Q&A With CIO John Bandy
Ask most chief information officers about their biggest challenges and top priorities, and you likely will hear about in-house technology issues such as upgrading the IT architecture or leveraging cloud computing to free up piles of money in IT budgets.
Not John Bandy. As CIO of Data Recognition Corporation, headquartered in Maple Grove, Bandy’s hands-on concerns have at least as much to do with DRC’s markets and its customers’ problems as with back-office IT work that keeps any modern corporation running smoothly.
DRC administers tests and surveys—both paper-based and online—for clients in business, government, and public education. The company helps design, manage, and score ownership surveys for Subaru and guest-satisfaction surveys for other corporate clients. For clients in the U.S. Department of Defense, it surveys active-duty military personnel on a variety of issues. On behalf of state education departments, DRC administers statewide tests for K–12 students from Alaska to Pennsylvania, with online assessments as part of the package in seven states. (The company currently is not involved in statewide testing in Minnesota.)
Bandy’s IT group doesn’t simply work behind the scenes to support DRC employees who make the business go. His troops are in the thick of the action. Take the education division, now DRC’s largest. “We’re a full-service assessment company,” Bandy says. “We do all of the test design, all of the [test] item construction, all of the form construction, all the manufacturing of paper products and paper booklets, all the processing of online test administration.” In addition, DRC hosts all of the servers, including web servers and database servers needed for students to log in.
DRC has a large number of subject-area experts, with content specialists in subjects such as reading, language arts, science, and math. Many of these experts are former classroom teachers. The content experts work with counterparts in state agencies and teachers to develop tests according to the standards that each state determines.
In his IT group, Bandy says, “we write software that supports the test-development folks. But we also do all of the reporting suites that are used by customers. We build the portals that they sign into. We work hand in hand with our internal folks—the psychometric, test development, marketing, and program management folks—to make sure we’re meeting all the requirements of the program. We put all that together, and then we work with the operations folks to get the deliverables out the door.”
In other words, he says, DRC’s information systems group “is not just focused on internal IS, like the ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems or the inventory systems. We do all of that, but we do the company’s actual products, as well.”
Direct involvement in the money-making parts of the business means that Bandy gets out of the building more often than many CIOs, meeting routinely with DRC’s clients and prospective clients. And it means something else: “One thing I really love about being the CIO of DRC,” he says, “is that I am at the table with all product decisions, with all business decisions. I give input into what I think is a good idea or not such a good idea.”
Bandy sat down recently to talk with Twin Cities Business about the joys and challenges of his role as a client-facing CIO.
Tell us a little about your background.
John Bandy: I’m 51. I graduated from the University of Iowa in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. I started right out of school in a programming job as a software developer at National Computer Systems in Iowa City. I began working in educational assessment, writing software, doing scoring routines and reporting routines. It was similar to the services we offer today at DRC, only with much older technology.
Then I worked for Johnson Controls in Milwaukee. And before coming to DRC I was with [dairy cooperative] Foremost Farms in Baraboo, Wis.
You came to DRC in 2005. Did you start as CIO?
JB: No, I started here as a director of application development. Then I moved to senior director, then to vice president, then to CIO. I’ve been CIO since 2010.
Explain what DRC does. And let’s leave educational testing for last.
JB: We have three primary areas of business. One is the survey business, which is where the company started in 1978. When we do online surveys, our IT group hosts and manages all the websites and databases, and we provide the necessary infrastructure.
Some of your survey customers are corporations, including Subaru and Trane. Others are state and federal government agencies. Can you name a few?
JB: Probably the biggest federal survey customer we have right now is [an arm of] the U.S. Defense Department. We survey active-duty military personnel on a whole variety of topics. We also survey people who just came back from active duty and [survey] spouses at home. The military is interested in a whole range of things that our troops and their families are facing.
That data, as you can imagine, is highly confidential. We have very strict security protocols we have to follow. It’s a significant IT challenge, making sure the data is very robustly protected.
And when you talk about security for these surveys, you mean stuff like heavy encryption?
JB: Actually, everything we do is encrypted everywhere. Even student information. Test questions and student responses are all encrypted on the wire and encrypted in transit. Security is an end-to-end thing with us. But for military purposes it goes much further.
The military imposes requirements on how devices are managed. You can’t use USB drives. You can’t “remote into” systems. You have to have the appropriate levels of firewalls. The patching always has to be current. Configurations have to be according to military specifications in terms of how hardened the servers and databases are. We have annual audits where a third-party company comes in and more or less attacks our system [to see if it can be hacked].
OK, so the survey business sounds pretty simple until you scratch the surface. DRC also has a document business. Is that essentially a printing operation?
JB: Yes, our second primary area is the document division. We produce paper documents with offset presses and high-speed digital scanners. Almost half the space in [DRC’s Maple Grove headquarters facility] is devoted to printing. We consume a lot of the documents internally for our survey business and our education business, but we also have outside clients. For instance, we work under a contract with the Internal Revenue Service to print all of the W-2s and 1099 forms for active U.S. military personnel.
