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SUPPORT ENGINEER TO SOFTWARE ENGINEER – MEET QINGQING WANG

In our latest blog, we’d like to introduce you to another rising star within SilverRail, Qingqing Wang.  Qingqing joined us in September 2008 as a Support Engineer (a role we now call Application Engineer), but has since flipped the lid and is now working on the other side of our product as a Software Engineer.   Here we discuss how her career path has taken her from a small city in Eastern China to her current position in Brisbane tech.

1. Tell us about your background.  Where did you grow up? Where did you go to college and what did you study? What was your very first job?

I grew up in Jinan, which is a city in Eastern China. I did a Bachelor of Telecommunications Engineering in China. I then came to Brisbane to do my Masters of Telecommunications Engineering and Masters of IT at University of Queensland (UQ).

SilverRail is my first full-time job. Before that I was working as a tutor at UQ when I was doing my Master’s degree.

2. How did you end up landing your current position as a Software Development Engineer at SilverRail, and what are you working on currently?

After being a Support Engineer for several years, I felt I had a good understanding of the industry rules, but our product always seemed like a black box to me. So, if I wanted to work out how we implemented an industry rule in the product, I had to get help from developers. This made me think that it would be a good idea and opportunity to became a developer, that way, I could understand the product both inside and outside.

About 4 years ago, in one of the coffee meetings with my manager, I mentioned that I was interested in becoming a Software Engineer and learning more about the code.

I’m now currently working on redesigning the API that SilverCore (the world’s first unified platform for global rail, connecting rail carriers with the worldwide ecosystem of travel distributors and providing a scalable, flexible, modular, managed retail infrastructure purpose built for rail.) uses to connect to the backend search products.

3. How did you find moving from a support role to a software engineer role? Did you find the experience helped you transition to the new role? 

 I wasn’t very confident to begin with. I’ve done a few programming courses at Uni, but I’ve never touched programming since graduation. Changing the role meant changing my career path. It also meant giving up my senior title as a support engineer, and starting from scratch as a junior. I wasn’t sure whether this was the right decision, but I still decided to go ahead.

My manager and co-workers were very supportive during the transition period. I had a senior developer as my mentor and did lots of pair programming with my team members, as well as being given the time to do online courses. This made the transition a lot smoother.

Our software is developed around very complex industry rules. Many Software Engineers need help from support engineers to understand those rules and come up with a solution. Therefore, bringing my experience from support to software was an advantage. Even though I was starting a new role, I felt I had an unfair advantage as I was already very familiar with the industry data and rules.

4. What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

In 2017, the Brisbane office worked on a project to create a new product – SilverSeek V2 (the next-generation journey search and pricing solution for rail) using a new tech stack and platform. As traditionally, journey engines in the rail industry take many seconds to answer queries due to the vast amount of journey options and the need for live fare availabilities.

SilverSeek is an instant search journey engine which can be used to do full day journey planning or to help customers find the cheapest fares for each day in a large date range, such as an entire month. I was the lucky person who wrote the first lines of code in SilverSeek V2, which was a big technology shift for the Brisbane team from Windows based C# to open-source Java. It also gave me the opportunity to research the latest technologies, think about the structure of the project and apply design patterns. It was a completely different experience from what I’ve done before (which was bug fixing), and was a big step forward in my Software Engineer career.

5. As a travel technology software engineer, how do you stay current with the latest technologies?

Technology is a big talking point in the office. It’s easy to get involved in these conversations and they’re a great way to stay on top of what’s happening in the industry.

In the office there are various Community of Practice (CoP) sessions going on. People who are interested with a particular area meetup regularly and discuss what they recently learnt. The most popular one is the Algorithms CoP.

We recently had a companywide interchange sprint where people were divided into different teams and spent two weeks working on new ideas. This was a really fun way to explore the latest technologies and ideas which spanned from innovative voice and travel applications to explorations with blockchain and distributed caching frameworks.

6. Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?

I come to the office in the morning, put my lunch in the fridge and start checking my emails. Because we’re asleep when most of Europe is awake, most of our interesting emails will come in overnight.

