No boss? No problem! An ERP upgrade done right

When a messy ERP transition hits rough waters, one tech pro relies on know-how, grit, and luck to right the ship

It's a cruel irony in IT that when problems abound and you save the day, people notice -- and, if you're lucky, appreciate your efforts. But when it all goes right and your background work keeps systems running smoothly, it won't warrant a mention and no one realizes the time and effort you've invested. It's about time we share these "wins" with the world at large.

When I graduated from college in the early 1990s, I was hired at a family firm that had multiple business ventures. The enterprise operated in six different business veins, from retail to manufacturing. Though the businesses varied in scope, they ran a common software package in a DOS environment on Novell servers.

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The head of the parent company's IT department had a side business as a vendor, supplying the group with hardware and software. Yes, this was a very different time -- no one in the company seemed to view this as a conflict of interest. As a result, all of our PCs and servers were what we called "white box" and built from parts my boss supplied. For me, working with such machines was a great experience because I learned a lot about hardware that I'd never touched in my college career.

The puppet master

When I came on board, my boss had been in charge of all the computer equipment for five years, having installed the original hardware and software that moved the company from paper to PCs. He had complete control over the company's technology, backed by the confidence of the board of directors, which was made up of brothers and sisters.

I worked the next five years following the business plan my boss had laid out, believing everything was fine as I had no access to the finer details of contracts and license details. Around this time, Novell and Microsoft were vying for leadership in the server OS market.

Our ERP software (written in BBX, or Business Basic eXtended) had been heavily altered by my boss to "suit" the family's idea of how business should be conducted and how reports needed to be run, along with many minor changes. I later found out these modifications had rendered us unable to install any ERP software updates for the past three years -- doing so would've disclosed the number of violations we were committing and the vast differences between our current system and the vendor product.

I didn't know all the reasons at the time. But it become obvious to everyone that the customized ERP system was no longer adequate, and the board of directors started asking about upgrades.

My boss said he was handling it, but I couldn't help but think of the difficult upgrade path ahead. Our IT shop was a two-man operation that serviced 13 locations scattered over multiple states and connected by 33Kbps modems. It's archaic now, but it had served our needs well. However, it was easy to see that if we ever moved to a Windows-based ERP solution, we'd be in for a world of hurt.

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