Preserving tradition while moving to modernity.
The Cosmos Club is a small but prestigious private club near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. It encompasses a food and beverage establishment, hotel, catering service and member organization. As IT manager, my responsibilities included maintaining organization’s effectiveness by defining, delivering, and supporting information technologies. I attempted to clarify and studied the organization goals, strategies, practices as they relate to a hospitality, private club environment. This involved coordinating available resources with club management, managing staff and overseeing third party service providers. I would recommend strategies, policies, and actions by evaluating organizations status; identifying problems and anticipating requirements. I developed, customized and/or purchased internal and public facing applications that enhance guest interaction and experiences with the organization. Maintained hardware and software inventory (Onsite servers, switches, infrastructure throughout a four building campus including historic mansion). I was also primarily responsible for network security and data access. My team provided support to approx. 3,000 members and club staff (60+ workstations and devices) which was comprised of three consisting of 1 full-time communications coordinator, 1 part time tech support and myself.
My role at the Cosmos Club
The position was a departure from the design and development track I was on. The opportunity appealed to me because I had been a designer, front end developer and communications manager and wanted to learn the ins and outs of the technical side of the underlying systems that made such work possible. Second, I wanted to be on the decision making side of the equation. Managing servers, evaluating a CMS, overseeing vendor services and monitoring a network appealed to me. I felt that this experience would only enrich my understanding and complement my skill set as a designer and developer. I was recruited as the Assistant IT Manager at the time under Willo Kabiling who had served the club for 14 years primarily to fix their website and online applications.
Achievements & Highlights:
- Modernized operation, computer inventory and removed and obsolete software and hardware through 3 year budget capital investment of 680K.
- Designed and developed new public facing website. Successfully integrated existing Club software CMS and third party reservation system into new website. www.cosmosclub.org
- Introduced and deployed first 24 hour system monitoring of critical systems and services, structured development procedures, workflows, periodic staff equipment check ups and software updates.
- Deployed and managed club’s first VOIP phone system – Shoretel.
- Working with MSP assisted in deploying and manage Office 365 cloud, replacing MS Office tools such as email, word, excel, management portal and licensing. Upgraded all equipment to Windows 10 standardizing a “one OS, one platform” approach across the organization.
- Developed and executed enhanced website services such as Reciprocal Club Directory, Member Forum, Online Store, Online Nomination Application, Online Letter of Introduction Generator and Career Section/Online Employment Application.
- Introduced new email marketing platform – Mailchimp – and designed/developed responsive mobile friendly newsletter templates.
- Stabilized and improved network infrastructure by introducing new local fiber optic network in mansion that will provide potential future speeds of 10G providing backbone for future live multimedia projects, live streaming and broadcasting of interactive events. Led project to deploy first centrally integrated and cloud managed Wi-Fi network – Aruba. Deployed Secondary ISP provider for reduction in network disruption, backup and load balancing.
- Installed new “wired” kitchen with 10+ Ethernet Connections allowing for smart hood, smart oven and suvee machine. Deployed new cabling infrastructure throughout historic mansion building for increased stability and efficiency.
- Improved support for both members and staff through Introduction of periodic staff desktop maintenance and checkups, meetings and regular communications through meetings/newsletters. Implemented first IT Help Desk ticketing system – Freshdesk. Extended member and staff support hours to seven days a week as per hospitality environment.
State of Information Technology in November 2014
In the Fall of 2014, the Cosmos Club Information Technology could be accurately described as dysfunctional. Staff computers frequently stopped working, there were constant network disruptions which resulted in lost or missing files, communications and business disruptions throughout the club. The phone system was completely analog, outdated and very difficult to update. The website, a major point of contact with members was outdated, it had changed very little since its launch in 2006 and was representative of the state of network devices which was crumbling, licenses were not updated and there was a very real fear and possibility that critical failures would occur. In fact, there was no way of reporting when an issue arose or failure occur, no links to support on the website. Members and staff alike would call someone they might know on staff to report the website was down or their computer was not working.
The website was compromised, Google warned users that the website was hacked publicly in mid 2015. There was no strategy for upgrades, periodic review of inventory and staff support, monitoring. If there was a breakdown, it often took a long time to even diagnose what the problem was. Was it our ISP?, was it a switch? was it a router? did the server freeze? was it a power failure? was the CMS application down?
