For some workplaces, the idea of joining a product’s beta program for an entire school district would make them nervous. Not for Val Verde. The Southern California school district home to 22 schools and 20,000 students is tried and tested when it comes to adopting tech early. In fact, they’ve been technology pioneers in education for the last three decades.
One of the first districts on the internet in Southern California and one of the first 10 Google Certified schools, Val Verde have always been at the forefront of cutting edge technology - diving into new shiny new gadgetry since acquiring a fleet of freshly released NeXT workstations in 1985. That’s right, THOSE NeXT computers from Steve Jobs. That’s right, THAT Steve Jobs.
Today, Val Verde is a hybrid of Microsoft Office 365 for admin and teaching staff, with Chromebooks and G Suite for students who have been one-to-one with Chromebooks district-wide for the last two and a half years.
Leading the charge into the beta for PaperCut’s Universal Print connector were Matt Penner, Director of Information and Instructional Technology, and Brian Falk, Network Service Manager: Val Verde’s two futurists with over 20 years of IT experience.
While Matt and Brian are no strangers to getting their hands on new tech, this particular leap was born out of necessity. Shifting to remote working during Covid-19 made the once simple tasks of accessing files and printing unnecessarily painful and clunky.
For Matt and Brian, however, they smelled an opportunity. We spoke to Val Verde’s tech wizards about the cloud, magic networks, and being printing guinea pigs.
This customer story was first published on Microsoft’s Tech Community blog - this is the full interview transcript for folks who love themselves a deluxe version!
Val Verde’s no stranger to adopting new tech, but first, talk us through your IT and print environment.
Matt: “We’re a Microsoft-centric shop, which we’ve done for 15 - 20 years - very heavily in Cisco. When this thing called Google and Chromebooks came along, we dove into that. So now we’re what we call a hybrid.
“If you register in our district, day one you’ve got a student account that lets you do everything you need. You have a Microsoft account for Office 365, you have a Google account for everything in Google Workspace. We hand you a Chromebook - we were one-to-one with Chromebooks in every single student’s hands two and a half years ago. If you don’t have the internet at home, we’ll hand you a hotspot as well.”
Brian: “We’re like most businesses or school districts, whoever it might be, we’ve had Microsoft Active Directory for 20 plus years. It’s been a staple for us. When you put in Active Directory, you put in your print servers and your printers are all tied to your Active Directory. We were just traditional like everybody else.”
You’ve recently farmed your on-prem data up to the cloud. How did Covid-19 drive that transition?
Matt: “When this whole closure and everything happened, no one has done it perfectly and there’s a lot of stuff that we’re learning, but I would say as a school district, we were probably near the forefront as to being well poised to take advantage of it.
“A lot of our students already had Chromebooks, they were taking them home for the last two years. Now, in the last eight months, we’ve rolled out another sixteen hundred laptops to all of our kindergartners and preschoolers, if you can imagine that.”
“While all of our teachers and all of our students are on Google, pretty much the rest of our business team is still very Microsoft-centric, operating via on-prem servers, on-prem laptops, things like that. When they went home, they were losing access to all their files at work. So we were doing stupid things like Windows syncing files and offline files. Meanwhile, the Google people on their Chromebooks were having a grand old time!”
**Brian: “**On March 13th, when we were all sent home due to the pandemic, we found that those physical devices were a huge hindrance to us and caused us all sorts of problems: having to have that local Active Directory that nobody could access anymore, having to have those local file servers that nobody could access anymore, having those printers that just sat there and became stagnant because they were not accessible. So we had to then enact the plan that we’d been looking at. We started enacting it almost immediately.”
So you’d been planning to switch to the cloud for some time?
Matt: “Our grand vision — this has been several years in the making — is that you can work on anything you want, wherever you want, anytime you want. You don’t have to be on our magic network to get access to your files or your services or anything like that. So we rolled out 980 laptops entirely in Azure and since we’ve been moving everything to the cloud - managing it all through Azure, our goal is to put all of our servers in Azure.”
“A lot of districts, ourselves included, were stuck where if you weren’t on the magic network, you get nothing. The whole reason behind that is because we’ve all run our own on-prem data centers for the last 20-30 years. That’s where a lot of us are still at. So the closure made us say, ‘Let’s get this into the cloud and let’s be a little smarter and give our users something that they can use anywhere.’”
Brian: “I think 12 months ago, nobody was looking at this. That changed with the pandemic. It started changing some mindsets. Fortunately, I think for us is that we already changed our mindset on where we wanted to go. Matt and I have had this discussion for almost three years about how we were going to move to the cloud, how we were going to get disassociated from our local networks.
“The pandemic for us has just been the catalyst to make that happen so much quicker. But I think there are still so many old school technologists out there that are afraid to cut the cord.”
