Inflated figures and customers who were never there. Just another data migration then

Well, this is awkward

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Who, Me? The Register's Who, Me? column dips a toe into the world of high finance and iffy numbers as a reader realises that freebies aren't always A Good Thing.

"Tom", for that is certainly not his name, was toiling away in the machinery of a large IT consultancy back at the start of the century, dealing with data migration and specialising in SAP systems.

"The company's Random Project Allocator™ assigned me to a project at an internet provider," he told us. For the purposes of this story, and for reasons that will become very clear, we're going to call them "NaughtyCo".

"The project," Tom went on, "was to design, build, test, and install a new non-SAP-based billing and customer service system."

A classic "large IT consultancy" project for sure, although this was the first time Tom and his team had laid hands on it. Another company had had an earlier crack at it, but the inevitable balls-up had resulted in a pulled go-live date.

"We had been called in to sort out the testing and data migration to get it over the line," he explained. The heroes of the hour.

Tom was tasked with leading the data migration, performing a trial cutover to make sure things would work, and then pressing the big red button for the production environment. The data would then be reconciled.

Those expecting the usual oopsie involving mixing up test and production can relax. This wasn't Tom's first rodeo. He did, however, find something decidedly whiffy in NaughtyCo's data.

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Having worked out what the migration involved, Tom was dismayed to find that the previous effort was a mess of manual workarounds and what he charitably called "Excel-based wizardry" lurking behind the scenes. It was little wonder that things had been halted, and he and his team set about picking up the pieces.

It took a while, but eventually trials of the migration could be run. Tom produced a weekly report for management showing how many customers his system has successfully moved across, and how many had failed. The total came to several hundred thousand.

Unfortunately, Tom's total was light by tens of thousands, according to a worried project manager. His figures must be wrong.

The customer count was significant since it was reported to the stock exchange and affected the value of the company. Perplexed, Tom went back to look at his figures in search of the missing customers.

"I checked the numbers and came to some interesting conclusions," he said.

"Depending on your point of view we were both right. My figures represented the number of customers that paid money to NaughtyCo; the figure my boss was using represented the number of internet accounts. The difference was a surprisingly large number of staff accounts, test accounts, free accounts and inactive accounts."

Well, this was a bit awkward. Feeding false information to the stock exchange smells a bit like fraud. Fortunately for Tom, "I had exposed the situation and not caused it."

His boss was not happy and swore him to secrecy while she headed upstairs to discuss matters with the bigger bosses.

A plan was hatched. The company would spend the next few months gradually aligning the numbers reported to the stock exchange to match reality, but carefully so as to avoid frightening the horses. The tens of thousands of mystery accounts were shown the sharp end of the axe in the meantime.

As for Tom, "when we cutover to production the migration went smoothly and there were no more surprises regarding the number of customers.

"It just goes to prove the old adage that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

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