Website poor user experience and navigation
The former cosmos club website had been created in 2006 and had not been updated since. Like many other club websites, the site consisted of public facing pages and private pages that required login for access but the navigation was poor. As the site grew all the relevant private features of the site were placed on one page sidebar. There were no basic features on the website such as galleries or forms. The
Club leadership mandated to transform the clubs Information Technology services to a higher level. An I.T. Task force was created and met regularly discuss the ongoing status of various projects but its primary focus was the website relaunch. The Information Technology infrastructure would need to be one in which the organization could depend, have minimal disruptions and ultimately provide better quality of service to members and staff. The task force was dissolved after the website launch in January 2016.
Website relaunch: The Process
I immediately entered “discovery stage”, I had to quickly learn about the private club environment, the many moving parts of the Cosmos Club: partly association, part hospitality business and food and beverage establishment. I’ve written code, but never worked in C# or .net and the CMS (Dot Net Nuke) DNN was already selected. Willo was a .net guy and considered the path of least resistance migrating the existing data to a newer system. This lasted approximately 30 – 45 days as I gathered all the information about the existing infrastructure, identified the challenges ( including some of the history related to the clubs online presence) and digested the information for a report for upper management and the board.
After getting the lay of the land, defining some goals and identifying the key stakeholders, we presented a plan with some early composites and sought an internal approval. Management support (even behind the scenes) was necessary to continue investing time and energy into the solution. At this point, there was the very real possibility that the whole project would be outsourced to a third party, or the website would be allocated as an add-on module to a “club software” vendor. The IT manager, with good reason, did not believe either of those alternatives would have been a good fit for a unique business entity such as the Cosmos Club. It would have also entailed a significant forfeiture of control over the members experience to a contractual partner, not a optimal position if the club wanted to integrate popular services (for example reservation systems like Open Table) into its future offerings. We were given the green light and immediately set up a dev and test environment.
For bug reporting, we used Atlassian JIRA. After recreating the bulk of the functionality from the existing site, we developed the new website on a related domain (www.cosmos-club.org) in order to allow member leadership to preview and provide feedback on our work without having to VPN or set up additional credentials. This was approximately the same time the leadership IT task force became active with David Holtzman as its chair and primary advisor to the board. We then had a formal body to present our work and recommendations to. After we presented our plan, it was approved and we were able to work openly and develop a launch communications and transition strategy.
It took approximately one year but the product was finally ready for launch. There were many concerns including support for long time members who would be forced to update their emails, usernames and passwords upon relaunch. Also, the site was basically a SSO (single sign on) pyramid of three distinctly different websites on three different platforms skinned to look and feel like one site. There was the potential for multiple points of service failure. Fortunately, the launch was very smooth and the transition for the both staff and members was painless. This was determined after several weeks where we saw increases in use from analytics and first time user logins continue to increase.
As primary designer and developer, I was very pleased with the initial website performance and was encouraged by the fact that we continued to add features and services to the site well beyond its initial launch date. We kept our promise that the new online presence would be in a “continued state of improvement”.
”Heartiest congratulations on your tremendous accomplishments. I don’t know the half of the work that each of you put into making the changes and getting everything ready. I saw monumental efforts, made under tight deadlines with multiple Club members offering “counsel.” The website Team performed beautifully, with the utmost professionalism, good humor, and collegiality. Even the Blizzard of 2016 didn’t cause any (at least outward) angst.
By the time the launch weekend arrived, I expect you all, like me, were ready to see what would happen. How magnificent that the launch went so smoothly! Yes, there are ways that the website can be “continuously improved.” We all expected that. This is a time, though, to celebrate the excellent product and launch. ”
– Liz Medaglia, Cosmos Club President 2015-16
Today the Cosmos Club has a website that it can be proud of and accurately reflects the prestige and history of the organization. The site has a simple and modest general public facing pages and a rich interior life for members who log in. The website allows its members to check their statements with ease, modify their accounts, create event and hotel reservations. It also has photo galleries and audio recordings of events that can be accessed and listened to from any device. It also has an online shop, membership directory and forum allowing members who live both near and far engage and be part of its vibrant intellectual community. Most recently, the website has added a career section and online job application, member nomination and live event streaming to its functionality. As it continues to evolve we look forward to growing and expanding this very vital service to the organization.
March 6, 2016. Right to left: Mitchell Platt, General Manager, Shawn Torres: Assistant IT Mgr., Chris Buynak, Controller. Presented with Cosmos Club Excellence Award for the Redevelopment and relaunch of the Cosmos Club website.
Current Website & Application Screenshots