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Introducing the Group Assignment Center

Introducing the Group Assignment Center

Posted by Tom Hallman at May 26, 2011 04:20 PM |

Movin' on up...

For a couple years now, DiscipleMakers has used an online conference registration system called Thriva EventRegister. It's served us well for our conference needs. However, EventRegister is being phased out in favor of a new tool purchased by Thriva's parent company, ActiveNetwork, which is called RegOnline.
Overall we were quite impressed with RegOnline and saw it as a big step up! However, the one significant feature it lacked (which EventRegister had) was a means of arbitrarily grouping registrants. For example, DiscipleMakers puts people into housing groups and discussion groups ("small groups") for most conferences. We've done this by hand or using a spreadsheet in the past, but that's proven to be a time-consuming and error-prone process.

The Vision

The DM Systems Department was given the vision of adding this group assignment functionality to RegOnline. We were excited to see that RegOnline offered an API that would allow us to do that!

The Bigger Vision

One of the visions of the Systems Department is that if we can make something work for us, why not see if we can make it work for others? Thus, we decided to write this tool not only to serve DM, but all RegOnline users, including other disciple-making ministries across the globe!

The BIGGER Vision

We also saw this as an opportunity to learn some new methodologies and tools that we'd heard good things about. So we ran the project using agile software development principles, including pair programming. Moreover, we took a chunk of time to also learn Ruby on Rails, git and other tools.  It was exciting to watch these ideas and tools go from strange to comfortable, and to watch productivity go from slow to... well, agile!

Mission Accomplished

The end result is the Group Assignment Center. It is now available on github, and we even put together a video to show it in action.
GAC, as we've affectionately called it, has become one of the most successful projects Systems has done to date. It was done on time, we got very good customer satisfaction feedback, and it was used for two of our conferences already.
In the process of developing GAC, we also wrote a middle layer of code called the RegOnline Connector (ROC). ROC serves as a Ruby API that unifies and improves the native RegOnline API. Thus, other Ruby [on Rails] applications can be more easily written in the future, saving the developers a lot of time and effort.
We're excited that not only is DiscipleMakers now benefiting from our work, but any other organizations (including ministries) who want to use RegOnline to manage their events can have useful, fine-grained control over grouping their conference registrants. And that will help lead, by God's grace, to making more disciples of Jesus Christ!


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Posted by Tom Hallman at Nov 19, 2010 04:00 PM |

Around 3:30pm yesterday, something bad happened.

But let's back up.

For the past couple months we've been in the process of migrating our server virtualization infrastructure from Xen to KVM.  It's something akin to lifting up a house to replace the foundation - but without anyone in the house realizing what had happened.

We had a good plan.  In fact, the plan has gotten even better since we've begun using some agile techniques including pairing.  By around 3pm yesterday, we were actually ahead of schedule and really excited to get ahead.  We'd migrated over a good number of our virtual servers from Xen to KVM and had planned out the remaining virtual servers so as to minimize downtime.

So all we needed to do was make a little change in the logical volume manager.  To use our house analogy, we were going to move the floor supports from one place to another.  While not a small task, it's easy in concept. Thus, we typed in the command.

It was about 3:30pm.

Suddenly, very strange things started happening.  Our house analogy breaks down a bit here, but let's just say that some very important, low-level data was being reported correctly on our new KVM server and not correctly on the old Xen server.  To our surprise, nothing actually stopped immediately.  But we were no longer sure what magic was holding it all together.  As our concerns about data corruption began rising, we decided that the best thing to do would be to reboot the Xen server (along with all its virtual servers).  If all went well, the fresh start would clean up any leftover junk and all the virtual machines would come up correctly.  So we rebooted it.

We never heard from those virtual machines again.

To make a long story slightly shorter, we realized that our best hope of fixing everything was to just follow the plan we'd already made for migrating the remaining Xen virtual machines over to the new KVM server.  In other words, we'd do the next two weeks of work... but in one night.

After we prayed together, Brian and Adam went to work migrating the remaining machines.  Jason pulled the "Beta" label off of our new KVM-based terminal server (which only a select few had been testing at that point) and moved over the remaining users still left on the now-dead Xen-based terminal server.  I got on the phone (email was down) and called through our Staff list to let them know what happened and to ask them to pray.

