Railinc Tracks Blog

Railinc tracks are everywhere although you don't always see them. The Railinc Tracks blog reveals them one at a time and shows you how we help to keep railroads, railcars and rail shipments moving across America. The blog is staffed by the Railinc Corporate Communication team and will give you news and insights about our company, our people and our products.

Entries with tag sticky note .

Found on a Sticky Note

A sticky note detailing a user story from a Flex-to-AngularJS migration.


The sticky notes you find around Railinc tell stories about our culture and how we develop our products; how we learn from and work with our customers; and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. A recurring feature on the Railinc Tracks blog, Found on a Sticky Note takes a look at an individual sticky note and provides insights into who we are and what we do.

One of Railinc’s biggest challenges is managing technology refresh. Our people work hard to stay in front of technology changes so we can adopt new tools and development approaches as our customers’ needs shift.

Sometimes that means we leave behind old technologies.

For example, Railinc completed its four-year mainframe migration project in 2015, moving the company from an expensive and rigid technology approach to a less costly, broader and more flexible midrange solution. How is that helping? By enabling us to grow applications and systems and to handle the ever-increasing amount of railroad data we manage.

Even more technology changes are under way. Right now, Railinc is migrating its RailSight applicationsDemand Trace, Track and Trace, and Monitor—from Flex to the open-source, HTML- and JavaScript-based AngularJS framework. Already, Railinc has transitioned nearly two dozen applications to AngularJS, including the Damaged and Defective Car Tracking system, Clear Path, and Car Accounting Self-Service, and expects to complete the RailSight migration in early 2017.

The move from Flex will enhance the quality of RailSight applications, support changes to how customers access and use RailSight, and lower the cost to serve customers, said Charles Paye, director of commercial products.

“It lays a foundation for future growth and changes in RailSight,” Paye said.
 

Demand Trace Changes Support Query Capabilities, Improved Functionality

With the move from Flex to AngularJS, Railinc is making application changes—like the one in the sticky note above—that can have a real impact on how customers work. The note reads:
 

RS Demand Trace Flex Migration: Equipment Formatting Validation

Description: As a Demand Trace User, I’m unable to enter invalid equipment formats when running a trace.

About: This keeps users from searching invalid formats that won’t produce any trace results.

Requirement:

  1. Only alphanumeric entries allowed to be submitted in equipment field.
  2. Equipment can be separated by comma, space, or page break (enter)
  3. User can copy/paste using mouse clicks.
  4. User can copy/paste using keyboard shortcuts


Part of the RailSight suite of applications, Demand Trace gives users the ability to access data through the complete lifecycle of shipments and equipment. Instead of subscribing to a feed of data, a Demand Trace user can keep tabs on a shipment by manually submitting or scheduling a query whenever they want.

“It’s really data on demand,” said William Holt, a business analyst who works on Demand Trace. “You’re searching the equipment you want to find, when you want to search it, and you pay for those queries.”

To submit one of these queries, a user enters a series of alphanumeric characters—two to four letters and one to six numbers—associated with a particular piece of rail equipment. Demand Trace returns data on shipment events, including location and scheduled arrival and departure times.
 

The move to AngularJS allows for more separation of the UI on the back end. You can make changes to the front end, improving the way users interact with the app, without having to change the application itself.

 

With the newly migrated Demand Trace, the development team set up restrictions for queries. Without the restrictions, users could input any alphanumeric combination—one letter and seven numbers, for example—and run a trace no matter whether the rail equipment ID format was valid. Instead, as soon as a customer enters an invalid character, an error message appears and the user cannot submit the search, preventing “bad queries” on cars that may not exist and any unnecessary charges.

Developers also made it easier to copy and paste using keyboard shortcuts and the mouse. This makes it easier for users to move large amounts of data from an application like Excel to the query box in Demand Trace so they can get their work done more efficiently.

“The move to AngularJS allows for more separation of the UI on the back end,” Paye said. “You can make changes like these to the front end of the app, improving the way users interact with the app, without having to change the application itself.”
 