Once we’re ready to start the day, we have a stand-up in the morning to discuss our work and any issues people are having.

For the rest of the day I work on my sprint tasks, which often involves working with others, as we are working on the same projects and our work needs to be compatible.

If the weather is nice, I tend to go for a walk at lunchtime.

 7. Do you have any productivity hacks or tips?

 Google.

Or otherwise, I would search past issues to see if it’s something that’s come up before, as this can often provide a good starting point for the issue I’m looking at.

8. What do you like to do in your spare time, or as SilverRail would say – how do you enjoy life?

I have two kids, one is 4 and the other is 2. So, I find myself spending most of my weekends either in a park, on the way to a park, or getting ready to go to a park.

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knowledge

SILVERECHO PROTOTYPE FOR VOICE-COMMAND RAIL BOOKINGS

There are some very exciting things happening in voice-based applications these days. Virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are an amazing foundation, but apps like SilverEcho have built upon that foundation to deliver much more practical, helpful results. That is one of the reasons that 50% of all searches are expected to be made via voice in less than 2 years’ time. (Source: ComScore).

SilverEcho is a very new app – in fact it’s still in the prototype stage – which aims to start improving users’ rail travel experience before they even leave the house. It will allow users to search for and plan out a fast, efficient and inexpensive rail journey to (and from) anywhere in the UK using Amazon Alexa.

HOW DOES SILVERECHO WORK?

SilverEcho is intuitive and conversational. That makes it very easy to use, as you don’t have to phrase things ‘just the right way’ to get Alexa to understand. You can literally just talk to Alexa using SilverEcho, and plan out your trip together.

For example, Alexa might ask “Where do you want to go today?”, or “Would you like to set your home station?”, and you could respond naturally. You might say something like:

  • “I want to go from Bristol to Leeds”
  • “I want to go to Leeds from Bristol”
  • “I want to go to Leeds at 12:00pm”
  • “I want to go to Leeds at noon”

Alexa will translate the voice to text, and our API will then map the text to a specific station ID. Alexa then checks what time the next train leaves from your home station and what time it will arrive at the destination.

At any point, you can ask Alexa for ‘more information’ to find out things like:

  1. How many transfers the trip includes
  2. Where the intermediate transfer points are
  3. How much the entire journey actually costs

Users can also simply tell Alexa to buy the cheapest fair. Watch how easy it is to use SilverEcho in our short demo below.


THE TECHNICAL STUFF

As development of SilverEcho continues, users will be able to search and book UK rail tickets with Alexa in a single voice-based transaction. SilverEcho will provide an innovative and forward-looking customer experience, as well as a comfortable and smooth journey from beginning to end.

Once a ticket has been booked, an email will automatically be sent to customers containing an RDG approved Standard barcode eTicket for their travel. Customers will also be able to check train times and delays in real time, both before and during travel.

SilverEcho was created during one of our companywide two-week Interchange Sprints (find out more about this in the Forbes article here). These are wonderful opportunities for our developers and engineers to collaborate on projects which would be outside of their normal scope of responsibilities, and a big part of our commitment to innovation and cross-team collaboration.

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knowledge

REGIONAL DEBATE – UK

Transforming the railway and unlocking potential

The UK’s rail sector is one of the safest in the world, but to maintain efficiency and remain a key mode of transport for the country it must adapt and change in many areas. The regional debate, by Global Rail Review, involving key industry leaders explores the importance of embracing modern technologies, the role rail will play for the next generation, the key challenges the sector faces and also the opportunities that lie ahead.

With the participation of:

  • MARK CARNE
    Chief Executive, Network Rail
  • PAUL PLUMMER
    Chief Executive, Rail Delivery Group (RDG)
  • JOANNA WHITTINGTON
    Chief Executive Officer, Office of Rail and Road (ORR)
  • DAVID PITT
    Head of UK, SilverRail
  • JAMES QUINNELL
    Chief Commercial Officer, Colas Rail Ltd

Here, we give you a snapshot of the insights shared from David Pitt, Head of UK at SilverRail.

