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

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.