A co-author of the MU Information System is now a developer at Red Hat
Our thinking was that once a student had decided what class to enrol in or when to take an exam, they didn’t need to write that down and take that paper to the student administration office, but instead, enter it directly into the system from anywhere. While this sounds normal today, it was revolutionary in the 1990s, says the IT expert.
Jan Pazdziora has been a fan of computers from an early age. During his studies at the MU Faculty of Informatics, he helped develop the MU Information System. Now he is one of the leading developers at the Brno office of the US company Red Hat, where he created several patented software solutions.
When did you use a computer for the first time?
My dad got me a ZX Spectrum sometime in 1986. I gradually worked my way from games through the BASIC programming language to an annotated printout of the ROM content for that computer and how to program computers at a low level in machine code. So I got all the way to the lowest levels of computing, only to gradually move back to networks, databases, applications, and solutions.
And was studying information science your first choice?
I also applied to do a joint mathematics and economics degree, but in the end, I dropped anchor at mathematical informatics at the Faculty of Science, which was later moved to the new Faculty of Informatics. However, I took classes in economics at the Faculty of Economics and Administration outside of my core study plan.
Why did you choose Masaryk University?
I am from Brno, so Masaryk University was a natural choice. I also knew something about the approach to information science at MU and at the Brno University of Technology. At MU, the focus was more on theory and more deeply integrated with maths, and since I graduated from Gymnázium na třídě Kapitána Jaroše, which is a maths-focused grammar school, I preferred that approach.
Did you have a favourite topic during your studies that you particularly enjoyed?
I liked compilers or ways in which an algorithm written in a higher-level programming language translates into something that the computer is actually able to do. The TeX typesetting system, which I dissected in my thesis, is actually a special type of compiler. I was also interested in networks and Unix systems, which are open systems and operating system protocols. This is also how I got to my first Linux computer, which was then a project of my colleague Kasprzak. The faculty had excellent facilities with computers and networks using other operating systems than DOS and Windows, and I got drawn into that. It was interesting to see that the principles that you learned on the systems of one provider can also be applied to other operating systems.
Is that still true?
Yes, it is. In the past week, I definitely used something at work that I first encountered in 1993. The things I learned back then are still valid – it’s only the cover that changes.
You worked as a network administrator during your studies. How did you get into that?
I started working as a network administrator for one secondary school during my first year. Me and my colleagues at the faculty were interested in trying out as many things as possible on as many different systems as possible. This is how Michal Brandejs noticed me and later asked me to help them with the network administration at the new faculty computing centre that was just being built. Maybe someone could still find the notebook with records of student accounts that we were setting up on Unix computers.
Did you continue working in computer and network administration afterwards?
As the number of computers and students kept increasing, we tried to automate the administration of their accounts and credentials. And then we tried to find other ways that the computer network, and the fact that students could access it, could be put to good use. Jiří Zlatuška, who was the faculty dean at the time, had this vision that the whole study system should be much more open and students should have more flexibility in choosing their classes and specialisations. It was essentially a credit system and the Faculty of Informatics started a project called Faculty Administration that would make it possible. It was originally based on sending e-mails but gradually expanded to a simple web interface allowing students to enrol in their selected courses.
Something like the current MU Information System?
It kind of laid the groundwork. The legal requirements for universities changed in 1998 with the new Higher Education Act. By then, Jiří Zlatuška was the university rector and his vision was to extend the credit system, flexibility, and ECTS to the whole university. The experience and principles that worked in the Faculty Administration project at the Faculty of Informatics were gradually applied to the whole university and extended into a university information system.
That could not have been easy.
It was a series of steps. The first was to have records of our research and development outputs since that was connected to the funding of the university. The next step was to include student administration, but that also required a significant boost in the area of information and data processing. It’s not easy to allow students to pick courses and, at the same time, give both the student administration department and the students an easy tool to check that they met the requirements of their study programme. I essentially moved from network and system administration to trying to make data about studies accessible to all members of the academic community. It may seem trivial now when everybody has access to internet banking and other similar services, but back then, many universities resorted to using systems that could only be accessed by the student administration department. However, our thinking was that once a student had decided what class to enrol in or when to take an exam, they didn’t need to write that down and take that paper to the student administration office, but instead, enter it directly into the system from anywhere.
Did you know right from the start that you were helping to build a system that would one day serve the whole university and other universities would also be interested in it?
