Back into the black

Sometimes a development project isn’t quite as simple as it looks at first glance. That was the case when Vancouver-based Sierra Systems Group Inc. took on the job of expanding and improving a research accounting system for the University of AlbertaThe university’s Electronic Tracking of Research Awards and Contracts (eTRAC) system is built on PeopleSoft accounting software from Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif.

Accounting for research projects is significantly different from accounting for regular business operations, explains Paul Sorenson, the University of Alberta‘s vice-provost for information technology.

Research projects last for a limited time, sometimes a year or less. The university must set up accounts for each project quickly as funding becomes available, but the setup varies depending on the project and the source of funding.

Many projects are funded by research granting agencies like the National Research Council (NRC) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), but others may be partnerships with private companies. eTRAC was created to deal with those issues.

IBM Canada Ltd., which manages the university’s administrative systems under an outsourcing contract, did the initial customization, but last year, seeking some improvements, the university put out a request for proposal for further work on eTRAC.

“It worked quite well,” Sorenson says of the original eTRAC, which went into service in 2004, “but there were a lot of archival data problems.” Getting data from projects already under way before eTRAC was created proved difficult. The university also wanted reporting improvements.

Sierra, one of three companies with ongoing development relationships with the university, won the contract, beginning work in January 2006.

The main task, says Abe van Dorp, director at Sierra, was to improve reporting to help researchers understand how they are doing against their budgets. That meant changing the system from a revenue-based approach to a more budget-based approach.

Split workload
To speed the project, Sierra divided the reports into two groups and set up two teams – each team consisting of a functional specialist and a technical specialist – to work on the two groups of reports at the same time. That meant the work could proceed significantly faster than it would have otherwise.

That required considerable consultation with researchers, and van Dorp says one of the challenges was getting consensus on report designs.

When Sierra started testing, though, some data in the new reports appeared to be wrong. Developers found it was not the reports that were at fault, but the underlying data in the system.

Because the university “went in knowing that there were some concerns about the data with eTRAC,” van Dorp says, there was some contingency time built into the contract, so the project schedule wasn’t thrown off by the need to correct the underlying data problems.

Aside from cleaning up existing data, Sierra had to improve input processes to eliminate the source of the problems.

Development was completed around the end of April.

Sorenson says the revamped system works well, although he plans another round of improvements once the university finishes upgrading its PeopleSoft financial modules this fall.

In January, Sierra was bought by Golden Gate Capital, a San Francisco private equity company that owns many information technology firms.

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