A gentle nudge from a reader made me realize how long it has been since I’ve posted. Time to get back into the habit.
This has been a particularly busy semester, both from the point of view of my academic life and as CTO. The academic side has been great– I’ve been teaching CS 105, Privacy and Technology, which is always more fun than I should be allowed to have. This is a class that looks at technologies that are seen as privacy-invasive (things like surviellance cameras, wire tapping, and Facebook), dives into the technology and policy, and tries to figure out what can be done. I co-teach with Latanya Sweeney, who really knows this stuff, is a great lecturer, and a better friend. But what made this semester fantastic was the best group of students I’ve ever had in a class–smart, engaged, funny, and fun. On days (and they happen) when I wondered why I was doing all of this, I just had to go to this class to be reminded what fun it is to be at Harvard.
The CTO work has been a lot more scattered, but has also been interesting. Probably the biggest change in my life as I moved to the CTO position was finding that I have very few concentrated, extended periods of time to think about things and get things done. The life of a CTO is one of constantly swapping context, trying to help others (who I hope have concentrated periods of time for their work) to move forward or course correct.
There is also another, odder, part of my job which I characterize as being a technology canary. Canaries were used as early warning systems in mines, organic sensors for dangerous gases. My role of technology canary is to be an early warning system for HUIT on technology trends that are going to change the way we do our jobs. There are lots of these changes coming around, like the changes in client devices (moving from desktops to laptops to tablets and phones, a change that had a pretty disastrous impact on the University of California’s email system). But the most interesting whiff of the future that I’ve seen had to do with a bill from Amazon.
First, some context. All colleges and universities are supposed to offer a net price calculator, a tool that will allow prospective students and their parents to estimate what their college educations will really cost at a particular school (anyone who has to worry about this doesn’t pay list price, at least at Harvard). The financial aid folks here have done a very nice web tool, which they decided to host on Amazon.
Recently, I got a copy of their bill for a month. They had had about 300,000 hits, most from the U.S. but others from all over the world. And the total bill for running this site? $0.63. That’s right, sixty-three cents.
Now, not everything we do at Harvard in IT can be farmed out in this way. This is a simple site, and doesn’t have to be up all the time. It doesn’t have a lot of computation associated with it, and there isn’t a lot of data being moved around. More important, there is no confidential or protected data. But there is a lot of computing at Harvard which has similar characteristics. And at this price, we need to figure out what we can host elsewhere. It may cost more than this example, but even if it is one or two orders of magnitude more it will be less expensive than setting up our own servers and running them here.
This will change a lot of things. We need to figure out what will be changing rather than having it done to us. As the canary, I get to think about these things early on. Which makes life more, um, exciting. But also a lot of fun.