Management Spotlight

Everyone has heard the typical corporate Year 2000 plight: I/S bandwidth and budgets are badly strained by a project that is underway, or, in a worst case-scenario, the issue has yet to be addressed.

Markem Corp., Keene, N.H., has a different spin on the Year 2000 story: The manufacturer of industrial marking equipment finished converting nearly 2.3 million lines of code -- 16 months ahead of schedule and $400,000 under budget.

Markem's I/S department detected the problem in 1994 and quickly began informal discussions on how to correct the problem. "Since we are in manufacturing, we do material processing and manufacture capacity planning up to two years ahead," said Rich Worden, Markem systems and applications group manager and a leader on the Year 2000 conversion team. "By the end of 1997, we were looking at a problem scheduling things."

All of Markem's business, from order placement to accounts receivable, is conducted on an AS/400 machine running CA-PRMS from Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y. Approximately 200 people using Macintosh and PC desktops are connected to the system. CA's application, so-called "fringe" programs Markem developed and all of the company's data had the two-digit date problem. It was imperative to gain the support of top management to pull off the project successfully, Worden said.

Tom Newcombe, Jenny Norman and Rich Worden of Markem Corp.



Once the I/S staff had a handle on the general problem, Worden and his boss, Information Services Manager Tom Newcombe, began pitching the need to resolve the issue to management, starting at the low end of the chain and working their way to the senior executives. "We had talked to so many different people that by the time we got to the top they already had heard of the project and were very supportive," Worden said.

Management added $1 million for the Year 2000 project to the 1996 I/S budget. Project planning began in early 1995, with Markem I/S personnel developing a strategy for tackling the problem.

Worden and his team first developed the internal own plan, then brought in consultants from Boston-based Keane Inc., to verify the plan, make changes and help with implementation. Markem had a longtime relationship with Keane for multiple projects.

In late 1995, a detailed project plan was put together using Microsoft Project and proprietary tools from Keane. "We have tools for project management that help us understand the project, put it into phases, assign resources and estimate costs," said Phil Przybyszewski, business development manager for Keane.

Keane looked at Markem's preliminary estimates and calculated independent numbers to verify Markem's assessment of the project. Przybyszewski said his firm also pointed out some missing pieces in the Keane project and helped put together the final detail plan.

In addition, Keane used its own Productivity Management (PM) methodology in the Markem project. According to Przybyszewski the six PM principles are:

  • Define the job in detail -- Figure out what there is to deal with. "Sometimes people lose sight of this in big projects," Przybyszewski said.

  • Get the right people involved -- The right level and proper skillsets have to be involved. If not the project will not be successful. For the Markem project, the 10-member project team was divided evenly between Keane and Markem personnel.

  • Estimate the time and cost -- This principle gives an estimated cost and provides management a foundation for tracking the project. "If you don't estimate, everything becomes a surprise," he said.

  • Break the project down -- Keane and Markem segmented the project into "80 hour" chunks of time to keep the undertaking manageable.

  • Establish a criteria for change -- This principle creates a baseline from which to work.

  • Develop a criteria for acceptance -- This principle determines when a phase project is complete. Everything down to the lowest levels of the project need an acceptance criteria.

Planning and establishing requirements made up the first phase of the Markem project. Phase Two called for confirming the strategy with pilot programs and benchmark estimates.

The bulk of the work came in the final phase -- the implementation phase. Markem upgraded its disk space and cloned the production environment, which would remain unchanged until the completion of the project. Physical work on the code began January 2, 1996.

The only major hurdle early on in the project was finding an adequate development tool for the mid-range AS/400 environment. "There are not a lot of tools for this type of work in a mid-range [computing] environment," Przybyszewski said.

Keane's programmers solved some of that problem by developing a set of RPG-based tools to aid in the conversion. A database was setup for both users and developers to track the progress of the project. One tool developed by Keane took a "graphical snapshot" of the project every two weeks. These "snapshots" were used to gauge the project status. Przybyszewski said at one point during the project, the development team was ahead of schedule but the user community involved in testing the system had fallen behind the timetable. At that point in the project, resources were shifted to the user side to keep things rolling.

In addition to the proprietary Keane tools, the developers turned to Hawkeye Pathfinder to identify date fields and files, to a source code comparison tool from Aldon Computer Group, Oakland, Calif., to highlight and track changed code.

The project got a big break when Computer Associates brought out a Year 2000-compliant version of Date Server, which saved the team a big chunk of time. "Date Sever has a slick algorithm that helps figure out date formats and convert to four-digit dates," Przybyszewski said.

Markem's Worden assembled a team of users to help test the project. "We put them in a room with 10 terminals and had them test every piece of the system," Worden said. "They put together a variety of orders of all different circumstances and followed them through each little part of the system."

The Year 2000 project originally called for a completion date of Thanksgiving 1997. In May 1996, the team realized they were almost finished and began looking at the 1996 calendar for a possible long weekends in which to turn the converted code into a production system. Przybyszewski said the first goal was Labor Day weekend, but another look at the amazing progress led the team to slate the conversion for the Fourth of July holiday.

Since the Fourth of July fell on a Thursday, and Markem gave its employees and extra day off -- I/S had a four-day weekend to implement the converted system. The initial plan called for a six-day changeover, but Markem could not keep its system down that long. To make up time, non-essential data was converted early, with the major work completed over the long holiday weekend.

Both Worden and Markem attribute the success of the project to the team members and to the standards already in place before the conversion began. "We made an effort a few years earlier to standardize and document all of our code. Everything that was a date was labeled so," Worden said.

Currently, Markem sees the completed project as a competitive advantage as I/S has used the time saved to work on upgrading and maintaining other systems. Worden said some of the team is now being used in Markem's European offices to help make the packaged applications purchased from Denver-based J.D. Edwards Year 2000 compatible.

-- Jason J. Meserve