By Erik Arnold, Chief Information Office, PATH
|I’ve just returned from PATH’s offices in Hanoi and Phnom Penh, where a group from our information services team reviewed the state of our global health nonprofit’s technical infrastructure there. We also talked with our Vietnam and Cambodia Country Program staff about partnering on projects that include a software development component. I came home to Seattle knowing that this is truly an exciting time to be applying technology solutions in the developing world.
A little more than two years ago, I decided to leave the private sector and joined PATH as chief information officer. I jumped at the opportunity to join a rapidly growing organization that creates sustainable, culturally relevant solutions that enable communities worldwide to break longstanding cycles of poor health—especially at a time when applying information and communications technologies is an increasingly important part of these solutions.
PATH works in more than 20 countries, including Vietnam. Photo: PATH/Nguyen Ba Quang.
While these opportunities are exciting—and a big reason that I joined the team here—our immediate priority at PATH has been addressing the challenge of running information technology for a mid-sized global organization that has outgrown its back-office systems.
PATH has grown dramatically during the past ten years, and our growth has been particularly strong in our projects in the field. This year, close to 50 percent of our staff are local workers operating out of our field offices in 23 countries. During this period of growth, PATH’s IT architecture, both hardware and software, expanded opportunistically, with a focus on minimizing implementation costs. Our offices used different systems, configurations, and solutions. So, while PATH has all the IT challenges of a global organization, we also have the additional complexity of ensuring information technology works consistently in some of the most rugged locations in the world. Forget internet bandwidth and latency, I’m happy when our offices get consistent electricity.
PATH’s work in Vietnam includes building the skills of pharmacy staff.
While my goal as CIO is to enable our staff to have the tools and information to perform their work in the best way possible, particularly in the field, we struggle to provide up-to-date systems and timely data that take advantage of advances in information technology.
Why? Like any nongovernmental organization, or NGO, PATH has limited resources for administrative activities. A core value at PATH—and rightly so— is ensuring that we maximize the amount of our funding that goes directly to the activities that advance our program missions. In order for our programs to excel, we have to carefully steward our resources and optimize their efficient use not only to extend our potential impact, but also to build a strong, sustainable entity. As a result, I have a fraction of the budget I had in the private sector for modernization of infrastructure, business applications, and reporting.
I couldn’t be happier.
Frankly, it would be irresponsible for PATH to build a large, complex IT organization. It’s not our mission to build thousands of lines of pretty code or to construct and maintain a tier 4 datacenter. Rather, I’m motivated to adopt hosted enterprise solutions, cloud-based infrastructure, and push as much as possible out of my datacenter. I need to focus software development on integration architecture with good data warehouse and business intelligence to facilitate transparency and stewardship of our donor funds. Our network infrastructure, file servers, email, and back office systems all need to be relevant globally, appropriately scaled, operationally efficient, and standards-driven to be easily and consistently supported by a small team.
The cloud is the obvious answer. Moving systems to hosted architecture has entered the mainstream, but for a large NGO like PATH it’s really the only option. I need to control costs and improve reliability. For PATH, the cloud offers an unprecedented level of technology availability. Given the size and complexity of our organization, I can modernize our back office relatively quickly with subscription costs for off-premise hosted solutions, rather than absorbing recurring capital outlay, software development, sustainment costs, and ongoing salary overhead to maintain on-premise solutions. With cloud solutions like Office 365, I can buy archiving, SLAs, and disaster recovery for Exchange at levels that would be cost prohibitive were I to do it with an internal team.
PATH is hungry for reliable systems, faster access to files and data, and consistency across sites. We also see that cloud-based and mobile solutions will be an effective way to deliver solutions to our projects. Our focus in our early years was on minimizing implementation costs. Now, the executive team believes that by making the right initial investment, we can lower the cost of ownership and provide better solutions.
In retrospect, it’s ironic that the most difficult conversations about moving to the cloud occurred within the IT team. Traditional organizations use reductions in workforce as a direct way to achieve a return on investment upon shifting to hosted solutions. For PATH, however, it’s less about reducing workforce than it is about reallocating the scarce time of our staff. I have a very small network engineering team, and their time is already stretched. Hosting Exchange on BPOS/Office 365, for example, will free up resources to allow the team to focus on Microsoft’s SCCM and SCOM for systems monitoring, proactive maintenance, and production control. Hosted Exchange is about capping future staff growth and freeing up the team to work on other critical areas. It took a few conversations to get the team to agree, but today they’re motivated and eager to follow the strategy. We’re working with Microsoft to leverage the company’s commitment to supporting nonprofits while ensuring the sustainability of these solutions.
Two years into my tenure, PATH is exploring innovative ideas and making investments in our long-term strategy of helping all of our staff be efficient and effective. As an NGO, we are less risk-averse than the private sector toward adoption of hosted solutions—not only because we have to be cost conscious, but also because the solutions are relevant globally. As the paradigm of software delivery shifts, Microsoft’s Community Affairs group is an advocate for the nonprofit community. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this technological transformation.
Erik has more than 14 years experience in information technology leadership, project management, and systems integration and is responsible for PATH’s global information systems—including library services, records management, software development, and the global network and computer services teams. Prior to PATH, he spent a number of years working on designing and implementing large digital asset–management systems, with a robust cataloging interface and rich controlled vocabulary. He also has extensive experience with ERP implementations utilizing complex data integration platforms and reporting. He has experience with financial audits, forecasting, budgeting, contracts, HRIS, intranet design, data warehousing, and web-based dashboards. Erik holds a MA from Brown University.