NC State Delivers 500,000 Non-credit Course Registrations per Year

NC State Uses Low-code Development to Deliver 500,000 Non-credit Course Registrations per Year

As a land grant university in an agricultural state, North Carolina State University (NC State) plays a vital role in the engine that drives the state’s economy. Over the course of any given year, NC State’s outreach program touches over half a million people. One of NC State’s many missions is to continue to foster that outreach and engagement with generations of North Carolina residents. However, the university must ensure that it meets its grant reporting obligations while improving efficiencies for university staff.

NC State’s Enterprise Application Group has not only delivered on these objectives but has built a thriving development team that has earned high praise and respect from university staff and administration, all with a low-code development platform.

Challenge leads to change

Outreach programs play a significant role in helping NC State fulfill its mission to deliver lifelong learning. Over 100 campus entities (units) deliver non-credit training. Unfortunately, each unit had its own method for managing registrations, using everything from sticky notes to spreadsheets to Shadow IT solutions such as SharePoint or Access. As a result, the reporting process was inordinately inefficient. Data from the various tools had to be rationalized and put into a standard reporting form. The university needed a more cost-effective way to manage registrations and push offerings out to the community, which in turn would make reporting more efficient.

However, the decentralized nature of NC State’s IT architecture makes standardizing on any single application a challenge. The university is comprised of 10 colleges and 10 divisions, each of which has its own IT group. “Having all these different IT groups gives us a lot of opportunity to do new and exciting things, but it also poses a lot of challenges, too. We have to work hard not to duplicate services, which wastes time and money that are in very short supply,” says Gwen Hazlehurst, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Enterprise Application Services at NC State.

In addition to satisfying the needs of a diverse user base that consists of staff and administration, the development team must create applications that meet a variety of compliance requirements according to Federal and State grant reporting standards. “In the Enterprise Applications Group, we have to adhere to strictly defined design patterns, especially when it comes to security and compliance. We have a lot of rules, regulations, procedures, and policies that we have to comply with,” Hazlehurst says. In addition to federal and state grant reporting standards, NC State must meet PCI DSS requirements.

Jordan Boyle
Jordan Boyle

To further complicate matters, the university doesn’t receive federal dollars to support the management of a non-credit system. Hazlehurst knew her team couldn’t afford the time or the money it would cost to develop a Java application in-house, so it released an RFP. The response was staggering. Estimates for an application ranged from $3-10 million over a five-year period.

“We absolutely could not afford that,” Hazlehurst says, “so we charged our student interns with the task of researching other options. That’s when we started to become aware of low-code platforms as an alternative way to rapidly develop and deliver code.”

An “outside-of-the-box” solution

A low-code development platform provides a visual approach to application development. Professional developers and subject matter experts alike use intuitive, visual models to create enterprise-grade, full stack applications.

The team determined that Mendix fit NC State’s budget and resource constraints, and activated student interns to help develop the non-credit system. “They graduated in mid-May and by late June they were developing code and designing parts of our system,” Hazlehurst says.

Jordan Boyle, now a software developer, was one of those interns. “I have a little coding experience, but I’ve never wanted to write hundreds of thousands of lines of code,” he says. “The low-code approach was very appealing. As an intern, I was able to dive right into Mendix. I started exploring the tool and quickly got up to speed. Now I’m a software developer full time. That’s really cool.”

Using Mendix, the newly hired developers built a minimum viable product of a non-credit system, dubbed REPORTER, in just over two months, with the full launch occurring in just five months. The total cost for REPORTER is estimated in the low six figures, versus the estimated $3-10 million and five years quoted by commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS) vendors. What’s more, the NC State team has greatly expanded REPORTER’s functionality, which would’ve been either time-consuming or impossible with a COTS product.

“We’ve been able to do much more than make incremental changes to REPORTER. In fact, compliance isn’t just built into the outreach and externally-facing portion of the application, but we’ve also built in functionality to ensure we’re complying with training requirements on campus,” Hazlehurst says.

