Tactical Screen Scrapes

When two unlikely business partners joined hands, one had to quickly develop a friendly GUI interface to AS/400 green screens.

Managing a mainframe- or midrange-based data center often demands an ability to adapt to new requirements and innovations at the user level. That's why two companies in different industries recently set up a unique operational partnership that takes advantage of one another's resources. One company is a major airline, the other a leading supplier of advertising specialties and business gifts.

Continental Airlines maintains a customer contact center in Tampa, Fla., with considerable downtime during the post-summer months. On the other hand, advertising specialty company Myron Corp. of Maywood, N.J., has a contact center that is swamped throughout the fall months. Recently, Myron struck an innovative deal with Continental for use of the airline's excess call center time. "Continental handles some of our customer service overflow during our peak season, which is September to November," says Ed Hohnecker, vice president of information services for Myron. "As it turns out, the airline business runs counter-seasonal with our particular peak-season flows. They had overflow customer service capacity, and it was a nice fit for us."

This is where incompatible or proprietary systems could be a deal-killer. Continental's representatives would need access to Myron's custom-built call center and order fulfillment application. No problem—except the applications run on AS/400s and were accessible only via green-screen terminals. "Our traditional green-screen-based, order-entry customer service applications were a little bit intimidating and complex to the untrained user," says Hohnecker. Myron had plans to upgrade the system, but then the Continental partnership came along, and the system had to be operational by September. "Since this is a seasonal arrangement, and we had a fairly short training cycle and minimal on-site management, throwing our old systems at them was a little too burdensome," Hohnecker explains. "We needed to get something up quickly that simplified our systems, and put them in a more user-friendly point-and-click world."

The company decided to use the J Walk Web-to-host package from Atlanta-based SEAGULL Software. Deployment time was roughly four to five months, Hohnecker says. "We got word in March of last year that we were going with this partnership with Continental. We had to have something up and running by July."

The deployment involved a considerable amount of integration work, says Hohnecker. No matter what vendors might say, Web-to-host conversions mean more than screen scraping. Some applications simply aren't ready for GUI. "The GUI product is limited by how your green-screen application flows," Hohnecker explains. "You can make it all look pretty, but it can still be fairly cumbersome. You shouldn't expect that you can take really ugly green screens and make them totally user-friendly." In the initial prototype, "each tab had a different set of command key sequences [behind it], depending on which screen you were [looking at]," he adds. "We had to eventually rewrite the underlying application."

Myron consolidated all its call center processes into what Hohnecker calls a "hub-and-spoke" interface. His goal was to model the interface after some popular Windows-based call center packages on the market, with tabs covering customer mail, call and order history. It wasn't an automatic conversion process, however. "Some of our screens didn't lend themselves well to just forcing a screen-scraper type of GUI interface onto them," says Hohnecker. "We wanted more of an event-driven flow, where you don't have to hit 27 command keys to navigate from one screen to another."

The solution consists of Java applets that are downloaded to users' systems and run within Windows. "You still have to deal with the basic data flow, how the screens flow and the amount of data on one screen. Traditional green screens fill up the screen with a lot of fields," says Hohnecker. "In a Windows environment, it's better to throw up smaller, simpler screens, than to present users with a form with 100 fields in it."

Along with rolling out to the Continental call center in Tampa, the new system was made available to Myron's call centers in Maywood, Toronto and Australia. The interface is so smooth that Myron's remote call center representatives probably won't realize what kind of back-end system they're working on. And isn't that how it should be?

About the Author

Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research, and white papers.