Not quite. One of the requirements of the Higher Education Act was that the university had to issue a student card to every student. This sounds simple until you realise that students’ registration records are kept in local database files at individual faculties and that, for example, students who are enrolled in interfaculty study programmes are on two or three separate lists and are often recorded in different ways, especially if they are foreigners. So my first job in terms of study records was finding duplicates and trying to arrive at the actual number of students at the university. Once I was fairly certain that I had got rid of enough duplicates, I started printing and cutting out paper cards called Student IDs. The idea that the ISIC card could serve this function was just a passing thought in my head. Basically, I didn’t feel like we were going to build “something big” at the beginning, I just focused on how to meet the then-current needs of the university. Fortunately, the core team that was working on it back then only had about five people, so it was possible to make quick decisions and do what was necessary. And the university then started using the ISIC cards several years later.
So you basically started with student records and then you were gradually expanding the system. What was introducing the credit system like?
Of course, these changes went together with changes in the university and faculty study regulations and the team that worked on developing the information system was also part of the discussions about what we were actually able to support and do. This would, in turn, have an impact on the study regulations and the actual studies. There wasn’t much point introducing the credit system, if it meant that all the records would be kept on paper and the student administration departments would be snowed under with work. Wherever we could weigh in on this, the faculties transitioned to the course selection system gradually, as we were expanding the options of verifying a student’s progress through their studies, rather than introducing temporary workarounds. In the beginning, the credit system was sometimes more of a formality, where the individual courses had a set amount of credits, but the students could not really pick and choose as they wished.
Introducing a system accessible to everybody must have also been hard with regard to the necessary IT equipment and people’s computer skills.
Obviously, one of the results was that the system would be used by people who had never worked with a computer before. Sometimes, this would mean that teachers would get a printout with the names of students registered for an exam from the student administration office. They would then fill it in, enter the grades in the grade reports, and then it would often turn out that the two versions didn’t match. On the other hand, we were introducing the information system in 1999 and that wasn’t the dark ages – computers were accessible at the university. Moreover, we set the system up as a web-based one that could be accessed from any browser, so teachers and students could get access from anywhere with no installations required. The University Computer Centre at Komenského náměstí also opened at the time and we were trying to show everybody that the system had its advantages and that it contained updated information they could work with.
You also helped develop the electronic application. What issues did you run into there?
When you look back, they seem to be very basic, such as: Who is an applicant? When is an application created and when does it become binding and enter the admission procedure? If an applicant is required to submit a signed paper version to the university, does it have to include all the information they filled in the electronic application? Who is going to check whether the signed paper version matches the data in the system? The problems were procedural rather than technical. And running the system in practice was, of course, also important. Trying to find the corresponding payments by postal order and wireless transfers and match data from various systems was an interesting exercise.
Besides working on the information system, you were also a member of the academic senates at the university. What were your reasons for participating in them?
I was a member of both the faculty and the university academic senate because I was interested in what was going on at the university. An added bonus was that I could at least give some explanation to the student senates, which were, of course, discussing the changes in the study regulations and the new information system, as to what technical solutions we were able to provide and what the motivation was behind the changes in the study regulations.
You helped create a system that is now an important tool for university students, teachers, researchers, and administrative workers alike. Are you still following current developments?
I sometimes log in, but most of what the system can do and how it affects the study options and the everyday functioning of the university is actually invisible in the regular user interface. I don’t think many of the students or teachers realise that they certainly cannot see all the functions of the system and that a large part of it consists of “hidden” specialised applications and databases for the student administration departments, vice-deans, and so on. However, I sometimes get confirmation that the system works and that it does what it’s supposed to do and what we imagined it would do. A couple of years ago, I went to Taiwan, where I met some local students enrolled in English study programmes at Masaryk University. They were very happy that they could register for courses at home and didn’t have to fly over and camp in front of the faculty in Brno during the holidays to register for their seminar groups. They said it would be great if their home universities had something at least remotely similar.
You helped develop the university information system, you enrolled in PhD studies, but in the end, you left the university. Why?
I was considering an academic career for a while, but when I felt that the main features of the information system were set up, I wanted to try something new.
You now work for Red Hat, what does the company do?
We deliver IT solutions based on open standards and protocols and on open-source software to our customers. Essentially, we work on things like infrastructures, servers, storage, databases, and cloud solutions. The Brno office focuses mostly on developing and testing new products.
