Using Middleware to Eliminate a FTE as a Product Manager

Sometimes a simple product improvement can lead to dramatic changes in business processes and personnel changes. This is a story about how custom middleware eliminated a FTE.

At Skinny & Co., as a product manager, one of the products I managed was Fishbowl Inventory (along with the processes and technologies that were involved and integrated with it).

Fishbowl Inventory was not web-based at the time, it was on-premise software running on a local server. It had file import and export capabilities, but no web-based API.

Many of our wholesale orders came in through a web portal called Brandwise, which had a file export system where orders could be exported via PDF or as CSV files.

It was one person’s full-time job to download orders from Brandwise and import them into Fishbowl. They typically did this via the PDF by manually typing the information into Fishbowl.

When Processes Don’t Work

One of the first things I did to improve this process was to train the person how to use the CSV imports from Brandwise to import the order information into Fishbowl.

Fishbowl had a slightly different format so the order manager had to learn how to reformat the CSV file into a format that Fishbowl could accept, and then clean up any errors.

One type of error was in the name of the customer. If the name was different in any way, Fishbowl would create a new customer record for it, creating duplicates and forking their order history.

The other issue was that sometimes customers still used old SKUs which wouldn’t translate or import into the system. And a downfall of Fishbowl is that if any information was wrong, none of it imported.

The order manager reasoned that the amount of time it took to do that was not worth the effort and thus they went back to manually inputting the orders from the PDFs.

Custom Middleware

At that point I then set about to fix the file conversion problem to make it easy for someone to be able to input a file from Brandwise to Fishbowl in the correct format without creating duplicate customer records or stopping due to a bad SKU.

I worked with a development team to write up the use case and then test the results. We developed a system which included:

  • software on the Fishbowl server that synced the customer and product data up to the middleware web server and allowed information to be written back
  • a web interface which allowed the user to import the order file from Brandwise, search and map customer records (if exact match not found), and to search and map SKUs (if exact match not found)

This process prevented the imports from creating duplicate customer records or failing to import due to a bad SKU.

And while it had upfront development costs and added a new, monthly hosting fee, it allowed us to eliminate a FTE.

Later this system was replaced with a more robust, but less custom system from Synqware. Formerly with Bizperanto, Synqware is now part of Celerant.