How custom software ages | Application Development Video Series, Episode 1

Not unlike hardware, custom-built software applications can age over time. There are a variety of ways that a business can outgrow a software application, and those aging applications can become more burdensome to maintain than to update or rewrite.

We don’t typically think of software as something that can age. The code is written and run on a computer, so it doesn’t age like hardware does or like people do. It becomes obsolete or becomes less functional, unable to keep up with the demands of the business and the business users. Software is usually written based on a snapshot of a business need for a certain period or range of time. Unfortunately, software doesn’t change dynamically the way the business does. Businesses can change, market demands can change, the number of users can change, and the software can have trouble keeping up with that.

Another aspect of aging is that the software may have been built in a technology that is no longer supported or is slowly on its way out the door; it’s being deprecated or replaced by more modern design patterns and technologies. The software was written years ago, and the technical resources are no longer available or difficult to find. When you can find them, they are expensive, which makes maintaining the software more and more costly.

Technologies, design patterns, and understanding of software as a functional piece of a business were limited 10-15 year ago, and that technology continues to evolve. When we think about legacy applications, they were monolithic in nature and written top-to-bottom; every line of code was executed in one lump sum. To change one little thing in those applications, you had to change everything.  Thankfully, now we have better paradigms alongside better technologies where we can separate the different pieces of functionality and objectives into multiple layers.

  • We can have part of the application that is written specifically to manage the database.
  • We can have another piece that manages business rules and validation.
  • We can have another piece that’s a service layer that allows you to integrate other systems and software, preserving the code that’s already in place for business logic and the database.
  • We also have the user interface and front end of the database. This part is also changing: it used to be just PC-based, but now you’re going to want to think about new devices like GPS, tablets, and cell phones so people can access your software anywhere in the world.

We begin to realize there is an aging process that happens with software — as it ages, it becomes more difficult and expensive to maintain in addition to some of the lost opportunities for growth. For instance, older software wasn’t designed to take advantage of the hardware that you’re probably already using which has multiple core processors and robust memory capabilities. Bringing the software up to date will give you the opportunity to take advantage of those hardware options for better performance.

Software Modernization: When Is It Time?

Software Selection: the Buy versus Build Spectrum

Software Selection Matters for Your Business

In our evolving world, good software can be one of the most effective differentiators that a company can leverage for growth. Implemented thoughtfully, software can be a multiplier for your existing staff, or it can surface information for better decision making that was previously locked away in spreadsheets.

When it comes time to choose new software, you may feel overwhelmed by the options. Or maybe after a quick survey of the market, you’re not sure that any one product truly meets your business needs.

During the software selection process, every company has the option to buy or build their solution. There are also a spectrum of options between completely custom and directly off the shelf that should be considered as well.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to cover a number of topics surrounding the software selection process, including:

  1. Deciding the importance of fit
  2. Assessing business drivers
  3. What percentage of my needs are addressed by available product offerings?

Deciding the importance of fit

For this first blog, let’s discuss the idea of fitting software to your business. Every business will approach this issue differently. For example, we have a client that provides midstream field services. They are looking to become a leader in their industry, so a custom software application was really the only option for them.

By contrast, another business might only be concerned with keeping up with their competitors, so choosing a cost effective, standard product offering for their industry might fit their needs just fine.

For your business, to solve the problem of fit, it’s important to ask a few questions for starters. I’ll cover each of these in a bit more depth below.

  • How much of a tailored fit do we require?
  • Are we willing to change our business process if the fit cannot be tailored?
  • As a company, is innovation a key priority?
  • Is innovation a competitive advantage?
  • Is what makes our company unique also a competitive advantage?

Tailored fit and your business process

If your company has a standard process for accounting, out of the box software would be a good fit. Throw in special work flows and hand written field tickets, and that same software might not work anymore.

This leads to question two, and whether your company is willing to change their process for software. For example, a customer relationship management tool might have a lot of great features, except that it’s missing a key feature that requires you to process and upload a spreadsheet every week.

Uploading the spreadsheet solves the problem, but it’s also time consuming. So is it worth it to sacrifice your process? Every business has to answer this problem based on their specific needs.

Innovation and Software Selection

The next set of questions has to do with innovation. In the example we shared above, the midstream service company felt that innovation was what would take their company to the next level.

Softer selection - codify your secret sauce!Custom software was more expensive than an off the shelf option, but it also was the key to winning more business and keeping existing clients.

