Sunday, 9 September 2012

I'm still here

As you may imagine, I've been pretty busy over the past few months. There's been a lot to do and not much time to do it all in. I seem to be living out of a suitcase for a substantial amount of the time and the weeks have flown by as I try to get a grip on the things I need to learn and start getting plans for the future in place.

A number of people have suggested that I ought to continue the blog, to highlight the key things that I've learned and offer suggestions for those undertaking a new project. I like the idea of this; as I've said, I would really like this blog to have a more positive purpose and the concept of summaries would fit well with that.

I've started to put together a basic outline; it's still a work in progress, but I hope to be able to post some items on a regular basis. I'm going to say that I imagine that some people might not agree with some of the points I make; I think that's fine and I hope that you will feel free to add your comments where you think that I may not be on the right track.

Keep an eye open; I hope to get a few new postings out in the next few weeks, subject to my work permitting!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

That's all, she wrote...

I did say that I would keep you all updated - so here is what's been happening.

Before my last post, I'd had a number of interviews and was waiting for some response. About a week after the post, I got a call from one of those companies, asking me to attend a second interview. This was to take the form of a presentation to their entire board of directors - so not too much pressure!

On the actual day of the presentation, I found out that in fact there were only two candidates - myself in the morning, and another guy in the afternoon. I'd put together a short presentation using PowerPoint, illustrating some of the key achievements and how I had managed the various projects at my current role. It could have been a poor start as their presentation equipment wasn't functioning - but I quickly worked out what was wrong and after that, it went very smoothly.

The actual presentation was about 20 minutes and was followed by a Q & A session that I'd been told would probably be just over an hour - in fact it went well over 2 hours. A lot of it was about the specific areas that each director had concerns over, but the biggest single session was about SAP. They have plans to implement this, and have had several meetings with an SI who gave them the SAP line, but it seems that they've all heard of the various failed projects, and wanted to hear from someone that had actually worked on a project to get an independent view.

I really got a buzz out of the meeting - I seemed to get on well with the people concerned and I got the feeling that we connected really well. Certainly, I felt strongly that I could easily have worked with them and would have been more than happy to do so. When I left, I was a bit drained, but really happy that I had put myself across well, and felt that I'd done a great job.

Anyway, a couple of days later I got a call - and the response was that they were going to offer the job to the other guy. However, it was made clear that they had found it a really tough choice - it appears that both of us had done well, and in the end, the other guy got it because he had been on two SAP projects to my one.

What was interesting was a comment made by the CEO. He highlighed that we had both been asked similar questions about SAP, and our answers were almost identical. We'd both highlighted the kinds of problems that could be faced and how they should go about addressing these. Specifically about controlling the SI and managing expectation of users, as well as things such as testing of data and following correct procedures.

So, I felt pretty good about the result altho' I didn't quite get the job. But then 2 hours after the call, the phone rang again. This time, it was from another company that I had spoken to almost 2 months before - and they wanted to offer me a job. The role is pretty much what I am currently doing in terms of managing an IT department in a manufacturing environment. It's a big company so there is a lot to do, but I'm confident that I can do a good job for them

What was interesting is that they have actually considered using SAP in the past, but did nothing about it - they still have an old ERP system that seems to have been around since Adam was a lad. I don't know if they will re-consider, but I get the feeling that part of the reason they want to get me on board is that they will have to look again at updating their systems, and want to get someone with experience of an SAP implementation within their staff.

There was a slight hold up on getting the details confirmed and some queries about travel - it appears that they want me to work away from what will be my home site for a while. It appears that they have some specific issues and want these to be addressed - I don't think that it will be possible to get it done in the time allowed, but I think that getting a good understanding is important.  Once that was all sorted, I told my current employer that I would be leaving.

Their response was not that positive - well I'm not that surprised. But instead of asking me to leave immediately which I fully expected, they wanted me to stay on for a couple of weeks. Altho' I've tried to ensure that I spread the knowledge around, there are a couple of areas where I have done more of the work, and they wanted to make sure that there would a smooth hand over.

Anyway, that is now in the past. I start my new role tomorrow and I must confess to be a tad nervous as well as quite excited. I have a weeks orientation in the manufacturing section of their second biggest site, plus they want me to visit a couple of overseas sites as well. I think I made need to get a second suitcase - drop one off, and pick the second up one before heading off again!

