Business Information Systems

Second edition

by Paul Beynon-Davies

Case study 2 – Peter

Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m 24 and I’ve just completed my degree in Business IT at Kingston University. I’m about to begin my place on a graduate training scheme at Morgan Stanley.

That sounds impressive... tell us a bit about the job at Morgan Stanley
My place is on a graduate training scheme in the technology department. To begin with they are sending me on a 15-week training course in New York! Then I’ll be taking up a job in the UK, which they’ll place me in at the end of the training course.

Selection for the scheme was pretty competitive. We had to take part in a 2-day assessment centre, from which they picked 60 people for the scheme. I think we’re going to be assessed during our training in the States too – I heard that if we don’t come up to scratch we might get kicked out …

How about the work placement you did as part of your degree? Who did you work for?
I spent 12 months working as an IT analyst for Oracle, based in Reading. Oracle provides technology like databases, applications and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems to help businesses manage their information and systems.

I worked for the team supporting Oracle’s own internal HR computer system. It was a huge relational SQL database which stored all staff information for the entire company – details like addresses, job history, reporting lines, salaries and so on. In fact, the HR database was only one part of Oracle’s ERP system which stored all of the company’s business information – sales, accounts etc. The entire business runs from that system. All the employees have front-end access. I had back-end access – basically I was troubleshooting problems with the system, and also trying to find ways to improve it by adding extra functionality.

The Oracle offices were on a huge business park which was also home to Microsoft and HP. Oracle themselves occupied five buildings. There must have been at least 1500 people working for the company on that site.

What was an average day at the office like?
Official working hours were 9-5.30, though often I turned up at 9.30 and left at 6.00 – they were pretty flexible. Occasionally, if I was working on a big project, I might stay quite late – even to 9pm once or twice.

My desk was in a big open-plan office. There was a canteen on the site with great food, though sometimes, when I was really busy, I ended up eating at my desk. The business park was close to the Thames and in the summer we went on canoeing trips and even got company-subsidised golf lessons!

My department was actually split over five continents so I was constantly communicating with colleagues all over the world. Sometimes this would be by phone and conference calls, but more often by email or instant messaging so that we all had a written record of what we’d discussed.

The rest of the time I spent at my computer. Part of my job was to deal with queries and problems that had been passed to me by the helpdesk because they couldn’t solve them. The rest of the time, I was trying to develop and improve the system by talking to the end users about their requirements, then trying to find a way of meeting them by talking with colleagues in other departments and checking internal documents and specs. More often than not, I would figure out the solutions by logical thinking rather than by using any particular technical expertise.

Is there anything that surprised you about the world of work?
Yes, quite a lot! Particularly that there is so much non-technical work involved, even in a fairly technical job like the one I was doing. It seemed to take an awful lot of emails to solve a really simple problem. And there was so much bureaucracy, and processes to be followed. I’m sure they had all been set up for a good reason but sometimes it felt as though they were a hindrance rather than a help – almost like we were slaves to our own systems!

I was also quite surprised by how specialised my IT colleagues were. I expected them to have an all-round knowledge of technical issues whereas in fact they didn’t – though they were experts in the one particular thing their job related to.

And I was surprised by the effect that spending all day at a desk looking at a computer screen had on me. I found that when I went home in the evenings I just couldn’t bring myself even to check my emails. Normally I like to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the technical world, but I found I just didn’t have the appetite when I was spending all day on it!

How has your knowledge of information systems helped you in your job?
Obviously I used a lot of Excel and Word. I used Excel in quite advanced ways. In fact, Oracle sent me on a one-day training course to help with this.

I learned a lot of good information systems practice at university, which gave me a solid grounding. It was interesting to see the differences in priorities between what we were told at university and what happens in business. For example, at university I was taught that databases should prioritise data integrity, whereas in business, performance is the main goal.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known as an information systems student?
Basically what I learned at university gave me a really good basis for my placement. To be perfectly honest, what was expected of me at Oracle was pretty well within my existing knowledge base.

The only thing I didn’t know about was Oracle’s individual ERP system, and they sent me on a two-week training course to help with that. I certainly wouldn’t expect a university degree to tell me about Oracle’s bespoke ERP system, but one thing I would have liked to have known more about before starting the placement was the idea of ERP systems in general. They are so crucial to how companies work and I would have liked to have understood a bit more about the flow of information between, for example, the sales and financial parts of these types of system.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?
The thing I found most challenging was when my colleagues were away and I had to cover for them. Sometimes I was the sole point of contact for HR systems support in the entire European timezone. Since the problems that came up were completely unpredictable, it was hard to prepare for the situations I’d have to deal with.

As well as the more technical challenges, communication was also quite an important issue. Basically I had to liaise between the non-technical business users and some pretty hardcore developers – and try to find ways to explain things to both groups and make them understand each other. It was sometimes difficult to explain to the end users why some particular request they had made could not be accommodated.

And also, I found conference calls a bit tricky to begin with. I found it hard to gauge when to speak and when to keep quiet. But I got used to it, and in some of the project calls I got really involved.

What do you like best about your job?
I enjoyed the feeling of satisfaction I got when I’d successfully dealt with a problem, and also building up really productive relationships with colleagues across the world, a number of whom I’m still in touch with.

I think the most rewarding experience was when I was asked to spend three weeks getting to know and understand a new system that no-one else on the team had yet used. At the end of the project I had to give a 2½-hour training session via internet linkup to my colleagues. It was pretty nerve-wracking but it went really well and I was very proud of having done it.