A Teaching Moment

To my everlasting surprise, somebody made it far enough through some of my course notes to understand what on earth I was going on about.

I was forwarded a link to a real life implementation of xml. Actual examples are always nice to think through the implications of the theory.

But be forewarned, ye hapless Web denizens, this is a discussion not fit for all. Formatting reports for transferring retirement-related employee data among federal agencies. Has quite the ring to it, non?

Here’s the question: why and how do people use these tools?

The purpose of all this nonsense is to get machine readable data into the mothership system. Surely they’re choking on the fedex bills and warehouses of paper files. It’s the friggen 21st century after all.

XML does give you machine readable data. And it has this other benefit: it doesn’t really matter how you create it. Each government agency could format a report out of a sophisticated relational database or pay a legion of underemployed construction workers to handcode a text file. Either works as long as the format checks out.

So XML just plugs into your existing system (even if it’s a system of handwritten forms and carbon copies). Database systems are not quite so forgiving. You need a “new system”, in the most horrible, time/cost draining meaning of the term.

In this case, I’d speculate that the xml format is considered an early first step. It’s hardly feasible to lay the redundant paper-form jockeys off any time soon. Unions will make sure of that. But having a continuous corporate structure holds you back, too.

In more lightly-regulated process-heavy industries, most companies were either acquired or driven out of business before the haggard survivors finally completed their metamorphosis, which is actually never really complete. Google ‘COBOL programming language’ for an taste of the eternal duel against legacy software. And paper files?! Machines barely even read that crap. Try finding (with your computer!) any reliable data collected before 2000 (ie the dawn of machine history). Oh, you found some? Well, hide your grandkids, ’cause that shit was INPUTTED BY HAND!

Anyway, back to Uncle Sam’s pension files. The endgame is obvious: direct API links between the central system and every payroll/HR system in each office. This eliminates costs (jobs) and will improve accuracy. Good stuff.

Until then we’re still building XML files and presumably emailing them around. I can hardly be critical here as I’ve only just started to see the emergence of API links between insurers and reinsurers. No XML schemas, though, because they’re using a type-controlled relational database. Fancy way of saying they keep the data clean at the entry point: pretty hard to soil those databases. As it should be.

To my novice eye the system impresses. Flicking through the documentation suggests they might want to cool off on the initialisms and structured prose as it reads a bit like an engineering manual from the 60s. But engineers they probably are (and targeting an engineering audience to boot), so I’m probably being unfair.

Bless ’em.

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