Retooling Software

Object repository

Start-ups in the NeXT community have always looked to raise the bar in computing, but the Object Technology Center (OTC) has set its sights even higher: to prove to corporations that NEXTSTEP development can change the very way they do business. And corporate executives seem to be listening the OTC is currently working with engineers at such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Houston-based gas trader Enron Oil, Trading & Transportation, among others, as well as getting calls from business leaders all over the country.

"Object-oriented technology forces people to communicate with each other because the basic building blocks of computing objects message each other," says Vince Jordan, vice-president of technology for the object technology group of Systemhouse, the $700-million-a-year Canadian integrator that opened the OTC based on its work developing systems solutions for NEXTSTEP customers over the past two years.

Systemhouse had long-standing experience as a UNIX integrator when it entered the NeXT market. Like most consultants, the firm's programmers went about assessing a client's computing needs and writing code to fulfill those needs. But as their expertise with NEXTSTEP improved, they saw how true object-oriented development could support more than end-user productivity: If software could be built along an object-oriented paradigm, then businesses could be modeled the same way. And with the very nature of competition in the global marketplace forcing corporations to find new ways to stay aggressive, NEXTSTEP was the logical tool to refocus businesses on operational productivity.

"Change happens so quickly these days that users can't even anticipate it," says Jim Burns, Systemhouse president. "What's needed is a new paradigm with the flexibility and ability to respond to different competition."

Along with Systemhouse object technology Vice President John Coyne and systems integration object consulting group Director Gregory Clemens, Burns conceived of a new type of consulting, based on "mentoring," which would allow the integrators to actually integrate software development into the corporate environment. Development teams would comprise Systemhouse integrators, corporate developers, department heads, and end users. Technology would become a part of every business unit. MIS departments would deliver custom apps with good interfaces and support for end-user needs. Third-party integrators would deliver custom apps that people in the company could understand. UNIX training would be performed within the specific business environment and capitalize on, rather than avoid, all the variables found in that environment.

While Systemhouse was formulating its plans, Jordan was in the trenches at Williams Telecommunications in The Woodlands, Texas. After two years as head of software development, he had just about the most experience of anyone in working objects into a large project and at the same time changing the corporate culture in which he worked. Jordan sums up the philosophy behind the OTC simply: "We want to teach businesses how to fish rather than give them a fish."

An avid outdoorsman and motorcyclist, Jordan likes to stare out at the Flatiron Mountains, which surround the OTC's Boulder, Colorado office. That view has inspired the OTC staff to keep their sights high, he says, and to always look beyond. Keeping that in mind, the OTC will be organized as a virtual corporation, with offices located wherever corporate partners (as they are called) are working on development projects. OTC staffers with expertise in specific business areas could work on a project from any office, using distributed-object and telecommunications technology, sharing and building upon objects from other projects.

The heart of the OTC is the Central Object Respository, which resides in Boulder. Corporate partners and sponsors are allowed access and encouraged to share the nonproprietary chunks of code in their software, but participation is not mandatory. Along with corporate participation, Systemhouse is hoping to help standardize and promote the ObjectWare market. "We're going to be selling, licensing, and collaborating on objects on behalf of all kinds of developers," Burns says. "We'll be working out royalty payments, or technology trades, all to facilitate building a larger repository."

Systemhouse executives have met with skepticism at some corporations, but they're seeing new business trends that give them hope of success. "Object orientation is difficult to sell now, but it'll be easy in ten years. For example, younger executives are getting into positions of power. The older guys were brought up in a different business environment, where the technology marketplace was so huge that no one could have it all. We can't give anybody everything, but we can provide intellectual leadership," Jordan says.

Johnson & Johnson's Clinical Outcome Database System is a case in point. J&J has long been a leader in health care but wasn't able to get enough solid medical interest in its orthopedic products, including replacement hips and shoulders. Working with common interface objects from NEXTSTEP, third-party objects, and database objects developed for other projects, developers at the OTC have fashioned the first system to track orthopedic patients, complete with written records, pharmaceutical notes, and X-rays, over several years.

Executives at giant corporations aren't known for moving quickly, but J&J execs immediately pushed the app into four beta sites, where research with its orthopedic equipment will be conducted and the results published in medical journals. Ten sites should be using the app by year-end. Engineers and OTC staff are currently planning how to reuse objects and development methodologies from the clinical-database project in other areas of J&J's business. In the meantime, all nonproprietary work is available for the OTC's work with other firms.

The OTC staff is keeping its sights high. They're looking at how to reuse the objects in other projects, to change how software is developed in financial services. And gas trading. And telecommunications. And . . .

by Eliot Bergson