The 33-Digit Code Creates Headache for Faculty

 

 

A Faculty member recently observed that the 33 digits used to label University financial accounts are enough to tag every molecule in 3 million kilograms of water.

It is little wonder, then, that some users of Harvard's new financial system feel like they are drowning.

Under the systems implemented July 1, each of the University's nearly 100,000 cash accounts is identified by a unique 33-digit code. Prior to that date, those same accounts were identified with only 14 digits.

Since then, complaints about the pesky extra 19 digits have poured in from all over Harvard. Users say the longer codes are one of the most tangible examples of the complexity that has come with the ADAPT transition.

Users who deal with the codes daily say they are hard to memorize. They take longer to type. And they are easy to botch. Correcting one typo in the 33-digit code can take hours of fact checking and backtracking.

"Whenever I now give anyone a 33-digit account number, I assume that there is a good chance of it being mistranscribed, which will result in at least an hour of administrative work to get it corrected," wrote Baird Professor of Science Gary J. Feldman in an e-mail message.

Elizabeth C. "Beppie" Huidekoper, Harvard's vice president for finance, says she knows 33-digits are not ideal. But she adds that the University had little choice about code length.

Huidekoper explains that the Oracle software on which ADAPT is based requires the long codes for a system as complex as Harvard's.

Harvard account codes break down into seven segments, which are independent of each other. For example, there is a segment for the "tub"--the part of the university spending the money--and one for the "activity," or project (see graphic).

In simplest terms, this means that if a series of activity numbers belongs to one school, like the Design School, those numbers cannot be used by another tub. As a result, the activity segment must have enough digits to accommodate all the projects in the University, rather than just the projects in the largest "tub."

If telephone numbers worked the same way Harvard financial codes do, no two phone numbers in the country could be the same, even if they were in entirely different area codes.

Huidekoper says that even if Harvard complained to Oracle about the clunky codes, it would be to no avail. The University and its $112 million project carry limited weight with the $231.2 billion software company.

"Oracle is a very big corporation, and we're trying to do what we can to influence them," Huidekoper says.

She says Harvard has been busy pressing Oracle on more urgent system redesigns, like making the system's on-screen navigation easier. Since Oracle is unlikely to overhaul its basic code-assigning system at one customer's urging, code complaints are near the bottom of Harvard's priority list.

Huidekoper says a second reason for the long codes is that faculties--some of which are now complaining about code length--originally asked that the system be designed with additional code segments.

At the time, a number of faculty financial officers asked that the new system give them the capability to better track how their funds were spent (see graphic).

Some users, in fact, applaud the flexibility the additional digits provide.

"I presume that it benefits me because the bean-counters can budget more specifically," says Paul B. Cote, a lecturer at the design school who is also assistant director of computer resources. "I certainly wouldn't say that the hassle has outweighed the benefits."

Others say they are getting used to the longer codes with time.

"When I first came here I couldn't believe the 33-digit codes," says Nicola A. Sullivan, assistant director of finance for chemistry and earth and planetary sciences. "It could be compressed, but most of the number string is repetitive and it's not so bad."

Sullivan added, however, that the codes were easier at her previous place of work, MIT, which does not use Oracle for its financial system. There, the codes are only 13 digits long.

But project directors once rattled off 14-digit codes with ease, and some say with time, they'll be able to do the same with 33 digits.

"[It gives us] a lot more power," says Daniel S. Brody '71, assistant dean for financial management at the Kennedy School of Government, who is also a Crimson editor. "But I wouldn't mind if it was only 28 digits."