Setting workplace rosters is a major challenge, so why can't technology help more? Lifehacker Australia chats with James Eling , the winner of our recent My Concept Rules competition with Time 2 Roster, about how rostering issues can be handled with cloud technology.
In his day job managing Victorian IT management firm Extreme Networks, Eling had seen a gradual shift from providing services to developing customised applications suited for small to medium business (SMB) customers. It was one of those businesses that first made him realise that rostering was a big challenge for many employers.
"We had a customer who works in non-emergency patient transit," Eling explained. "We've been working with them on an entire line of business overhaul, getting rid of inefficiencies. A component of that was rostering. They had very specific rostering needs and that's why they didn't buy an off-the-shelf application and we created something for them. It opened our eyes to the pain involved in building the roster."
"Then one of our developers said 'if we took out all the specialised bits, it could be a good little app for small businesses'. That idea hung around for about a year and we spoke to some customers. We found one with 120 employees where two full-time people were just doing the roster and nothing else."
In many cases, businesses either rely on pen and paper or constructed elaborate spreadsheets to try and handle rostering challenges. It's also a job that no-one wants to take on.
" No-one says 'great, I'm doing the rosters today!' In health care, it's one of the deterrents in moving up the career ladder," Eling said. "One of the roles you get when you move higher up is handling the roster. You either do it well and suddenly that's your job rather than what you trained for, or you don't do it well and you're in everyone's bad books. Who wants that kind of choice?"
The vision became to build a simple rostering system that could be managed using wizards rather than requiring endless tweaking. "We analysed what a roster is and the key components and built it around that concept." From that analysis the concept of Time 2 Roster was born.
It was only relatively late in the planning stages that cloud technology entered the picture. "It was pretty late in the process when we decided to code it," Elling said. "We spent a long time drawing on butchers' paper and working through things."
"Then we sat down and said 'How are we going to build it?' Our default was to get some hosting companies and a couple of servers. And then we thought 'we're selling ourselves short if it's built for Australia only'. If you've got US servers, you get a shoddy experience in Australia, and vice versa. I didn't want servers spread out across the world with all of the intricacies involved. It sounded way too complicated. So we started looking at cloud tech and took the path of least resistance."
As an existing Microsoft shop, looking to Windows Azure was an obvious choice. "Our developers started playing with it and it just sort of happened," Eling said. "But it's been the best decision that we've made -- there's no need to have long technical conversations about issues we shouldn't have to worry about. Like redundancy and availability, they're givens that you have to provide but they don't provide any value to the customer in themselves. You just need them."
Much of the Time 2 Roster interface is built in Silverlight, which also made Azure an appealing platform. However, the ability to easily scale up is the single most important factor.
"The big thing is that we can make sure that we're scaling this application for all of the growth that we hope to be able to drive with it," Eling said. That was one of the major incentives for entering the My Concept Rules contest, since the consulting offered as part of the project can help ensure that the application has been built in a way that will easily expanded into new user bases.
A number of existing Extreme Networks customers are beta testing the platform now, and Eling anticipates a wider rollout within "a couple of months". We're looking forward to seeing the finished product! In the meantime, if you've got any thoughts of your own about how rostering could be improved with technology, share them in the comments.
Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.