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SOA helps give returning vets a chance to find work

SOA helps give returning vets a chance to find work

Hire a Hero is a small company with a big mission. It aims to help service members leaving the military make a smooth transition to civilian life by connecting them with potential employers using Web 2.0 social networking tools. After some fits and starts, the company found that a solution built on service-oriented architecture (SOA) enabled it to achieve its goals at a low cost. What's more, because of its nonprofit status, in some cases, the vendors donated the services for free.

When Hire a Hero started a couple of years ago, it had visions of building its own system, but after burning through a couple of hundred grand, Brac Selph, executive director, says he knew that if his company was going to survive, it needed to find a new plan that involved working with existing services, rather than trying to build its own solution.

Developing a New Strategy

The new approach began to develop last January when Selph realized he needed to find a less-expensive technology strategy. Throughout the winter and spring of this year, he cobbled together a solution that involved three companies: two software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors and a data integration tool to act as a bridge between the two systems.

The first piece was Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management tool built on the SaaS model. Hire a Hero had been using Salesforce with its original homegrown system to organize information about employees and potential employers. Salesforce also helped automate many processes by building in business logic normally used for a sales channel. For instance, if members didn't send a résumé, they got an automatic reminder e-mail message. If they hadn't set up an interview, they got a message about connecting them with someone who could help. In addition, Salesforce donated the service at no cost to Hire a Hero.

The next piece was a front-end Web tool, which would enable employers and employees to enter information about themselves into the system and provide social networking functionality. Selph found a company called YourMembership.com, which is also a SaaS vendor. He says that he couldn't believe he could find a tool with 80 percent of the functionality he wanted for just US$500 a month. It also enabled him to get rid of expensive technical staff, saving his company $200,000 a year.

The final and most important piece was finding data integration company XAware to provide a way to get data from YourMembership into Salesforce.

Bringing the Data Together

Selph admits he knew little or nothing about SOA when he started down this road. He only knew he wanted to take advantage of services to save his company money, that he had two systems-and he wanted them to communicate with one another. "I've got to be real frank; I wasn't even aware of the term [SOA], but it certainly fits really well with what we are doing, particularly the idea of connecting various systems to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Selph says.

Soon after going live with YourMembership.com, he ran into problems moving data into Salesforce. "We realized [quickly] that we were doing everything by hand between YourMembership.com and Salesforce.com. It may not sound like much, but it took about an hour a day to download files from YourMembership and upload them to Salesforce," Selph says. In addition, he says, something inevitably went wrong with the transfer, such as incomplete data, wrong dates and records duplication. "There was just a huge potential for error," Selph says. As frustration with the process grew, he began looking for a solution to automate the data exchange.

With only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, Selph began exploring the Salesforce.com App Exchange, looking for a data integration solution. What he found was XAware and a couple of other vendors, but it quickly became apparent that XAware fitted both technologically and culturally. XAware offered an open-source solution that would solve Hire a Hero's technology problem. With a fellow ex-Marine as CEO, XAware also had what Selph calls "an affinity for people in the military." And when he asked about a special nonprofit price, he was pleased to find they would provide the entire solution for free.

Implementing the Entire Solution

With the three pieces in place, Hire a Hero was ready to begin the process of automating the data transfer. But there was a major problem from the get-go, namely the fact that YourMembership lacked an open API, and that meant XAware couldn't communicate directly with it to grab data. The solution involved generating a report manually, something they were hoping to avoid. Despite this, Selph says it still greatly simplified the data transfer and reduced the likelihood of an error during the data exchange. Even without the API, there was just a single file to deal with; and the XAware tool took care of all the difficult bits, such as field mapping, new field creation and duplicate records purging.

Recently, after prodding from its customers, including Hire a Hero, YourMembership has developed an API. Now XAware is working with Hire a Hero to complete the end-to-end data automation process. Selph has big plans for the future, including automating the process of collecting and updating jobs data, something Hire a Hero does manually at the moment, and XAware should scale as they grow and add additional data sources.

Selph advises other organizations undertaking similar projects to look beyond the surface of what a company does. As he points out, Salesforce.com is a CRM vendor, yet his company found ways to take advantage of its services, while YourMembership is typically used by alumni groups. "Be creative because the [SaaS vendor] may market themselves as one thing, but they could fit your [other] needs just as well." As Selph says, he's not managing a sales process or an alumni group, but he could look beyond this to see how these services apply to the needs of his organization and found a way to connect them.

A service-oriented architecture enabled a small four-person company with a huge job to build its business and communicate across different data sources. They may be small, but the lessons they learned about using a services model could apply to any organization trying to find ways to increase efficiency and cut costs.

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