The highlight of the evening (after Jason and I had gone home) was when Brian's wife Carin and Adam's wife Jen showed up with food to encourage their husbands!  Both couples had scheduled date nights anyway - this just looked different than they'd expected.

By 8pm that evening, almost every service was migrated and running correctly on KVM.  I sent an email out telling the Staff what had happened and we quickly got back many encouraging responses!

Only in the LORD's grace can we experience a server catastrophe and yet actually arrive further down the line in our project.

Only in the LORD's grace can a canceled date night turn into an opportunity for two ladies to show their love and devotion to their husbands.

Only in the LORD's grace can we find rest, peace and joy even in the midst of a crisis.  No doubt this will not be our last one.  But our God knows the very hairs on our heads.  He can certainly handle corrupted disks - and whatever else comes our way.

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Can accounting software get applause?

Can accounting software get applause?

Posted by Tom Hallman at Jan 15, 2010 02:38 PM |

When a cool new technology is unveiled, it is often done so to the sound of much applause and cheering. Rightly so! New technology that is useful or fun is a big deal!

Think for a moment about what kinds of new technology get you excited. Perhaps its the latest gadget from Apple or Google. Perhaps its technology that makes life simpler to organize or maintain. Or perhaps you just like when expensive things become cheap or free.

But, would you ever guess that accounting software could get people to cheer?

Find out how it happened at the DiscipleMakers 2010 Winter Staff Conference by watching the video below. In this fun 30-minute video, I cover:

  • What DM uses accounting software for
  • The history of our old accounting software (Peachtree)
  • The benefits of our new software (FrontAccounting)
  • The exciting future of the new software
  • ... and a special surprise =)

That video represents just a taste of the kind of things that the DM Systems Department, by God's grace, is working on and planning. Would you like to be part of it?

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Caring for Orphans

Caring for Orphans

Posted by Tom Hallman at Nov 02, 2009 11:15 AM |

As someone who works with both people and technology, it's sometimes easy to wonder if my efforts would be better utilized if I dropped the tech aspects and focused more on people.  After all, Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations - not to write code at a desk.  And His brother James tells us, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress."  (James 1:27) So why should I keep working on Linux servers?

Have you ever wrestled with that?

Now, I think it is wise to frequently evaluate where the LORD would have you be.  After all, new opportunities for ministry are constantly coming and going!  So, just last night I was asking the LORD whether my work on a particular open source software project was still a good use of my time.  Yes, that project has been very fruitful for DiscipleMakers over the years.  Yes, I really enjoy working on it.  But, there are lots of other opportunities too!  What about the widows and orphans? 

"Okay God... what should I do?"

Not more than half an hour later, I received an email asking for installation assistance with my project from someone I'd never heard of from a ministry I'd never heard of.  And, not only was he asking for assistance in installing the latest version, but he'd been using an older version for some time!

Out of curiosity, I checked out the ministry's website.  This ministry "is dedicated to providing quality care, such as food, clothing and housing, efficiently and effectively, to deaf orphans in Kenya. We also strive to provide these deaf orphans with a solid education and hope to empower them so they an lead productive lives beyond the orphanage."

My friends, the DiscipleMakers Systems Department really is a "ministry multiplier".  Because of some code we've written, college students are coming to know Christ.  Pastors are being trained.  Medical students are hearing the gospel.  Orphans are being fed.  God our Father is accepting pure and faultless religion!

Would you like to have your work multiplied thirty, sixty or one hundred foldLet us know.

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A Visit from LightSys

A Visit from LightSys

Posted by Tom Hallman at Aug 24, 2009 11:05 AM |

No matter what industry you're in, you've no doubt wished that you could have an expert consultant come in and help you evaluate your organization from top to bottom.

What if someone offered to come do that for free?

A few weeks back we got a visit from Tim & Patricia Young from LightSys Technology Services.  We'd met Tim at an ICCM conference some years ago, and this is now his second visit to the DiscipleMakers HQ.  Because LightSys does fundraising similarly to how DM does it, Tim's services to us were totally free!

