Many years back, Vinay's company phased out Form 11.18-B, or, as it was more commonly known, the vacation request form. Along with it went Form 11.18-M (sick day request form), Form 11.12-B (absence cancellation form) and Form 12.11-B (absence exceed form). They were all rolled into the new Absence Processing System (APS) as part of the company's Process Improvement Process, a far-reaching initiative to technologize all things bureaucratic. Most employees didn't care for the new APS. Before going electronic, applying for vacation was simple: Have your manager sign Form 11.18-B, send the yellow copy to HR and keep the pink one. Using the APS meant opening up the application, trying to remember your APS password, clicking to the vacation request form, filling it out and then telling your manager to follow the same steps in order to approve it.

Of course, that wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that the APS was incredibly slow. As a basic Access application shared by tens of thousands of employees, response time in the APS ranged anywhere from two to 20 seconds. All the time saved in filling out a paper form was made up in triplicate waiting for the APS to respond.

As the years passed and the APS database grew, so did response time and employee frustration. Eventually, the team responsible for the APS was instructed to create a new system -- the Absence Processing System 2 -- and given leeway to use "real" tools such as SQL Server, Exchange Server and whatever else they'd need to make a system that worked.

Several months later, APS2 was ready for deployment. It was bigger, better and "incredibly robust." Employees throughout the organization were excited.

And then they logged into the system.

Technically, they didn't have to sign in. The APS2 utilized Integrated Windows Authentication and knew exactly who everyone was as soon as they came online.

Feature Creep

Unfortunately, no one knew the APS2. Gone were the large buttons that read "Apply for Vacation" and "Check Vacation Balance." The APS2 consisted of a series of tabs with names like "Form Management," "Workflow Management," "Reporting," "Delegation," and so on.

To apply for vacation, as Vinay discovered, one would go to Form Management, then Request Form, then select the only option ("Absence Forms") from a drop-down list, and finally click "Vacation Request Form." The good news was that response time was lightning fast. The bad news was the pop-up message that appeared after he requested the form. It read: "Thank you. Your form request will be processed within twenty-four hours."

Apparently burned by their attempt at real-time interaction in the first APS, the development team built in some sort of nightly PDF-form generation and distribution process. Imagine Vinay's surprise when it took the APS2 three days to notify him that his vacation request form was ready to be filled out.

He wasn't alone. Because their nightly batch process would often crash, the PDF-based forms could take several days to be generated. The same held true for other functionality within APS2. To find out how much absence time one had left, the employee needed to request an "Absence History and Balance Report." To make matters worse, each employee was allowed to have only one pending request (be it a form or report) at a time. This meant that, while Vinay waited for his vacation request form, he was unable to check how much time he had left.

Employees across the company hated APS2. While the original APS required them to wait nearly half a minute between clicks, the new system's batch model increased the approval process from three-to-five minutes to three-to-five days. Many employees demanded that the original APS be restored,but the development team had invested in the APS2, and migrating data back to Access would be "almost impossible." The team decided to work on the next version -- yes, APS3. The goal: to enhance usability while providing "a whole host of new features." In the mean time, employees have no choice but to deal with the APS2. Who knows -- for APS3, maybe the development team will figure out how to extend the once-simple, paper-based process to a month-long chain of batch jobs and electronic "form request" forms.

Paperless PTO was originally published in the August 15, 2007 issue of Redmond Developer News. RDN is a free magazine for influential readers that provides insight into Microsoft's plans, and news on the latest happenings and products in the Windows development marketplace.