From idea to reality: ESSIC’s Content Management System released

COLLEGE PARK, Md.- ESSIC’s long-awaited Content Management System (CMS) was released for general use today. The initial planning and subsequent development of the system (Site Version #: ESSIC, v1.0) has been many months in the making, according to ESSIC IT Manager Mark Baith.

“Conceptually, the idea of a CMS dates back almost two years,” Baith stated.  “We dipped our toes into the water during the summer of 2010 and realized then that we’d need skilled, dedicated people to pull this off.”

ESSIC management gave Baith the go-ahead to assemble a small team in fall 2010.  After some difficulties, he pulled together a team that could meet the demands of the center’s ever-growing IT infrastructure needs.

“We were really sort of dumb-founded initially with the lack of attention our ads seemed to be receiving,” Baith said.

Baith worked with ESSIC Business Office Director Jean La Fonta to circulate wanted ads in mainstream job venues like the Washington Post.  In the end, it required six months to staff the positions, now manned by Web Applications Developer Travis Swaim and Windows & IT infrastructure Manager Mike Maddox.

As the development process got underway in spring 2011, the underlying theme and operational approach to the site began to take shape.

“We knew that a CMS was a commonly used technology for online publishing systems,” Baith said.  “We wanted to leverage against those inherent capabilities.”

A Content Management System is a collaborative type of website, where users can modify content from the central page. Essentially, ESSIC faculty and staff needed the ability to login to a site and maintain some of their own content.  At the same time, there would also be a Center-level journalism and news gathering component that would also require maintenance.

As the site development unfolded, neither Baith or Swaim saw themselves as being able to deliver the centralized content-stream a CMS requires, Baith said.

“We came up with the notion of students,” Baith said.  “But we knew we needed a different type of student, not the ‘techie types’ usually associated with an IT group.”

Baith tasked Swaim to begin sending out “feelers” to undergraduate and graduate departments, like the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and English Department. The group was looking for students writers who could be “Web Journalist” for the website.

In the end, Baith and the team selected journalism students Wynne Anderson and Ellen Stodola for the position, taking on two students instead of the original plan for just one.

By the fall 2011, all aspects of the team were in place, but site development was far from complete.  Baith knew that they needed to implement an operational methodology in order to get anything done.

“We somehow began functioning like a “news room” almost from day one,” Baith said.

They began trolling the old ESSIC website for content to carry over, as well as scheduling faculty interviews and looking for current events.

“Wynne and Ellen both displayed a maturity and journalistic knowledge base, that really speaks volumes about each of them individually, as well as Merrill’s overall program,” Baith said.

An emphasis was placed on content development throughout the formation of the site, Baith said, which paid off closer to publishing day.

“I think our users will see and appreciate a site ‘maturity’ on launch, that would have been impossible to have achieved otherwise.”

Still, Baith did endure some good-natured ribbing from friends and colleagues, like ESSIC’s Andy Negri and Raghu Murtugudde, about the lengthy site development process.

“I think everyone could see that we were working furiously on something,” Baith said. “But I can also understand how it might have appeared that we were chasing our tails a bit.”

Baith had been adamant about keeping a tight lid on the site development phase, based on past site build experience.

“I started kidding people that we were actually doing something clandestine for a neighboring Federal installation, under the guise of the ESSIC web refresh,” Baith said.

As the system neared completion, Baith praised ESSIC Web Application Developer Travis Swaim as the “MVP” of the project, and called IT Helpdesk Manager Mike Maddox the project’s unsung hero.

“Mike really stepped-up and kept our IT operational support mission on target,” Baith said. “Without his dedication and quick job maturity, we couldn’t have dedicated the resources we needed on the site development front.”

Baith also appreciated ESSIC Director Antonio Busalacchi and Deputy Director Phil Arkin for their commitment in bringing the technology to ESSIC, particularly when third-party outsourcing of web-sites has become almost the status quo.

“We’ve already been asked what’s required to do this and my immediate response is a commitment from management,” Baith said.  “Without Tony’s and Phil’s trust and belief that a site of this type held value for ESSIC, it never would’ve gotten off the ground.”