According to their website,

LightSys is dedicated to equipping Christian missions and ministries with the computer technology correct for them, including the knowledge and contacts needed to support that technology. As a result they can serve with greater efficiency, keeping their mind on their task, not their computers, thus redeeming technology -- for God's Kingdom.

We really found that to be true!  We spent about three full days with Tim in our conference room while he answered our barrage of questions about everything from wireless networks to fundraising to donor management tools to open source project management.

Tim has the rare gift of being very tech-savvy but also being a great networker.  Because of that, he was able to help us understand whether the things we were doing were "normal" or "out there".  Through him will be able to connect and "work with" many other missions out there, and we're hopeful that Tim's influence will help both DiscipleMakers and other organizations to benefit over the years to come.

Beyond all that, Tim is a wonderful story-teller, and he enthralled our kids with tales of treasure hunts and us adults with the story of how he and Patricia met.  (The latter takes about 45 minutes, but is well worth it.)

Tim's wisdom and experience were invaluable, and we are so grateful that he was willing to spend some time with us!

Thanks Tim!

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Master Plumbers

Master Plumbers

Posted by Tom Hallman at May 20, 2009 02:15 PM |

Sometimes inspirations for ministry come from places you don't expect.  Let me share with you how a plumber inspired me just today.

My wife and I recently moved into a new home, and as such things tend to go, we've rapidly developed a list of things that need to get fixed. On that list were about half a dozen plumbing-related issues.  After a couple unsuccessful attempts at "doing it myself", I recognized my limits and reached for the phone.

A couple days later, a highly-recommended local plumber named Robin showed up at my door. He patiently followed me around from room to room as I showed him my leaking kitchen faucet, my oft-unflushable toilet, my other cracked toilet, my duct-taped bathtub drain stopper contraption, my leaking water heater, and more. He humbly nodded as I explained to him what I suspected to be the problem in each case.

Then, armed only with a flashlight and many invaluable years of experience, Robin looked in, around, under and seemingly through each of the failing components I'd enumerated. Here and there he'd ask questions about this or that, often seeking to confirm that he'd understood my complaint correctly. He also asked me questions about things that, from as far as I could tell, had little to do with the problem at hand. Yet I suspect that somehow, in his gargantuan mental database, he was putting pieces of data together in logical and creative ways so quickly that Google itself would be left dazed.

Robin then began explaining what would be required in each case to fix the problem, including time estimates (best, worst and likely cases) and cost of parts, should they need to be replaced. I can't be certain, but I remember thinking that I could detect an almost apologetic tone as he laid out the final costs. It was almost that he felt bad for even charging me at all! 

As I drove to the DiscipleMakers HQ a few minutes later, it occurred to me that Robin is in many ways just the kind of plumber that I want to be as a member of the DM Systems DepartmentIn fact, if you've ever tried helping someone with their computer, you can probably relate uncannily well to Robin's experience with his "user" today.

Moreover, God used Robin's humble attitude to convict me.   How do I respond when friends or coworkers bring their list of computer problems?  Or when they suggest to me how to fix it?  Do I listen well and try to understand their concerns, or do I see them as distractions from getting the "real work" done?

These are topics that we encounter and talk about regularly on the Systems Department, because we have a higher calling than even your average system administrator: we're not just representing ourselves or our organization, but the Lord of Hosts Himself. He has called us to love our users as we love ourselves. Moreover, our calling is not simply to sell a service or debug a script or fix a pipe, but to call other sinners like us to the wondrous glory of knowing Christ and His gospel!

And we praise the Lord that we needn't ever feel that guilt-like tension that Robin does – that which exists between fixing something for free (because we can) and getting paid hourly (because we need to pay the bills). DM has each of its missionaries – whether they'll be on campus or behind the scenes – raise their full financial support before they even get on the field. We needn't ever see our "users", whether Staff or student, as people who might be able to help financially – because we have a full team of supporters regularly paying our bills for us. Wouldn't you like to have a plumber in that position?

May the Lord continue to make us into His master plumbers!

And may there be no leaks under my sink when I get home today.

