Idea Trek

Implement Mendix to unlock custom app development at Davidson

Over the course of the Fall 2019 semester, T&I's Digital Transformation team (Dx) researched, trialed, and experimented with dozens of so-called "low-code" platforms. In a nutshell, low-code platforms allow you to build custom forms and web applications without having to write very much "real" code, if any. By implementing a true low-code platform like Mendix, Davidson College can meet the growing need for efficient, cost-effective custom development on campus while simultaneously empowering citizen developers, and future-proofing their products.

Early on in our project, we realized that a low-code platform is not just a tool for T&I's professional staff - instead, it is a catalyst for change on campus. Knowing this, we made the Davidson user experience the top priority in our research. We interviewed almost 40 stakeholders from across the staff and faculty of Davidson to assess their needs. These interviews, combined with a detailed assessment of over 40 low-code solutions on the market, allowed our team to develop the strategy which we will outline below.

While the majority of Davidson's use cases will be solved by Kuali Build, a new forms and workflow automation tool scheduled for implementation this Spring, our team believes that we also need a true low-code platform like Mendix for highly customized web and mobile applications. A full implementation of this 2-pronged strategy will put Davidson in a strong position to fulfill 100% of its custom application needs and lay the foundation for more citizen developer based production and ownership. Both of these goals align not only with the strategic goals of T&I, but also the strategic goals for Davidson College. We are seeking the committee's independent evaluation of our proposal so that, with additional research into how other institutions are tackling this problem, and an internal review of the College's own needs for custom development, Davidson College can decide whether the benefits of implementing Mendix outweigh the costs.

Does your idea have funding? (this will not influence decisions to support/not support the idea) No

What might prevent this idea from working?

Since the creation of T&I's Digital Innovation team in 2016, and the inception of student developer movements like Project PRONTO, Davidson has struggled to find the right software, infrastructure, and (perhaps most importantly) knowledge/skill stack to enable the development of custom applications that solve Davidson's custom app needs. Professional and student developers have used all kinds of stacks to create these apps, from Python and Django to Mongo, Express, React, and Node (MERN). What kinds of custom applications are we talking about? CatSched, Cats REACT, Gig Hub, the Laptop Kiosk Dashboard, the Duo Portal - the list goes on.

While some ventures have seen success, it has become increasingly clear that this model is fundamentally unsustainable. We need custom apps to solve difficult problems through software, but the web development and infrastructure knowledge required to support custom development comes and goes as students graduate and professional staff move on to other roles. Even if we could sustain the braintrust required to support custom development, the time investment required to bring a new developer up to speed when he or she has zero background in the subject matter consumes the vast majority of time allotted to their position, meaning they spend far less time actually building a working solution than they had hoped.

Furthermore, custom applications, left unmaintained, have accrued security vulnerabilities that leave them open for exploitation by bad actors. T&I has a responsibility to protect the Davidson network, and cannot allow vulnerable applications to be exposed to the public Internet - decreasing the utility of the custom web app that developers and stakeholders had hoped to achieve in the first place.

Looking forward, Davidson College has a growing number of students engaged in departments, majors, minors, and programs like Davidson in Silicon Valley who are looking for an outlet to ply their web development fundamentals and gain real world experience. All student developers can benefit from learning an immediately marketable skill like Mendix development. Ingersoll Rand, a local industrial corporation and Hurt Hub partner, has several high paying Mendix developer postings in need of immediate fulfillment. Mendix represents a sustainable outlet for this use case, for PRONTO, for DISV, and for T&I professional staff.

How might this idea solve it?

Implementing Mendix at Davidson has many upsides, but three primary benefits stand out for the committee's consideration. The first is that Mendix lowers the barrier to entry for citizen developers and T&I professional staff by providing templates, training, and robust tools. The second benefit is that Mendix reduces the financial and temporal burden of digital maintenance by providing a centralized development platform where the onus for security and service updates remains external. The final benefit of Mendix is that acquisition of such a tool puts Davidson in a more future-proof position for the imminent escalation of need for integrated, innovative digital solutions on campus as we have already seen through projects to improve prospective student accessibility and in the response to Covid-19.

With a relatively small training investment of 12 - 20 hours (depending on the developer's baseline skillset), Mendix allows Davidson developers to create powerful web and mobile applications with a dedicated database, Single Sign-On, granular security, Davidson branding, access to Davidson institutional data, responsive design, and so much more. This pales in comparison to the 40-120 hour investment traditionally required to bring a student developer up to a baseline skill set in a Davidson boot camp setting, while failing to guarantee the quality standard Mendix application templates provide.

Mendix not only provides the development environment required to build applications, it also provides the infrastructure. No more requesting servers, on-campus vs. off-campus access restrictions, or source control challenges. Its security model is tried, true, and easy to understand by developers of all skill levels. With a trained developer behind the wheel, Mendix largely eliminates the barriers that have prevented custom development from reaching its full potential at Davidson.

Who would benefit from this idea? Who are your stakeholders?

Faculty and staff with unfulfilled custom web application needs (e.g. Scentopedia).

PRONTO student developers and program owners (Laurie Heyer)

DISV graduates.

Professional T&I developers.

How does this idea achieve your goals for a great senior experience?

The most significant barrier to implementing Mendix at Davidson is the cost. Adopting Mendix would be more than adding just another platform or piece of software to the IT service catalog. Doing so would be an investment in community, in technical architecture, and in innovation - with substantial funding requirements to boot. And while licensing Kuali Build was a much easier pill to swallow, with its relatively low cost and permissive licensing model, the same cannot be said for Mendix, with its 6 figures per annum, multi-year contract requirements.

A second barrier to implementing Mendix is uncertainty surrounding its immediate utility to the College. Again, implementing Kuali Build was an easy sell, because we had an immediate need to convert and improve a huge library of legacy web forms, and multiple faculty and staff chomping at the bit to dive into the tool and start building immediately. In contrast, the backlog of short term custom web application needs and possibilities is much smaller than the web forms conversion backlog. Today, costly enterprise systems like Banner and Blackbaud form the foundation upon which we support the needs of Davidson College. Mendix would become another cornerstone of Davidson's digital infrastructure, meeting a need that is only just emerging in the higher ed sphere.

Dx believes that the significant increases we have seen in our own development throughput during our Mendix evaluation will also be realized by citizen developers throughout the Davidson community - potentially leading to a citizen developer "renaissance" that could transform Davidson in powerful ways. However, given our own narrow view into the College's needs and the higher education sphere, we believe the committee is far better equipped to evaluate the risk/reward calculus of such a significant financial, temporal, and cultural investment than we are. What is the value of unlocking the full potential of custom web app development for all Davidson developers? We feel that this is the central question the IdeaTrek committee must explore in its evaluation.

Examples of Dx's Mendix portfolio and product demonstrations can be made available to the committee upon request.

For the full history and context of the Dx team's low-code project, including our rationale behind selecting Mendix from the sea of other available software platforms, please see our draft and final recommendations:

Draft: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sGCFClUvul4E5Jt_Ye3hiU9q2oqeNkxqMM0Fu4e9uwg/edit?usp=sharing

Final: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ukje8Tp-1bHiyHlrHUnwEvhLC8ZyQvXfccrmi9JaCuk/edit?usp=sharing

More information on Mendix is available at the company's website: https://www.mendix.com/.

Information on Citizen Development - what it is, and how Mendix enables it: https://www.mendix.com/citizen-developers/

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Idea No. 65