AN INTERVIEW WITH SILVERRAIL’S CTO
How SilverRail has been stepping up its technical game
An interview with Asad Khan, Chief Technology Officer for SilverRail
At SilverRail we are striving to unify the booking and management of rail travel across multiple, fragmented, and outdated systems to create a 21st century customer experience – one that empowers travellers to take control of their journey, whilst enabling train operators to competitively sell their travel products to new customers and markets.
Recently, our consumer-facing efforts have gotten a lot of attention, such as how we began to power train ticketing for Expedia.co.uk. Yet we also have a B2B operation, providing rail companies with the technology they need to run their operations efficiently.
With an eye to both sides, Asad Khan, SilverRail’s Chief Technology Officer has the unenviable task of making sure that there is a technical and corporate infrastructure that can cope with the twin challenges – a mammoth task that I wanted to know more about, and here’s what I learnt.
Q1: What is the most difficult initiative or strategy you've had to implement at SilverRail, and why?
“Until a couple of years ago, SilverRail suffered from the classic divide between development and operations, where development focused on building the software product and operations focused on hosting the software product.
“This impedes agility. The organisation wants to continuously, and rapidly, deliver product innovations and refinements to the end-customer but the delivery pipeline creates an artificial distance between development and the end-customer.
“This, in turn, disenfranchises operations from design and build-time decisions which then, potentially, delays customer delivery deadlines.
“Erasing this barrier, and driving truly effective adoption of DevOps (and in turn, continuous delivery), was crucial to our success. But it was a wide-ranging problem, one that involved multiple teams and functions all of which had different processes, standards and values.
“We started with establishing a new DevOps discipline, creating new integrated teams, setting up training, and establishing and promoting best practices on an on-going basis.
“We reinforced this reorganisation by recasting functional and personal objectives. We built a critical mass of automation infrastructure to accelerate adoption by the various teams. And finally we required the teams to set goals for, and continuously practice and improve upon, end-customer delivery.
“We are at a point now where our software platform is built and delivered jointly between development and operations.
“Our entire infrastructure is expressed in software and can be recast, with little effort, to different cloud technologies — thus shortening time-to-market.
“There’s still more to do, particularly in devising and instituting more efficient processes for, say, compliance.
“I would also like to have moved to containerisation (a la Docker) earlier. We’re in the process of doing this but initially held back due to the lack of standards.
“But overall we can now build upon a reliable and highly efficient foundation.”
TRAVEL IS PLAYING CATCH-UP
Q2: What sector outside of travel do you think travel has the most to learn from, and why?
“Industries such as retail and finance are highly adept at sifting through real-time data on a massive scale. They do so either to drive a highly personalised user experience or to detect trends and patterns that would give them a near-instantaneous economic advantage.
“Whilst the travel industry is certainly incorporating “Big Data” and analytics into its offerings and products, so far, most of the personalisation has been limited to individual, or closely-related modes of travel, meaning, air or hotel or rail in particular combinations.
“There are many reasons for this. Sometimes data is not accessible, and sometimes the sheer volume of the data is a deterrent. Yet retail is moving towards technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence that can dramatically increase the efficacy of their personalisation. Retail is also investing in IOT (Internet of Things), helping it gather more real-time, relevant data. Travel must continually look to best practices across industries, as well as look to the future, to ensure it is trialling those technologies which will best benefit its development.
Q3: What about your job keeps you up most at night?
“My biggest worry is how SilverRail maintains its technical standards as we scale up its products and organisation. In practice, organisational scalability is the greater challenge because it’s impacted by a number of external factors such as the economy, the regulatory climate and geo-politics, e.g. Brexit.
“To cope, our projects are conducted by small, cross-functional teams that are empowered to make ‘local’ decisions. At the top level, I work in cooperation with the heads of product and service delivery: ‘Product’ is responsible for formulating SilverRail’s product vision and roadmap, while ‘service delivery’ oversees the support of customers post-implementation.
“To achieve scale has required hiring well and then making sure employees stay on top of their technical games. We require all our team-members to invest a portion of their time in learning a new technology of their choice. We also require that all teams are conducting at least one ‘technology-investment’ project at any given time.
“To maintain momentum, we’re actively hiring and keeping an eye out for technologists who are well-versed in a variety of open-source technologies including Enterprise Java/Spring, mobile frameworks, Apache Spark/Hadoop, and Rabbit-MQ.
“It seems like the only way to unify digital rail travel across fragmented and outdated systems is to embrace the most cutting edge of programming languages and corporate culture best practices.”