Meet the Winners of the 2018 IT Awards

Every year, the Office of the Vice Provost and Associate Vice President (Information Services & Technology) proudly sponsors five awards to celebrate the effort that staff, faculty, and students put into innovating the campus experience through the use of technology. We are pleased to highlight the winners of this year’s IT Awards, whose efforts were recognized at the IST All-Staff Departmental meeting on October 29th.

Ronnie Thengumpally, Team Lead, Identity and Application Support - IST

By all accounts, Thengumpally exemplifies the IT Unsung Hero Award which recognizes a non-academic staff member who has made a significant and largely unrecognized contribution to IT at the University of Alberta. A “well respected veteran of IST,” as one of his nominators refers to him, Ronnie began as an Analyst in 2011 within the team that he now leads.  His colleagues and nominators would credit his special prowess as his ability to drive the quality of a product or project, while simultaneously fostering open communication and a comfortable working environment.

Nominator Jessica Tan, Identity and Application Support Analyst, says that Ronnie’s “focus has always been ensuring the quality of the product, while maintaining lines of communication between the various teams and clients involved in the project.”

The Eve Chatbot, Identity and Access Management (IAM) and the ServiceNow Kingston upgrade are among just some of the initiatives in which Thengumpally has been an instrumental player. Tan notes that “he managed to skilfully juggle all of these situations at the same time, along with handling any operational issues. He led by example and enabled us all to push through and deliver work that we could be proud of.”

Originally, when the Application Support Team formed in 2012, the group’s role was not well defined, so Thengumpally had to simultaneously establish the identity of the team within the IST department as a whole, while also learning how to manage his team members. Not only was he successful in this endeavour, but he has managed to foster strong relationships throughout IST, which his colleagues say he can leverage to resolve issues often more effectively than others.

Next to his technical aptitude, cultivating relationships may just be Ronnie’s best skill. He is described as a confidant for his colleagues, often helping them through difficult personal times, so they can continue to focus on their work. “Even on the busiest of days, he will always make time for us if we tell him we need to talk,” says Tan. “He challenges us directly but also personally cares about us, and that builds bonds of respect,” she adds.

According to Iain Williamson, Director of Service Management and Client Support, “Ronnie is an extremely valuable asset to IST, but because he moves silently and efficiently throughout the organization, he often isn’t given the credit he deserves for his part in many of IST’s successes.” This award now stands to highlight and honour his dedication.

Dustin Lactin, Nicolas Gonzalez, Shun Yuen, Asim Aziz, IST Learning Management Cloud Team & eClass Team

This year’s recipients of the IT Excellence Award (Team) are Dustin Lactin, Nicolas Gonzalez, Shun Yuen and Asim Aziz of the IST Learning Management Cloud (LMC) team and the eClass team. Together, these two teams worked on a groundbreaking project to move eClass hosting to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. eClass supports approximately 5,000 courses and more than 40,000 users across all University of Alberta faculties every year, and nominator Christopher Goetz, eClass Support Analyst, notes that “it is an essential service for campus with high visibility and high usage, which makes any large-scale changes with potential performance impacts to the service highly impactful.”

This project marked the first large-scale transition of a campus-wide service to cloud hosting on AWS, and will be the first of many cloud transitioning experiments. Winner Lactin notes that an aggressive six-month timeline was set for the project and the team was able to meet their spring 2018 deployment goal. In addition, when IST was attempting to determine if public cloud resources should be utilized for the department’s infrastructure, the team was able to demonstrate and advocate the potential benefits of the project to the Executives.

“They put their personal reputations and the reputation of their teams and IST as a whole on the line, and I believe that they did so because they knew the value that this project could provide to campus,” Goetz says.

While the project is still undergoing fine tuning, it has been successful thus far, resulting in cost reductions, high value to end users, and technical efficiency. Ultimately, the lessons learned on this project may provide valuable input into future cloud initiatives, and may already be providing insights. Goetz notes that the project’s impact has spread beyond the University of Alberta, as the LMC team has facilitated this transition with partner LMC institutions.

NorQuest College is one such institution. Derek McCurdy Director, Education & Information Technology at NorQuest says the LMC team has been instrumental in helping them execute their transition to AWS. “The team has empowered us to deliver a more robust and scalable service to our learners that is already reducing costs as our college continues to grow.”

Jeff Rawlings, Director of Digital Learning Environments says that “this group work did not just replicate the eClass environment, they re-architected it with the new tools presented in AWS for performance, failover, availability, flexibility, scalability and elasticity.” He adds that “the move was a key component to enabling the start of a technology ecosystem at the University of Alberta.” 

Sandra Shores, Senior IT and Facilities Officer, Learning Services

Nominator Geoff Harder, Associate University Librarian, speaks on behalf of his colleagues when he professes that Shore’s “leadership and dedication to ensuring quality and supportive IT environments in the University Libraries and for the broader Alberta library community, has been exemplary.” 

