AMCAS Moved My Cheese
Last week was the culmination of my work so far here at Penn. I was hired to overhaul the Med School’s web-based admissions tools. Over the past year and half I’ve written over 32,000 lines of code for this project. That means there are a lot of moving parts. The more moving parts you have, the more features you can offer. On the downside, every moving part you add introduces another possibility for something to go wrong. In a post about a year ago I explained the home-grown development tools we use for UI development and database access (since then we made the unfortunate choice of renaming our “LDL” database access tool to “the API”). With the admissions project I added to this toolset, introducing the concept of “data objects” (I called them that to distinguish them from the UI objects my coworkers were already familiar with). Here’s a presentation I made about a year ago if you want to know the gory details. But the basic point is that, to minimize the potential for chaos, confusion, and things generally going wrong when you have so much code, I went with an object oriented design for managing and manipulating the data (done properly, this gives you clearly defined containers for your data and functionality, and provides a set of unambiguous “touch points” between all the moving parts). Last week we launched the new tools for the applicants for the 2006 class, and I’m told it’s been the smoothest launch since the Med School first moved the process online four years ago.
That might not be quite the achievement it sounds like, as they really had nowhere to go but up. That’s not the Med School’s fault though. When someone applies to medical school, they don’t apply directly to the school. They send their application to AMCAS (the American Medical College Application Service), and it’s up to AMCAS to get the application data to the schools where the applicants want to be considered. When AMCAS moved to doing this electronically several years ago, many of the med schools were nervous, so AMCAS tried to cajole them into feeling better about it with the Who Moved My Cheese? approach. Then when their new electronic system went live, it was a total disaster. Which goes to show that sometimes fear is a perfectly rational response to change. In the years since then they’ve improved their system, so there haven’t been any repeats of what happened the first time, but it takes time to rebuild trust after an experience like that. I was rewarded the other day with a t-shirt saying “AMCAS moved my cheese.” I’m amazed they’ve stuck with that slogan.