Sunday, November 29, 2009

Memories of IT - Packages and Reverse Engineering

Ah, packages. They are better now, but this was still a period where it was pretty likely you wanted to change it. One thing management had done right (and you gotta acknowledge that when you see it) was the vendor agreed to work with us to make changes if we gave them requirements. This was really one of those “win-win” deals, because almost all packages are created for the USA first and, if you are a Canadian company, the first thing you have to do is “Canadianize” the package; that can mean currency differences or adding French versions of screens and such. This vendor was indeed American, and we were their first Canadian customer, so they wanted to end up with a new version of their system to sell to other Canadian insurance companies.

They didn’t have such a version yet because the package was still pretty new. It had been developed in-house at a Chicago insurance company, and then it had been spun-out to a separate company. The original company was still their number one customer.

Was it a good package? I can’t really say for sure because (spoiler alert!) I wasn’t around to see it fully implemented. I do know the original version was not using industrial-strength technology. The database was some Dbase/Xbase thing, the code was Basic or something, and the user interface was green screen running under DOS; but the vendor wasn’t dumb. They piggy-backed on top of our agreement the effort to upgrade the technology: Oracle, Unix and other good stuff. This came about because the business liked the system as they saw it, but our IT people said we can’t support this, and our scale of business would probably swamp the system. So, the business people agreed to pay for the upgrade, and what vendor would not love that.

So, I have these D/Xbase table definitions, and there are hundreds of tables. The central tables emerged easily and I started subject areas, and the structure became clearer. What I found was that a lot of these tables were add-ons: if they had a Policy table, and then decided they needed more attributes for a Policy, they did not change the table, they created a new one with the same key. I can see how that would be easier to do, but it made the database into a dog’s breakfast. I raised this in one of the on-site meetings with the vendors, that I was not impressed, and they were not impressed that I was not impressed.

So, I continued parsing my way through this mess, creating a pretty big data model. I was doing this while starting to do direct project work, but I eventually finished. The next time some vendor people came in, I showed it to them as I thought it would assist in specifying good requirements and their impact on the database. Their response was muted at best, which left me puzzled. It was only some time later that I was taking to a consultant who had been part of the package search that I found out why I had got that response: right in our contract was a clause that we would not reverse-engineer any part of the system to understand and document it, that was verboten. Well, nobody had told me, I don’t think anybody else like who had joined after the contract was signed knew either. It was no secret I was doing it, and nobody ever said I should not do it. I don’t know if there were any repercussions from the vendor after they saw it, but I had the data model and I used it from then on.

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About Me

Ontario, Canada
I have been an IT Business Analyst for 25 years, so I must have learned something. Also been on a lot of projects, which I have distilled into the book "Cascade": follow the link to the right to see more.