Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Monday, September 1, 2014

12 Weeks to Launch

It's starting to get real. Really real. 84 days real.

All eyes are on testing, training, and sign-off. The auditors (both internal and external) are here, which we know intellectually to be a good thing, but the word "audit" strikes fear into many. It is their job to seek evidence that all the right people are looking at all the right things. My job is to try to keep the ship on an even keel as the waters roil around us, winds shift, and sharks try to jump aboard. I'm especially skilled at shark-wrangling (should add that one to my resume).

Although testing has been happening throughout the project, we are taking a more traditional approach to testing than the agile rules might permit. There's a whole host of reasons for that, not the least of which is that this is our first major release, there are about a zillion moving parts, the system is subject to financial audit, we were in the process of "forming" and building up our agile maturity (so may have missed some things along the way). So we are only two weeks away from starting the first of four rounds of System Integration Testing or SIT. 

[Aside: my project manager has told me that referring to it as "sit testing" drives her crazy, so I'm almost tempted to write it out as S.I.T. But that's three extra keystrokes...]

My favorite part of SIT in this project, though, is the mobile testing room we've had to create. Starved for space, and with training labs available only sporadically, we have a big box of spare laptops (mostly aging ones on their last legs) that we're going to truck around from room to room as a "pop-up" testing (or training) facility. Should be interesting!

Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Monday, August 25, 2014

13 Weeks to Launch

It wasn't that long ago that I could speak of my project timeline in terms of months (or even years!) but that time has come to an end. We are counting weeks -- somewhat to my team's discomfort -- and before long I might be forced to make one of those construction-paper chains I crafted as a child to tick down the days until Christmas. I can almost taste go-live. It is a wonderful taste for guys like me who have built careers around IT projects.

My fondest go-live memory was back in 2003, producing the first bills on a new student financials system (of now-defunct SIS product) at a client in the mid-west. We had tested the system backwards and forwards; we were certain that it would be a quick night. I was the project lead and my senior developer was in an office across the hall. I think we probably started the process just after business hours. It was going to be a long process (hardware wasn't so fast as it is today) and we were watching the database -- first ten bills done, up to 20, up to 100, up to 500, on and on, up and up, to somewhere around 12,000 (with a total expected number of just barely north of that), and then I watched with horror as the transaction unwound, down to 11,000 and one by one the bills were no more. Project failure loomed just ahead, a disaster in the making, the undoing of the transactions a preview of the undoing of my consulting career (to be a little melodramatic)...

We worked all night, finally discovering some stupid memory issue (and realizing we also needed to rethink wrapping the whole process in a single transaction (duh -- but that was how the product was delivered!). We drank lots of Mountain Dew. While many details of the code are gone forever, I clearly remember the loud ringing of the reception desk phone, roughly every ten minutes for 10+ rings. I kept wondering (and eventually screaming in a brief tirade at the peak of my frustration): "who the hell is calling our office at 3:15am?" I never found out, and somehow that phone survived the night (we couldn't find it!)

The next day, the client was thrilled -- all the bills were perfect and on their way to students and parents. It looked so easy and straightforward; only my colleague and I knew the real story of how close we came to the precipice. 
Of course, our go-live in 13 weeks will go off without a hitch. But I'll be sure to stock the fridge and disable any random reception-area phones -- just in case.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

War and Peace

This has nothing to do with the theme of this blog, such as it is.

Or does it?

This weekend I took up a challenge issued by my former roommate: to read Tolstoy's War and Peace. It wasn't an aggressive challenge, just an off-hand remark that he could never talk about his favorite book with anyone because he was always the only person to have read it. "Challenge accepted," I told him over beers in Chelsea (NYC). "It wasn't really a challenge," he said. "I accept anyway," I said. Perhaps I was looking for an excuse.

One Big Ass Book
Everyone knows (even those who haven't read it) that this is great literature. Many claim it to be THE GREATEST NOVEL EVER WRITTEN. It has a 4.08 rating on Good Reads, which is truly remarkable given there have been 115,000 reviews. I'll reserve judgment until I get a little deeper into it (I'm on page 78 of 1273 as of this morning).

I can't help think that it actually has more in common with ERP projects than might be obvious. For one, it is certainly a sprawling epic. It will take a long time to complete, but by the end it might seem to have flown by. The cast of characters is enormous, and their motivations are not always crystal clear; from occasion they might change their minds or work at counter-purposes (not that such things EVER happen in IT projects). While certainly I do not suggest that IT projects are wars in the Napoleonic sense (only in the very rarest of cases), one can draw many parallels: battles are fought, often for reasons difficult to recall after the fact, treaties and alliances are forged, and there are often casualties along the way. Finally, the only way to finish the project / book is to take things one day / page at a time, and if you spend all your time fretting about every decision (or the size of the book, as the case may be), you are guaranteed never to finish.

I'll be curious to see if I gain any grand insights from this endeavor. Even if I don't, at least I'll be able to brag about finishing War and Peace, and my friend will finally have someone to debate.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Embarassed by Inaction

Although I should be used to this by now (and have totally done this to others) it is always a bit strange to meet people -- candidates for jobs, sales people from software or services companies, friends of friends -- who remark off-hand that they've "looked at your site." And then I always cringe, because not everything I've ever posted is exactly a work of art. (This post: a splendid example). Then I go to my website and realize that I really haven't posted a single blog since January! How embarrassing is that?!?

[Digression: And to think I set a resolution for 52 posts this year. Methinks that resolution doth fail. And to think I'm so well (seriously) with the others... But that's a story for December 31st.]

Reflecting on this sad inaction, I marvel at the supermen and superwomen who squeeze an active online presence or write books along with a million other things: graduate degrees, marathons, day jobs, housework, raising children -- all at once, without breaking a sweat. I play the superman role as much as I can, but some things don't make the cut; for me this blog seems to be one victim to reality.

BUT WAIT! As I seem to do about every six months, going to try another injection of energy... for at least a few days.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fifteen Minutes, Zero Slides, and a Pulpit?

The last (only) time that I entered Harvard's Memorial Church, the late Reverend Peter Gomes led my graduating class through non-denominational prayers prior. In eight days, I will be standing on stage there addressing Harvard's information technology community (500+) for 15 minutes on our progress implementing Oracle's PeopleSoft student information and business intelligence software.

Remind me to have somebody snap some pics of the first and only time I'm likely to stand on that stage... (Time to update the Twitter bio photo?)

Daunting as the location may be, I also have the distinct misfortune of following Harvard's Provost, Dr. Alan Garber, the keynote speaker. How can I possibly make data conversion, computing infrastructure, and application set-up even a tenth as interesting as anything he says? My palms are sweating at the thought.

And as if all that were not enough, they took my PowerPoint away! Handicap enough in a dark conference room that seats eight, being without my precious crutch scares the bejeezus out of me. No TED Talks imitation. No bullets and no clip art. Just spoken words, hopefully not too many uhs, umms, or curse words uttered when I forget my lines. The only solution is a script and lots upon lots of rehearsal.