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Emerald City Software

"There were over a thousand change orders in our fixed bid; each one had a zero dollar amount associated with it. Quite frankly, if we had not been using PowerBuilder we would not have been successful"

Lynn Hardin
Emerald City Software

The Washington Department of Corrections issued an RFP for a centralized, automated roster scheduling solution to manage the 24x7x365 schedules for 15 facilities with 4,200 correctional personnel. The RFP required a fixed price bid; project success demanded a development environment that rapidly managed multiple change requests.

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Nimble, Rapid Application Development is Key to a Successful Project
The Washington Department of Corrections was on its second round of issuing an RFP for state-wide scheduling software to manage a roster of 4,200 correctional employees. The first version of the RFP and the associated pilot implemented by the selected company illuminated unforeseen shortcomings. The primary failures of the first pilot were the responsiveness of the system and its unwieldy, complex user interface, which posed a training issue and was a barrier to less computer-literate users.

When drafting the second incarnation of the RFP, the Department of Corrections spelled out in unambiguous terms their expectations of software and vendor performance. The application could be complex in the background, but it needed an easily navigated user interface. The winner of the second RFP was Emerald City Software, a Seattle-based company with an excellent record of performance on difficult state government related scheduling and labor optimization projects.

In business for 12 years, Emerald City Software is a medium-small company with fewer than 20 employees. Their primary niche is in the area of workforce management, especially as it relates to the labyrinth of labor union rules. They had implemented a scheduling solution for Washington State Ferries, a state organization with 1,400 employees, across 14 locations, overlaid with a snarled tapestry of four labor agreements. Ferries presented an added dimension of complication by having the location of the facility where the scheduling was occurring move through different labor jurisdictions, changing the rules governing the schedule.

Emerald City President, David Clark explains how they entered the scheduling business, "We were working on a strategic workforce management solution for the Washington State Ferries. We sensed a real opportunity to develop a product and grow from there. A prison is a complex environment, but at least it is stationary. With the ferry system we had four unions, on board 31 large vessels, with 13 different union agreements that varied depending upon the location of the ferry. We developed a system for them and got our start in strategic workforce management. Three years ago we took the knowledge of what we learned from that project and built ATLAS TM from the ground up into a product Emerald City could sell. Our ability to handle complex labor rules is what differentiates us from our large competitors; they focus on non-union environments which are far, far less complex."

Implementing a Pilot at Light Speed
Emerald City Software cites Sybase PowerBuilder's rapid development capabilities as a primary success factor in their implementations. Change is a given when developing custom software; flexibility on the development side creates a much higher likelihood of overall project success. In most projects the customer knows what they want – at least the broad outlines of what they want. The reality of seeing actual screens doing exactly what was asked, almost inevitably leads to a slew of modifications. Software shops that recognize this facet of human nature and have tools in place to account for it are far more likely to succeed than their inflexible peers.

Change also has inherent dangers; Emerald City was careful to keep the database side of the project evolving at a prudent pace. David Clark relates their approach, "We've all heard of projects where too much change has resulted in spiraling out of control. There was a core database scheduling engine that was never changed, so all the change requests had to be looked at in regards to the stability of this engine."

On the other side, with the user interface that fed the scheduling engine, Emerald City had Sybase PowerBuilder giving them absolute flexibility to meet customer needs. Clark says, "We knew we would benefit from the expansion of the Atlas product, which made it easy to be so accommodating to all the change orders. We also made the changes generic so any corrections department across the country could use ATLAS TM. We can schedule anyone – from a secretary to the Secretary of the Department of Corrections. We see future applications in the educational field, city governments, hospitals, and complex manufacturing environments. It was win-win all the way around."