As this year’s IT Distinguished Career Award winner, Shore considers her nearly 35-year career to be “rich and varied.” It was her involvement as project manager for the Integrated Library System migration initiative in the early 2000s that was “formative in cementing Sandra’s standing as a go-to person for ensuring quality outcomes for IT-related projects in the Libraries,” Harder recalls.
Shore’s career began in 1984 as a Public Services Librarian in the John W. Scott Library, and throughout her career she has been witness to, and played a large part in the evolution of technologies applied in libraries. Her achievements and contributions to library IT are plentiful, and Harder describes her as using a “steady hand” in ensuring staff understood the reasons why key strategic changes were necessary and beneficial.

Among her significant accomplishments and responsibilities, she leads the technology operations of the NEOS Library Consortium — a consortium of 18 University/College, Special and Government Libraries that have shared infrastructure. Another achievement includes the “key strategic migration of hardware away from library-based server rooms to campus data centres,” Harder notes.

This award is not the first time Shores has been honoured for her efforts and dedication to enhancing technology’s presence in a library environment. In 2014, she won the University’s Information Technology project award for leading and developing an innovative inter-library loan payment system. 

Overall, Shore “has been instrumental in the professionalization of information technology within the Library and broader Learning Services portfolio,” Harder says. 

But she has particularly been a role model for women in the industry. “In a traditionally underrepresented field for women, she has stepped up to the gender equity challenge, and promoted a positive and very accommodating environment for women colleagues who have stepped into leadership positions in IT,” Harder says. 

Shore calls the award an honour to receive, and although she has seen a tremendous amount of change at the University over the last four decades, she is “most struck by all the changes necessitated in libraries through the shift from print to digital.” She attributes that her greatest accomplishment is being a part of the different teams that have “envisioned, developed and integrated many of these changes into libraries and the broader university.”

Dr. Martine Pellerin, Associate Dean (Research and Innovation), Faculté Saint-Jean

“A leader with vision,” as she is characterized by her colleagues, her work style is described as indefatigable, passionate and expert. 

Dr. Martine Pellerin is this year’s recipient of the IT Ambassador Award, which stands to honour and recognize someone who has demonstrated exceptional leadership in their field. Nominator Pierre-Yves Mocquais, Dean, Faculté Saint-Jean and Executive Officer, says this award “fittingly recognizes her vision, leadership, drive and dedication for information technology, and for making Campus Saint-Jean (CSJ) into an innovative and progressive thinking community of learning.”

As Associate Dean responsible for Research and Innovation, Dr. Pellerin has been working on implementing a strategy of pedagogical innovation at CSJ. Instructor David Vergote calls her a “true avant-garde thinker when it comes to the use of technology in teaching.”

As would be attributed to any great leader, many of Dr. Pellerin’s colleagues credit her as the reason and inspiration that they learned a new skill or attempted new ventures in their professional career. Nominator Professor Sadok El Ghoul says that attending many online teaching sessions organized by Dr. Pellerin inspired him to attempt his very first online course, adding that she has “helped reinvigorate CSJ’s online course offering.”

Mocquais says that Dr. Pellerin’s mission since being appointed Associate Dean is two-fold. First, to ensure that innovation in pedagogy be supported by technological innovation, and second, that pedagogical and research innovation remain the driving force behind advances in technology. To carry out such a mandate, Dr. Pellerin has assembled a team of pedagogues and digital experts, initiated a collaboration with  Bibliothèque Saint-Jean (BSJ) around robotics, and was the impetus for creating a “leading-edge digital classroom,” to enhance student’s learning experience. 

The support and positive affirmations that Dr. Pellerin receives from her colleagues is unwavering. Associate Dean, Academic, Dr. Paulin Mulatris notes that Dr. Pellerin has “demonstrated unquestionable leadership in the field of new technologies within our institution, while collaborating with other institutions.” 

For Dr. Pellerin, she says that being recognized as an IT leader means that her work has only just begun! “For me, this IT ambassador award is a call for duty and a social responsibility to help the university community to be a leader in higher education for the digital change.”

William Campbell, Client Support - IST

His nominators commend his promptness, thoroughness, and forward-thinking approach. William Campbell, Client Support with IST, is the recipient of this year’s IT Client Service Award. For the last four years, Campbell has been the main IST support for the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR).  

On behalf of FGSR, nominator Medha Samarasinghe, Operations Coordinator, says that he has provided “invaluable service” throughout the department’s “significant changes in direction, vision, leadership, staffing and service levels.”

The nomination letter says that “his service and skill is ubiquitous in FGSR’s operations,” pointing out that his email signature is the department store Macy’s motto, “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”

Whether it be procuring equipment, documenting inventory, or providing access to the appropriate IT products and services, “Will never fails to find a solution to our IT issues in a fast and efficient manner.” 

