1. Executive Summary
3.1 Second Line Support
3.2 Customer Installation
4. Web Development
5. Data Import
1. Executive Summary
I spent my placement year working for Calculus Software Solutions Ltd, a company that provides business systems to the independent electrical retailer market. My primary role was as a 1st and 2nd line support advisor. I was also tasked with designing and building an integrated website solution based on an existing specification. I was also heavily involved with training, installation and data import for one of the clients.
My placement required me to learn to work to deadlines, both by myself and in a team environment. I learned SQL and ASP.net in order to design the website, and had to familiarise myself with both the application front end and database design of the company's flagship product, NCompass, in order to develop and support this new offering to Calculus' customers.
Calculus Software Solutions Ltd has developed business software for Electrical Retailers which is called NCompass. This is a developing product that the company has launched in 1999. It was established in what was effectively a monopoly market, where there were a small number of very well established competitors. One unique selling point for NCompass was that it was a Windows based application with afree and relatively shortdevelopment cycle, allowing customers to request new features for the system without incurring expense over and beyond that of an incredibly competitive support contract.
The business itself is a very small business with only eleven members of staff, which leads to overlapping in what duties are carried out by specific people within the hierarchical structure. A diagram of the working structure within the company is shown in Fig 1 to outline not only the links between the different roles within the structure of the company itself, but what impact this has on the day to day tasks expected from someone in one of those roles.
I was employed within the company as a first line support advisor, while working on an individual project of building an integrated website for NCompass. Whilst NCompass is used primarily as an electronic point of sale system, it qualifies as a business system due to its ability to analyse sales, agreement and stock information and produce data that can be used for accounting.
The NCompass application is a standard format stand alone application within Windows, which accesses customer data from either an Access database or a SQL2000 server depending on the particular needs of the company. This stands as another selling point for NCompass, as the two main competitors for the company are both Linux applications with text-based interfaces. Customers with multiple branches use their program under a federated architecture, which is to say that each individual shop maintains a copy of the database on a local server, but where changes are mediated by replication from a central publisher at Head Office. This is in direct contrast to the company's main competitor, where all remote sites are required to connect to the head office system directly, meaning that if there are any problems with internet connectivity then one or more branches are unable to trade using the system.
The following report will explore my different duties at Calculus, ranging from dealing with customers through helping them resolve their support issues to developing a dynamic website, which interacts with NCompass and also being involved with converting data from competitors’ software to data that can be used by NCompass.
2.1 Second Line Support
Second line support within Calculus is intended to supplement the knowledge provided by the first line support. It focuses less on the day to day running issues for NCompass and more on the background database; for example correcting primary key duplication.
Initially I was assigned as a first line support; however as working on individual project with the website and having participated in a detailed customer installation, I was quickly moved to second line support. I had all the relative knowledge needed to engage in the more difficult support requests that come through from the customers. Some of the support requests are included as appendix to this report.
There are other various tasks that were duties of second line support, that related to the maintenance of servers and running tasks within the SQL Enterprise Manager application i.e. Data Transformation Services for customers’ databases while considering the company policy over data protection.
I enjoyed contributing my knowledge of NCompass within the support department, because it gave me the confidence to acknowledge my understanding of how the relationships within the background database worked. It also helped increase my underlying structure about how different queries are written within SQL and also what is the accurate syntax to use in order to achieve desired results. This was due to working on “live” customer’s systems and any small error in the syntax of my queries having a huge affect on how information will be presented on Compass.
2.2 Customer Installation
Customer installation is a very specific procedure that takes place to install NCompass and provide training to the customers. This process is used in this order to make the customers gain the most knowledge about the software. The process is spread over a period of months, however is described within the installation checklist as “Training Days”. There are three compulsory training days for the initial installation and training. Day one is set aside to set-up NCompass on all the machines required with the licence information, and also making sure that the network is set-up properly in order for NCompass to communicate between the different machines and the server. This day will also include some very basic training on NCompass sales module. Day two is when the customer is trained on the whole NCompass system, with in depth information provided about the step by step processes to achieve the desired results, and this also enables the staff to ask particular questions that have raised since day one training. Day three is the go live day, which will involve any data importing that needs to be done, this is only optional, because not all the customers will have a previous electronic system. The other object of day three, is any further top-up training from day two and providing help with any issues, they might have had while using the system in the shop.
I was given the opportunity to be involved with a whole customer installation of one of the clients’, this was also due to me being involved in their data import work. This installation will involve having three trips going up to the client and involve very extensive front-end NCompass training for me, this will allow me to be able to get a much better sense of how all the different procedures work within NCompass and help the customer if any questions are asked.
Day one for the client was between 8th August and 14th August 2007, and my manager gave me the task of installing NCompass software on all the machines and setting up the network Ids for the machines so that the communication could occur properly from the server to the client machines. I found these tasks to be very exciting at that particular moment, as I had very limited knowledge about how the networks were actually set-up but rather theoretical information about the network structures, from modules within the university.
The task of setting up the networks, had to follow an unusual pattern to what the standard procedures are which are described in the installation checklist, as two different static network Ids needed to be set-up as they were still using the competitor software as EPOS and for system auditing. All the machines that will be running NCompass needed to be set up with two network Ids, one matching the links to the competitor server and one matching to server that will be running NCompass. This experience gave me knowledge about how to put the theories we learn in university into practise, and also how computers communicate with one another, as well as receiving and sending information to the main server.
I was also allowed to help with the basic training of the system, as I have being working on support for some time and have had some experience about what different questions can be asked when training for front-end basic NCompass. I found this to be very interesting as it enabled me to gain knowledge about how the customer views differ for the process to how we, as technical support staff view the process. I also gained a lot of knowledge about how different processes can be performed within NCompass as there are different paths that can be taken to perform one particular procedure.