Fintel plucks IT project time-saver out of left field

Something odd's happening at FinTel - its IT department is consistently coming in on schedule with its projects. This state of affairs, something it's fair to say isn't so common in the IT industry, all began last year when insurance company FinTel's CEO Brian Morganty asked the IT department to reduce project development time down to one to three months, so FinTel could be more competitive in the market. His staff 'thought he was dreaming'.

Something odd’s happening at FinTel — its IT department is consistently coming in on schedule with its projects.

This state of affairs, something it’s fair to say isn’t so common in the IT industry, all began last year when insurance company FinTel’s CEO Brian Morganty asked the IT department to reduce project development time down to one to three months, so FinTel could be more competitive in the market.

The previous two systems it had developed took nine and 12 months, so the IT department was understandably shocked.

Says IT manager Warren Anderson: “We thought he was dreaming actually.”

But the IT team came up with what it says is an unorthodox solution, but which does the job. It involved developing a system, called JASS (Just Another Scripting System), where forms could be pieced together in a Lego-block fashion and, where possible, be re-used.

Shorter development times were the major benefit of the project.

Anderson says the latest project is scheduled to be completed in 30 days. Of the 15 forms which make up the project, 10 are re-useable forms from other projects. In the past the same project would have taken about three months.

General manager Harvey Price says he’s now at the stage where he has to push the product supplier to get things done, because the IT department is on schedule.

“I’m having to constantly look at our schedule and think: ‘Golly, they’re on time, I need a brochure done or I need a printed policy done, because these guys are going to be ready to roll very soon, whereas normally, it’s the other way around. You think: ‘I’ve got plenty of time, IT will be late’.”

That means the speed of putting out new products is faster, and that was critical in today’s market.

“Markets are changing so rapidly — you have to be able to change your rating very quickly, you have to be able to bring out new benefits and modified policies and products very quickly. Speed is of the essence today. It’s just essential.”

Anderson says response times to requests have improved. He recently received a request to swap around the order the residential and postal addresses appeared in, on a form.

In the past the program would have to be changed and it could have taken as long as a day.

“[Now] that doesn’t even require us to change the program. We just go to the configuration files and say these two are now in reverse order. That’s it, it’s done.”

That takes about 10 minutes.

However, Anderson says project times will depend on how much of the project is new, and how many re-useable forms can be used.

Another benefit is a consistent application style, which means training time is reduced.

Before beginning the project, Anderson looked at existing products including standard call-centre scripting tools.

However, Anderson says calculating premiums is tricky enough without using a “very ordinary” tool that was never designed to do that.

“We thought, we’ve got to do this ourselves.”

That was how JASS got it’s name — when someone asked if they were writing just another scripting system.

Challenges included developing a system where each form is independent of the others, establishing what mechanism to use to dynamically alter a form at run-time, how to store all the information so you’re not required to modify the database each time a new product is developed and how to get the forms to communicate with each other while still keeping them generic.

But Anderson says the biggest challenge was being willing to forego traditional programming and database design practices to allow the system to operate as intended.

Another member of the team, Bob Dedekind, says it was tricky to program, because they had to think about a generic product, rather than simply coding for it to do specific things in specific circumstances.

Borland’s Delphi 1.0 was used to develop the application as it met FinTel’s requirements for a language, such as allowing code to be fully compiled (such as it doesn’t interpret the code or produce pseudo-code), is object-oriented, has a large user-base, is easy to use and allows third-party components to be used.

Anderson says he was impressed with Delphi because it actually worked, which is not his past experience with software development.

“I kept saying: ‘This is going too well, we’ve forgotten something’.”

Borland business development manager Annie Larsen says a lot of companies are striving to get the re-use that has been achieved with JASS.

“There are many different ways of doing it and I think the way they’re doing re-useable forms is probably quite unique. I don’t know of anyone else doing it.”

The project began on July 1 last year, a prototype was running in September and the system went live in March this year.

Re-useable forms extend the idea of code re-use to a form level. A control program reads a configuration file which tells it what form should be displayed and what should be done with the components on that form.

The forms are developed to be either fully generic, partially generic or non--generic.

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