Payroll system teams make major upgrade while keeping down time to a weekend

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The WaTech group that manages the state’s payroll system has done it again, keeping the paychecks coming while catching up on three years’ worth of system updates over a four-month period, then finally updating the system to reflect recent changes in federal tax law.

It took some behind-the-scenes policy wrangling by a sharp-eyed manager, the helpful hand of an agency contractor, a full weekend of rare system downtime and thousands of hours’ worth of work by Human Resources Management System (HRMS) teams to make it all come together. But that it did, with the only noticeable impact on most employees being a slight boost in pay in their first paycheck in February due to the tax changes.

Members of the HRMS team at a recent staff meeting

A little history: The state’s current payroll system has been around since 2006, a joint project of the former departments of Information Services and Personnel. HRMS was built on technology purchased (and licensed) from German software giant SAP and receiving yearly software updates from SAP as it rolled into administration by the Department of Enterprise Services (DES) after that agency was formed.

But as the price of those comprehensive and labor-intensive software (a.k.a. “support stack”) updates started to mount, along with the staff resources to be consumed by another big technology project, DES made a decision to suspend its ties with SAP, opting instead to do business with a third party support vendor specializing in SAP systems. That company would handle only the federal tax updates that were absolutely necessary and make no major changes otherwise to the overall system itself.

That was all fine and well, system administrators say, until the OneWashington project started up and the timeline to implement Enterprise HR Systems timeline was scheduled for later than anticipated. OneWashington is an initiative by the Office of Financial Management to do a complete overhaul of the state’s aging financial systems and processes – including HRMS - and bring them all together.

That meant the status quo was no longer okay, according to Todd Jenkins, who has been with the HRMS team since the beginning. Last fall Nicole Dobson, who manages WaTech's State HR & Payroll Applications group, started digging into what it might take to bring the system back into the full SAP fold so the system could get the full set of updates that had been left by the wayside for three years.

Dobson poured through licensing agreements. She looked at what would be absolutely necessary to bring the system up-to-date and what could be spared. Then she started negotiating with SAP to strike a bargain based on system-specific needs rather than buying the entire package of updates. A plan was set. This time, all testing work would be done in a “sandbox,” rather than development environment, allowing for the system down time to be kept to a minimum. 

“We were able to provide a QA environment for the full month of December,” Jenkins said. Communication from HRMS was kept constant between other WaTech teams to make sure there were no problems. The one constant rule was no matter what, the system had to keep on churning out paychecks to a state’s workforce of more than 60,000.

Completing all of the support stack upgrades wasn’t easy, according to Patty Orchard in HRMS. Although the system had been updated regularly until three years ago, there were a number of unique challenges this time around.

Dhamo Venkatachalapathy, Todd Jenkins and Tom Lin

These challenges were overcome by the HRMS Basis Team of Tom Lin and Dhamo Venkatachalapathy, both of whom worked many hours into the night and over the weekends to ensure the first payroll of 2018 was successful.

Notification went out to all impacted parties that the system would go down the weekend of January 27 and 28. Downtime in HRMS is extremely rare as state agencies are constantly working within the system to manage their employee record updates.

Says system manager Dobson:

“Taking the state’s payroll system down is no small feat and impacts every state agency. The HRMS teams worked over that weekend to ensure a smooth transition from the old version to the new version of the state’s payroll system.”

The project required 2,000 staff hours between October and January by the HRMS’ Development, Basis, Security, Functional and Testing Teams to load and test support stacks in each environment.  Other WaTech teams, which rely on HRMS data, conducted their own testing for potential impacts. These include the Integration Team, Business Intelligence/Business Warehouse (BI/BW) and the Washington Workforce Analytics (WWA).  

This is the second time in recent months that the HRMS teams’ agility and ability to think outside the box have been tested. With no budget in hand at the end of June,  the threat of a state government shutdown caused the team to be poised and ready to make system updates in rapid-fire time. That was on top of a host of changes that were done in the months leading up to the biennium due to the new collective bargaining agreement and job reclassification efforts that took effect July 1. 

Nicole Dobson