As someone who is not an IT expert, I find it interesting that you make a profit from something that is open-source, which means that anybody can change your solution.
The companies and organisations that implement our software are looking for long-term solutions. The programs are often developed primarily by upstream communities and projects and people from our company are involved in many of those. Anyone can look at the source code and change it, but we also provide customers with our skills and the option to discuss the required or desired change or a new feature with us and develop it so that it is accepted by the upstream, does not create any security or functional problems, and will be available and supported in future versions. We focus on delivering software solutions that are open and allow various interconnected setups so that the customers can change their implementation in many different ways. However, it is always an advantage when a change in the source code is visible to more parties, including the original developers, and when it gets to and is accepted by the original source. Source codes allow those who implement the programs to look at the description of the program behaviour if they run into problems so that they are not left guessing why the end result is what it is.
Your current job title is Senior Principal Software Engineer. What does that mean?
It sums up what my boss and actually anyone in the company can expect from me with regard to independent work and decision-making, involvement in other projects, areas and teams, and the technical and procedural experience I can provide. While nobody formally reports to me, I communicate with teams all over the world and work with them on specific and constantly evolving projects. In some cases, I am responsible for the overall project and then my main task is to create the right conditions and environment so that people from different teams and often with different priorities can work together. At other times, I work on my own on a specific part, doing basic development tasks, or I am involved as an advisor or consultant. I have to be able to give my opinion on a technical plan, an architecture design draft or the suitability of a solution from the business perspective, both for the customer and for Red Hat.
That sounds like you must have very broad knowledge of various areas of IT. Is it even possible to follow all the new developments in your field, or is it necessary to narrow down your focus?
It varies from person to person. We have specialists in very narrow fields as well as people who try to cover a wide range of areas, where it’s obviously impossible to have such deep knowledge of each one. As somebody who works on integrating various elements, I work with and rely on colleagues who know much more about the specific details in question. This is actually one of the interesting things about Red Hat: you have considerable freedom in deciding whether you want to focus solely on a specific topic or work across several fields.
Brno is sometimes known as the Czech Silicon Valley. Does that affect you in any way? Is it perhaps hard to find good people?
It’s true that there are a lot of IT companies and it can be hard to find new colleagues. On the other hand, the fact that we are not alone also means that we can meet and inspire each other. Moreover, Brno has a great selection of universities, even though the local IT companies, including our company, also employ a lot of people who studied elsewhere in the Czech Republic and people from other countries.
Nevertheless, do you work more closely with universities in Brno?
I think and hope that the way we collaborate with universities sets us apart from other companies. There are many students who work for us as interns or part-time employees and many of them stay with us after graduating. We look for topics that are interesting for us as well as for the university and many of us help as consultants or thesis supervisors at universities in Brno and elsewhere. Our students work on real software projects and a number of the things they work on for their thesis are actually used in real life. Our goal is that the students’ work should not collect dust on their supervisors’ shelves but should make their way into the project.
What do the students get from all this?
Actual real-life experience. The upstream project must be willing to accept the students’ work, which teaches them to build their solution so that it fits into the existing project and often means redoing it several times. They can also test their communication skills when talking to other people, whether customers or colleagues, who sometimes have very strong feelings about how the project should work. They realise that the objection raised by their supervisor or a senior colleague at the company is the same as they get from the lead developer from half-way across the world. But they can also see their names on the list of contributors to large and important projects or signed under a specific smart feature, an important bug fix or just a bug report. Work on open-source projects is highly visible and it’s easier to show your qualities using a public change record in a project repository than trying to explain to a potential employer how important your contribution was to a project whose sources and development history are not publicly available.
You give students real-life experience, but what do they get from their education? Do they have the knowledge they need?
Based on what I find when I talk to people who want to do an internship or apply for a job with us, knowledge isn’t a problem. What I sometimes miss is genuine interest. When I do interviews, it’s sometimes hard for me to find a topic that the student or graduate would clearly be interested in and trying to learn more about it and experiment with it. While many of them have aced their classes, it doesn’t seem like they were really inspired by their studies or that they learned that developing IT solutions can be a very interesting and creative activity where you can create a solution, break it, and then start putting the pieces together again. There are so many open-source projects you can get involved in! The people who do something extra then obviously have it easier – they can just show where their work has been used. Those are the interviews that I like best.
The interview took place in the summer of 2015 for the magazine Absolvent Masarykovy Univerzity.