Developers often find themselves in the negative position of constantly vetoing change requests in order to actually complete a project. At the Washington Department of Corrections, with PowerBuilder as her development tool, Lynn Hardin, the Director of Information Systems at Emerald City Software was cast in a decidedly positive role. Hardin tells about experiencing the joy of implementing changes in near-real time for an appreciative customer, using a tool that makes it look easy, "From the technical side of the project, I had the opportunity to work directly with end users. I really enjoyed the sheer fun of that give and take, especially in the pilot phase. It was easy to modify screens to match the changes as they were requested. When the user asked for something, I could have it running for them to see in the next hour or day. With PowerBuilder you can do things so quickly, with far fewer lines of code than any other development tool. Plus, the DataWindow is absolutely revolutionary – there is just nothing else like it. I'm a staunch PowerBuilder fan. Because I was able to do things so quickly, they were amazed, and they would say, ‘Wow – that's great!' It was wonderful to see the direct and immediate benefit they received from my work. We could not have done it without PowerBuilder's RAD capability. At times we were a little ragged, but the reality is the changes made ATLAS TM much more robust and attractive to virtually every Department of Corrections across the United States. There was a tremendous amount of knowledge they gave us that we were able to bring into the product itself."

Steve Ramsey recalls the exuberance of the users as they helped shape the Atlas tool to meet their needs, "At the time, we tried to tell our users – who by the way, were also the source of many of our changes – that though the changes were good, they made it harder to learn the application so we wanted to slow it down. Their response was to say, ‘We don't care, we can use those good features so keep them coming as fast as you can and we'll try to keep up.' They didn't want any delay; they wanted the changes as fast as we could provide them."

Self-Updating Client Keeps Up with the Rate of Change
The pilot phase of the project began moving so quickly that it risked being a victim of its own success. With a widespread user base, the rapidly evolving client began posing a problem because the installed version on a user's desktop quickly became out of date.

Steve Ramsey, from the Washington Department of Corrections remembers his growing concern at the time, "In the pilot we were having all these client changes and it quickly became apparent to us that someone had to touch the client machines every time we did an update. Client changes beyond the pilot would be totally unmanageable because of our limited IT resources. I was very impressed with the rapid turnaround, but because of the numerous rapid changes, you could use the product, come back two days later and it would have a changed aspect, which made it difficult to keep up with at times. Emerald City worked with our network staff to look at various options, and ECS decided to write it themselves and bring it in as part of the ATLAS TM application."

Their solution was surprisingly simple and extremely effective. Whenever ATLAS TM is installed on a client desktop machine, an icon attached to a batch file is also installed. The batch file goes to the main server, downloads the latest release in a self-extracting archive, unzips it and installs it. The entire process takes about 30 seconds. When the user logs into ATLAS TM, the installed version number is checked against the latest version number held in the database. If the version is different, the user is notified to double-click the icon to get the latest client release. The solution also uses the database to track which version is being run by each user, so if a user is lagging behind, a report notifies the IT department, who will then ask the user to update their desktop client.

The issue's solution benefited the project on several levels; it eliminated both a barrier to unfettered forward progress, and a potential problematic drag on the IT department. Ramsey concurs, "The self-updating client will save our IT people hundreds of hours over the long haul."

Scheduling 24x7x365 with No Room for Error
Unlike most scheduling environments where a hiccup in the schedule means a missed shift and subsequent scrambling to cover the gap, mistakes in scheduling a correctional facility can lead to consequences that actually jeopardize public safety. An overriding design factor in the implementation was correct coverage. Correctional officers have highly specialized skill sets. Knowledge gaps, on the part of an improperly trained employee, can be exploited by inmates familiar with the day-to-day routines. David Clark says proper scheduling is fundamental, "There are studies out of California addressing how strategic workforce management improves the security of people in the surrounding communities, as well as the correctional officers, their families and senior management."

During an early meeting for the project, David Clark asked Steve Ramsey how scheduling was generally handled throughout the Department of Corrections. Clark remembers the response, "Steve said when they were talking to other states about potential solutions, it became apparent that the majority of other states are using pencils and paper or Excel and Access to keep track of their system. Across the board there was very little scheduling infrastructure, yet at the same time they all had tremendous issues with overtime and absenteeism." This conversation was an excellent indicator of future success with ATLAS TM in correctional environments in Washington and other states across the country.

