An Interview with Rodda John

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Course selections for the spring term were released this past Wednesday, bringing Talos to the attention of students once again. During its two years of programming for Stuyvesant students, Talos has encountered various issues, ranging from website crashes to scheduling issues and has been the subject of students' ire as a result. In hopes of informing the student body on the inner workings of the programming office, The Spectator has interviewed Tech and Programming Aide and Talos co-creator Rodda John to learn more about what he has in store for the system and what students should anticipate for the spring programming.

Q: What are some new changes and features that have been added to Talos?

RJ: It [now] does lockers, Argus, and a lot of parent stuff. It handles the e-mail list and has a parent blog. It has a lot of communication pieces, which you guys maybe don’t see. There’s a portal for the School Leadership Team—the SLT—where you can view their minutes, and all documents are uploaded through it. You can also submit forms such as out-of-building [requests]. Course contracts for math are all through there. Yeah, there is a lot.

Q: Are you working on any new features to be added to Talos in the future?

RJ: Yeah, there are a lot of new features. The version of Talos is going to switch, and I think we are going to do it over Thanksgiving. The entire interface will change, but most of the functionality will stay the same. It adds a lot of organizational capacity on our end. There are many features that you don’t necessarily see because they exist on the back end and aid with organizing large numbers of students. You should see what that has in store.

Q: What are some of the common issues that students have been seeing with Talos?

RJ: A scaling problem [is that] if you have too many people on [the website] in too little of a time, [the website will crash]. There aren’t really any other technical issues, per se, because that is singularly a technical issue: it has to do with the server. There are lots of little issues, like [a given] course doesn’t show up, which is very easy to fix. We probably messed something up, and we can just fix it. I’m not sure what other technical issues exist, but one thing that the new Talos does nicely is that it can fix the frequency of the import of new data, [including] transcript data and attendance data. They will be updated more frequently because we are changing the way it does imports.

Q: Students on Facebook have discussed differences in the guidance counselors’ interface compared to that of students, since guidance counselors can actually see more remaining seats in a given class. Why is there this disparity between the information?

RJ: You’re making reference to Talos Admin, a separate piece of software that exists during program changes. The reason why that discrepancy in seats exists is because we operate on the back end system, which stores the most up-to-date information on seat data, and what happens is that gets synced to normal Talos every hour or so. What this means is if a change was made after the last sync, that won’t be up-to-date on your end, but it will certainly be updated on the guidance counselors’ end.

Q: Has the Program Office experienced any difficulties on their end?

RJ: I get bug reports from people, and those I can fix expeditiously because they usually don’t tend to be major. Most of the feedback I get is just feature requests, and those get prioritized into a stack and get dealt with when I have the time to deal with them.

Q: What will the process be like for programming for the spring? How are program requests prioritized?

RJ: It’s never been “first come, first serve.” Students have a period by which they put in their requests, and this is managed by guidance counselors and assistant principals when they review the requests. You would have to ask every person how they prioritize it, but it’s not by time. They actually don’t have a mechanism by which to see the time these requests were put in. The speed at which your guidance counselors work is distinctive from “first come, first serve,” and what I will say is this: any sort of issue along that axis is not an issue endemic to a particular piece of software or tool set. It exists regardless of what the tool is. For example, you have two individuals, and [they] are both making program changes in person. Let’s say one works faster than the other, and there’s this line of 10 people on both people’s lines. If line one is moving quicker, they will be helped first, but this has nothing to do with the mechanism by which you do the program changes.

I will say there are a number of ways in which Talos is superior to the [traditional] system, first in terms of equity. It applies the same rules to every student; there is no mechanism by which to say, “Ignore this rule for [Student A], and don’t ignore this rule for [Student B].” If, for example, you are trying to do a teacher switch, it would have to be approved by the same people in every case.

Secondl, we can also mask certain pieces of information with regard to the time in which requests are submitted, but you aren’t able to do this in [in-person] program changes. With in-person program changes, it is dependent on the time you show up, who you can nudge out of the line fastest, and whether your teachers will let you out of class to make program changes, whereas when you have a week to do it online, theoretically, everyone has the opportunity to do that, and those could all be handled rather fairly and without unreasonable prejudice. And I say unreasonable prejudice because there are certain prejudices, like seniors being handled before juniors, but that is not first come, first serve. That’s a set of criteria that the school has deemed important to program changes and says they want to allow seniors who don’t have the opportunity to take a course in the future to take a course now.

Q: Is there anything else you would like the students to know?

RJ: I don’t know how much of this exists now because [Talos] has been around for two years, but it’s important to remember the systems that came before, or rather the lack thereof, and how much more control this gives the students than the previous systems did. It’s very easy to say, “Oh look, it doesn’t do X and it doesn’t do Y,” but it’s more difficult to make that claim if it does many other things that you didn’t use to be able to do. So, it’s comparative.

Q: Can students come by and drop suggestions to you about the website during the day?

RJ: No, I think that’s crazy because then there would be a long line outside of my door. People can e-mail us if they really want [to], but I think the better mechanism is to talk to a guidance counselor, to talk to an administrator, who can then filter requests in a reasonable manner. It’s not really any of our jobs to play public service and to filter things. I want to spend as little of my day interacting with people and as much of my day programming as much as possible.