Everything about nothing

July 7, 2006

I wonder if we’ll ever get to a stage in enterprise reporting where users are able easily to get what they want when they want it?

Today I had plans to finish off documenting the online re-enrolment process, but it was not to be. Awards ceremonies are looming and new requirements always come out of the woodwork about this time. Today we had two, of which I have solved just one.

The solved one runs thus: we now produce a letter for each member of staff who is stewarding at the ceremony, telling them what their duties are, and where they have to be and when. This letter has saved oodles of staff time in preparing for the events so it is a Good Thing. This letter is bundled up with a few other bits and pieces (map of the venue, lunch tickets, etc.) and sent to the member of staff. Question: Can we produce address labels to put on the envelopes? (No we can’t use window envelopes.)

Well, no, not easily. The problem is that one member of staff might be performing two, three, four, five or more jobs. For each job they will get one letter but obviously only a single label is required to cover the whole lot. That kills the SITS:Vision label program dead as it’s just too complicated, not to mention the perennial problem with getting the dratted things to line up anyway.

So I resorted to Oracle Reports; not a tool I’m that familiar with, but at least it can work from a SQL query (where it is fairly trivial to select distinct staff members) and produce fairly reliable output. Mind, it is still a bitch to get it to match the stationery, but don’t get me started on that. Someone should show the Oracle developers MS Word mail merge for labels and see them hang their heads for shame.

But my point is I had to work hard at that using IT development skills and specialised tool sets, not to mention SQL. How about a tool where a user can take the output from those letters and say “print me an address label for each member of staff in this set”? Why not? As it is they have to print the letters in one tool (SITS:Vision), then go to another to print the labels. That’s just poor.

The second (as yet unsolved) problem is to print superscript and subscript in thesis titles on awards certificates. That’s going to be some sort of challenge as I’ll have to code it in Postscript. Yech. This is another area where there’s really no excuse for enterprise software being so crap compared to office software like MS Word. Why can’t I print superscipt for crying out loud, without having to resort to asking users to putting HTML-style tags. When was WYSIWYG invented anyway? Twenty years ago? This takes me back to the days of Uniplex. Come on Uniface, pull yourselves together. And while you’re at it why not make it possible to print page headers and footers like every other report writer has been able to do since the year dot.

So much seems to change so fast and yet we’re still struggling with these basic issues I came across when I first started work. Plus ca change, plus ca meme choses, as they say on the continent.

I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” again, and it seemed apposite that he was writing about how, as more and more stuff happens in physics, there’s less and less that one individual can comprehend and hope to master. It certainly feels like the same is true of IT, and it will probably keep going that way for the foreseeable future.

Was it Einstein that said that we start off knowing nothing about anything, then learn more and more about less and less until we finally know everything about nothing. Sure feels like that sometimes.

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