Rail is entering the digital age. How will technology and new ‘intelligent’ solutions impact the performance of the UK’s rail sector, and how will the industry need to adapt to embrace change?

“Rail is effectively a retail service and like any other retail experience, customers want good information; assurance that they are buying something of value and quality; and for the service to be fulfilled as efficiently and easily as possible. The way in which UK rail currently operates is almost at a tipping point and technology and pricing are two key factors. Customers are struggling to pay for rail travel; and this will soon become an issue for the government and rail operating companies. Eighty per cent of rail tickets in the UK are still purchased offline, which, in 2018 with the continuous growth of online retailing, is somewhat indicative of the problem. When compared to online grocery shopping, for example, the channel shift to online and mobile for rail remains a struggle.

Although online ticket purchasing is available, in many cases the customer must still collect a ticket at the station – either at the ticket office or from a ticket vending machine. Whilst we are now seeing the general rollout of digital fulfilment to barcode on smartphones and smartcards, it will take some time for the orange ticket to become redundant unless the customer’s retailing experience becomes easier. Unfortunately, with a rather confused approach to rolling out digital ticketing over the last few years, this has only compounded the problem with no single fully interoperable solution being promoted centrally, which the train operating companies could then get behind.

Looking ahead, we’re investigating how the physical ticket can be removed, and how digital technology can be used to hide the complexity of ticketing media, operators and product offers into a single mobile app. After all, the concept of a ‘ticket’ is for the benefit of the train company, not the customer. With the right kind of relationship between the train company and the customer, supported with suitable technology, the customer could have a continuous right to travel and simply settle up at the end of the day. The concept of buying a ticket in advance will always have its place with longer, more expensive journeys, but on the average daily commute when costs, etc. are generally understood by the customer, they probably value flexibility alongside value pricing. In fact, with modern working habits the customer needs flexibility – the ability to turn up at any station, get on a train without knowing the timetable and be charged for the journey they make. This is what we should be aiming for and over the next 18 months I believe that we will start to see account-based ticketing (ABT) with both pre-pay and post-pay options introduced.

Chiltern Railways is already trialling an ABT system, which works in a similar way to the Oyster card in London; automatically calculating the best value fare for a national rail journey, andgiving travellers real-time information. Within the next three to five years this will likely become normal. ABT doesn’t mean we have to do away with pre-paid tickets, but they won’t be the only option and as a result the customer should start to see much more flexibility in their retailing and travel experience. Minor changes to industry rules could see this same digital technology easily deliver flexible season tickets together with a daily, weekly, monthly and annual price promise across the UK rail network, encouraging us all to make better use of trains.”

Rail faces growing competition from other modes of public transport, so what can the UK rail sector do to ensure it retains a large share of the transportation market?

“It’s not just about competing with other modes of public transport, but competing with private-use cars, autonomous vehicles and even video conferencing; do we really need to travel at all? There are many different mini revolutions happening at the moment.

Obviously, the smartphone has changed the landscape for many industries over the last 10 years and we may well be facing a similar revolution in the 2020s with self-driving cars and, subject to legislation, the wider (positive) sharing of data to enhance services and experience. All too often we hear and see the headlines about data being shared without our knowledge, but data-sharing (if managed properly) will enable multiple services to be delivered to us seamlessly. A good example of this is a rail journey. We don’t board the train at our front door, its typically part of a multi-step and multi-modal journey, which normally requires a number of tickets from different suppliers. In the future, rail providers must embed themselves in the middle of the door-to-door journey, which will require different service providers coming together for the benefit of the customer. This can only be a good thing helping both the railways and the wider economy. If done right, people will always want to travel by rail. It’s only when the barriers to entry for rail travel become too great – such as price, poor information and ticket-related stresses – that people choose not to travel.

Rail companies must always consider the customer experience, and this is where the greatest challenge will be. If rail doesn’t step up and do things better, there are others out there who are more accustomed to providing an excellent digital and customer experience that can, and will, move in to satisfy the customer’s needs.”