Part 2: Engineering for Quality – “The Ratio Way”

In Part 1 of this four-part series highlighting Ratio’s commitment to quality, my pal from the strategy team at Ratio, Ted Mandelkorn detailed the exciting challenge with which we were presented to strategize, design and build the next generation of the Alaska Airlines In-Flight Entertainment experience. Starting with a solid vision and commitment to ongoing strategic engagement, as Ted pointed out, was key to the success of this project. In this second installment of the series I hope to illustrate how Ratio’s engineering team was able to deliver on the vision with an exceptional level of quality.

The Challenge

Simply put, the Alaska Airlines IFE project was a large challenge from an engineering perspective, involving multiple stakeholders and a vast array of components. This was to be the first portable in-flight entertainment solution built on the Microsoft Windows platform for a major commercial airline. It needed to be secure, performant, consistent, engaging, appealing and to showcase the Windows platform. There were multiple stakeholders with distinct and critical requirements.

Alaska Airlines needed the solution to be appealing and accessible to every passenger – from young children to Millennials, grandparents to power-users, and everyone in between. A seamless, consistent user experience and flawless performance were must-haves that became pillars of the project.

The rollout, operational performance and servicing logistics to SkyCast were mission-critical. The solution we built had to be deployed to 7,000 Toshiba Encore 2 devices with 100% certainty, and all content and features had to be applied to devices once they were in service using only an SD card in a completely offline environment.

In the end, the solution included the development of nine bespoke applications, a completely custom “servicing” model enabling the application of updates and new content by simply placing a micro SD card in a device, an in-house content curation application and a cloud-based analytics collection and transmission pipeline to enable both Alaska Airlines and SkyCast to visualize the performance and content consumption of end users.

Microsoft consulted closely with the engineering team at Ratio to configure a custom image of the Windows Embedded 8.1 Industry Pro operating system to support the security, usability and operational deployment of the solution to the entire fleet of devices. This also involved close coordination with Toshiba to ensure all drivers and firmware were 100% compatible with our custom image.

Beyond our direct day-to-day interaction with Alaska Airlines, SkyCast and Microsoft, Ratio also collaborated extensively with several third parties to integrate critical components of the overall solution such as in-flight Wi-Fi and video Digital Rights Management (DRM).

So how did we do it?

The Duck Test

As the saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”! While we don’t do a whole lot of pond paddling or quacking on the engineering team at Ratio (for the most part), we do strive to model our efforts after the tried and true practices that distinguish professionals in the industry.

So how do we pass “the duck test” as engineers at Ratio? Of course we have a team comprised of very smart, talented programmers. But that alone is not what sets us apart – especially in a market rich with tech talent. Rather, engineers at Ratio differentiate themselves from “good coders” by approaching our work not as a job, but as a craft.

Well-known industry expert and author Robert C. Martin lays out the foundation of software engineering as a craft in his book, The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers. Martin establishes a framework for professional engineers that includes topics such as engaging in a language of commitment, faithful estimation, use of Test Driven Development (TDD) and test automation techniques, and developing a common understanding of “done”.

The entire engineering team at Ratio has read The Clean Coder. We’ve discussed and embraced “Uncle Bob” (to which he’s lovingly referred in the software development community) and his ideas. Even new-hires are presented with their own shiny new copy on day one. We act like professionals, communicate and collaborate like professionals, write testable, maintainable code, and share a language of commitment with our peers, colleagues and clients.

Adherence to these principles was critical to the success of the Alaska/SkyCast IFE project – especially given the level of complexity and importance of delivering a rock-solid solution for SkyCast and Alaska Airlines – and it was evident throughout the entire project.

Going the Extra Mile(s)

Of course, no matter the commitment to professionalism and talent-level of the team, “stuff” happens. Especially on a project of this size and scope. One of the most critical components of the entire solution in this case, was the ability for the Alaska Airlines IFE devices to seamlessly and reliably connect to the Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi system. To harken yet another phrase – failure was not an option.

In fact, we had travelled to Gogo’s headquarters facility in the Chicago area for several rounds of exhaustive testing to prove the reliability of Wi-Fi connectivity on the devices, and all indications were good. However, during a test flight by Alaska Airlines near the completion of the project, there were issues connecting one of the devices to Gogo’s Wi-Fi. Not good.

After an initial round of speculation and hypothesis into the root cause, we knew the only way resolve the issue was to jump on a flight and do some real-world testing. So the next morning, I found myself on an Alaska flight from Seattle to San Diego with a bag full of production-ready devices and a plan of attack.

During the flight down and back, I was able to perform a battery of tests that ultimately proved the reliability of the Wi-Fi connectivity. In fact, the only issue I encountered on those two flights was the awkward stares from nearby passengers as I switched back and forth between my collection of five devices in the cozy confines of my seat, and wandered up and down the aisles from the rear galley to first class to seek out any possible failure scenario.

In the end, Alaska was very pleased at the extent to which Ratio was committed to resolving this issue. And it went a long way (pun intended) toward demonstrating our absolute investment into the success of the project.

The Proof in the Pudding

So to recap, this was a large, complex project that we totally nailed because we rock. But how do we know we totally nailed it? Here’s how…

As I mentioned earlier, the solution was deployed to 7,000 devices on time and with a 100% success rate (a monumental task in itself). Each of those 7,000 devices are flown on multiple Alaska flights per week. Since the launch date of February 1, 2015, there has not been one reported software failure or bug fix required. That’s zero bugs in hundreds of thousands of user sessions.

Now that’s what I would call quality!

PART 1 – Innovation at 30,000 ft

PART 3 –  Architecting a Quality In-Flight Experience

PART 4 – Testing an In-Flight Entertainment Solution from the Ground Up

A Final Note from Microsoft