Coding Against the Grain

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2002-10-10 Email Print this article Print

The freight company has been tracking every action its workers perform to avoid the potholes that have sidelined its competitors.

Coding Against the Grain

Obee's department hasn't been immune to budget cuts, but he has tried to confine them to cutting back on consultants and contract workers. Obee needs to keep technical skills in-house because Roadway Express runs almost entirely on software developed by its own programmers, much of it running on the somewhat-exotic Model 204 mainframe software.

This bucks current wisdom that smart project managers buy packaged software from outside vendors, use the vanilla versions and then conform business processes to fit.

Obee questioned the practice of instead creating code internally when he became CIO in 1997. "I told the staff I'm very uncomfortable with this," Obee says. "Are we doing the right thing? But I've drawn the conclusion, firmly, that we are doing the right thing."

One way Roadway departs from the normal conventions of business is that it treats every shipment as having not one customer, but two. Only one customer per shipment pays, but both shipper and recipient have expectations and sometimes service guarantees that must be tracked.

For example, even when a shipment to a retailer is paid for by a manufacturer, Roadway must satisfy the recipient retailer's requirements in order to stay on its list of preferred carriers. Getting dropped from Wal-Mart's preferred carriers list would hurt, because Wal-Mart penalizes vendors who ship via carriers that aren't on it.

Roadway also made unusual technical choices in Web development. The customer site is driven by Model 204, using the Janus Web Server add-on from Sirius Software. Model 204 User Language programming statements drive the generation of eXtensible Markup Language code, which is then reformatted into HTML for different audiences on an Apache-based proxy server running on IBM's AIX version of the Unix operating system.

One of the main benefits of this architecture is that it allows Roadway's developers to reconfigure existing applications for Web access and to work with a programming language they already know, rather than having to learn Java or Active Server Pages programming.

Using the same offbeat approach, Roadway is converting its own Model 204 applications, most of which currently have green-screen terminal interfaces, into graphical Web versions.

Daryl Korsmeyer, corporate transportation manager at industrial ceramics maker CoorsTek Inc. cites information technology as one of the reasons he chose Roadway to be his primary partial-load carrier.

"We were looking for the technology a carrier can provide," Korsmeyer says. He was impressed by the way dock-workers knew where a shipment was within a trailer, information that lets Roadway ensure that shipments continuing in a trailer after a stop are positioned in the nose of the trailer, while others that need to be unloaded promptly are placed in the rear.

That's what Roadway is looking for when it analyzes its costs, together with other operational data. The real win is lowering costs while improving service and relationships with customers.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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