The last question refers specifically to the importance of codifying your “secret sauce” in a custom application. If your company’s advantage is that it manufactures a product that no one else in the market sells, maybe this isn’t a concern.

For service companies, where budget, visibility, and planning are key, a custom application that flows with your process from performing work in the field, to ticketing, to invoicing, and beyond may be the extra offering your client needs to up their contract.

For more on the process of software selection, check out what one midstream services client went through here…

Custom Software: Tracking Pipeline Damage for Oil and Gas

Releases (or leaks) are very important to pipeline companies. Common causes for these leaks are equipment damage, both internal and external corrosion, manufacturing failures, and natural hazards like shifting land. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is responsible for releasing reports regarding pipeline releases or leaks. As a result, the ability to track damage that could cause pipe failure and report on it is important.

For one Entrance client, managing the risk of pipe failure is streamlined through a custom software application that allows them to track joints of pipe throughout their entire lifecycle. A recent addition to the application is a module that enables damage tracking. As our client follows a joint of pipe from its creation at the mill, through welding, coating, shipping, and ultimately, tie-in at the right of way, the pipe is examined at each point for damage. If a scratch, dent, crack or other defect is found, the user is able to scan the pipe’s unique barcodes or RFID tags to record the observed flaw in their custom-built application.

This information is stored in a centralized database where users can manage recorded damage and the associated repairs through a maintenance module.  Pipes with defects are highlighted in yellow, and pipes that are beyond saving get rejected and marked in red for quick visual indication to the users. The client can also run aging reports to see how long repairs take, or sort defect data by location, date, or type of damage.

This helps provide insight into procedural problems or careless handling conditions that were not apparent without recording what locations and which personnel are frequently involved in damaging inventory. The ability to track damaged inventory also can save money in the long run because, rather than throwing a pipe away, a new weld or re-coating could make it usable again. Once the appropriate repair to the pipe is performed and inspected, the maintenance details are logged, and the pipe is ready for use.

As a rule, any damage to a pipe generally happens in transport or somewhere on the ground.  However, occasionally issues with the pipe can be related to manufacturing. In this scenario, you could have 400 feet of pipe with the same corrosion tendencies as pipe from the same batch 4,000 miles away. Our client can track their pipe from the beginning of the process, so if a problem appears to be endemic to an entire batch of pipe, it is thus possible to go back and identify all of those pipes based on their heat number. Rather than wait for a disaster to happen, all of these pipes can be pulled from the field and prevent potentially dangerous and expensive accidents from ever occurring.

In both of these situations, the ability to track and manage pipes and what happens to them means that our client has more control over their inventory, thus giving their oil and gas customers peace of mind. While it may not be possible to prevent damage from happening, the ability to mitigate risk related to this damage by providing visibility and accountability into the repair process makes all the difference.

For more on how this custom software application is helping our client improve their process, read this blog post!

Oil and Gas Software the Key to Optimizing Industry Growth

I’ve discussed in a previous post the impact that the oil and gas industry has on jobs in the United States. I took note this past week of an article in the Oil and Gas Financial Journal regarding the testimony of Daniel Yergin (author of The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World) to the US House  Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power. His statements regarding the oil and gas industry’s contributions to the economy are worth highlighting:

  • Oil and gas production currently supports 1.7 million jobs, with growth to 3 million by 2020.
  • Even in areas where there is no activity, long supply chains mean jobs are created everywhere. For example, in New York, where shale gas development is banned, at least 44,000 jobs have been created by the industry.

In addition to job creation, Yergin commented on the continuing concern around what fracking does to the environment. The technology is not new, but the impact of the scale and intensity in regions that are not accustomed to oil and gas development is still in question. “Understandably, the environmental impacts need to be carefully assessed and monitored, and the public needs to be confident about these impacts.”

But the environmental concern due to shale drilling isn’t all bad. Emission reductions can be attributed to increased availability of natural gas as well! According to Yergin, “US carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption are down 13% since 2007… the most significant part is the result of natural gas supplanting coal in electric generation at a rapid rate.”

In order to manage both the increase in employees and environmental compliance, oil and gas companies can’t rely on outdated software. To remain competitive and grow, they need software that can keep up and help busy employees remain efficient.

For more on using software to manage employee data, read our case study…

To find out why most oil and gas companies avoid creating a system for managing compliance, read our series on the topic!

