SOA helps give returning vets a chance to find work

Start-up Hire a Hero uses a thrifty SaaS model to connect vets with new jobs.

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Hire a Hero is a small, four-person company with a big mission. It aims to help service members leaving the military make a smooth transition to civilian life by connecting them with potential employers using Web 2.0 social networking tools.

After some fits and starts, the company found that a system built on service-oriented architecture (SOA) enabled it to achieve its goals at a low cost. What's more, because of its nonprofit status, in some cases, the vendors donated their services for free.

When Hire a Hero started a couple of years ago, it had visions of building its own system, but after burning through a couple of hundred grand, Brac Selph, executive director, says he knew that if his company was going to survive, it needed to find a new plan that involved working with existing services rather than trying to build its own system.

Developing a new strategy

The new approach began to develop last winter when Selph realized he needed to find a less-expensive technology strategy. He eventually cobbled together a system that involved three parts: two software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors and a data integration tool to act as a bridge between the two systems.

The first piece was Salesforce.com Inc., a customer relationship management tool built on the SaaS model. Hire a Hero had been using Salesforce with its original homegrown system to organize information about employees and potential employers. Salesforce also helped automate many processes by building in business logic normally used for a sales channel. For instance, if a member didn't send his resume, he got an automatic e-mail reminder. If he didn't set up interviews, he got an offer to connect him with someone who could help. Moreover, Salesforce donated the service to Hire a Hero at no cost.

The next piece was a front-end Web tool that would enable employers and employees to enter information about themselves into the system and provide social networking functionality. Selph found a company called YourMembership.com, which is also an SaaS vendor. He says that he couldn't believe he could find a tool with 80% of the functionality he wanted for just $500 a month. The tool also reduced his need for expensive technical staff, saving his company $200,000 a year.

The final and most important piece was finding data integration company XAware Inc. to provide a way to get data from YourMembership into Salesforce.

Bringing the data together

Selph admits that he knew little or nothing about SOA when he started down this road. He knew only that he wanted to take advantage of services to save his company money, that he had two systems, and he wanted them to communicate with one another. "I've got to be real frank: I wasn't even aware of the term [SOA], but it certainly fits really well with what we are doing, particularly the idea of connecting various systems to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Selph says.

But soon after going live with YourMembership.com, he ran into problems moving data into Salesforce. "We realized [quickly] that we were doing everything by hand between YourMembership.com and Salesforce.com. It may not sound like much, but it took about an hour a day to download files from YourMembership and upload them to Salesforce," Selph says.

In addition, he says, something inevitably went wrong with the transfer, such as incomplete data, wrong dates or records duplication. "There was just a huge potential for error," Selph says.

As frustration with the process grew, he began looking for a solution to automate the data exchange.

With only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, Selph began exploring the Salesforce.com App Exchange, looking for a data integration system. He found XAware and a couple of other vendors, and it quickly became apparent that XAware fit both technologically and culturally. XAware offered an open-source application that would solve Hire a Hero's technology problem. With a fellow ex-Marine as CEO, XAware also had what Selph calls "an affinity for people in the military."

And when he asked about a special nonprofit price, he was pleased to find they would provide the entire system for free.

All the pieces

With the three pieces in place, Hire a Hero was ready to begin the process of automating the data transfer. But there was a major problem from the get-go: YourMembership lacked an open API. That meant XAware couldn't communicate directly with it to grab data.

The solution required that they generate reports manually, something they were hoping to avoid. Despite this, Selph says, XAware still greatly simplified the data transfer and reduced the likelihood of an error during the data exchange. And even without the API, there was just a single file to deal with. XAware took care of all the difficult bits, such as field mapping, new field creation and duplicate records purging.

Recently, after prodding from its customers, including Hire a Hero, YourMembership developed an API. Now XAware is working with Hire a Hero to complete the end-to-end data automation process.

Selph has big plans for the future, including automating the process of collecting and updating jobs data, something Hire a Hero does manually at the moment. He thinks that XAware will scale as they grow and add additional data sources.

Selph advises other organizations undertaking similar projects to look beyond the surface of what a company does. As he points out, Salesforce.com is a CRM vendor and YourMembership is typically used by alumni groups, yet his company found ways to take advantage of their services. "Be creative because the [SaaS vendor] may market themselves as one thing, but they could fit your needs just as well," he says.

Hire a Hero may be small, but the lessons it learned about using a services model to communicate across different data sources could apply to any organization trying to find ways to increase efficiency and cut costs.

This story, "SOA helps give returning vets a chance to find work" was originally published by CIO.

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