Category Archives: enterprise applications

Empty Stocking system stands the test of time

Eight years ago while running Georgia Tech’s Center for Manufacturing Information Technology (CMIT) I was approached by Don Crawford, Executive Director of Atlanta’s Empty Stocking Fund (ESF), with a request to create an information system that would automate ESFs annual toy distribution operation. To make a long story short, Kelley Hundt who also worked at CMIT and I agreed to take on the project and that same year we implemented a custom bar-code order entry and warehouse inventory system at ESFs annual operation.

The ESF operation has some unique challenges for an information system. Probably the biggest is operator turn over which occurs every 3-4 hours as new volunteers arrive at Santa’s Warehouse.  Each day three shifts of volunteers must be trained within a couple of minutes to check customers in, print bar coded orders, fix any discrepancies found in the database pertaining to child age and gender, scan selected toys into the system and print warehouse pick tickets. For the entire three week season approximately 400 unique volunteers will successfully operate the system with 2-3 minutes or less of orientation.

Every once in a while a system developer is fortunate enough to create a system that lasts for years. When this happens it’s always gratifying as well as unpredictable. Some systems never get off the ground, others last only a few months, a few make it for 2-3 years, and on the rare occasion a system will last for a decade or more. I only have one “decade” system to my credit…a paperless shop floor system for aircraft assembly which I and a team of engineers who were working for me at that time built in C++, Ingress, and Motif on Vax and Unix servers and 19 inch X-terminal color graphic touch screen clients (yes this cost millions)  for Lockheed’s F-22, C-130, C-5B, and P3 assembly lines. That system was built more than 16 years ago and last I heard is still going strong in Lockheed Martin’s Marietta Georgia assembly plant.  I’m hopeful the Empty Stocking Fund system will become the 2nd “decade” system of my career in December 2011…we’ll see.

Recipient Check-in

Recipients check-in to verify they are in the database, along with children’s age and gender. Bar coded orders are printed with one child per page showing toys in sets that are available for selection by parents. Each set represents a group of toys appropriate for a specific child age/gender. For the 2009 season I loaded over 105,000 children into the database from a dataset provided by Georgia DFCS.

Recipient Check-in and order printing

Toys are selected in Santa’s Workshop based on child gender and age


Toy’s selected by parents are scanned into the database from the bar-coded order and a warehouse pick ticket is printed


Pickers line up at the scanning station waiting for pick tickets to print. Toys are picked from the warehouse using shopping carts and then delivered to waiting parents.



Finding time to adopt tech innovation is Catch 22 for many people

I’m having a problem. I keep running into people who just don’t have time to adopt new technology innovations like social media. I recall years past when I was selling the idea of preventative maintenance systems to plant maintenance managers. Often they would listen to my pitch then say something like, “Well that all sounds good except I’m just too busy putting out fires every day to find time for implementing a PM system.” I can’t count how often I’ve heard those words. To their way of thinking it was simply a catch 22 situation where there’s no time to prevent future fires while today’s fires are burning. But then sometimes I would come across a plant maintenance manager who whole heartily adopted a PM strategy and system. Faced with the same daily fires they somehow found the time and energy to adopt the new technology and often came out looking like heroes as a result. I have often asked these “hero” maintenance managers how they found the time to adopt and implement PM and the answer I heard most often was “I didn’t have the time NOT to adopt a PM program.” How can this completely opposite viewpoint be explained? And it’s not that the managers who couldn’t imagine having time to adopt new ways of working and managing were lazy. Most were very hard working and put in far more than 40 hours each week just trying to keep their heads above water. I can understand why the idea of piling something else onto their plate seemed insane from that perspective. But then how to explain the maintenance managers who had the opposite view, successfully adopted the new PM system and revolutionized how their organization operated?

Today I run into managers who when faced with the idea of adopting social media will say, “I’m just too busy to pile even more work on top of what I’m already doing.” And they really are busy emailing, sending out revisions of attachments via email, going to meetings, and returning phone calls to even think about piling on even more responsibility with Twitter or Facebook or a blog. The problem I think is they can’t imagine how social media will reduce and in some cases eliminate their old style of communication and collaboration. In their mind the new technologies will simply pile more work on top of their current load. It’s funny how the same patterns of behavior and thinking just keep cycling round and round no matter the endeavor.

Some Companies Can’t Innovate

I was just reading about a conference put on by a middle-school in the Bronx called Dot-To-Dot. The main conference topic was exploring freedom but what really caught my attention was the technology platform they used to organize and host all aspects of the conference. Since 2007 this public middle school, IS 339, has been using Google Apps to engage students in new and innovative ways like student run businesses and student projects. Even grading and progress is managed collaboratively with students using Google forms and spreadsheets. What strikes me is how does a public middle school adopt and innovate with a technology like Google Apps when so many companies and government organizations (run by adults) are seemingly unable to do the same? I’m wondering what are the major factors in corporations and governments that stand in the way of adopting a strategy around technology innovations like Google Apps. I’ve seen it over and over throughout my career…with minicomputers, personal computers, LANs, 4th Gen Languages, Web Sites, Intranets, content management systems, etc. These technologies have all been right there staring every company in the face..but most companies just can’t seem to see the new technology until years later after the technology has been adopted by others and has become “old hat.” Why does this happen? If I had to pick one barrier to adoption of new technology for innovation I would have to choose middle management. There always seems to be one or more middle managers, who know little to nothing about how technology is used and where it is going, but for some reason finds it necessary to stand squarely in the way of anything that he/she deems TOO new. I think the reason small startup companies are so innovative is because they aren’t big enough to have put any middle managers into place. Once they do the innovation slows down or even stops. If anybody else has a better idea I would sure like to hear it.

Google Enterprise Apps

Today I attended a morning seminar on Google Enterprise Applications at the Westin in Buckhead. This is the first time I’ve seen a roadshow event from Google which was interesting in itself. Google’s purpose is to introduce the rollout this Winter of the new Enterprise Applications, a suite of product solutions aimed at Corporate and Government enterprises.

The suite is divided into three categories; Search, Share, and Visualize.

Search contains a choice between three search solutions; Search Appliance, Google Mini, and Google Desktop. Both Appliance and Mini are physical devices…self contained appliances that are plugged into a network and configured to crawl/index content sources throughout the network using the same technology as Google’s main search engine. Desktop is installed onto individual desktops to search that individual desktop.

Share also contains three product solutions; Gmail, Calendar, and Docs & Spreadsheets. Gmail is Google’s free email service which I have been using for some time now. Calendar provides a shared calendar service you can use to view the calendar(s) of your “friends,” combine calendars, and many additional features. Docs & Spreadsheets represents Googles entry into the word processing and spreadsheet space. I haven’t used these products yet and so can’t compare to MS Word & Excel.

Three product solutions of the Visualize group are Google Earth, Google Maps, and Sketchup Pro.

My main take away from the seminar is learning how Google Enterprise Apps differs from simply using these tools individually from Google free of charge.

For $50 per person per year, Google Enterprise Apps provides an enterprise with the ability to customize these apps with domain name and branding. Google guarantees 99.9% uptime and provides unlimited support. Storage limit is increased from 5 gig per person up to 10 gig per person. Last but not least you can hook up Google apps to your own internal Microsoft Active Directory or LDAP directory service to manage authentication and control access.

For those who prefer MS Outlook, gmail works just fine with an Outlook client. Although the browser interface for gmail is very good and personally I prefer it over Outlook…but that’s just MHO.

I’m glad I took the time to attend the seminar. It was an “eye opener” for me and will factor into any future IT strategy discussion in which I am involved.