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The 2009 Taylor Spring Break Missions Trip

The 2009 Taylor Spring Break Missions Trip

Posted by Tom Hallman at Apr 14, 2009 05:15 PM |

A few weeks ago (was it that long already?), three brave souls from Taylor University ventured forth into the mountainous terrain of Pennsylvania in order to spend their Spring Break in State College. Why? These three men had a vision to use their tech skills in order to serve the LORD through helping out DiscipleMakers' Systems Department for the week!

Noah, Jesse and Jeremy each stayed with one of the families on the Systems department and basically went wherever we went, whether that was to the HQ to work for the day, to Bible study, to the softball fields, or to the DM Men's Conference.

In particular, these men helped us set up an enterprise-class secure wireless network in our HQ so that our laptop/netbook/iPhone-sporting Staff could get ready access to our LAN resources such as the file server and print server. These guys ran into a number of difficulties, but prevailed in the end, and for that we are very grateful! In addition, they were able to set up a "guest portal" for use by visitors to our HQ. Oh, and we got to run wires through the HQ and use power tools. Very cool.

We were very thankful for their hard work, and we really enjoyed getting to know these guys. Lots of bonding took place over code, the Scriptures, ice cream, Wii and Star Trek. Especially Star Trek.

Thanks for coming, men!

Have you ever considered taking a few days off to serve the Lord with the technical skills He's given you? If you'd like to find out more, drop us a line: systems -at-

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Meet the Department: Tom Hallman

Meet the Department: Tom Hallman

Posted by Tom Hallman at Feb 26, 2009 11:50 AM |

I'll follow Jason's lead in writing an entry introducing myself. Though I was brought up going to church, the incredible truths of the gospel of Christ either weren't preached or I didn't understand them. (I suspect it was both.) In high school I declared myself an atheist and had no intention of looking back.

While I didn't have Christ in my life, I did often had access to a computer. When I was in elementary school, my mom worked as a teacher's aid, which means she often stayed well-past when I'd otherwise have gone home. So I'd occupy myself in the computer lab, mostly playing The Oregon Trail on their Apple IIes. A few years later we got our first “IBM-compatible” 25 mHz screamer, and I was thrilled. One day I discovered, quite by accident, what BASIC was. Within days I had written a text-based Star Trek battle simulator (which I'm sure totally rocked.) In high school I took some computer courses and found a way to skip out of study hall (and often even gym) in order to spend time in the computer lab designing “games” or chatting on IRC. Still, in all this, I simply considered my tinkering a “hobby”.

The turning point for me (career-wise) was after I had written a networked chat program (think of it like AOL Instant Messenger, though I'd never used or heard of such a thing at the time) and installed it on the school's network... not exactly with the school administrator's blessing. A week or so after I'd done that, I was walking past a computer lab and glanced in – every one of the 20-some students in the room was chatting with one another using my program! It was at that point that I decided that I wanted to write software for a living.

A couple years later I was off to Bloomsburg University with the intention of getting a degree in computer science, getting a job with Microsoft, and then taking over the world. (It went something like that in my head, anyway.) What I certainly hadn't intended was to meet the Lord there...

The turning point for me (faith-wise) was during my sophomore year (1999) when I met Dave Kieffer, the DiscipleMakers Staff at Bloomsburg at the time. Dave shared the gospel with me in a way I'd never heard before, both through the Scriptures and through his life. I realized that, despite my best arguments, Christianity was the only thing that truly spoke to who I was, what I was and what the Solution was. Over a period of months I went from doubting everything about Christ to eagerly wanting to know as much as I could, and then wanting to share Him with the world! Slowly the gospel took root in my life, and I've never looked back. I praise God that He provided a perfect Savior to die for me, a hard-hearted rebel.

In 2001 I did a summer internship with DiscipleMakers and I saw firsthand how much God could use my computer skills to make a huge impact in the advancement of the Kingdom. And in DiscipleMakers I found an organization that was even more interested in helping me to conform into Christ's image than they were in how much code I could write. Because of this, after working at another job for a year after graduation, I joined DiscipleMakers.

I've since seen even more clearly that it's not just me DM is discipling. It's every Staff, every student, every nation. I'm honored, delighted and deeply thankful that I get to be a part of it!