Improved Timesheet Reporting with One Simple Fix

One of our most successful projects is for a client called TG Mercer. We created a pipeline logistics system for them that automates the tracking and management of their inventory for its entire lifecycle. Entrance recently released an update to TG Mercer to improve their reporting capabilities through improvements to their timesheet process.

TG Mercer has employees working across the globe, in a number of different time zones. As managers reviewed reports, employees clock-in and clock-out times were logged either as Central Standard Time, or the timezone the managers themselves were working in. Depending on the time zone, employees could look like they were clocking in a whole day later or earlier. In addition, it resulted in some rather bizarre clock-in times, for example 1:00 am instead of 8:00 am.

To solve this, Entrance created new tables based on time zone and each location was assigned to the correct one. Each employee’s timesheet is then tagged to a specific location and timezone.

Now, TG Mercer’s reports are correct and display actionable business intelligence that makes sense, in addition to eliminating the need to manually calculate the correct time for each employee. For a large multi-national employer like TG Mercer, this is a valuable improvement.

For more on how oil and gas software can improve logistics and save money, watch this movie about TG Mercer!

 

Business Collaboration for Tax Compliance After Royalty Unbundling

Here at PDI, we just heard from Dennis Cameron of WPX Energy and Pam Williams of Shell, who spoke on the impact of federal unbundling on royalty compliance.  As of April of 2012, unbundling audits have increased exponentially and remaining compliant with the changing set of rules has become time-consuming and nye impossible, because many of the pieces of documentation are not kept in locations available to those creating compliance reports. This leaves compliance experts “gathering data from documents, contracts, and even email” according to Williams. She has even personally “called down people in the field to ask for information about equipment costs, compressor discharge pressures, etc” in order to gather the information she needed to even begin tracking unbundled tax compliance. We’ve talked a lot about chasing down information from various parts of the company, the gap between field and office, and even briding the emerging generation gap as experts retire, and unbundling has all of the common characteristics of a scenario where business collaboration can make all the difference.

For instance, with new unbundling regulations, companies now need to report on pipeline fee, pipeline costs, compressor discharge pressure, component fees, dehydration units and more. And even with the advanced information systems in place at Shell, Williams questioned, “Can our systems really handle that?” because much of the information is just simply not integrated into the system as it operated in the past. Unsurprisingly, the core suggestion from Williams was that collaboration was “not just a good idea you really need to do this: form a cross-functional team. . . The regulatory changes represent learning for folks that handle audits because you learn about operational items you didn’t know before.” Suddenly E&P audits include information about the midstream section of operations, for instance.

What’s most interesting to me is that in most cases the data is admittedly already being captured, but it’s simply being stored in a system that’s disconnected from the whole. And so the core issue really comes down to information accessibility, but it’s very hard to invest in a product or specific solution, because of all of the current changes. After telling the audience to expect to incur expenses going forward because “unbundling is here to stay,” Cameron warned, “As soon as you say ‘one size fits all’ you’ll come up with a system or product that misses the boat.” The key components in answering compliance issues with technology are 1) to provide a system that can adapt to solve a changing problem, 2) to base that system on the core activity that already occurs, supporting the behavior that already occurs rather than shaping it to meet a generic system, 3) to focus the business collaboration solution around providing information, and let humans, therefore, draw conclusions.

Cameron concluded with the following: “We’re going to become more adept at getting this information generated, but the question is, how?” I’d suggest he have a talk with our consultants, or at least check out some of our resources on compliance management.

TG Mercer and Entrance – Engineering Intelligence for Midstream Energy

Our partnership will push the entire midstream forward in efficiency and safety compliance with strategic software.

TG Mercer and Entrance have partnered to create SpreadBoss, a logistics support tool that allows thousands of joints of pipe to be tracked, providing customized inventory reports and creating a pipeline status history database. Not only does the software reduce time and effort spent on tracking pipe, it also provides accurate and timely data capture, as well as consistent documentation. The software solution has become a differentiator for TG Mercer, because it makes them the best in the industry for providing fast and accurate field data for corner office decisions, while reducing the labor cost of that information and making it easily available for regulatory and safety purposes. The project was recently covered in Pipeline and Gas Journal!

The big idea

Every industry-changing technology starts as an idea, and according to Charlie Hankins from TG Mercer, the idea for SpreadBoss grew organically. TG Mercer is very logistically oriented, and most of their projects center around active pipeline construction. They’d get calls asking how much pipe a particular yard has at any given time and would then proceed to compile the information to respond to the customer request. Because of the effort needed to gather joint counts manually, by the time the information reached the people who needed it, it was out of date. Additionally the manual process of calling, faxing and typing in spreadsheets of information was both time consuming and wasteful. With almost no computerization, it also created a huge paper trail that had to be followed by compliance and safety specialists to get the information they needed.