Your third and largest line of business is in educational testing. The tests you’re concerned with are statewide standardized proficiency tests for K–12 education—are those “What should an eighth-grader know” kind of tests?
JB: Yes, we’re talking about those high-stakes tests that can determine whether a kid advances to the next grade or graduates from high school. Our clients in the education sector are state [departments of education]. We handle every aspect of testing, [including] psychometric analysis that makes sure all the test designs are valid, and all the score results are valid, and items all are testing the way they were designed to. Our information systems group is in the middle of providing products that are consumed by our state customers as well as by all the internal groups that support the testing process.
So in surveys and education, especially, your IT group functions as a central part of DRC’s core business?
JB: Exactly. If anything requires software, we do the product development. For customers, including state clients, we develop software for them, we host the software for them, we provide infrastructure. That’s all usually part of the contract.
And when the tests come back, we read the marks automatically via our large bank of scanners. We can do over 3 million sheets a day, just to give you an order of magnitude. We take it all through an editing process to make sure everything was done exactly as it was supposed to be. Then we apply scoring routines, crunch all that data, and start the process of putting results back on the website or printed on printed paper to deliver back to school systems.
Is your group responsible for all of DRC’s traditional internal IT functions, as well?
JB: Yes. Internally, we do the telecom system plus all the traditional IT stuff. The whole technology group reports up through me. So it’s all the routers, networks, wide area networks, local area networks, telecom, telephony, videoconferencing, cell phones, mobile devices—the whole nine yards of stuff to keep this company running.
In addition to that, we have significant infrastructure for our online testing and online survey components. Last year, we tested over 3 million kids online in the spring processing window.
The spring processing window?
JB: Our main business is education assessment, and the majority of assessments are administered in the spring, prior to school closing [for summer]. So from March to the end of May, that’s when our peak season is. We have a large temporary workforce that covers us in two areas. We have scoring folks who come in and help us score what we call constructed responses. If you take an assessment and it has a written response, a human reads that and applies scoring criteria. Those people work in seven scoring centers around the country. So that’s a large seasonal workforce that we have to support with IT services, including high security requirements to ensure that the content of tests isn’t disclosed inappropriately. We need a very robust, bulletproof system to support those large numbers of temporary workers.
Then there’s materials handling. Imagine getting all those test booklets out the door, then receiving them back in. So we have a large materials handling temporary workforce as well. We peak at about 4,000 people.
How is the IT function organized? Who does what?
JB: We have three primary groups that do application development. One is focused on outside projects, delivering things to outside customers. They build software, create and maintain websites, maintain databases, and things like that. We process a phenomenal amount of data.
Then another application development group is primarily focused on internal systems. They deal with our inventory management systems, our material-handling systems, our imaging systems—things that aren’t used directly by the customer but are used in the education-delivery process. The third group focuses more on core DRC functions—accounting, human resources, and other functions that we use to run our biz.
Aside from application development, I have a group focused on security compliance and another group focused on architecture and technology. Then the last one is kind of the operational delivery group. When reports need to be produced, or data has to be prepopulated into a website, for instance, that falls to our internal IS operational group.
Do you use any hardware or software tools that are specific to your industry?
JB: Industry-specific? Not really. We use the latest technologies that Microsoft has to offer. We use the latest technologies available in the open-source community—Java and Grails and Groovy. In the database world we use an open-source tool called MongoDB. It’s a NoSQL type of technology. We also use the traditional SQL server from Microsoft.
Where software is concerned, our challenges are coming more from the customer side. We have a lot more exposure now to the need to develop applications for a whole diversity of tablets—the iPads, the Androids, the Chromebooks.
As in “We want students in our state to be able to take tests on an iPad”?
JB: Correct. That’s where we’re developing new applications. We have an iPad version of our test engine that’s going into pilot testing. It’s like, “We have an app for that.”
If I ask about the biggest challenges you face as your company’s CIO, I get the feeling I won’t hear about internal IT issues, will I?
JB: We have to deal with the same IT issues as anyone else—the “bring your own device” kinds of topics, and “I want the latest version of Windows or Mac.” But that’s not what causes me to lose sleep.
My biggest challenge, right now, today, involves the IT implications of the national argument about how we’re going to measure our kids. Every time a new platform is released—a new iPad or a new Android—and a school district wants to use that, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to support that. And if we do, what’s the timeline for us to get it out the door?
From your point of view, does the question boil down to: Will it cost DRC so much to support this new platform that you’ll never get your money back from the investment?
JB: Right. And do we believe that this platform is going to stick? For instance, clearly the iPad will be around and tablets in general will be around for the foreseeable future. But you don’t want to make a large investment for something that might go away.
JB: One technology we did support, and still do support, was netbooks. They came on the horizon quickly and then disappeared almost as quickly because iPads and Chromebooks just kind of pushed them aside.
We’re to the point now of supporting the Android platform, but it took us a bit more study to get there because there are so many varieties. When you look at the iPad platform, there’s only one, it’s from Apple, and it’s very tightly controlled. But if you have two Androids, one a Samsung and the other a Motorola, they can behave very differently. We have to be very sure that no kid gets an unfair advantage or disadvantage because of the device they happen to use to take a test.