PS: Though I do a lot more than write code these days, I still really enjoy programming! In fact, my main hobby these days is working on an open-source donation management system called Grace. If you'd be interested in helping me in any of these ways, please let me know!

Phone: (814) 769-1329
Also find me on Facebook!

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Our New Year's Adventure

Our New Year's Adventure

Posted by Tom Hallman at Jan 05, 2009 03:35 PM |

On New Year's Eve, our computer network went down. And we had no idea how to fix it.

At 10:30a on December 31st, I tried making a very small change to our network's router. Once I did, suddenly everything started failing. Our headquarters users couldn't get to the net. We couldn't see our web server. Reports of "I can't check email" started flooding in. "Oops," I thought.

I quickly changed everything back, and waited. Still nothing. When I logged onto the console of our email server, I could see that it was up. But it couldn't get to the rest of the world, and the rest of the world couldn't get to it.

I called Brian over. We traced through what I did and concluded that something else must be broken, so we restarted the router. When it came back up, things only got worse.

Over the next 48 hours, God taught me a lot. He taught me all about the need for a redundant router. He taught me about what the good ol' days were like before Google, when you had to use things like books and the painfully slow scientific method in order to solve problems! He taught me crazy networking technologies (and all the syntax and semantics that go with it) that I'd never before laid eyes on. But most of all, He reminded me of one of the biggest reasons I love my job.

It's the people.

Over those 48 hours, God used the brothers and sisters around me – not just technology – in order to solve the problem. I was amazed and humbled at how quickly my coworkers were willing to help. Now, I don't know what your job is like around the turn of the year, but I know that in DiscipleMakers, there's lots to do to prepare for the next semester, upcoming conferences, upcoming talks or worship-leading, the huge amount of work in the HQ involved in complying with tax regulations, the whole slew of projects and appointments that hadn't gotten done in December, and plenty more. But in the midst of all that, people were willing – even eager – to stop what they were doing and pray for us in the Systems Department. Many would stop by or call and offer us words of encouragement. (One even offered to take a pipe wrench to the router if it would help... we considered it.)

In the end, we managed to get everything back up and running. God used this experience to give us a better, more streamlined and much-more-well-understood setup than we'd ever previously had. He used it to grow Brian and I in unity, since we felt somewhat like we were in a foxhole together. He also used it to remind us Who is in control, and to Whom we must turn for our hope (hint: it's not Google.) "When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?" (Amos 3:6b)

So thank you, Father, for giving me a work environment in which I can serve, be encouraged, and learn to love my coworkers and trust You more every day.

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Welcome to the DiscipleMakers Systems Blog!

Welcome to the DiscipleMakers Systems Blog!

Posted by Tom Hallman at Nov 20, 2008 05:15 PM |

Do you love equipping people with the right tools to do their jobs excellently?  Do you get excited about creatively joining together ideas and technologies to help advance God's Kingdom? 

You're in the right place. 

Welcome to the DiscipleMakers Systems Department blog!  We're excited to be starting this new venture, and we're glad you're here to find out more.

DiscipleMakers is a growing, Pennsylvania-based college campus ministry, and the Systems Department (or "Systems" for short) is responsible for utilizing technology that enables DM to more effectively make disciples. 

So why are we starting a blog?

First, God is worthy of all praise (Psalm 150:6), and we see this blog as a great way to give Him glory for what He's doing through the DiscipleMakers Systems Department.

Second, we're a forgetful people that need to be reminded often what God has done, is doing, and will do in us and through us, all in accordance with His promises and faithfulness.  So, this blog will help us, as God's people, to remember what an amazing God we have!

Third, you might not be too clear as to how the seemingly-unrelated spiritual and technological endevours of a college campus ministry come together.  You wouldn't be alone!  We've talked to a number of people who are really passionate for the work we're doing, but previously they didn't even know that we existed!  So, we members of the DM Systems Department want to use this blog to paint a picture for you of how God is using us and our work to equip disciples to make disciples. 

So, whether you're already familiar with DiscipleMakers and the Systems Department or are just curious and want to hear more, we hope you'll find this blog interesting and encouraging.  Thanks for reading!

To get instant updates as we add new entries, we recommend using our RSS feed.  And please feel free to leave comments - we'd love to hear from you!

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