September 22, 2009

Trains, Carbon Copies, and Your Competition

On a recent family road trip through California and Oregon, we lost track of time and then found it hard to find a restaurant that was open after 8 pm. While driving around town, we ended up at a train depot just as a long and slow-moving freight train was rumbling by. The depot was a combination Amtrak station and a freight railroad support location with offices, staff and rows of railcars waiting to be moved to their destinations. We were hungry, a little bit lost and tired from a long day of traveling and wildlife watching, but my five-year-old son was especially enthralled and wanted to watch for a bit. So we did.

We waited for the train pass in the last light of the evening, well after the sun had set, with the string of lead engines impressively shaking the ground and the following cars clanging by. To our surprise, the train stopped just as a locomotive pushing from behind stood opposite the depot. Three people came out of their offices and started to work on uncoupling the engine from the back of the train. My son was very interested and vocal about watching – you know how young kids can be vocal – and to my initial dismay, he attracted the attention of the three guys working on the train. I thought “uh oh”…

We were surprised again when we were invited to come watch up close. Our host walked us to the front of the locomotive, we greeted the other guys and he invited us to climb the stairs. Pretty cool. We keep on going, next through the crew door and up more stairs to the inside of the operator’s cab. Even cooler. My son got to sit on the left seat, turn the main headlights on and off , honk the train’s horn then watch the crew change a switch on the track and move the locomotive off to a siding, much to everyone’s delight. The crew were super friendly and pleased to explain how their impressive machine worked.

Afterwards, we accompanied the depot manager to his office, got a few souvenirs and got ready to say goodbye. One of the engineers came in and the manager briefly switched his attention to business. Before leaving, they filled out some forms and signed them. I noted with interest that the forms were carbon copies, not forms on the Web or on a handheld device. The last one was peeled off the back and handed to the engineer. “Goodnight, have a safe drive home.” We said our good byes too and headed back to our car. Our excitement during the last hour masked our increasing hunger and now we scrounged some snacks in the car to keep us going.

I started to wonder how the railroad worked, how they handled crews signing in and out, how they scheduled people and freight and what their IT infrastructure looked like. Could it be improved? Could Waverley help a large industrial company figure out how to be not just as good as the rest but to rise above the competition through IT? Could we apply our skills in designing and rolling out complex multi-part applications from concept to final production to help such a company? How many other companies needed expert guidance to really rise to the top of their market segment?

We’ve been working on several large projects that remind me of our experience in the train yard. I know it’s possible to do a great job partnering with our clients to not just build the product but define it: making sure what we define and build meets clear objectives. And we know that focusing on delivering value is critical – this means doing the work in a timely manner and focusing on top priorities first. It means involving all stake holders and constantly evaluating and reducing risk.