The Durham County Department of Social Services IBM AS/400 Conversion: A Case Study
By Hudson Oliver
Durham County’s IBM Application System/400 (AS/400) conversion not only improved efficiency and functionality to the Department of Social Services (DSS), it served as a valuable exercise in change management and team building for the Information Services and Technology (IS&T) staff.
Imagine trying to use 1980’s technology to meet the operational demands of a county agency providing social services to one of the most rapidly growing county populations in North Carolina. This was the challenge of Durham County’s Department of Social Services.
The AS/400, IBM’s text-based operating system developed in the late 1980s, still served as the department’s primary operating system. In addition to using this obsolete system, the department also installed multiple operating systems which were incompatible with one another.
The IBM AS/400 system used many obsolete computer languages like common business oriented language (COBOL) and IBM Report Program Generator (RPG). The more seasoned IS&T staffers had to teach younger staff members outdated languages that are no longer a part of modern computer programming curriculums. Specialist trained in the IBM AS/400 and Window-based systems were the only developers qualified to write programs.
Additionally, the antiquated IBM AS/400 system was text-based, with a basic black and green screen interface, which did not integrate well with modern programming techniques or web-based computer systems. All programming required custom coding for each platform, unlike contemporary systems designed to adapt and integrate with multiple platforms. The bottom line: IS&T would have to rewrite and rebuild DSS’s operating systems from the ground up.
IBM AS/400 screen
Microsoft Visual Studio screen
In 2015, after several years of work, DSS completed a major system upgrade to convert the old IBM AS/400 operating system and related systems into a new set of interconnected, user-friendly systems that would improve functionality and the end-user experience. Kicked off in 2011, a team comprised of Durham County DSS and Information Services & Technology experts decided to migrate to a
Microsoft Visual Studio environment using .Net. Systems involved in the conversion ranged from internal operations; including the department’s client tracking, scheduling and billing systems, program integrity, transportation scheduling, child protection, quality control, foster care, department training systems; as well as other supported critical client services. IS&T developed and implemented new training procedures for DSS staffers using the new system.
Overall, the project was a success! Today, the IBM AS/400 conversion has delivered:
- Faster Integration: DSS has the functionality they need to support a more sophisticated, user-friendly and interconnected system. The current languages integrate well with each other and interface with applications and systems outside of IS&T. The team can build system relationships that were never possible. This allows for more cohesive integration, particularly with third-party vendor systems.
- Easier Processes: The new Microsoft Visual Studio system simplifies the development process while providing more robust functionality. Developers no longer have to create custom builds for each platform with limited functionality. The development process is faster and resulting in higher quality applications for county employees and residents.
- Unified Workflows: The project also merged the development team into one group. The team was previously split up into two silos: IBM AS/400 developers and Windows developers. Each group had to maintain their own processes and procedures for everything from disaster recovery to file structures. Moving to one environment brought the team together. The previously fractured group is now speaking the same language, which unified the team and improved communication.
This conversion success story was not without its challenges. The conversion process took almost four years, well beyond the initial one-year estimate. The development team also had to endure a complete overhaul of their day-to-day processes, many of which had been in place for years. The IBM AS/400 developers had to endure the painful process of unlearning years of knowledge and starting from scratch, which led to a drop in morale.
Specific tactics that were instrumental in this successful effort included:
- Utilize Project Management Techniques: for large efforts it is beneficial to use a project management structure that includes: a project manager, a strong subject matter expert within each department and tools such as a signed charter, regularly scheduled project meetings, and diligent documentation to ensure measurable progress toward an agreed-upon roadmap.
- Ensure Executive Leadership and Project Team: Make sure the project’s executive sponsor is fully supportive and willing to drive the project through the organization. This is critical because this project influenced the “culture” as it affected long-standing workflows, working relationships and more.
- Persistent Focus and Flexibility: Complex projects will always surface unexpected issues and often this means more costs, more time and more people. As much as there needs to be flexibility to address unexpected issues, be very focused on keeping the project held to the original and documented expected deliverables and scope. Adding to these items is different than addressing issues within the original project.
The project team overcame challenges with the help of a supportive leadership team who allowed for additional time for problem-solving and collaboration. The experience created a cohesive project team and empowered the team to own the final product. There was very little staff turnover during the project, which also rendered greater continuity and sustainability for the new systems and the new processes in place.