Migration Supports Richer Apps, Better User Experience

Railinc employees work together during an Agile training session.There are reasons beyond flexibility to make the move to AngularJS.

“Chrome and other browsers aren’t supporting Flex,” said Prabhu Kompella, a project development manager. “It’s becoming obsolete.”

The ubiquity of mobile devices makes the move to AngularJS all the more necessary. While Flex supports interactivity, it is not supported by the two most common mobile operating systems—iOS and Android—and doesn’t enable responsive web design, which automatically adapts a web page to the type of device a customer is using.

Not only are applications on the AngularJS platform mobile friendly, they’re easier to build and update.

“The level of productivity for developers is better,” said Ryan Nguyen, a user interface architect. “It cuts down on the development time.”

There is also more opportunity to automate testing, which speeds the development process. The platform also supports changes that will improve the overall user experience, bringing applications in line with what customers are used to on non-Flex web pages.

“What we’ll end up with is a richer application for users,” Paye said. “That helps us deliver a better user experience.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Found on a Sticky Note

The sticky notes you find around Railinc tell stories about our culture and how we develop our products; how we learn from and work with our customers; and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. A regular feature on the Railinc Tracks blog, Found on a Sticky Note takes a look at an individual sticky note and provides insights into who we are and what we do.

The North American freight rail industry depends on rules and processes to ensure the proper movement, interchanging, monitoring and repair of more than 1.5 million railcars across the 144,000-mile North American rail network.

Why are these rules so important?

"They externalize business logic, enable business agility and enforce data quality around activities that are critical to safe and efficient rail operations," said Jerry Vaughn, Railinc's director of interline product management.

Freight rail operations are complex. Rail carriers haul and interchange cars that do not belong to them. A railcar owned by a company on the East Coast might get pulled from service for repairs on the West Coast. Railcars and individual components need regular testing and inspection, no matter where they are. Data on activities such as repairs and recalls have to be reported and shared across the industry to verify the health of railcars in service.

Industry rules help to ensure the entire industry applies the same standards to these types of tasks. Contained within the Association of American Railroads' official rules manuals, industry rules cover everything from component characteristics to data reporting procedures to processes around car hire. Many of Railinc's systems and applications are designed to support these rules-based activities and are embedded in critical operations and financial systems throughout the industry.

Two Sentences Help Reduce Customer Confusion Around a Rule

The sticky note above summarizes a user story connected with the freight rail industry's Rule 107 and was part of work completed in late 2015 on Railinc's Damaged and Defective Car Tracking (DDCT) system. The note reads:

US32251

Notification — Rule 107

Update verbiage

A centralized system for tracking damaged and defective railcars, DDCT standardizes the process for reporting and storing data on these cars. For decades, this information was documented on a 3 1/2-inch by 8-inch paper defect card affixed to the side of a railcar. Companies maintained their own tracking systems, which often led to conflicting or unavailable data and required car owners to contact carriers to find out a car's condition.


A defect card holder on the side of a railcar.

Implemented in January 2011, DDCT standardized these processes, improving data accuracy and timeliness, reducing administrative costs for railroads and car owners, and improving the enforcement of industry car hire rules. Industry rules require that rail carriers, car owners and repair shops use DDCT for all cars that participate in interchange.

Railinc team members at the whiteboard.

Rule 107, referenced in the sticky note, establishes the sequence of events that must occur to compensate a railcar owner whose equipment is damaged or destroyed. For example, if a railcar is damaged during interchange, the responsible rail carrier must follow steps detailed in Rule 107 to reimburse the car owner for the damage or to pay for the repair.

DDCT sends auto-generated email notifications to car owners throughout this process, helping them stay informed about the status of their cars.

"Based on what we were hearing from our customers, one of our emails needed more information," said Sophie Hamida, a business analyst on the DDCT team. "Car owners were taking time to call Railinc to find out why the system was displaying the data it was."

In this case, the repairs on a railcar might be complete, but the incident did not show in the system as being closed and the car itself was not removed from the related maintenance advisory. The DDCT team added verbiage to the email that detailed the timeline for closing the Rule 107 incident.

