BY PETER FRETTY -- PHOTO BY JOSÉ FRANCO
An airline never wants to hear that its IT system is about to become obsolete. Using agile techniques, a small company delivers a new and improved system in-house.
from left, Fernando Almeida, PMP, António Menezes, Paulo Ornelas, SATA, Azores, Portugal
In the airline business, a single delayed flight can set off a chain of events that require real-time updates to displays at airport terminals. Any glitch in the system can lead to scores of irate customers.
The airline SATA, headquartered in Azores, Portugal, received notice in January 2010 that its airport operational management system was nearing its end date. The vendor offered an alternative—one that was a significant jump in price, required a large up-front investment and had higher operating costs.
The airline's leadership team quickly dismissed the option. Instead, in March 2010, the organization chose to launch a project to develop a replacement application in-house, primarily to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency.
The system receives information from the airline, such as schedules, cancelations, delays or special requirements for extra flights. Also, it allows airport operators to access individual aircraft behaviors to determine if a plane has recovered from a delay. A well-designed operational management system provides an airline with optimal efficiency from its airport-based human resources, in addition to reducing costs incurred from hardware (such as servers), software (including licenses), and the labor to develop, implement, maintain and expand the application.
Such advances are a matter of survival for the airline, according to SATA CEO António Menezes. “Being a small organization facing the same complex challenges that our much larger competitors face, we have to be creative, innovative and agile,” he says.
Being a small organization facing the same complex challenges that our much larger competitors face, we have to be creative, innovative and agile.
WE WILL NOT BE EXPERIENCING DELAYS
SATA knew it needed, at the very least, a minimally operational replacement system before the old one expired in December 2010.
Complicating matters was an executive policy against switching tasks between projects, which meant the organization's small team of developers would not be able to start development until June 2010.
To pick up some of that lost time, the project team embraced agile methodologies and used a software platform to serve as the development framework. At the time, the organization had only about three months of experience working with agile.
“Even having this limited experience, the success of our first agile deployment instilled confidence that both the methodology and the technology would effectively support the project delivery,” says Paulo Ornelas, SATA‘s CIO. “The most important factor was the confidence that I had in my team of developers. People are key.”
Team members and stakeholders came up with an initial set of requirements (known as a backlog) that was systematically reviewed every 15 days. This, in turn, gave rise to a new backlog. Mr. Ornelas, as the project owner, along with Fernando Almeida, PMP, ScrumMaster and senior project manager, sat down with the developers and stakeholders to establish requirements.
Part of the process was to explain the team's project management techniques to secure buy-in. Following a description of the Scrum process, Mr. Ornelas distributed blank pieces of paper for everyone to write stories in Scrum format. The project team then grouped stories under the same theme and prioritized them.
“The process included a lot of encouragement to have the stakeholders write, in their own hand, what they actually wanted,” Mr. Ornelas says. “When we reached a level of development that our stakeholders understood well enough to deliver a first release, we took the application into production.”
Using Scrum techniques meant a new approach to the role of project manager.
“Keeping in line with Scrum methodology, a ScrumMaster with a 50 percent commitment and a product owner with a 15 percent commitment provided oversight and management to the project,” he explains. “Under Scrum, the team follows a self-organizing procedure, and the role of the traditional project manager is shared between the ScrumMaster, the product owner and team members.”
The project was conducted exclusively with internal resources, including a team of 2.5 developers and one functional business member who was tasked with testing script, providing developers with feedback and sharing business knowledge with the rest of the team.
The process sped along quicker than planned.
The scope of the project was defined with the concept of minimum marketable features, and it took eight 15-day sprints (about four months) to deliver a first release.
“We actually issued the final release a month early, with an even higher-than-promised level of functionality.”
One of the added features was a survival mode to counteract the risk involved with the operational system being a communications-dependent, browser-based application.
When there is no data connectivity between an airport and a data center where servers are operating, it's referred to as a link-down situation. Most are related to severe weather and/or equipment malfunction, and in a location as remote as the Azores islands, they can last between one to three days.
