Jeff Biggs, chief technology and information officer for application service provider Vobix, was facing a tight 90-day deadline when he first learned his company had taken on a new e-commerce project called BuyUnion.com.
The project was based on a simple idea: Create a site where union members and businesses could buy union-made or union-assembled products.
Biggs and Vobix faced a task more complex than the idea, however. The challenge for Vobix included incorporating multiple catalogs, all presented in different data forms. Plus, the client needed a true e-commerce solution, so the process had to be fully automated from customer purchase through packaging for delivery.
This article examines how the Kentucky-based ASP met the challenge and created an e-commerce site from scratch in only 75 days.
From box to beta
At first, Biggs thought a boxed solution might be the quickest and best way to set up a site. But after talking with the client, Biggs knew there was no box solution that could address their needs.
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And with the site’s launch date—Labor Day 2000—fast approaching, coding a proprietary solution with Vobix’s 27-person IT staff was out of the question.
Vobix knew Microsoft’s Commerce Server 2000 boasted an ability to integrate existing catalogs for e-commerce use, but the server was in beta version. The company applied to be part of the Commerce Server 2000 Early Adopter Program (EAP), where participants receive the beta technology and support from Microsoft.
Vobix’s CEO, Tim Landgrave, had contacts in Microsoft’s product groups. He pitched the idea to them and Microsoft accepted the project.
Biggs now had a cutting-edge technology to work with, but faced a looming deadline and beta code.
“It was a very aggressive schedule,” Biggs said. “The crux was, we were working with beta code, and sometimes when you live by the beta sword, you also die by the beta sword.”
Ultra Rapid Development
At Vobix, quick turnaround times are the standard, not the exception. Vobix uses a 90-day development cycle, which Biggs’ developers have nicknamed the Ultra Rapid Development Framework. Tim Landgrave, CEO of Vobix, calls it Quality Software Quickly, or Q2 Development.
As the chart above shows, the cycle is divided into 30-day windows. The first phase is the “Ideation” phase. During this time, Vobix establishes the functional specifications and tries to get a code draft.
The next 30 days is the development cycle, when all the coding is done. During this time, Vobix also provides feedback to the client to ensure they’re on task.
The third phase is the Q&A phase. The client sees the project and provides further input.
If at any point it becomes clear the project is too detailed for the 90 day cycle, Biggs said he does one of two things: He either postpones features until future versions or adds developers.
“You know you’re always going to deliver in 90 days,” he said. “What’s your worse case scenario? You get into gear and you go ‘I can’t do this feature, this XYZ thing. This is not working out.’ So you say, ‘Can we de-feature it? No. [Then] Let’s give you a couple of rocket scientists to help work on this.’”
Tim Landgrave, CEO of Vobix, writes a weekly column for TechRepublic. Recently, Landgrave explained how to develop a blueprint for Q2 development as part of a multi-part series on the development.
But with this project, that cycle was cut to 75 days.
Divide, integrate, and conquer
Biggs devoted five staff members to the BuyUnion.com project, but he divided the task into four teams: provisioning, database, front-end, and commerce server. While developers served on several teams, this allowed them to focus on particular parts of the project, but still stay integrated.
“Our core competency as a company is to have an integrated platform,” he said.
Several of the team members also had experience with another Microsoft beta, the SQL server.
“The good news is I had staff members on the team that were part of the SQL EAP and frankly, they were the stars of the SQL EAP.”
As CTIO, Biggs’ role was simple: keep his hands off, make sure his developers had plenty of Mountain Dew, and settle debates about architectural issues. Motivating his staff was never an issue, despite long workdays.
“Motivation is called Twinkies, Mountain Dew, and pizza,” he said. “It is interesting work though, there’s no doubt about it. Plus, you’re working on Windows 2000. Name another company in the area that has a homogenous environment of 2000 servers with Office 2000, now commerce server 2000, BizTalk 2000, and Exchange 2000.”
While Vobix did make its Sept. 4 delivery date, BuyUnion.com is not complete. According to Landgrave, the project will probably undergo three or four cycles before all the functions are added.
Commerce Server 2000
This project could not have been developed in such a short time frame without Commerce Server 2000, according to Landgrave.
“There’s simply no way we could have developed a site with the rich features we implemented in the time we had allotted without using a tool like Commerce Server 2000,” he said. “The only real drawback to Commerce Server 2000 is for companies who don’t already have a thorough understanding of the Microsoft architecture.”
The Commerce Server 2000 is part of Microsoft’s new .Net strategy, a plan to make all Microsoft products Internet-enabled. It’s a particularly useful strategy for Application Service Providers, who are already delivering networking functions via the Web.
|The commerce architecture used on BuyUnion.com.|
Still, the beta version was not perfect. Microsoft was very responsive to suggestions, Biggs said.
“We’re on the sixth build of commerce server 2000 so far. It gets better each time,” he said. “Microsoft actually listens and fixes issues or problems that you’re having. Every once in a while they come up with an enhancement that makes you just sit back and go ‘Wow, that was a good idea.’”
But when asked if it made the project easier, he hesitated before replying, “You know, if these were easy, everybody would be doing it.”
Commerce Server 2000 takes care of integrating catalogs, performing updates, assimilating data, and running campaigns, such as a sale. But is it a good investment?
“I think the investment will pay off. That’s the good news,” he said. It pays off because Vobix and seven other companies invested the time and effort to help Microsoft work through the issues.
“You get bumps and bruises along the way, but overall, this has been a reasonably painless experience.”
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