The family are also quite excited - and a bit pleased that we won't have to move straight away. It's possible that we may not move at all - I have the option to work from a place not too far away, and still look after all of the sites. Technology, it's what we do - and remote working means that we can be as effective from any given site as any other (or even from home).

So, for the moment that will probably be it. I had thought about adding a couple of extra posts to this blog, just to summarise some of the things that I had learned, but I'm not too sure yet if I will have the time. As you'll be aware, I've kept this blog anonymous as I wanted to make sure that I didn't put myself in the way of losing my job. Altho' I'm moving on. I'm going to keep it that way as I may be working on an SAP project in the future, and don't want to leave myself exposed.

I'm going to say a big thank you to all of you for following this blog over the last 3 years. It's been a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs at various times. The comments that many of you have made have been a big help - and I'm so greatful that you made the time to read it. I want to offer a big thank you to the SAP Mentor guys who showed that there are people out there that know and care what is happening. Another big thanks to Bill Wood - I appreciated the offer, even tho' I didn't take it up.

I want you all to know that it's been a great experience writing this blog, one that I would not have missed for the world. I wish you all the best in whatever career you follow and hope that you will all achieve the success that you work so hard for.

Very best wishes to you all.


Sunday, 13 May 2012

The fat lady is warming up

It's been a while since my last post - not because I've had nothing to write about, but due to the amount of work I've had to do.

A couple of months ago, (just after my last post) we had another issue with a consultant doing work that then caused a problem - I didn't actually see what it was as I was at an overseas site and it was fixed before I got back to the office. But it caused a lot of issues with the system performance, to the point where almost no-one could work again.

Having gone thru the relevant monitoring information, I could highlight that most of the time our system worked really well - I also had the relevant metrics to show just how bad the performance was in the period when the problem was occuring. Once the problem was resolved, the performance improved considerably - and I was able to highlight that the issue was not a fault of the system. But the senior managers were not happy with what I was telling them and wanted some confirmation.

They had asked the SI to look at the system the last time there was an issue, but the guy that was sent to site really wasn't a Basis specialist. He checked thru some of the obvious transactions, but didn't really provide any hard facts - he didn't even bother asking for the Earlywatch report which could have given him some hard data. Instead, he just told them that the system was not powerful enough - we needed more processors, more memory, more network cards - basically more of everything.

Now over the last few years, the SI has been quite agressive on the mergers & acquisitions trail - I know that they have acquired at least 3 other companies, and I think that one of these has a stake in a data hosting facility. Last year, the directors from the SI took our shareholders to a junket at a country club, and I'm pretty sure that they were really just promoting the concept of us moving to the hosted system that is now part of their business.

I understand that the shareholders were told lots of things about how great the service is and how affordable it could be. I've also discovered that it was suggested that with a hosted system, I would not be needed, and if I was no longer around, my wages could pay for this - I'm not sure how much the SI thinks I get paid, but I know that if they got rid of the entire IT department, it still wouldn't pay for the hosted system. Added to that, I still have my doubts about how good their service is likely to be.

As it happens, some weeks ago I met up with a guy that is a Basis consultant - he is self employed and has worked for some of the biggest organisations around. I managed to get authorisation to get him in for a couple of days and he has gone over our systems very carefully and provided a detailed report on what he found.

What was clear is that we are not doing too bad - there were a couple of minor tweaks that he suggested might be of some use, but he primarily said the system is well maintained and has sufficient capacity for what we need for the next couple of years. He also highlighted where some of the consultants from the SI have not been following best practice, something that has been annoying me for ages.

But even with all of that, it seems that the decision has been made to go to a hosted system, even if they will not actually come right out and say so. I don't know if there is a timetable yet, but based on a couple of comments, it would see that they are planning to move the systems sometime around the early part of next year - based on how the SI have done in the past, I might suggest that it won't actually happen until the later part of next year.

As you may guess, I was not too pleased to hear this. I have in fact approached the CEO and other directors to see if anyone will explain what is happening - but they seem reluctant to discuss in too much detail. However, they won't deny it either which does make me feel very unsettled. I even put my concerns in writing, highlighting the costs and potential concerns - but still they won't talk to me about any plans they might have.

