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The value of socializing

Programmers don’t have a reputation for being the most sociable types in an organization, but don’t tell that to Tremaine Smith, assistant director of the audit division for the State of Washington’s Department of Revenue.

Smith recently completed a business intelligence (BI) project with a team made up of in-house programmers and consultants from HP Services in which socializing, he believes, was a key to success.

The project was designed to provide information on businesses who fail to report taxable receipts or under-report them. Among its requirements was that the HP consultants work onsite, Smith tells eADT. That allowed for weekly face-to-face meetings, which he credits with helping work out the inevitable glitches that plague almost all l development projects everywhere.

But Smith’s team took it one step further, arranging an initial "get acquainted" dinner at the start of the project so that the consultants could get to know the programmers and managers at the state agency. During the nine-month-long project (September 2002 to June 2003), there were similar informal social events almost monthly.

This meant that problems with the project could be resolved quickly and in a friendly manner, he says.

"We had some stumbles, as you always do, but having open communications really worked," he notes.

Smith is not sure that same spirit of cooperation would have prevailed if the outside consultants and in-house programmers remained strangers, dealing with each other only via e-mail and phone calls.

Smith’s experience echoes the managerial viewpoint of a Washington resident who probably pays a fair share of taxes. Speaking earlier this year at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2004 in San Diego, Bill Gates said he did not want the teams that collaborate on Microsoft’s products to work outside the company’s Redmond headquarters. In Gates’ opinion, programmers need to be communicating over the water cooler because you never know when a breakthrough may happen in the break room.

The state’s BI project is one of about 1,000 coming out of a collaborative arrangement between Microsoft and HP as part of their Microsoft .NET initiative.

In terms of ROI, Smith says the BI system, which cost less than $1 million, generated more than $13 million in revenue for the state in the nine months after the system went live in June 2003.

"It was a real windfall," he says.

The system pulls together information from a variety of federal and state systems, allowing auditors to quickly compare tax data that Washington businesses report to the IRS with what they report to the state, he explains. If a business reports more to the feds than to the state, that’s a lead for auditors to follow up, Smith says.

With the new system, "dollars recovered per hour," the key performance measure for the state’s 220 auditors, has gone up from $480 to $780, he says.

Before the HP consultants left, they helped train the three programmers who work in-house for the state so that they can maintain as well as extend the initial BI system, Smith says. This “knowledge transfer,” enhanced by the bonds that were created by having the two sides socialize, was another advantage of having everybody onsite, he says.

As a result, the state programmers are now working on developing ways of following industry trends that will do things such as compare tax data on businesses within the same industry to check for discrepancies that may indicate under-reporting.

"For people who believe everyone should pay their fair share of taxes, this is a good thing," Smith says.

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.

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