In a link-down situation, the airport staff can now use the local application to manually manage passenger-facing display information (arrivals, departures, delays, cancelations, etc.). When the system goes back online, that data is automatically synchronized with the main server.
“Survival mode is actually a stripped-down version of the system operating locally on any PC,” Mr. Ornelas explains.
“The primary challenge on this project was the quantity of business knowledge that had to be captured and deployed as an application in a short time-frame,” Mr. Almeida says. “Although we had knowledge of the airline processes, this project was the first time the IT department actually interacted with the airport business. Having a functional business member as a part of the project team was instrumental in moving forward and gaining stakeholder acceptance.”
Two-week sprints forced the team and SATA‘s airport operations unit to have very short cycles to collect, program and validate data. Team members obtained the knowledge with a minimum amount of interactions, and the company got a feel for the new system after only four interactions, Mr. Almeida says.
TIME TO SHIFT GEARS
Since starting the initiative to develop a new operational management system, all of SATA‘s development projects now use agile techniques. The company promotes the tenets and practices of the methodology to all stakeholders, business users and team members.
“After being able to deliver a couple of successful projects and having our marketing and sales director see the approach firsthand, it became easier to provide visibility to other managers inside our organization and even to the board of directors,” says Paulo Ornelas, SATA, Azores, Portugal. “We also invest a good amount of time in promoting Scrum via brief workshops to our board, major stakeholders and business users involved in the projects or to anyone who has a project for us.”
SATA launched its project management office in November 2009 and still manages some initiatives by the traditional approach. But for many projects at the organization, agile has proven helpful.
“For us, the traditional approach to project management has struggled when managing change as a constant and ensuring commitment from stakeholders,” Mr. Ornelas says. “Scrum has allowed us to gain commitment from both stakeholders and business users to cope with change as a normal and desirable behavior, as well as improve internal communication and reduce project risk while providing a better time to market.”
Because SATA is a relatively small and informal organization, the direct support of the company's CEO contributed to the overall buy-in of the new way of managing projects, Mr. Ornelas attests.
In fact, CEO António Menezes was a featured speaker at the agile platform's user conference.
“And really, how often do we see a non-IT CEO being invited to be a keynote speaker at an IT event?” Mr. Ornelas asks.
“We believe that the agile approach, with its short cycles and promotion of face-to-face validation, was the critical success factor in this project,” he says.
The latest iteration of the software was deployed last June. From a passenger perspective, there are no discernible changes.
“However, SATA‘s airport personnel benefit from a reduction of manual actions, including a set of built-in, time-initiated actions,” Mr. Ornelas explains. “For instance, if we know that a flight departs at 14:30, users can automatically open the predefined check-in counters at 12:30. Or they can automatically set information on the display of the baggage belt as they receive the actual time of arrival.”
In addition, the system follows the best practices of usability, which he considers a major improvement and enabler of quick adoption.
“The new solution will integrate with Portuguese civil aviation authorities, aligning SATA with national policies of interoperability between organizations,” Mr. Ornelas says.
From a project portfolio standpoint, SATA now has confidence that its inhouse development team can deliver a functional application to a satisfied customer.
“Financially, we were able to realize significant savings in both capital expenditure and operating expense,” Mr. Ornelas says.
The final solution came in at only 15 percent of the total cost proposed by the vendor—with the added bonus of being more tailored to the organization.
“Today, the application integrates operational data at a high level with major-volume airlines—about 95 percent—and is also able to enter a survival mode during downtime. This is crucial since our applications are server-client based, and link-down situations are not uncommon.”
With agile, the management of projects is a continual learning experience.
“We conduct a review at the end of each sprint to discuss what went well and/or wrong so that we can reinforce or correct future actions and behaviors,” Mr. Ornelas says.
Successful execution of the new system came with positive side effect, Mr. Menezes says.
“This project has brought pecuniary benefits and, most importantly, a positive momentum with all internal stakeholders sharing the same feeling of ‘Yes, we can,’” he says. “This momentum has proved highly contagious.” PM
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