In-Depth

Towers Perrin delivers complex benefits, simply

Category: Application Engineering
Winner: Towers Perrin

When the HR Services group at Towers Perrin, the venerable, Boston-based professional services firm, decided in 1996 to offer its customers an Internet-based application for automating the administration of complex pension plans, the public network was still relatively uncharted territory, and no one was talking about application service providers.

“We had been in the pension administration business with installed systems since the early 1980s,” explains Chris Wallace, Towers’ CTO for dbConnect and team leader on the project. “Back then, we were spending a lot of time solving problems that had very little to do with pension administration, and everything to do with IT infrastructure. As the Internet started to emerge, we thought it would be an interesting deployment vehicle for applications. We had never heard of an ASP. We were just looking for a way to get rid of all of those infrastructure issues, so that we could focus on what we do best: programming pension calculations.”

More than 70 clients and $20 million in revenue later, Towers’ dbConnect Pension Calculator has become a mission-critical system to its core actuarial and pension consulting business.

The third generation of the app, PC3, is designed to manage all aspects of defined-benefit pension plans—one of the most complex employee benefits. Using a hosted ASP model, PC3 automates pension administration, allows users to run on-demand pension calculations, generates and tracks participant correspondence, processes batch jobs, and creates on-demand reports across the employee population.

PC3 was designed for implementers, customers and employees. Implementers run it as a standalone Java app; end users access it via the Internet using a browser with a Sun Java plug-in; and employees gain access through an HTML-based interface.

A key innovation in the new version was the development team’s pragmatic approach to architecture design to support flexibility and scalability. “PC3 needs to support multiple pension plans with large variety and complexity in rules and transaction volume,” they wrote in their assessment of the project. “Utilizing XML to create a parameterization engine, stateless agents to download client-specific configurations, VBA for business logic macros, and introducing abstraction in the data model are innovative concepts in achieving a highly scalable architecture that has significant impact on reducing the TCO.”

Those innovations made PC3 the “obvious choice” for United Parcel Service, says retirement benefits manager Jarett Hinson. With 357,000 employees around the country participating in a range of plans, UPS was in the market for a solution to systematically administer multiple defined-benefit plans.

“UPS employees participate in many plans, depending on what part of the country they’re in and what job they do,” Hinson says. “When you start introducing multiple plans, it becomes pretty cumbersome for any individual to administer efficiently on a manual basis. In fact, it’s virtually impossible. We were looking at how complicated things were becoming in the defined-benefit arena. We were looking for a systematic answer to address some of the issues we faced today and issues we saw coming involving the growing retirement population of tomorrow.”

Although UPS liked the PC3 software, it was the Towers Perrin cross-disciplinary skill set that closed the deal. “They aren’t just programmers,” Hinson says. “They have defined-benefit expertise, and they brought that understanding to the table. That’s a rare combination, and it makes for an efficient environment for developing a product that’s going to be effective once the customer gets it in their hands.”

PC3 was developed on Windows 2000 Professional with several tools, including the open-source Eclipse IDE, Visual Studio 6.0, XML Spy, SonicMQ, Tomcat, IIS, Microsoft Access, Visual SourceSafe, SourceoffSite, Beyond Compare and Oracle 8i. The development team also utilized the JUnit testing tool and Borland’s Optimizeit performance optimizer.

“We chose the open-source Eclipse as our primary IDE on this project because it offered the greatest set of capabilities for refactoring,” says Daniel Rinehart, project senior developer. “The team was really promoting unit testing (through the use of JUnit) and refactoring to get down to a design that could really respond to the features that we had to add for each new release. The Eclipse IDE really gave us the foundation we needed.”

“The PC3 team implemented best-inclass engineering practices to address concurrent, multi-release development and regression testing,” our judges observed. “Establishing an integration machine and utilizing OptimizeIt, refactoring wizards, and code coverage tools helped proactively managing the quality of the code across multiple releases.”

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY
Towers Perrin offers pension consulting services to build new relationships with large clients. PC3 enables this service through a Web-enabled ASP solution.

PC3’s innovation is in its pragmatic approach to architecture design to support flexibility and scalability. PC3 needs to support multiple pension plans with large variety and complexity in rules and transaction volume. Utilizing XML to create a parameterization engine, stateless agents to download client-specific configurations, VBA for business logic macros and introducing abstraction in the data model are innovative concepts in achieving a highly scalable architecture that has significant impact on reducing the total cost of ownership.

The PC3 team implemented best-in-class engineering practices to address concurrent, multi-release development and regression testing. Establishing an integration machine and utilizing OptimizeIt, refactoring wizards, and code coverage tools helped proactively managing the quality of the code across multiple releases.

Finally the team took a risk in the first implementation on one its largest clients.

DRILL DOWN
Organization
Towers Perrin
Project
Pension Calculator 3
Project goal
To improve on previous generations of the Pension Calculator application, which is designed to manage all aspects of defined-benefit pension plans. Developers sought to increase the application’s scalability, simplify its configuration management features, improve its ability to share common resources and code, and provide better support for customers with multiple pension plans.
Project benefits
Towers Perrin’s ability to offer this system enables the company to build new consulting relationships with larger clients. Client implementors are able to release more quickly, to bring new staff members up to speed on the system more easily and to process more transactions per hour.
Tools used
Eclipse IDE
Visual Studio 6.0
XML Spy
SonicMQ
Tomcat IIS
Microsoft Access
Visual SourceSafe
SourceoffSite
Beyond Compare
Oracle 8i
Project team
Sam Goldberg, project manager
Chris Wallace, team leader
Daniel Rinehart, senior developer
David Amdur, senior developer
Joe Biron, senior developer
Dan Goldberg, senior developer
Steve Harmon, junior developer
Joshua Macy, junior developer
Derek Santos, quality assurance

Above: Chris Wallace and Sam Goldberg
Box above, left to right: Dan Goldberg, Daniel Rinehart, Steve Harmon
Box right, left to right: David Amdur, Joshua Macy, Joe Biron

Back to feature: Innovator Awards 2005

PHOTO COURTESY OF TOWERS PERRIN

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