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Mar 7, 2014

The Change Agent

For the past 14 months, we've been developing an information system. There are two guys in our IT shop and we have to wear a lot of hats. This is both inefficient and super-efficient at the same time. Anyone who has dealt with a large project managed by a small team can relate.
I say this to preface much of the challenge has not necessarily been the technology, but rather helping people manage change that the new system will bring. I've learned almost as much as I've been frustrated, but at the end of all this, I'm very excited about where we are going. I sent out a company-wide email and I felt compelled to share it. I've changed or omitted any private details, so forgive my not naming our past products or my co-workers' names. However, there are public companies and real products mentioned. Further, the new system we built is called DownStream.

As you are aware, we will be switching over to a new, custom and internally-developed system in just a few short weeks. This change is creating both excitement and anxiety – as there are some who have questions. To be fair, some of those questions have gone unanswered.
[Co-worker] and I are still converting the data from [Current Product] and performing final testing to ensure the best possible transition, but we know not every step will be perfect and things will be a little rocky in places. In advance we thank you for your patience during this process. By the end of the month we believe the system will be ready and that everyone will be trained to use it.
If you would indulge me, I’d like to share a personal story about doing things differently, which is something we all will experience as a result of bringing DownStream online.
Since 1450 when Guttenberg created the printing press, there has been a common method for reading books. We flip open the cover, turn the pages and our eyes scan across the words taking in the information. This is a 600-year tradition. It works and we all understand it.
A little science behind what’s happening as a person reads: the brain tells the eye muscles to move to scan the page; the mind recognizes shapes and spaces to identify individual words; the optics of the eye focus on each word to un-jumble and decipher the letters into a meaning; the point of eye focus within the word is a different location for each word, depending on the letters and length of the word. Why do I explain all this? Well, the movement of the eyes and the change in ocular focus all cost “overhead” time in the process of reading. Granted, this seems an infinitesimal amount from page-to-page and word-to-word, but over an entire 50,000-word novel that lost time and inefficiency add up. But we’ve been reading this way for 600 years, and it seems an inevitability. I, myself, am a notoriously slow reader, taking in only about 100 words per minute.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to use a new reading technology by Samsung called Spritz. I’m sure you will be hearing about this in the near future. What it does, is loads the book up and present the content one word at a time. But there is a single point of focus on the reader and the technology places each word in the optimal position relative to that focal point. Further, it uses color-coding to keep the reader’s brain and eyes fixed to that common location. The result is the eyes don’t have to move and the brain is at maximum efficiency to decrypt the words into meaning.
I was skeptical! There was no way an app or machine could make my brain bring in reading material faster than how I did it naturally…or so I thought.
I tried Spritz. Within three minutes I was reading at 500 words per minute with full comprehension. I was amazed. Now, the downside is it is different than how I normally read, and it is not available for everything I want to read yet. Also, I have to do some “prep work” to read a book, like loading the e-file into the app. However, when weighed against the results of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in just under three hours, I have found coping with the changes very worthwhile.
Forgive me for the long-winded example above; however, I believe it is relevant and parallel to the integration of DownStream. When developing the new system, we did not simply write code to mimic the existing screens and methods of data input. We performed serious analysis of the work processes so that the information system can match the human effort at Downing. Then we looked for ways to cut the “overhead” time and optimize the work to be recorded. We also created safety nets and internal information redundancies to help things from slipping through the cracks. In DownStream many of the things a person would have done in the past (log files, carrying paper to another department, creating the same information on three different forms) will now be maintained by the system instead. This means in some ways, the job may feel different, perhaps even “wrong” at the beginning. However, just like the reading app described above, we left the “the brain-power” and “decision-making” parts to the people; we merely shifted the busy paperwork to the responsibility of the system. And we did not change things just to have changes; every difference has a reason and purpose – even if it is not obvious.
We understand your apprehension. We know you will have some concerns because things are different with DownStream than they have been with both [Current Product] and [Legacy Product]. But we believe different does not have to mean bad and it does not have to mean difficult.
Lastly, please remember how things have been done at [Company] for the past 30 years is not viewed as wrong – no more than how we’ve read books for the past 600 years. But we have discovered new and more efficient ways to perform the same work.
Thank you for your patience and understanding as we step into the future.
Dj Hackney,
Senior Software Architect

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