SunGard, TIAA-CREF IT Slammed by Developers

 
 
By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 2007-08-17
 
 
 
Its no secret that TIAA-CREF has had issues in the past with the upgrade of its financial services systems, a major multiyear project initiated from the top down that has included the implementation of a new financial services platform from software services provider SunGard.

Whats not known is that TIAA-CREFs IT woes can be partly attributed to SunGard itself, according to sources close to the company.

Interviews conducted by eWEEK with SunGard developers earlier in 2007 suggest that the problems go beyond TIAA-CREFs borders and began in the software development process at SunGard.

"I am a former software developer with SunGard. I worked very closely with the management and developers responsible for a key component of TIAAs new IT system," said a developer who spoke with eWEEK on condition of anonymity. "Lets just say this project is one of the worst examples of bad management and software development [and] coding principals I have ever encountered. I feel sorry for TIAAs customers."

When asked if he thought any of TIAA-CREFs IT issues are the direct result of coding and personnel problems at SunGard, TIAA-CREF spokesperson Chad Peterson referred to a company statement: "We have more work to do but we are making progress."

Officials of SunGard, based in Wayne, Penn., were not available for comment at press time.

With $4 billion in annual sales, SunGard is a global provider of software development services for the worlds 50 largest financial institutions, as well as 1,600 colleges and universities, according to the companys Web site.

Well-qualified

With a Bachelors degree in Computer Science in hand, one developer who spoke with eWEEK started work at SunGard in January 2002, eventually moving into the PowerImage group that was, as of February, still taking a client/server version of workflow and document management software and rewriting it in Java for TIAA-CREF.

The developer pointed out that PowerImage is a small piece of the software puzzle and is a precursor to the current product. But because its the workflow piece that integrates with Omni, TIAA-CREFs transaction engine, its a key piece of the puzzle. As sources revealed to eWEEK in 2006, many of the companys processing issues at the time stemmed from the workflow software. Some of those issues, developers say, are a result of faulty software from SunGard.

"If you have a good software product that helps out a lot," said the developer. "From what I saw on the software side, with processes and with people in charge, I cannot imagine that it would have been a success [at TIAA-CREF]. When you integrate systems and implement them, it has to be of quality. [TIAA-CREFs] software smacks of testing pressure. This code wasnt ready to go to into QA. I would definitely back that up. PowerImage had problems to start with."

The coding issues involving PowerImage—and SunGards overall software development for TIAA-CREF—are in some ways subtle and influenced by factors like cultural issues with offshore development and a tremendous turnover in IT. In other ways, according to the developer, SunGards problems with TIAA-CREFs software are very concrete and boil down to bad coding principals.

"I got physically dragged into the architects office and cussed out because I did something that 99 percent of developers do: I did a database join to get one trip to the database," the developer said. "The architect called me out. He said [joins] were too slow. How can you write an enterprise system and not do any joins?"

Click here to read more about IT issues at TIAA-CREF.

The developer said the initial code for the workflow system is monolithic and unchangeable, to the point where one change would cascade and "just keep breaking stuff." Those issues were rolled over to TIAA-CREF, he said. For example, the original client/server PowerImage software connected to an Oracle database, but because TIAA-CREF wanted the software to be Web-based, SunGard built a J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition) wrapper around what was already done in the Oracle database.

"Those rules are still the same—its just a Java front end," the developer said. "If most of your business logic is in the database and the only thing you did was put a new front end on it, those bugs are going to continue. We took a product that was already a pretty bad product [and wrapped it in J2EE]. Its like putting lipstick on a pig. The implications are that a lot of problems got carried over" to TIAA-CREF.

Communication breakdown

Another former SunGard developer who also agreed to speak with eWEEK on conditions of anonymity agreed that there are development issues, to be sure, but those are compounded by communication problems.

"Workflow is synchronized with Omni. The managers are supposed to get together to talk about what changes theyre making and what [changes] were making to make sure it works. In reality, thats not working," said the second developer in a February interview with eWEEK. "We had a fairly major issue come up [which was] that Omni made a change to the way they process [transactions] and it broke our integration with them. They sent out a letter to customers, but they didnt tell us. When people started upgrading, our pieces broke. We had to find out after the fact to get the fix in. And the change they made took out some functionality we put in."

The Omni group is also responsible for a rapid turn around in releases to TIAA-CREF, according to the second developer. "I did hear they are having some real issues with some of their code also," he said. "Ive been on calls where they have issues—their call would last an hour, ours would last 8 minutes."

Part of the problem at SunGard, according to both developers, is that there is a high turnover in IT, leading to a lack of in-depth knowledge about the software. The turnover is in part because of the aggressive development timetable set by TIAA-CREF, including three or four major releases per year with smaller releases in between. But problems also stem from SunGards decision to move some TIAA-CREF development offshore, primarily to India, the developers said, adding that the outsourced development has led to cultural clashes and ultimately coding difficulties.

"If I send something to India it would come back and be written perfectly. But when youre talking about financial software functions that have to be aligned with a business, thats a different world," said one of the former SunGard developers. "The offshore developers, a lot of them are smarter than a lot of developers here, but they dont understand financial transactions. They just dont understand the complex business language thats specific to a business. And communicating that gets lost."

There are also cultural differences in software development, according to both developers.

"From my perspective, whenever we have to work with Indian developers, they are good at debugging code or fixing, but when theyre asked to do something thats not written in a textbook, they have a harder time," the second developer said. "I personally feel like developing code is a lot like being an artist. There is a problem and a solution, but a lot of the times the solution is not in a textbook. You are going to have to come up with something yourself…..culturally [maybe] Indians have not been taught to be independent thinkers."

The communication issues with offshore developers were compounded by a lack of experienced staff, according to the first developer, who said that at the time he worked on the PowerImage project there were only two people that had been with SunGard for any length of time—the architect and one developer. "There is one support guy thats been at SunGard since 2004. Hes the most senior support guy. Turnover is astronomical."

Both developers who spoke with eWEEK had moved on voluntarily to more stable companies—ones, they said, that did not appear to embrace the offshore development model.

"Companies will come in and get really excited [thinking] they can save money by sending development to India. The first year they save but they find the quality of code is not as good, so it takes more time because it has to be moved back here and rewritten, retested," said the second SunGard developer. "SunGard is going to push to India. They want to drive down cost as much as possible and they will keep India as long as they possibly can. A lot of things that are starting to happen as [SunGard] goes to India. And because of the communication gap its going to get worse before it gets better."

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