I must admit that after the problems we faced at the beginning of the year, I sat down with the family to talk about our options for the future. My oldest daughter is at that age where it might cause some issues if we had to move, but they are all aware of what is happening, and they do actually support me. They would obviously prefer to stay here, but if we have to move, so be it. I started brushing off my resume and sent it off to the various agencies. I've also been networking like crazy over the last few months, trying to see if anyone knows of any decent vacancies.

Since March, I've actually had 4 interviews - and they all came back really positively. But so far, nothing yet..... But I am hopeful that I will hear something this week - fingers crossed. Whatever happens, I will let you know.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Monday morning blues

On Monday morning, I was on my way to work when I was called on the cell phone asking if I knew that the Production system was running slow. I didn't, but said I would look at it as soon as I got in. While I was getting set-up I had a couple more calls from people to tell me that things were not going well.

When I eventually logged on, I saw that there was a job that had been running since the Friday before - and it was logged as being one of the consultants that hadn't been on site for some time. I asked around and eventually was told that this particular consultant was due to be on site - he had been organised to look at a particular issue.

When they guy actually arrived, he looked thru the system and checked out what was going on. It turns out that he had started this job remotely because he needed to check on some data - he thought it was going to run for maybe 6 - 8 hours. Instead it was still running after 60 hours and only finished later that day. It also didn't do what he wanted.

After he did some further checks, it turns out that a change had been made to the system that would actually cause an issue with the program that he had tried to run. No-one knew about the details as the guy that made the change is long gone, out of the country and there were no references to the work anywhere. In fact the consultant onsite wasn't entirely sure what change had been made. He did say that it had only been done in the production system - there was no transport for the change, and when he tried his program in the Dev system, it ran OK.

It now appears that we are going to have to pay to get one of their guys in to look at this now - they need to try to figure out what was done and then first correct it, and second, try to do whatever job it was supposed to do properly. I asked if the work would be  FoC (well it was their guy's mistake) but no such luck. In fact, they don't actually know how long it will take to investigate the issue - possibly 4 -5 days which we will have to pay for before they tell us how much it will cost to fix.

This highlights a couple of points. First of all, most of the work that the SI has done has never really been documented, even tho' that was a point raised right back at the beginning. We were told categorically, that they would document all changes that were made - in fact, we have very little evidence for any of their changes.

Another major issue, is that a lot of the work has never really passed any form of Quality Control gateway test. Again this is an issue that was raised on many occasions, and we were assured that we would have the power of sign off on everything. Yes there have been items that we have signed off on, but there are a ton more that we haven't. In some cases, we don't know that work has been done, and are only finding out when things go seriously wrong, and investigation uncovers the root cause.

I've spoken to numerous people and the documentation that we have been given by the SI right thru the business is so poor as to be virtually useless. We have very little information on a lot of the changes, and it's difficult to see what we can do now other than get a specialist in that can uncover some of these, and hope that we can get them documented in future.

I've also highlighted that they often ignore good practice - and here was another example. A change was made directly in the production system without having been tested in the other systems. I'm also concerned that some of our people have learnt these bad habits - I regularly get asked to do something directly in PRD, and if I refuse and point out the correct procedure, I get an argument that the consultants do it that way.

We should have had a proper change management procedure enforced from the beginning, and I will say that when I queried this, I was told that SAP had a robust procedure that the SI staff would follow. There is a procedure, but the consultants don't bother to use it, and it sometimes seems that they see it as a PITA to be avoided rather than good practice to ensure that we don't get problems.

For me tho' the big issue is that all of these problems are completely avoidable - there is simply no excuse. I wish that I had a way to identify just how much of the money that we have paid has actually be wasted on work that does not do what it should, or has never been tested correctly.

I just hope that we don't get off to another poor week this Monday.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Moral musing

Earlier in the week, Greg Smith of Goldman Sachs quit his job. This was a high profile position, and he had a lot of experience, a great deal of authority and was earning a considerable sum of money - yet he felt that he could not continue working there. He arranged for a letter outlining his reasons for quitting to be published - if you want to read it, there is a copy at this link.

I know exactly what Greg was writing about; some years ago, I worked for a company that was doing some things that were morally wrong, and once I realised the situation, I couldn't get out quick enough. But it's always going to be a difficult decision, and I think that he has shown some considerable moral fiber and courage in doing it so publicly.