Labor Optimization – Illuminating Absenteeism and Overtime
Centralizing and automating scheduling streamlines the day-to-day process and saves time on the part of the employees responsible for scheduling. The information is also more widely available for analysis in a known format from a single repository.

A truly useful scheduling solution – such as Emerald City's – goes several steps beyond simplifying and automating the actual scheduling process; it also reaches into the less tangible area of labor optimization. Using PowerBuilder, Emerald City Software has built a powerful tool that captures the schedule information – including the actual hours worked – and then spins the straw into gold by analyzing the schedule information and optimizing the greatest business expense, the cost of salaries.

Salaries can contain hidden costs relating to overtime and excessive absenteeism. ATLAS TM helps align the actual salary costs to original budget projections by highlighting discrepancies and inefficiencies. David Clark discusses the value of analyzing salary costs, "All large organizations struggle with the same issues. The hardest thing to manage is your biggest cost, which is labor. In terms of labor optimization, our goal is always saving 2% or more of gross labor costs. We accomplish this by identifying absenteeism and overtime; it's also dependent upon management saying, ‘yes, we're going to own this and take advantage of it.' This is an Emerald City goal, not necessarily a goal of the Department of Corrections, because when they brought us in it was not as a financial goal; they had to replace a roster management system."

Another cost saving aspect of ATLAS TM is in resolving union disputes. A patchwork scheduling approach makes it difficult to marshal the information necessary for an institution to defend itself in situations such as where an employee alleges seniority was not taken into account in their shift scheduling. With a centralized solution, the information is readily available to accurately resolve the issue.

PowerBuilder – The Flexibility to Adapt to Change
The Washington Department of Corrections' RFP required a fixed price bid. As a vendor, responding to an RFP with a fixed-price is never easy; the hundreds of potential unknowns can create a sense of exposure that keeps a seasoned project manager awake at night. Alternatively, the approach of taking a hard-line stance with an excessively legalistic adherence to the original specification can sour a customer relationship over the long run and create a product that falls short of its potential.

Truthfully, neither the vendor nor the customer ever know everything about how a project will actually unfold. Flexibility and change need to be built into the process. The old waterfall model of project management tried to overcome the uncertainty by requiring a nearly paralyzing amount of front-loaded analysis. Today, customers expect a more fluid approach to projects, where early analysis feeds directly into immediate, tangible results, followed by successive refinement. This immediacy assures customers that what they are paying for, and what they are getting, is what they need. To a vendor lacking the requisite rapid development tools to provide this change-absorbing headroom, creating a fixed-price bid can feel like stepping off a cliff.

In the second round of the RFP process, the Washington Department of Corrections chose a vendor largely based on the vendor's record of previous successes in similar environments. Emerald City was able to respond to a difficult RFP with confidence. This confidence arose from their belief in the scheduling engine they had refined and perfected over the course of multiple custom implementations, and the security of being on nimble footing with a stable, proven rapid application development platform that gave them the elasticity to address unforeseen requests with a customer-centric responsiveness.

Emerald City Software is like many companies in the application software market today that employ a database-centric solution with a PowerBuilder front end to create highly successful solutions. The database holds the information and stored procedures that supply the rules used to manipulate the information. Sybase PowerBuilder supplies a RAD environment for building the complex data access – the glue behind the rich user interface that connects directly to the database. The user sees an application that performs sophisticated tasks, yet with an easily understood interface. The complexity lives in the highly organized world of the database and the user interface is a simplified, humanly accessible window into this world. Components within PowerBuilder, like the DataWindow, further enhance the user experience by delivering complex, encapsulated data presentation capabilities that require little, if any, programming.

By using this approach with each new customer, Emerald City Software continually enhances their database-oriented scheduling solution and extends their string of successes. The PowerBuilder front end keeps them nimble, while the rich scheduling engine in the database solves the truly difficult issues. This combination of technology differentiates Emerald City Software in their market as a company with a well-deserved reputation for scheduling expertise that consistently delivers on promises.

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