According to Jack Foster, IT Director at NC State: “REPORTER started off as addressing a very specific need around compliance and our outreach reporting, and the system has since become a full-blown enterprise application that serves many different needs across campus.”

REPORTER has surpassed expectations. Standardizing on one PCI-compliant application has removed the compliance burden from each college and division, while automating registration has eliminated the need for spreadsheets and sticky notes.

“Thirty or so departments use REPORTER, and they’ve all realized FTE savings. They’ve all been able to take that burden of worrying about what they’re going to do next and how they’ll manage an internal application, and reallocate those resources,” Foster says.

Proving the low-code hypothesis

Using a low-code development platform also freed up resources for the Enterprise Applications Group. Because they were able to deliver REPORTER faster than anticipated, Hazelhurst and team were able to engage with researchers on developing a solution to better manage reservations for lab equipment.

As a leading public research university, NC State prides itself on developing solutions to real-world problems. Energy-saving smart transformers and cancer-killing nanodaisies are just a couple of examples. “These researchers are helping to solve the serious problems our world is facing, and they were spending a third to a half of their time managing the paperwork around their labs,” Hazlehurst says.

Within just a few months, NC State rolled out a lab management system that manages well over $1 million in revenue each year.

Jack Foster
Jack Foster

“I take a lot of pride in the lab management application, because I’m the only developer on that project. I was able to build that application with the knowledge I had gained from building REPORTER,” Boyle says. “With Mendix, we can push solutions and features at a speed that’s fast and meets our customers’ expectations — if not exceed them — without losing any quality of work.”

Foster agrees. “We’re at the point where customers know we can deliver solutions almost as fast as they need them. It’s not always part of the conversation anymore,” Foster says. “They’ve just come to expect it or come to be part of the process.”

“There’s nothing like being able to quickly deliver a solution that meets folks’ needs and makes their lives easier. The Mendix platform helped us to do that. Other platforms move so slowly that when you do deliver a technology solution, it has been so long in coming that it doesn’t feel rewarding,” Hazlehurst says. “With Mendix, it’s almost instant gratification. You talk to people, find out what they need, develop an application, and push it out to them. You see a real change, a real benefit in a very short period of time.”

Cultural tide change

In addition to transforming how NC state delivers technical solutions, Mendix has transformed the culture in the Enterprise Applications Group. “Mendix changed the way we staff our teams, and in a way we never would’ve imagined. Being able to put our own graduates to work is a great feeling. They bring energy, creativity, and innovation to our team. It’s hard to quantify, but it makes a significant difference in the products that we roll out,” Hazlehurst says.

She adds: “I am incredibly proud of this young team that we essentially spun up overnight. They’ve brought some results to their customers that we normally don’t see. The accolades that the team received on the lab management system — that was high praise from some demanding folks.”

Gwen Hazlehurst
Gwen Hazlehurst

Hazlehurst says that some of the positive feedback they received was that the implementation was ‘flawless’ and that faculty went so far as to buy the team drinks. “My team has rolled out some stellar projects in the past, and we’ve never received those kinds of accolades, especially for something that we built from the ground up.”

Moving the mission forward

NC State prides itself on playing an important role in the state’s economy, both by providing traditional educational programs (undergraduate and graduate) and by offering non-credit courses to support North Carolina’s agricultural and industrial workforce. By taking an innovative approach to application development, the IT organization is better positioned to fulfill the university’s mission of outreach and engagement — from automating the registration process and freeing staff, by hiring NC State graduates as part of the IT team, to providing world-class educational experiences to its students.

“There’s nothing better for my team than hearing our customers say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is wonderful. You’ve made my life so much easier.’ Sometimes it feels like we work in the bowels of the university.” Hazlehurst says. “We don’t get to see how we’re helping to move the outreach and engagement mission forward. With these Mendix applications, we’ve been on the front lines with the folks who are actually delivering on that, and it’s a tremendous feeling.”