"The aim was to reduce customer confusion about why a car that might have returned to service still showed up in the DDCT system as an open incident," Hamida said. "We only added two sentences to the email, but it will help make what can be a challenging process a little easier for customers."

Railinc Program to Modernize Rules Management

The business logic, rules and processes embedded in Railinc products help to enable the enforcement of industry requirements, like Rule 107. Last year, the company launched a multi-year Rules and Process Modernization (RPM) program, which will modernize the management of the industry rules and processes that underlie our applications and systems.

The RPM program leverages technology to enable the company to take a more consultative approach with customers and helps to improve the efficiency, consistency and reliability of these rules and processes within Railinc applications. DDCT was among the program's proof of technology projects.

"Nearly half of our project development activities involve the implementation of business rules and processes," said Jeanine Bradley, senior manager for business rules and process management.

These rules and processes have traditionally been buried in code in Railinc applications. Because they were not visible and documented with a common language, it has been challenging to respond quickly to customer questions or requests for changes to applications.

"The RPM program is an effort to advance how we manage rules and processes within our applications," Bradley said. "We want to be able to eliminate the complexity so we can support our customers better and deliver innovative solutions that meet the ever-changing needs of the industry."

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Found on a Sticky Note

The sticky notes you find around Railinc tell stories about our culture and how we develop our products, how we learn from and work with our customers, and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. A regular feature on the Railinc Tracks blog, Found on a Sticky Note takes a look at an individual sticky note and provides insights into who we are and what we do.

Not all the sticky notes around our office have to do with the Agile software development method. Sometimes you just need a reminder to pick up snacks for your child's class.

Our employees love that Railinc supports work/life balance. Need to step out of the office to pick up those pretzels or run a few other errands? Is it your day to hit the gym for an afternoon workout? Or are you helping out in your child's classroom and need to be out of the office one morning? It isn't a problem. Our benefits include flexible scheduling and telecommuting options that give employees the freedom they need to get their Railinc work done without sacrificing their personal lives.

For example, an employee with a long commute could work from home a few days a week to cut down on the time they spend on the road. And we provide the technology and flexibility to work from home at a moment's notice if a child's illness, a personal matter or a snow day prevents an employee from coming to the office.

"The flexibility is one reason I've been here for 17 years," said Megan Rowe, a buyer for the company and the owner of the pretzel sticky note. The flexible scheduling—she works through lunch so she can leave a little early each day—helps her better manage her two daughters' schedules.

Telecommuting Offers Concentrated Work Time
For a long-term arrangement like an alternative work schedule or regular telecommuting, our full-time employees just need to work with their immediate manager to agree on terms. Because of the nature of specific jobs, some positions aren't eligible for telecommuting.

Leigh Baudreau, senior manager for financial planning and analysis, works from home one day a week. "It gives me concentrated work time," she said. "I'm always available on email and IM chat, but I can get quiet working time at home."

Everyone on Leigh's team can work from home twice a week, but the entire team is in the office together one day a week. It takes flexibility on the manager's part, Leigh said, and there are hectic times of the year. But the telecommuting option is a great benefit that her team appreciates, she said.

"I can work from home if I need to, take a break during the day for a pediatrician visit with my son or even just run a personal errand," said Chris Richter, communications manager. "I have two small children, and knowing that I have that flexibility gives me peace of mind when it comes to managing our schedules."

Railinc Supports Family Time in the Office
At Railinc, work/life balance isn't just about about figuring where and when to work. We also support family time in the office.

When school's out, it isn't unusual see children in the office, reading books or playing with toy trains while mom or dad works. On Halloween, you're likely to run into Batman or a princess or a cowboy walking around with buckets full of candy. Each year the children of employees visit the office for trick or treating, and employees decorate their work spaces and provide treats for the kids. And later this month, employees will bring their children to visit Railinc for Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

What better way for a kid to start their day than talking trains with mom or dad?

