Community Member Spotlight: Meet Susan Ott!
Susan Ott, registrar and database manager, with Ensworth School, steps into our community member spotlight.
Ensworth School uses Blackbaud’s Total School Solution™, a powerful set of tools all connected by a single sign-on, and Susan was instrumental in the initiative to roll it out. She shares her top seven tips for others looking to do the same and why it’s important to get involved early in the process to help shape the experience.
Read on to learn more about Susan, her family, how she stays ready for anything in her role, and why she’s such a huge Virginia Tech fan!
A: My husband, Craig, and I are empty nesters in Nashville, TN. We have a 25-year-old son who lives in Blacksburg, VA.
Q: What do you like to do for fun?
A: Our son doesn't get home much because he's a basketball coach at Virginia Tech, so we love to watch their games on TV (and get sneak peaks of him doing what he loves). We also try to get to a couple of games in person. Besides that, I enjoy gardening, drawing, singing/playing piano, hiking, hanging out with friends, and working with wood (one can never have too many power tools). I love to try new things which is why I have way too many interests for the limited amount of free time!
Q: What is an achievement (personal or professional) of which you are particularly proud?
A: That's a tough one. Professionally, my role at Ensworth has grown over the years and I have no formal training in what I do. I changed careers 18 years ago (I was a therapist before that for 13 years). I have a knack for learning software, love puzzles, and thanks to my counseling background, I am very much a systems thinker. I've worked hard to develop the expertise I have in my job and the value I add to the school.
Q: What is one memory that always makes you smile?
A: I really struggle with questions like this because most of them would involve my son. How do you pick just one? Being his mom is the best thing I've ever done so just thinking about him will always bring a smile to my face (and a lot of times, tears to my eyes).
Q: Tell us about your organization.
A: Ensworth School is a K-12 independent, co-ed, two-campus school in Nashville, TN. The Red Gables Campus, grades K-8, was founded in 1958 and started in a family home built in 1908. My office is part of what was once a bedroom in the original house. I love the fact that despite the multiple expansions of the school over the years, they have retained as much of the original house as possible (complete with some sloping floors and drafty windows). The Frist Campus, grades 9-12, opened in 2004 and is located on 127 acres 7 miles down the road. There is a rich history and strong sense of community, and it is not unusual to have multiple generations of a family that attend Ensworth. Many traditions that started in the first years of the school continue today, which is one of my favorite things about working here.
Q: Tell us about your role as registrar and database manager. What does your typical day look like, and what is your favorite part of your job?
A: A typical day is being ready for anything. Anyone that works in a school knows what I mean. You can have a plan for the tasks you want to tackle when you arrive at school, but you better be flexible and able to switch gears in an instant. It is more common to spend the day responding to the unexpected - whether that's answering questions from teachers or pulling data for a report or helping a parent struggling to log in. When I'm able to focus on other things, I try to prepare for upcoming projects or work on existing projects (like scheduling, writing policies and procedures, finding ways to streamline processes, auditing role access and security, or database cleanup). I love data, problem solving, and learning new things. I am happiest when I can dig into a data project, completely lose track of time, sometimes forgetting to eat or move, and at the end of day have that gratifying sense of accomplishment even if the project isn't finished. Just knowing progress was made and the data is cleaner or more accurate or more secure is so satisfying.
Q: What advice do you have for others who want to stay with their organizations long-term while continuing to grow their responsibilities and skills?
A: Look for ways to set yourself apart. Is there something that needs attention? I was lucky because my boss recognized my abilities and encouraged me to take on more of the database work when I realized a lot of our alum data was missing or inaccurate. When I started researching the issue, it ultimately led to a partnership with our advancement team and a massive data project. Even though the project isn't complete, our data is already much cleaner and reliable. I have learned so much through the process and I was able to build on existing skills and add many more new ones. Don't be afraid to try new things. Be willing to fail and willing to search out answers and yes, willing to spend extra time learning. I've spent a lot of time researching and then experimenting to understand a new system or how to build more complex queries and lists. I also have great people supporting me and working with me that I can turn to for advice and guidance.
Q: You’ve been a Blackbaud Community member for more than seven years (thank you!). What do you enjoy most about it, and how has being able to connect with peers helped you?