Campbell really gets to know the staff at FGSR and “goes above and beyond” in his efforts to “ensure that staff are able to continue doing important work.” Samarasinghe recalls a time when a staff member had to be away from work for several weeks, and Campbell was able to set them up with a work laptop with remote and secure access so they could care for an ill family member. 

As for how Campbell himself feels about the nomination and win, he says “to know that a group of my clients took the time to nominate me and to write a very detailed, and positive submission is incredibly rewarding. Being recognized by my peers is the best compliment I could receive, and I feel very honoured to receive the Client Support Award. 

“I focus on doing what I can for them to remove complexity and the number of obstacles they have to navigate to find success,” Campbell adds. He notes that the most satisfying part of his job is getting to know people's roles and challenges in their work duties while building relationships with them. It’s no surprise then that his nominators consider him to be exemplary at relationship building, and considers him an extended part of the FGSR team. 

“Will’s superior service is often invisible in our day-to-day operations because everything related to our IT needs runs flawlessly; however, if we were to be in the unfortunate situation of not being able to access Will’s expertise, and insights, we would definitely notice!”

Jeffery Antoniuk, Programmer and Analyst, Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory and the U of A Libraries

This year’s IT Excellence Award was a tie between two deserving candidates. 

As the “technical mainstay” of the leading-edge Orlando Project for the last 16 years, Technical Lead of the innovative Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CRWRC), and having recently joined Libraries as the Lead Developer for the Open Archives Initiative, Jeffery Antoniuk certainly has a full plate.  

“All three roles involve challenges and complex technical environments in which success relies upon committed, talented, and resourceful technical work. Antoniuk’s pivotal role in all three attests to his stellar abilities and dedication to excellence in research computing,” says nominator Susan Brown, Professor with the Faculty of Arts. 

As one of the winners of this year’s IT Excellence Award (Individual), Antoniuk joined the University in 2002 and has worked on a variety of projects. His work ranges from developing Digital Humanities prototypes that test research ideas, to building critical infrastructure allowing researchers to create, manage, digitally publish and preserve research content. 

With his “characteristic IT genius and collaborative work ethic,” Antoniuk undertakes some diverse and considerable work for one person. In regards to the Orlando project specifically, Brown says he “accomplished singlehandedly the core technical work to prepare the data for publication with a bespoke delivery system.”

But a true testament to his skill is his ability to bridge the knowledge gap for humanities scholars working with such innovative technical tools with little to no training.

Mihaela Ilovan, CWRC Project Manager, says that “his ability to intellectually empathize with the less technical savvy users of the technologies he is contributing to is, in my experience, rarely paralleled in developers of his calibre.” Orlando’s Literary Director Corrinne Harol echoes that sentiment, noting that Antoniuk, “has the IT power of a tornado, but his personality is the soul of patience and kindness.”

Ultimately, “the success and sustainability of both Orlando and CWRC are deeply indebted to Jeff’s efforts, and the University Libraries has advanced two major projects thanks to him,” Brown notes. “His work impacts the widest possible community.”

Selflessly, Antoniuk doesn’t consider himself to be the sole winner of this award, but rather that it is a group achievement for all those who have helped him along the way. “I feel like the award is a recognition of the quality and talents of teammates, co-workers, colleagues, friends, instructors, teachers, mentors, and others that have influenced me through the years.”

Mehran Panahi Akhavan, Team Lead, Software Engineer, Faculty of Engineering - Dean's Office

Since joining the University of Alberta in 2009 as a Programmer/Web Designer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Mehran Panahi Akhavan has made a tremendous impact on the Department and the Faculty of Engineering as a whole, making him an obvious winner of the IT Excellence Award. 

Akhavan “has used and also created innovative software and database technology that has had major transformative impact on research and administration of human resources, financial and space allocation services in the Faculty,” nominator Andre McDonald, Professor and Associate Chair (Research) says.

Before him, the Department and Faculty didn’t have a database or software-based system to manage such basic work functions like HR, finance and space allocation services, making these tasks an onerous, expensive and time-consuming process. 

His efforts have “increased the efficiency of research administration in the Faculty tremendously, and has reduced frustration and stress as a result of a process involving a significant amount of paperwork that was prone to human error,” McDonald says.

Akhavan’s colleagues note that he is always thinking of new ways and ideas to improve the software development and implementation of a project to increase the efficiency of both research and administrative functions. He truly is bettering the everyday lives of his coworkers and enhancing accuracy through innovative concepts and a proactive approach, representing the epitome of what this award represents.

In fact, it was Akhavan who first introduced the concept of the intranet to the Department, and he has since centralized all of their databases and software applications into a secured environment. This project “was so successful that the Faculty of Engineering adopted and expanded it to the entire Faculty under Mr. Panahi Akhavan’s leadership,” McDonald adds. 

For Akhavan, this award is a testament to knowing he chose the right career path. He says it will continue to push him to be passionate and motivated in his work. 

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