April 9, 2008

Concerns Linger After Relaunch of CoursEnroll

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CoursEnroll went back up yesterday afternoon to the applause of those who were unable to enroll in classes on Monday. But while the commotion may have only been temporary, PeopleSoft — the recently installed replacement for Just the Facts — has a long and storied history of what many claim to be sub par software.
In Jan. 2004, Ohio’s attorney general, Jim Petro, filed a lawsuit against PeopleSoft, seeking $510 million in damages. Petro charged the company with fraud, breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation among other counts, stemming from a faulty installation of the software at Cleveland State University.
The Chronicle of Higher Education had written about Cleveland State four years earlier: “Officials say the too-frequent glitches in processing financial-aid and student records using PeopleSoft’s ‘beta’ software have frustrated students and hurt faculty and staff morale.”
Similarly frustrating problems arose in 1999 with seven of the Big Ten schools, causing them to write a letter to Craig Conway, then president of PeopleSoft.
The letter said, “Software quality is [a] major problem. There are too many bugs and patches breaking other parts of the system. Packaging, new releases and fixes are not well tested and poorly deployed. Documentation is inadequate or non-existent. We are spending an enormous amount of time and money simply getting the software ready to work at our schools.”
David Yeh, assistant vice president for student and academic activities and project leader for the PeopleSoft implementation, maintains that the software has been updated since these issues occurred a few years ago.
“I think that you have to take a look at how the software was implemented over the years,” Yeh said. “At the moment, we’ve implemented a more mature product. It’s an extremely complicated system. There are so many minor decisions that have to be made and we’ve benefited from the impact of other schools’ [problems].”
However, Devin Kennedy ’09, software engineer and creator of the Facebook group “Cornell must be held accountable for PeopleSoft issues,” believes that the software still contains archaic programming, one of the main reasons the software went down yesterday.
“The COBOL error message that many students received shows that it’s an old programming language they’re using,” Kennedy said. “There’s a lot of old stuff that hasn’t changed. Any software engineer would agree.”
Others have also agreed that there are problems with the current PeopleSoft. Jay Searson, CEO of Schedulizer Inc., a site that many students use to organize their schedules, called PeopleSoft, “an abomination of web programming.”
Another issue that has arisen in the last few days is transparency from the administration relating to PeopleSoft issues. Although the University has sent out three e-mails since PeopleSoft malfunctioned, some complain that the information the administration has provided has been too vague.
“The process and decisions haven’t been transparent,” Kennedy said. “The University of Wisconsin at Madison has had issues with PeopleSoft also, but their school was very open about it.” Kennedy noted that U. Wisconsin posted meeting minutes about resolving the issues.
In his Facebook group, Kennedy urged students to “take it upon ourselves to hold the University accountable for this decision and for its poorly-executed implementation.”
Another issue of transparency relates to the unclear connection between the University’s decision to use PeopleSoft and PeopleSoft creator David Duffield ’62, for whom Duffield Hall is named. Duffield donated $20 million to help fund the building and an additional $15 million to support its maintenance and operations. On the third floor of the building outside one of the labs sits a plaque with the PeopleSoft logo.
In response to questions about the decision to go with PeopleSoft, Yeh said that it was the only program that met the needs for such a large university.
“Frankly PeopleSoft was — and still is — able to provide the flexibility to meet the requirements that we needed … There is no other program that can support out business,” he said.
Other large schools like Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Indiana have all had problems with the software in the past, but continue to use PeopleSoft, according to Yeh.
“That was in 1995 and 1996 when they implemented the first couple versions,” he said. “At that time, the software was not ready to be used … We are all on the same version of the software now.”
Yeh alleges that the problems with the coding — which Oracle, the company that now owns PeopleSoft, discovered last month — have been fixed. He does not expect further problems with the software.