A: I owe a lot of my success in advancing my knowledge and skills to the Blackbaud Community as well as the registrar email group formed at one of the conferences. It is so helpful to be able to reach out to the community and get help with something you're struggling to understand or troubleshoot. Everyone is very supportive and encouraging. I get ideas just by reading other posts and I love to be able to offer help in the areas I'm well versed. The products are constantly changing and it's challenging to keep up. The community helps tremendously. It's eerie how often an issue comes up at work that we need to address or find a solution for and that same day someone will post a similar question. It makes you feel connected and validates you're not the only one needing answers. I wasn't as involved in the Community a few years ago as I am now. I didn't think I had time to devote to reading posts and offering ideas. I now realize I can't afford not to. I have accomplished and learned so much more since I became more active.
Q: You were instrumental in the initiative in rolling out Blackbaud's Total School Solution™ at Ensworth, and linking the databases for the education management solutions, Blackbaud Raiser's Edge NXT®, and Blackbaud Financial Edge NXT®. What were some best practices that you employed that you could share that would be helpful for others looking to do the same?
A: I have seven main tips to share:
- Get the right people in the room from the beginning.
- Talk to other schools that have already been through the process. We were wary about ConnectRE integration but knew we HAD to do something to eliminate the siloed data and the double and triple entry that was happening. We attended a session at the conference in Seattle by Elaine Montgomery and the team at Metairie Park Country Day that gave us the encouragement we needed. We talked with them as well when we were preparing to implement it, which was very helpful.
- Plan as much as possible before implementing anything but also be prepared for some unintended consequences that you really can't predict. A lot of the unexpected can be mitigated by talking to other schools. There is cleanup on the front end as well as after linking but knowing what needs cleanup is half the battle.
- Document, document, document - write down procedures, questions, anomalies, etc. as they happen.
- Prioritize tasks and constituents. What are the most important constituents to get linked first? Which database is the most accurate?
- Automate as much as you can through imports, global updates, and other services but also do not blindly rely on automation. Be sure someone on the team has significant institutional knowledge. For us, one of the biggest areas of cleanup was with relationships. Ours was a mess, mostly due to a previous conversion from the 90's. A complicating factor is that we have multiple generations of a family with the same or very similar names. It required a lot of research to connect family members correctly. Don't underestimate the amount of information you can get from wedding announcements and obituaries. I used newspapers.com and public records to help fill in gaps.
- Be willing to compromise. Fields that link in the databases don't always match exactly. The data (and format of the data) our advancement team needs in Raiser’s Edge® differs from the data we need in Blackbaud’s K-12 education management portfolio. We each had to change some procedures to provide what each team needed and make the linking work best.
Q: How has leveraging solutions from Blackbaud's partners alongside your Blackbaud solutions made you more efficient in your day-to-day tasks?
A: With the database manager role being a more recent addition, I'm still researching the possibilities. I'm very interested in utilizing the SKY API console and a couple of other marketplace apps. Currently, we use pickAtime for scheduling parent teacher conferences, which has worked seamlessly for years. Before pickAtime, our teachers were responsible for scheduling their own conferences. pickAtime allowed us to take that off their plate so they can spend more time doing what they love - teaching the students. We just partnered with BrightArrow for our mass communications. Although we haven't had to use it yet (come on snow day!), there are more features and flexibility available than our previous service, which is helpful for our communications department. For my own efficiency, the most impactful has come, not from a Blackbaud partner, but from a Blackbaud community member. Scott Yoshimura developed a script that I find immensely helpful every day. A couple of my favorite things it does is allow me to jump from a record in Core to Academics (Blackbaud Student Information System™) to Blackbaud’s K-12 education management portfolio instead of retyping the name in People Finder. I am back and forth between the three all day and it saves me so many extra clicks and keystrokes. I also love that when I use People Finder, instead of having to use the cursor to choose the name, I just hit enter and the record comes up. There are many more shortcuts that his script performs that are so useful. They are small improvements that make an enormous difference!
Q: You've had the opportunity to participate in Blackbaud's early adopter programs (EAPs); what has that experience been like and how has that enhanced your success?
A: I love the opportunity the EAP's offer. Having a voice in how a product or feature functions is hugely beneficial - not only for us but for Blackbaud as well. When you get input from those of us in the schools that are using the products every day, we can make suggestions to the developers that they may not think about. We (the Community) represent hundreds, if not thousands, of schools that all have different needs and utilize the products in different ways. Blackbaud has the daunting task of finding a way for that product or feature to meet as many of those needs as possible. It's much easier to have those different voices influencing the development on the front end by working out bugs and tweaking how it functions before it's released to the wider audience.
Susan Ott - What a great article. I have been a Blackbaud user for over five years. It was great to see a picture of you and Craig with your son. I haven't seen any of you in many years. Tell Craig that I said hello.
Hey Susan, glad to see you highlighted after being such a faithful partner to Product management over the years with your honest contributions with product ideas!