I have to say that I understand his views and that he is probably doing the honorable thing. I doubt that he will suffer too much - no doubt, he has saved enough to be able to stay off welfare and he may even find that there are other organizations that will be prepared to offer him something as his knowledge will be highly valuable. But it got me thinking about my reasons for doing this blog, so I thought that I would go through them again.

First of all, I will say that when I started writing, it was quite simply to vent my frustration at what I saw was a project that was in serious trouble. Having been a project manager in my past, I was not happy at the lack of communication between the SI and the project team. I could see that work was not getting done on time, project milestones were being missed or ignored, and I had serious doubts about the abilities of the various consultants that were working on the project. Even at that stage with limited knowledge of SAP, I could see that the quality of work being completed was poor at best, and the knowledge transfer was almost non-existant.

However, I am more of a positive person by nature (honest!) and after the first few posts, I wanted to try and make the blog more of an objective analysis of what was happening. I felt that if I could highlight some of the key issues, then others might see these and perhaps this would help them to avoid similar issues in their own projects.

I've kept the blog anonymous - quite simply, if I identified myself, the company that I work for or the SI, I'm pretty sure that before midday of the next working day, I would no longer be working in my current position. I might also find it difficult to get a new job - with the current climate and an ex-employer that won't provide a reference, it would be a bad situation. Although I do have some money put aside, it's no where near as much as Greg Smith - I simply cannot afford the grand gesture.

I will also say that I accept some of my writing is about my opinions - other may look at the same situation and say that things are not as bad as I make out. While I may think that some of the consultants working on the project are not doing their jobs well, that is just my view, and as I can't give them the right of reply, it would be unreasonable to identify them too closely.

I do try to provide an objective view, but in order to keep my anonymity, I have done things such as change dates and sequences of events so that it would be harder to positively identify myself or my company. I don't believe that any of the changes I have made would make a huge difference, but I feel that it is right to make that point clear.

We have an SAP system that is working and thanks to the hard work of the various members of our project team, it is doing a lot of what we wanted. There are still areas that are not entirely satisfactory, and we are working on those - as far as we can, we are trying to build up our internal skills so that we can rely on our own people. If we mess it up, then it will be no-one's fault but ours, and if the consultants want to come back and laugh at our attempts, they are welcome to do so.

There is a possibility that I may come across as arrogant - I take pride in my work, I like to think that I am damn good at my job, and I can point to the fact that the IT in the company is light years ahead of what it was when I first joined them. I've had a number of people visit from outside, and they are generally very impressed with what we have achieved - we are way ahead of the curve for a business of our size. But I don't believe that I have the answer to every single problem, and I am willing to listen to ideas or advice from anyone.

Hopefully, this blog will be a useful resource for some people - if just one person finds something in my writing that helps their project in some way, I feel that it will have been worth it all.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Still plowing on...

I've been tied up with work again over the last few weeks. Sometimes, it seems that the more we do, the less we have achieved.

We are still having problems with our first overseas site. It appears that there are still items of data that have not yet been loaded. Some of the information for foreign language descriptions of products already in the system, some of the purchasing information records, contact data and even some banking data amongst others. Note that I did ask the question more than once and was told each time that all of the data load had taken place.

I should also highlight that none of this data load has been tested in the Development or Test systems - they gave up doing that a couple of months before New Year, and the data load is being done directly into the Production system. Of course, it will do a couple of items, then fail because something is wrong with the actual data (which I accept is down to us) - but then they just correct it and carry on as if this is the most normal thing in the world. When I suggested that it might be better to at least try in the test system, I was told that was a waste of time.

As for data in the Test and Dev systems - It's been agreed that we are going to sort that out by doing a client copy. The last time that was done, it took more than a week to complete and we had all sorts of issues for a couple of weeks after. I hope that we don't get the same this time as I am trying to do a number of other projects and my staff and I will not have time to fix any issues.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, we had the guys from one of the other overseas sites visit with us, so that they could see how the SAP system works. I was told that we would see their whole project team, but only 3 people had travelled over. I've since had a chance to speak to the VP for the site, and made some points to him about the need for a full project team - I also put together some descriptions of work required which have been sent to him.

