“Email has a long history here. We always held a sort of marginal system. That was a pain for the university. There was never ally an appetite to spend millions more on email. But at the same time, why can’t people share documents online? Why can’t people edit documents online? Where is York instant messaging? When Microsoft and Google start giving away these free services, we started to look into it.”

Lesser’s insistence on improving online platforms for the school stems, in part, from his own experience as a Ryerson professor. While it is easier to work in IT on technical terms, Lesser got a front row view of the obstacles sub-par services could pose and returned to fix them with great determination.

While he was teaching photography courses in the mid-90s, he pushed for more labs and updated software for Image Arts students.

“The computer labs made available by CCS at the time were old. Students were so frustrated that they were vandalizing them,” Lesser recalled. “Over a period of years we were able to get to the point where we were replacing one third of the equipment every year.”

Happy with the updated work areas, Lesser asked students what they though of them. All he got were shrugs and nods. And it was in that instant he realized that this was success.

“Success in IT is when people take things for granted,” he said.

But IT world rarely works smoothly, and things will continue to go wrong.

“The worst part is when we offer crappy service. If a student can’t connect in the library, that’s really bad. It means they can’t do their work. You just feel wretched, and you feel like you’ve totally failed those people. In a sense, you really have,” he said. But even when you get things working again, it’s not the end of it. Nobody is going to write me a hundred million cheque to completely revamp things. It needs to be incremental.”

For Lesser, it’s all about keeping people in the loop.