Management Spotlight

Starting an intranet project is not easy for corporate I/S departments. Management usually wants to substantiate benefits before agreeing to fund a full-scale Intranet project. That is why many I/S shops covertly build small Intranets first to prove the worthiness to management.

The Global Village Lab at Denver-based US West Communications Group Inc. also started its Intranet development effort on a small scale, but its unique organization allows debatable projects to take place with management's blessing. The Intranet effort was started in early 1994 as a grassroots movement led by Sherman Woo, systems director for Corporate Systems Development, to build a system for sharing corporate information.

The effort has matured quickly. Today, about 50,000 corporate users can pull data from 200 internal US West Web sites, according to Jim Mohrhauser, technical project manager of the Global Village Lab. Mohrhauser said, "Today, the US West Intranet contains everything from the typical human resources information, documents and methodologies, to client applications accessing a wide variety of back-end servers and mainframes.

Mohrhauser's 25-person group is responsible for developing applications for the Intranet at US West, a provider of telecommunications services to more than 25 million customers in 14 Western and Midwestern states. "Our group has grown from developing Web pages to network computing," said Mohrhauser.

The Intranet development effort is an example of the somewhat unique place the Global Village Lab holds compared to development units within similar-sized corporate I/S groups. In addition to encouraging forward-thinking projects, US West management allows the lab to utilize whatever development aids it desires. Such a philosophy could lead one to believe US West developers use the latest and greatest tools, languages and integrated development environments. They don't. The majority of development is done using Perl and 3GL-like Sparc C++ from Sun Microsystems Inc., Mountain View, Calif.

"We're not a typical I/S department," said Mohrhauser. "We tend to use whatever tools we can get our hands on." Many of those tools are freeware, he said.

For code management and version control, the group uses utilities that ship with the Unix operating system including the Revision Control System.

"We tend to use whatever tools we can get our hands on."
Jim Mohrhauser, US West

(aficionado of Colorado snow)

Mohrhauser said that deadlines set for many of the applications built by the lab are so tight that the modeling phase is often neglected. "Usually, we rely on the system engineers and architects to provide us with the models," he said.

Despite the unorthodox style of development, Global Village Lab projects are typically quite successful and cost effective. "They let us get away with using stuff like that since we save [US West] a lot of money," Mohrhauser explained.

Unorthodox style is cost-effective

Mohrhauser added on many occasions the deadlines for developing applications are too tight to allow for following the formal procurement processes for acquiring new technology and software. Hence, the developers stick with what they know.

"We try to figure out if a solution is available early, and not waste money on something that is not going to work," Mohrhauser said.

Over the years, the Global Village Lab has developed many money-saving applications for different US West divisions. One example is a mainframe password reset application created for US West's Unified Help Desk. If a user forgets to change the mainframe password in a given period of time, the password will expire. To regain access, users would have to call the help desk to have their password reset. This application allows users to bypass the help desk and personally complete the task.

According to Scharleen Citron-Funk, project manager for the Unified Help Desk, the company has conservatively estimated savings from the application at $15,000 and 417 person-hours per month. Since the system was implemented in December, Citron-Funk estimates a 30% reduction in incoming Help Desk calls.

Another application, the Held Order Mechanization Tool (HOMT) has improved US West's customer service capabilities while saving the company $8 million over the past year, Mohrhauser said. The HOMT software was built to take on the "out of control" customer growth facing many Western telephone companies. Such growth can strain the ability to meet demand for new service.

In designing the various systems, Mohrhauser's group is careful to keep an eye on the future. For example, engineers for several years have built mainframe applications in such a way that only a small segment of code will need modification to access client/server databases. Now that US West is ready to upgrade to client/server systems, Mohrhauser expects the effort to move the applications to be relatively simple, a huge cost and time savings.

-- Jason J. Meserve