I've been asked to go over to them next week to talk to their people in a bit more depth. It turns out that they have been promised that our project team will all be available to help out, which is going to be a shock to most of those guys, as no-one has discussed this with them. I've received an invite to a meeting in April and I think they will all be told then - I've been asked not to discuss it with them yet.

There is also another issue that is causing a lot of anger. When we first started, the consultants set up a process within the Sales area that did not work the way we wanted - they told us that was how it had to be and was considered "best practice". How we wanted it to work was just not possible. Once it was working, they found some problems and we had to get a couple of people in to fix those.

When the new set of consultants were working on our overseas site, they set things up so that the process worked the way we wanted - and they said that was actually the way they normally do it. They couldn't change the process for us at that time, but have now agreed a date to do some work to re-do some things so that our Sales people can use the same process in the same way.

To re-cap - we paid for about 4 weeks to set it up, then another 2-3 weeks to "fix" it, and now we will have to pay for another 4 weeks to change it to work the way we wanted in the first place. I wanted to challenge them over this, but I've been told that we will just have to suck it up and pay the money.

The best thing - I've recently had an email from the SI asking if I would be prepared to recommend them! They want to use our site to show a "highly successful" implementation, and possibly even use us as a case study. Astonishing!

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Security Stuff (part 2)

I'm following on from last week's post - because I think that there is a bit more to say about this topic.

If you follow any of the people that promote the concept of "Empowerment" within a business, you'll no doubt be aware that many of these people or companies are talking about allowing staff access to more of the information held within their systems, so that it is easier for decisions to be made at lower levels, rather than having all decisions coming down from the top. This is also sometimes described as "agile" business decision making.

There is something to be said for this idea - if someone has to purchase some goods, and has been doing the job for some years, she may well be quite capable of negotiating the right kind of deal without having to refer it to her line manager. This then means that the manager is left to deal with more important issues - and when I was a younger manager, it was known as delegation. A senior manager once told me that if you cannot delegate, you cannot manage.

The problem is of course that not everyone is entirely capable of making decisions at certain levels, and need to be monitored more closely than some others. It also has to be said that there are more than a few managers and senior executives that would be horrified at the thought of more junior people making even quite minor decisons without referring to them. Even if all they are doing is glancing at an email and then replying "do what you think best", they feel that they are "managing the situation". (A bit like the PHB in the "Dilbert" cartoons!)

So it's necessary to decide how you want to secure your date as well as how you need to secure your data (the two are not the same). How you need to secure the data is often defined by regulatory compliance or the need to prevent commercially sensitive information from going astray. How you want to secure the data is more about how you structure the business and how the various processes work.

Most people would agree that when SAP was first created, the main target was the larger enterprise business. Within this size of business it is generally necessary to provide some separation of duties - you don't want the person that creates a new bank account being able to transfer money, otherwise  he might create an account for himself in the Caribbean and transfer $10 million, before taking a one way flight to his retirement (which he also puts on expenses!).

As a result, much of the way that things are structured in SAP security has been done specifically to provide the required levels of security for those large organisations. The problem is that when you get to the smaller businesses like ours, it's actually much harder to define what you need in terms of security. Worse, this can actually change a lot more frequently as staff will often be doing more types of jobs than their counterparts in the enterprise business.

Now we have a problem - I've been trying to make sure that all of the permissions are properly set-up and correctly tested, but even so, sometimes it's not always easy to do this. I will hold my hands up and admit that there have been many occasions when I was going thru a role and suddenly spotted something that didn't look right, that then needed to be corrected.

Partly this is due to some people taking the view that "give them access to everything, and we can take away what they shouldn't have". This doesn't work - why? Because the only time that you find someone can do something that they shouldn't is when they have done just that, and it has caused a problem. And usually, that is when things are going seriously wrong.

We have seen that, not just the one time, but on a number of occasions. Most recently because we have some transactions that were created for us by one of the consultants based upon standard SAP t-codes. Unfortunately, the new t-codes have absolutely no authorisation checks built into them - and as a result, we have found that some people are able to do some work that was supposed to only be done by the Production Manager once a day to clear up any issues.

Oh, and in case you wondered - when I said that I would take the offending t-code out of the role, the Production Manager asked me to leave it in. He is going to speak to staff to try to make sure that they understand that they shouldn't run this particular process, just use the t-code to look at the data. Yes - I'm sure that will work (until the next time).