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- Took project from concept to production in 3 months
- Trained Folio personnel on Ruby on Rails best practices
- Guided client team on how to support and maintain the application moving forward
- Re-engaged a year later to add features, support, and maintenance
Driving past McDonogh, a private K-12 school in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, you’d see generous pastures rolling over the hills, and perhaps even newlyweds riding into the sunset in a horsedrawn carriage. But don’t let the setting fool you— McDonogh’s bucolic campus hosts an extremely modern approach to technology. For the last fifteen years, the school has drawn on its students’ and alumni’s software development talent to build applications for internal use.
One of these internal software development projects turned into the FolioCollaborative, an independent non-profit focused on building the best system to enhance and develop school faculty members. The Folio Collaborative maintains Folio, a software tool for facilitating that system through collecting goals, conversations, feedback, and other elements of a faculty member’s growth.
According to Tim Fish, Associate Headmaster for Enrollment Management and Strategic Affairs at McDonogh and Executive Director of the Folio Collaborative, the idea behind Folio grew from a committee of faculty and staff at McDonogh who were asked to design and new process for managing the evaluation and development of faculty and staff. The committee invented the Folio process which includes individual goal setting, anonymous feedback from students, and classroom observations. When the process design was complete, they realized that managing this process would be quite unwieldy—staff would be swimming in Google Docs, Word Docs, scribbled notes, and a giant mess of surveys.
So Fish and Jack Hardcastle, McDonogh’s Director of Technology, developed software in-house to manage the evaluation process. At first, they had no intention of expanding, but then a few other schools, as Fish put it, "begged us to build it in a way they could use." So McDonogh’s board started the Folio Collaborative.
Other schools couldn’t use what McDonogh already had because it was too customized to McDonogh. The Folio Collaborative wanted a flexible platform that would allow other schools to adapt Folio to their unique culture. Plus, McDonogh built the original app in ColdFusion. They wanted to build the external app with Ruby on Rails so that they’d have a larger developer community to draw from moving forward.
As the Folio Collaborative planned the expansion of the software, they realized they couldn’t build the product on their own. Hardcastle, who had played a big role in the initial software development couldn’t continue to play a big role, because he spends most of his time managing all technology on McDonogh’s campus (over 1,000 computers!). Yet the Folio Collaborative wanted to be able to bring the project in-house after the initial sprint of development. To accomplish this, the Folio Collaborative knew they would have to go beyond the typical software development firm.
The Folio Collaborative interviewed several Baltimore application development firms in addition to national firms, but SmartLogic stood out. Here are a few reasons why:
- The Folio Collaborative wanted to build on a Ruby platform, and SmartLogic’s Ruby expertise was clear.
- As Fish said, "We liked how SmartLogic approached things from a true engineering perspective." With SmartLogic, Fish knew the Folio Collaborative would have a stable framework to build upon.
- The Folio Collaborative was impressed with SmartLogic’s willingness to build a product that the Folio Collaborative could eventually manage internally. According to Fish, other firms wanted to "own, not literally, but intellectually, the process, so you’d need to keep coming back." SmartLogic, on the other hand, was happy to educate the Folio Collaborative so they could manage the software internally after the initial push.
- That SmartLogic is a Baltimore application development firm was very important to the Folio Collaborative, because, as Fish said, we "do everything we can to support Baltimore."
Key features included:
- Customizable profiles for teachers that include space to add goals, meetings, notes from observations, and custom fields.
- A feedback system that allows each school to create custom surveys for students, administrators, and other teachers.
- Robust reporting to show teachers and administrators survey and evaluation results, and compare those results to past years.
- A flexible data importation system so each school can add classes and rosters while maintaining their unique data fields.
Initially, the plan was for SmartLogic to start building the new version of Folio, and then hand the project off to the Folio Collaborative’s internal team. To accomplish this, SmartLogic encouraged the Folio Collaborative’s employees to work on-site and virtually with SmartLogic. As Fish said, SmartLogic was "resolute in the idea that they’re partnering for a sprint of development."
One of the ways they partnered was by colocation. According to Fish, SmartLogic, "almost required and really encouraged" the Folio Collaborative to co-locate their developer in SmartLogic’s office. This colocation made it easier for the Folio Collaborative and SmartLogic to work together, and helped the Folio Collaborative gain an understanding of their new application.
SmartLogic dove right into the project. Working together with the Folio Collaborative, they built the product in a quick twelve weeks.
The Next Phase
As planned, after delivery of the software, the Folio Collaborative brought development in-house. The Folio Collaborative quickly grew from serving just McDonogh and two beta testing schools up to twenty-three schools.
For a year, the team made small changes to Folio in-house but eventually felt they needed more engineering discipline and focus now that they were beyond serving just a few schools. The Folio Collaborative brought on Kim Fanto as Director of Technical Support and Software Evolution in-house, and reached back out to SmartLogic, who would now serve as engineering partners. SmartLogic started this new relationship by revamping Folio’s production system. SmartLogic now handles small fixes and feature enhancements on an as-needed basis, and focuses on adding major features every spring.
"They have been phenomenal," said Kim Fanto of working with SmartLogic, "Every day is a highlight for me." Of Dan Ivovich, Technical Lead at SmartLogic, Fanto said, "Dan is so on target with the philosophy and the mission of the Folio Collaborative, and really empathizes with how the system should work for the users."
Fanto, who has a technical background but limited experience with Ruby on Rails, frequently leans on SmartLogic to walk her through the architecture of the software. The Folio Collaborative is always impressed by SmartLogic’s openness and explanations of the technology at use.
Twenty-three schools are currently actively using Folio—that’s 2100 teachers around the country. Nine additional schools are signed up to begin using Folio soon.
In their ongoing role, SmartLogic has been proactive about ensuring that Folio is stable, yet constantly improving. For example, the Folio Collaborative set up demo schools to show the software to potential users. As they started to increase the number of demo schools, SmartLogic raised the concern that demo schools and training data were on production servers. That engineering discipline ensures that along with Fanto, SmartLogic is the "keeper of stability," as Fish described.
Additionally, SmartLogic has been very good about working with the Folio Collaborative’s budget. After all, the Folio Collaborative is a non-profit. Communication is at the forefront, and as Fish said, "they’ve been really good at working with us and listening to us."
One reason why Fish particularly enjoys working with SmartLogic is that "they approach things as engineers but they also understand our mission and come at it from being part of the greater good that we’re trying to do."
Fanto echoed Fish’s sentiments: "It’s a wonderful relationship that we have with SmartLogic."
You can read more about the Folio Collaborative Story on their website.