Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An Eight in a Million chance

This is a real story involving consultants, interns and MS Access.

A very long time ago, as a student - that was a long time ago - I worked my summers at British Telecom.  They had this lovely big sprawling labs at Martlesham Heath.

BT was itself a pretty big sprawling company and projects moved glacially.  Out of this grew a  small internal team called ‘FastTrack’ who cut corners and implemented stop-gap IT projects while the actual project was being worked on.  I think that was the idea.  It seemed we were often doing projects that were just too small for the main IT process and that we were the cowboys.

One of the mentors that I worked particularly closely with was an old hippy called Simon.  He was a really nice bloke and we got along extremely well.  He was not a trained coder; he somehow got into coding by solving little computer problems for people.  His tool for this was Microsoft Excel.  And his trick was encoding information and state into all the attributes you might have in a cell such as colour and border and font and such!  That’s the kind of self-taught hacking that can land you a job at a research lab in Suffolk in those days :)  It reminds me of the story of Mel.

Simon had an especially striking appearance; he was a genuine hippy with long straggly hair and a long nail that he chiseled to a flat tip that he called his screwdriver nail.  He was so thin he was was skeletal and he smoked roll-ups.  Oh, and he wore a three piece suit.  Striking.  He would often clean under his nails with a large lock knife.

I remember him sitting on the top deck of a red London bus in his three piece suit cleaning his nails and telling me tales of a rough childhood in London.  The bus took a sudden turn and he dropped this massive lock knife which hit the floor point first and stuck there in the aisle twanging menacingly.  I turned around just in time to see the last of our fellow passengers evacuating down the stairs.  I felt like a gangster :)  So why was I in London with Simon?  Lets get to that:

Far away in the Angel, Islington, was the division of BT that sold satellite telephony.  The customers were mostly ships although there were some journalists in far-away war-zones and such.  The main satellite provider was called Inmarsat.

At this time the mobile phones were just beginning to appear; I didn’t have a mobile phone, almost nobody did, but I had seen one and everyone knew they were going to be big.  Big for BT too.  But bad news for satellite divisions.

The boss of the satellite division in Angel became convinced that the phone bill from the provider, Inmarsat, was wrong.  He just had to prove that Inmarsat were overcharging and he could get them to pay back all the overcharging that had accumulated for years and he’d be famous and save the division and such.  At least that’s how I remember it, getting the rumour second hand as I did.

So he brought in his golfing buddy who happened to be a partner at KPMG.  And KPMG put a team on it, looking for proof of overcharging.

The KPMG team were experts in meetings and agendas and report writing, but not actually technical.  A couple of very sharp business analysts, particularly a chap called Rory, took the project on.

Now this is where Simon and I came in.  BT provided the engineers to crunch the data and give the KPMG team answers to the questions they posed.  BT of course had to find coders in a hurry, and turned to FastTrack.  FastTrack didn’t have many people to spare on such a tiny project so lent out an intern called Will and a chap called Simon to keep an eye on Will.  We stayed at Simon’s mum’s town house on Baker Street as she was off motorcycling around Vietnam.  Everything about Simon was striking.

There were three sets of itemised phone bills (call data records, CDRs, they were called).  Inmarsat sent them every month.  The ground station - a massive dish in Goonhilly, Cornwall - had a Sybase database (how do I remember this stuff?) that recorded the calls as it saw them, and a BT billing system called Compass in some dungeon in London took those CDRs and billed the customers.

BT had at least 30 different billing systems - divisions commissioned their own ones for each and every new product line I think.

When the satellite system was commissioned it really wasn’t feasible, or at least practical, to actually check these three sets of CDRs agreed with each other.

But by the mid nineties when this story takes place it was just within reach of a undergrad to reconcile one day at a time using Microsoft Access.  To this end Simon and I were given the meanest PCs of the time; Pentium Pros at about 200MHz with 384MB of RAM or so.

These CDRs were full of curious quirks.  Inmarsat was measuring slightly different things and from slightly different timing to Goonhilly.  And the clocks were not in sync, and they drifted slightly.  If a call spanned midnight it might get split into two in one system but remain as one CDR in another.  Not all calls actually connected successfully.  And so on.

The traffic was in different classes based on the age of the system.  The most traffic was ‘A’ and that was the oldest system and Simon took that.  He had to put each day’s traffic in a separate database and then make a database that had each day’s data as a remote table.

I took the other traffic which was B and I think M or something and together they didn’t add up to as much traffic as A but was a bit more of a tangle.

There were fun error codes to decipher like the one called “cable unwind”.  Apparently when you have a dish on a ship the dish is constantly turning to face the satellite.  When the ship goes round in circles, the dish eventually ties itself in knots and has to drop calls and literally unwind.

I was pretty uncomfortable when I found that mayday calls were being charged at the highest rate - £8 per minute if I recall correctly - even though Inmarsat itself explicitly carried those calls for free.  I remember the manager I asked about that, when I found those calls in real logs, not meeting my eyes as he talked distantly about why that was.

Having no formal clue how to solve the reconciliation problem we tackled it by elimination.  Some CDRs were easy to match.  Matching them eliminated some ambiguity and after that it was multiple passes of guessing and aligning until we got a best fit.

It took a couple of days (the code was all VB in Access 2, remember) to sort a single day’s traffic.  Then we got it down to hours.  I remember clearly when we were ready for the first real run on a whole month.  Simon arranged for the script to open Netscape Navigator Gold on a special webpage that would send an SMS to his phone when the job was finished.  The web, and SMS, were not yet mainstream.  I was tingling with excitement.

Estimating from dry runs that it would take until the next afternoon, Simon and I went across the road to the pub and waited it out until, on the second day of our pool table vigil, our game was interrupted by an SMS on his phone.  It was the first SMS I had ever seen.  It was just a single number; 8.  Was it an error code?  Had the reconciliation worked?

Meanwhile KPMG had a whole side thing going; from being asked to analyse the business they ‘grew the engagement' to replacing the billing system that had not yet been reconciled but was presumed broken.  They pointed out that BT's billing system Compass was antiquated.  KPMG had a partnership with this Israeli billing company called AmDocs, so whilst the reconciliation project was still underway a whole cubicle row filled up with AmDocs programmers consulting.

As we settled in to Angel, despite Simon and me sticking out, we became the go-to people for IT problems.  I remember for example some manager taking me aside one day to quiz me about whether FastTrack could build a mini billing system for some new upcoming satellite constellation from Motorola called Iridium.  Despite being an intern I was talking for FastTrack but I could smell that there wasn’t anything for us in this.  One of the KPMG analysts paused in passing and I knowingly let him start selling KPMG consulting on that too and so grew the engagement…  He could buy me a beer later.

Then came the shock.  KPMG turned up with boxes of bound reports on a sack barrow, which they started handing out to all the managers.  I was never given a copy ;)

The temperature in Angel changed very suddenly; the rumour was that KPMG had presented their bill for one million quid for the two KPMG analysts reconciliation.  Pounds sterling, that is.  A lot of money.  And presumably the replacing of Compass was going to cost a whole massive wad more.

And that SMSed result?  Each month, Inmarsat were underbilling BT by roughly eight dollars; they rounded down, and BT rounded up.  8 dollars.

The fallout was massive; I think the BT satellite division boss got the chop, and I’m fairly certain the whole division with its new AmDocs billing solution was sold off to Rogers Telecom in Canada.  Or something like that.

I knew I wanted to be a consultant when I grew up ;)

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