People On Campus for February 2003
First Monday
People On Campus
  People On Campus is published in FirstMonday by the Public Affairs and Publications offices at SFSU. 415/338-1665.

Rita Xiong -- Champion caretaker

Rita Xiong and her dog TeddyWhen a prospective student applies for admission, a department sets its schedule of classes for an upcoming semester, or a faculty member submits final class grades -- data is created. That data then has to go somewhere where it can be processed, stored, and retrieved. Rita Xiong, student systems coordinator, is in charge of that "somewhere."

The "somewhere" is SIMS/R, the University's relational database system, and Xiong and her team of five programmer analysts are responsible for making sure it works and works well.

While there are many staff across campus involved in SIMS/R, Xiong handles the crucial "underneath layer," the system that stores all the information and turns it back out again.

And the scope of that system is immense.

"The student systems provide the means as well as the institutional memory associated with each student's transactions -- from admissions, enrollment, course registration and financial aid, on through graduation," explains Jonathan Rood, associate vice president of information technology.

Since the system is such an integral part of the business of the university, it's critical that it be available and work correctly.

"For the type of work that Rita and her team perform, the adage 'no news is good news' comes to mind," says Phoebe Kwan, executive director of information technology. "One doesn't always understand the importance of and our reliance on these enterprise systems until they aren't there -- if student registration wasn't available, everyone would definitely notice!"

"The scary part for us is if the data becomes corrupted," says Xiong. "The other problem is interruption of service. Any interruption causes user inconvenience. We try to avoid those problems."

But up to this point there is no news, which is great news-the data is uncorrupted and the system is running smoothly.

There's a reason for that.

The core of SIMS/R is based on an Oracle database system and was developed by programmers in Fresno that do work for both San Diego State University and San Francisco State. Xiong and her team then worked hard to develop additional structures and modified the basic system to fit our campus needs.

"We do a lot of background edits and crossover edits to make sure no garbage gets into the database and that the data is correct," Xiong says. "If you rush everything out it costs a lot at the end to do 'the fix.' We always do a lot of analysis at the beginning. We identify any impact the application might have on everything else. We do many levels of testing. The goal always is to develop a bug free application."

The SIMS/R system was put into place in 1999. It's a relational database, meaning that different systems can access data from the same source. For example, when a student is oficially admitted to the University, that change in status triggers Financial Aid to release any aid the student is elegible for. In turn, the Cashier's Office draws on the change in status to generate the fees the student owes. Once the financial aid is accounted for and the student pays any fees not covered by grants or loans, the system at the Registrar's Office then allows student the student to register for classes.

Xiong gives a lot of credit to her fellow programmers for the smooth operation of the student systems.

"I feel very lucky. They're great because they work well either independently or when we come together as a team," she says.

Xiong, a resident of South San Francisco, got her start at SFSU twenty years ago as a student assistant working in institutional research. When her boss quit during a hiring freeze, Xiong, a computer science major, got the chance to do some programming work. By the time she graduated, the freeze had thawed, she was hired as a programmer analyst, and she's been here ever since.

Sure, there is the occasional call from a recruiter desperate to lure her into the corporate world, but she doesn't bite.

"I like this campus so much because I feel like I've grown during my time here," she says. "I enjoy working in the [IT] field because it moves so fast -- there's always something new to learn. I never feel bored. I've been here twenty years but it's moved so fast, it feels shorter."

But it's not just all databases and programming for Xiong. In her spare time she likes to assist her husband Lou Wong with his photo shoots -- you can view his work in her office and in conference room 117 in the west wing of the Administration building.

She's also the owner of a champion on the dog show circuit.

It all started a few years ago when she became the owner of Tingting, a female American Eskimo dog. Tingting was competitive in dog shows, but when she had three puppies in 2001, Xiong kept Teddy, the pick of the litter.

Teddy started competing in shows at seven months. He won his category in the Golden Gate Kennel Club Show, and accumulated enough points over the next three months to be named an American Kennel Club champion at the National American Eskimo Dogs Show.

Xiong continues to show Teddy five or six times a year. In fact, he competed just this past weekend in the Golden Gate Kennel Club show that takes place this month at the Cow Palace.

So the next time you see Rita, ask her about Teddy, ask to see her husband's photography, but don't ask about the student systems. They're running just fine.

--William Morris
Photo courtesy of Lou Wong


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