How did switching from on-prem to cloud lead you to Universal Print?
Matt: “Suddenly we had all these Azure devices that were trying to talk to on-prem printers in a classic, old print server traditional way. So we started looking for a solution, and that’s where PaperCut came in to save the day.”
What was your background with PaperCut?
**Matt: “**We’d been a PaperCut customer since, before 2016, thanks to Image Source, I think it’s been longer than that, but it was one of those sad tales where printing is handled by Facilities. They bought this software and IT was trying to get our hands on it; which we’ve made some headway on over the years.”
Brian: “We started wanting to be able to monitor usage and see what printing was doing but Google forced some changes for us as well. Our superintendent, who’s very visionary, had his Google Chrome PixelBook, and he told Matt, ‘I need to print from here’. Matt knew PaperCut could handle that, so he immediately got PaperCut set up. In less than 30 minutes the superintendent was printing from his PixelBook. Making the superintendent happy, that’s immediate proof that the technology is working and returning value.”
Matt: “Specifically it was the Mobility Print feature. We were a district that was pretty much one hundred percent dead-on, “You never, ever print from Chrome”. The whole point of Chromebooks and G-Suite is you do everything online, you collaborate online. The instant you print it, you’ve lost the whole point of it. But when your superintendent says, ‘I want to print from my PixelBook’, then you figure it out.”
How did PaperCut fit into the Universal Print picture?
Brian: “As we came into the pandemic we started testing on our Azure deployment, and we started seeing that there were some real challenges to trying to print the old-fashioned way, using the traditional print servers and being able to connect and talk to our printing. We started digging to see what was out there and, of course, Universal Print popped up.”
“We started Googling some stuff on Universal Print and right there on its page was a list of solution providers they were working with - and there was PaperCut.We remembered the issue with the Google printing and thought if PaperCut made that simple, then this is going to be a simple transition for us as well.”
“We ran into, of course, the initial roadblock that it was still in beta. When it released for our license level, within a day we were into the beta program for the PaperCut connector. Within the first couple of hours, we had the connecter downloaded and we were starting to work there. Something that is the greatest part is when you’re sitting there and you’re dealing with beta and they say, ‘Hold on, let’s get the developers on.’ We’re sitting there talking back and forth and we’re making the implementation. It went so smoothly. In the period of one week, we had fourteen hundred printers into Universal Print.”
Talk us through that implementation…
Brian: “We worked on some Powershell so we were able to upload into Universal Print the information on where the printers are located. Now when a user wants to add their printer, they don’t have 14 steps to go through as we did in the old Active Directory world.
“They go in, click ‘Add a printer’ and they choose the Universal Print printer, and they see their Val Verde organization and they select their school site. If they want they can drill all the way down and get to their exact room number to grab their printer. Within minutes - and it doesn’t matter, they don’t have to have admin rights, they don’t have to have anything - they’re connected. That printer’s there and it’s running.
“From an administration side, I want it just to work. I don’t want to have to mess with it. Once we worked through some of the bugs that were there in those initial beta releases, we’ve not had to go back to it again. It works, it’s there, it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Those fourteen hundred printers are talking. That teacher needs to print off ten lesson plans from home, they hit print and whoever is in the office picks them up and they’re done. It’s so easy.”
What was it like dealing with the developers during the beta?
Brian: “We worked with Will and Noah through some of the first initial bugs that we were seeing. It wasn’t was even really bugs as they were just user issues and things like that. But to have direct access to your development team was amazing. To be able to work through and have the people say, ‘No, click here. No, type this command. If you do it this way, it’ll be so much easier for you.’”
“That just helps promote the product so much better. You know, we kind of look at ourselves as this little school district out in the middle of nowhere. Here you guys are saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll talk with you, we’ll work through this with you.’”
“We knew there were going to be road bumps, but we wanted it to work and so it did. Getting the printers up into the cloud was so easy. Once we built out those scripts in a few minutes we were able to then upload, and everything just went so smoothly.”
Matt: “We love to talk directly to the engineers and developers, I mean, that’s us, that’s where we came from. We do a lot of pilot and beta testing. When we find something that doesn’t quite work right we’ll reach out to the company and we’ll say, hey, if you want a beta tester…
“I love relationships like this where we can work back and forth. You as the developers get to see the fruits of your labor in action while helping us. We get firsthand dibs on saying, ‘Hey this works, but can you tweak it a little bit like this?’ I just love that. I love that ability. That’s where, honestly, I go home at the end of the day and I’ve had fun.
This case study wouldn’t have been possible without Image Source, one of California’s top PaperCut resellers and a Microsoft Gold provider. Not only did they introduce us to Val Verde but they’re also a hoot to hang out with.
Extra special shout out to Image Source’s ASC ecoprintQ, our boots on the ground for all things PaperCut in North and South America.