Recently, InTraffic delivered the minimal viable product (MVP) of the configuration and monitoring system CoMo. The next step is to test the system in the chain. In this article, four of those involved share their lessons learned so far. The conclusion: the human side of collaboration is at least as important as the technical-content side.

In 2019, the time had finally come: construction of the system to replace the ProRail part of Info Plus began. That had taken some doing, explains Jan Borst, product manager of the dynamic travel information systems at stations and therefore product owner of CoMo. "Back in 2011, the then minister decided that NS would be responsible for travel information and we would be responsible for the systems on which that information was presented, such as the screens and public address systems. In the current system Info Plus is one environment. There were various reasons why we did not yet replace Info Plus, but the fact that that environment had to be moved out of the National Data Center (NDC) marked the start of the development of CoMo." In addition to dynamic travel information systems, CoMo should also be able to be used for configuration management and management of other objects located at stations, such as elevators, escalators and cameras.

From a mini-competition between four suppliers, all of whom have demonstrated in the past that they have the right domain and technical knowledge, InTraffic emerged as the winner. Mark Alferink, project manager of the ICT Infra domain at ProRail, explains, "InTraffic was the only party that had knowledge of Operations Bridge Manager (OBM), a software package that we purchase from MicroFocus and to which an interface had to be created. That knowledge advantage was a decisive point, though."

"The project deadlines were all met cleanly. A major achievement, especially in corona time."

- Mark Alferink, project manager of the ICT Infra domain at ProRail

Starting from functionality rather than requirements

Preparations began in November 2019, with the actual construction of the software starting in January. The preparation time of two months was much needed, explains InTraffic project leader and scrum master Alberto de Nicolò. "We had received a set of requirements from ProRail, but we missed the context. Exactly what functionality was the software supposed to deliver? We wanted to deliver a working system and not just implement specifications. We noticed that ProRail itself was also still searching for this. Together with Jan, we drew up user stories and defined the requirements. This revealed that the requirements package was incomplete."

By estimating for each user story how much work it would be to develop the corresponding functionality, it quickly became clear that this did not fit the expectation. InTraffic sounded the alarm and ProRail called a steering committee meeting, in which the baseline was recalibrated and two additional sprints were added to the project. Account manager of InTraffic Edwin Winterkamp says: "It was good that we immediately indicated that there was more work than ProRail had estimated beforehand. We intervened the moment there was anything left to steer. ProRail was also very realistic and immediately adjusted the agreements. That characterizes a good partnership."

Deadlines met in corona time

From the start of the development process, the team has not encountered any major bumps in the road. The project deadlines were all met neatly. A major achievement, especially in corona time, Alferink believes. "Of course, the project had already been started pre corona and people knew each other. As a result, the transition to working from home went quite smoothly."

De Nicolò quickly identified that you do miss a lot of informal communication when you no longer meet on the shop floor. "That's why I decided that we regularly open up a whole afternoon all Teams meeting, with the camera on as well, so that you can see each other and the threshold is lower to ask questions. Because the others are listening in, they also get a lot of input. In this way, information is exchanged that would otherwise not come to the surface," he says.

Working from home, by the way, did not have only disadvantages. "One advantage was that we could ask users of the current Info Plus system to join demos much more easily. They didn't have to physically come to a meeting to do so, but could watch and comment via Teams. That multiple and early feedback is something we definitely want to keep in the future as well."

Not yet in production

CoMo has now been delivered as an MVP and accepted as such by ProRail. However, that does not mean the project is finished with that, Borst says. "The application still needs to be tested across the entire chain of applications in our Test Center. After all, it contains many interfaces with other applications. That chain test hasn't happened yet because of dependencies with other projects and parties. That is unfortunate. For the developers, it is unsatisfactory that the product is almost ready, but that the final step cannot yet be taken. And for us, it is a risk that InTraffic will logically disband the team and reassign the developers to other projects. After all, you almost certainly know that there are still points that need to be worked on from that chain test. The question then is who will be available to do that at that time."

Winterkamp is not shocked by this. "That just happens more often when you are developing software with many interfaces to other applications that are also due for a new build or rebuild. So we are definitely going to conclave with ProRail to identify in advance: what risks arise? And what can we do to mitigate them?" For that matter, CoMo is also still not finished when the software goes into production, says Alferink. "We continue to develop the system further. The basis is there to accommodate all assets that require technical management in CoMo. But additional functionality will have to be developed for each type of asset we want to add. The beauty of this product is that we have set it up in such a way that this can be done very easily."

Encourage reuse

One of the award criteria included in the tender is reuse of previously developed code. Winterkamp thinks this came out well. "Software developers naturally like to invent new things themselves. That's in their nature, because if you're not inventive then this profession doesn't suit you. At the same time, of course, you shouldn't invent a wheel that is already there and that you can make suitable with a few minor adjustments. The View project developed a lot of code that we could reuse here. We ourselves also took into account that we developed our code in such a way that ProRail could reuse parts of it in other projects."

De Nicolò points out that not only code from previous projects, but also team composition was reused. "The people working together on this project all knew each other and had worked together before. As a result, there was a performing team from day one."

"InTraffic came up with solutions we didn't think of ourselves. That was very valuable."

- Mark Alferink, project manager of the ICT Infra domain at ProRail

Team collaboration

Looking back, Alferink is very satisfied, not only with the end result but also with the process. "We worked together very well and as one team; open, transparent and honest. They are all professionals who easily seek each other out, so my role and Alberto's role as project leader was more about keeping an eye on deadlines and big picture issues and not the day-to-day management of the team. That ran like clockwork." He praises the domain expertise InTraffic brought to the table. "They came up with solutions we didn't think of ourselves. That was very valuable." Winterkamp noticed that all team members showed great learning ability. "People were open to feedback and actually did something with it. You end up in a positive spiral that gives a lot of energy."

Alferink concludes, "If you ask me if I would use InTraffic again, the answer is a resounding yes. Not only did we achieve a great result by delivering the MVP on time, but we also enjoyed working together. And as Edwin points out, everyone learned new things themselves, but also transferred knowledge to others. If one thing stays with me from this project, it is the enthusiasm and positive flow in which we all worked."