Robin Beck


For information and computer systems that respond to your changing needs, thank the new vice president for Information Systems and Computing.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Robin Beck has no high-tech computer controls in her house. She turns the lights on and off manually. But Beck has spent this year overseeing and advancing the technology that makes life better for every sector of the University. In recognition of her technology management know-how, she has just been named vice president for Information Systems and Computing (ISC), Penn’s central computing office.

ISC is the outfit that operates PennNet for getting us all on the Internet and updates Penn InTouch software to improve how students register for class. It’s the outfit that updates software to improve how researchers can network and how donors can donate via the Web.

Beck, who has been at Penn and at ISC for 11 years, patiently answered our low-tech questions about a part of the University that’s so seamlessly integrated into how we all function that we only think about it when our voice mail fails or our computer stops computing.

And she told us about some of the innovations ISC developed this year and gave us a quick peek at an innovation coming up soon.

Q. What does ISC do?
We provide the leadership, the products and the services that insure that a student can look at their financial information, a business administrator can look at their department’s budget, a P.I. [primary investigator in a research project] can look at the status of their grant. So when you click into your PennNet port, that’s all provided by ISC. It’s your telephone. It’s the Penn video network.

Q. My telephone?
We run the telecom system. And PennNet is the network connectivity that allows Penn’s 200, or however many, buildings to use networking capabilities within Penn and gateways out to the Internet. And that’s how students register, that’s how you look at the information about the “Campus Buzz” for the Current. You put that out on the Penn Web. That’s all the responsibility of ISC.

Q. So what’s new this year at ISC?
In development and alumni relations, this past year we implemented what we call on-line giving. I think in the first five months of operation donors from over 19 countries worldwide made a donation to Penn via the Web with a credit card.
Planning and understanding that and then developing the software, testing it, ensuring the network connectivity is there to allow that access is very much what we do.

Q. Did it raise the fundraising take?
I can’t answer that question, but in today’s world, having that kind of convenience, of not filling out paper, not having to go back and forth could facilitate the more impulsive gift.

Q. Do other universities have a similar system?
Some do and some don’t. Stanford does for example.
I have a network example I’d like to give you.
One of the very forward-looking, interesting achievements of ISC this past year is the work that we’ve been doing with Internet 2. Internet 2 is the next generation of the Internet, providing much broader bandwidth and speed than our current Internet

Q. What do the speed and broader bandwidth gain you?
One of the demonstration projects that we did with Internet 2 this past year is what we called the French Project. This was a collaborative project between students of Wharton and SAS and the University of Grenoble in France, a business case study on whether Kentucky Fried Chicken should open a franchise in Grenoble. The students videoconferenced their collaborative work via Internet 2.
If you’ve ever participated in videoconferencing, one of the things that you become very aware of is the delay between hearing the voice and watching the people’s facial expression. With Internet 2 you don’t see that lag.
Researchers, particularly, as they embed more and more imaging into their research and share images, need broad-band capability on their network, and that’s what Internet 2 brings. You can do streaming video, you can do dimensional kinds of things.

Q. So ISC creates the computer systems that the University needs to do all of its business?
Researchers want ubiquitous network connectivity wherever they are.
We all want information access. We want to be able to look at “Campus Buzz,” or look at the Almanac or do research. A business administrator wants to purchase goods or services and shortly they’ll be able to do that from an electronic catalog.
Students want to be able to perform their registration, look at their finances, drop and add courses, look at grades, and they don’t want to stand in line to do it, and they don’t want to do it on someone else’s schedule. They want to be able to do it when it’s convenient to them.
And business administrators want our administrative processes to be effective, to be efficient.
In today’s world, it’s very hard to think of performing even the most mundane tasks without using information technology. It has truly become part of our fabric. We don’t notice it. We’re not aware of how much we use it.

Q. Is it possible for the University’s computer systems to crash totally?
Anything is possible, but we have a very proactive disaster recovery program in which we have a data center [on campus] but we also have a backup center run by an outside vendor, so if the absolute disaster happened, we would, within days and in some cases within hours, be able to restore services on our mission-critical components. We test that capability at least twice a year.
And then we coordinate, provide orientation and support programs in collaboration with IT organizations in the schools and centers. We also work collaboratively with the innovative work done in information technology in the schools and centers.

Q. Work collaboratively on what?
The University runs a system called GRAM, Grant Reporting and Management. The original version of this system was developed in the School of Medicine to meet the needs of researchers within the school. It was innovative, it was very interesting, and it used centrally collected information from the data warehouse — ISC basically has a central repository of University data.
GRAM provides the financial status of a grant, so a P.I. via the Web can go in directly and look at what’s being spent on compensation against that grant, or equipment against that grant, etc., and have a clear sense of how expenses are being measured against the budget.
We then began to see it had applicability across all of the schools and for all researchers.
So there’s an example of innovation that began in a school, facilitated by the availability of information that we had centrally. We used that as a wonderful jumping up point for making those services available University-wide.

Q. This is one big job.
One of the reasons I was not hesitant to take on what at times seem like daunting responsibility is the real strength of people in ISC. This is a really good organization, and I’m enormously proud of everyone in it. My role is to be a facilitator, to insure that the people in ISC have the resources that they need to provide the superb service that we want to provide and that our customers expect.

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Originally published on September 13, 2001