The impact

What started as an idea to improve efficiency grew over the life of the project to become a tactic for differentiation. “We were originally looking for a way to get information that was going on in the field to our headquarters more quickly.” notes Charlie Hankins, Executive Vice President of TG Mercer, “But as we looked into what was possible with technology, we saw that there was a huge market gap we could fill, where we could bring untapped value to many constituents within the midstream sector.” There are huge implications for the industry with this application. Pipeline projects are huge, with lots of people involved, and status tracking is of interest to people in roles all across a midstream organization. Given the level of importance associated with the product and the complicated specifications for paperwork, the lack of sophistication in the industry’s standards for pipe tracking was extremely surprising.  You can imagine that knowing the status of orders, segments and joints of pipe is useful for:

  • Procurement
  • Project management
  • Inventory maintenance
  • Financial systems
  • Regulatory compliance
  • And more

TG Mercer’s team didn’t stop at imagining those implications; they brought their idea to friends in the industry in order to customize the solution to match the needs of various stakeholders. They looked to transform their idea into industry-wide improvements with custom software.

The partnership

As SpreadBoss grew from an idea to a reality, the team at TG Mercer was looking at a quickly growing project scope with many industry problems to solve. They needed a partner in place to quarterback software design and development, because that’s not what they want or need to specialize in. This partner would provide them with a software strategy road map and someone with experience to make sure that milestones were in place to get to completion. Entrance brought software project management to the table, with the industry perspective needed to determine what the resource and time implications were for adding new functionality. Entrance focused on enabling intelligent business decisions, and offered TG Mercer help quantifying what they needed to achieve the business goals at hand with a custom software solution. “Entrance really thrives in an environment where complicated industry problems need to be fixed in line with business needs,” states Nate Richards, President of Entrance “We love bridging that gap between what technology looks like in industry today and what solutions match business drivers.” And the great thing is that everyone wins with such a great partnership in place – the midstream industry gets new value, TG Mercer brings something exciting and special to the table, and Entrance gets to be in the ideal role of value generation with custom software.

The results

There are huge implications for the industry with this application. It’s an entirely new product that was created with industry members involved. With a positive impact both on process automation and pipe history documentation, this solution is going to become the standard for logistics in the midstream arena. SpreadBoss was built based on real industry insights and many of the exciting features of the tool were created to match specific needs expressed by real potential users. The first implementation of the software system is currently underway. It’s a 900 mile project, and SpreadBoss is already proving its value. One field employee noted, “This software is easy to use. And I can now check in 15 joints of pipe in the time it would take me to fill in just one before!”

Find out more about inventory management for oil and gas services in our case study!

Engineering Intelligence for Pipeline Safety

At a recent industry breakfast, a panel of speakers from Embridge, TerraFina, Plains All American, and the Bauer College of Business discussed their perspectives on both the boom and the coming challenges for the midstream sector. With the introduction of fracking and horizontal drilling, production has increased beyond the transportation infrastructure’s ability to move those hydrocarbons to factories and the market. And with the market flooded with natural gas, both Plains All American and Terrafina are pushing to export. All of this remains good news for the Midstream, because even the best condensates aren’t worth anything if you can’t get them to market.

As noted by Enbridge’s President ‘safety and integrity are critical driving factors’ –  for a multitude of reasons. In fact, the Dean of the Bauer School of Business stated that 34 million man hours per year are being spent in the Midstream sector, just on maintaining regulatory compliance in a world of ever-changing standards. And risk management is not driven only by human safety implications, a ruptured joint of pipe also slows time to market and gouges revenue.

At Entrance, we are well positioned to provide intelligence and visibility that will make compliance headaches and safety worries far more manageable. Based on our experience, most of the 34 million hours spent on compliance are probably spent tracking down information rather than making key decisions and taking preventative action. Tracking joints of pipe from the mill to the ground and creating a history of each joint’s various statuses can mean many an hour of work saved when a pipeline’s status needs to be reported on. In fact, SpreadBoss, our ongoing project with TG Mercer, is solving just that problem (and a few others to boot!). Check out the article about our application in the May 2012 issue of Pipeline and Gas Journal!