USPS apps get heavy tweaking

Systems analysts hired to capture postal regulations in software had no idea how much
window clerks must know to do their jobs.


The postal regulations run 4,200 pages, which partly explains why the Postal Service,
despite its best intentions to avoid custom development, will end up heavily customizing
versions of the retail packages it bought for the Point of Sale One program.


Since they started on POS One a year ago, postal officials have been surprised at the
time and amount of customization required to make two retail sales packages work for them.
IBM Corp. supplied one packaged application, NCR Corp. the other.


"It took time for the two companies to understand our business rules," said
David Hunter, USPS' POS One project manager.


The customization rate is running at about 50 percent. Together, the commercial and
custom parts total nearly 1.4 million lines of object-oriented C++ code.


These are big programs with many supporting data tables, because the Postal Service is
a unique retailer. Postal clerks daily handle hundreds of service requests that require
"if X, then Y" responses. The retail software now in use can capture only about
40 percent of existing postal regulations.


"Our retail clerks carry tremendous knowledge in their heads," Hunter said.


Postal executives want to capture 100 percent of the regulations in the new retail
systems, which will run on networked Pentium workstations under Microsoft Windows NT.


Because these systems and a frame relay backbone will replace the existing standalone
systems, the Postal Service is prepared to do more testing than usual before going live
late this year.


"We're learning just how much testing it will take," Hunter said.


Testing object-oriented code poses extra challenges. "If you add code, especially
object-oriented code, you need to do more testing," he said. The Postal Service will
test for up to eight weeks in advance of any major vendor or agency-initiated upgrades.
The service already has scheduled three upgrades in 1998 and three in 1999.


Despite the complexity of the project, postal officials are not having second thoughts
about buying and customizing the packaged applications. They want to operate in a Windows
environment and add retail services as vendors put them into applications, Hunter said.


The benefits go both ways. IBM and NCR will each come out of the customization ordeal
with a specialized postal retail application, which neither vendor had before.


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