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Found on a Sticky Note

The sticky notes you find around Railinc tell stories about our culture and how we develop our products; how we learn from and work with our customers; and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. A regular feature on the Railinc Tracks blog, Found on a Sticky Note takes a look at an individual sticky note and provides insights into who we are and what we do.

We deal with big data all the time at Railinc. But one challenge of working with massive data sets is pulling only the information our customers need. When it comes to big data, more isn't always better.

And searching big data sets isn't easy, either. It requires query processes that enable the parsing of billions, or even trillions, of data records quickly to deliver exactly what the customer requests.

Until recently, our Car Hire Rate Negotiation Self-Service (CHRNSS, pronounced "churns") application was mining too much data as it delivered results to customers. The result: CHRNSS was churning, loading too slowly.

This Found on a Sticky Note looks at work we've done to ensure CHRNSS searches and pulls only what's needed, reducing the time it takes for the application to load and to return data after a query.

CHRNSS Helps Lessees, Car Owners Negotiate

CHRNSS gives users a single access point through which they can participate in negotiations around car hire. Car hire is the compensation paid to the owner of a railcar for its use.

In other words, if I want to "rent" a railcar that you own, we can use CHRNSS to negotiate the rate I pay. CHRNSS helps users better define the car types they need, car owners better segment their cars during the rate negotiation process and bid recipients quickly validate that the offered cars meet expectations.

It's a great tool that makes a complex process less complicated. But CHRNSS was taking up to a minute to load, and that was a problem for our customers.

Why was it taking so long?

CHRNSS provides a real-time feed of railroad data. Before we completed this work, the application pulled a massive amount of data, including information that wasn't necessary, from multiple tables when a user logged in. This led to the long wait time.

Slimming Down the Search

The sticky notes above, taken from the CHRNSS team's Agile task board, outline two steps in the work we did to simplify the data mining process and reduce the time it took for the application to load.

From top to bottom, the sticky notes read:

US27619
Update data model for BOT, BOTED

US27620
SQL script to push rate data up into bid_offer_transaction

US27618
Remove/change references to bid_offer_trans_equipment_detail

The top note, User Story 27619, tells the development team, in general terms, about the activities detailed in the two notes below it.

We updated the data model for a table called bid_offer_transaction (BOT). To do this, the project's lead developer created an SQL script that pushes relevant car hire rate data into the BOT table.

Now, the application doesn't have to search so many tables for the relevant car hire rate data. The data is already where it needs to be, in the BOT table.

We also removed references to a table called bid_offer_trans_equip_detail (BOTED). These references complicated the query process and slowed CHRNSS.

"There was a lot of unnecessary activity going on in CHRNSS, which was degrading the customer experience," said Rob Hannah, the project's lead developer.

Cutting Load Time to Less Than Two Seconds

Without references to these tables, CHRNSS now can make a beeline to the relevant car hire rate data. The updates to the application also enable users to see changes to offers as they occur.

Because we're mining only the relevant data sets, CHRNSS now loads in less than two seconds.

"This process involved refactoring a lot of code, and it was a huge testing effort that collected input from a group of CHRNSS users," said Meghan Finnie, a business analyst on the CHRNSS team. "But we wanted to get it right, and the feedback helped us make sure we gave customers what they wanted and make it easier for them to use the application."

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Found on a Sticky Note

Eight green and yellow sticky notes posted on a task board at Railinc, which practices the Agile software development method.

Take a walk around Railinc any morning and you'll see product teams meeting at glassboards plastered with multicolored sticky notes. These notes are a key element of the Agile software development methodology and provide a low-tech way to track the high-tech work that happens at Railinc.

Look deeper and the notes will tell the story of how we develop our products, how we learn from and work with our customers, and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. Here on our blog, we will pull out a snippet of that story in the form of a single sticky note. We'll tell you what's behind the words that are on it and give you a little insight into the work our people do every day to serve the freight rail industry.

Here at Railinc, these notes include information on everything from user stories and quality assurance checks to tasks in progress and tasks completed. Even though Agile is a cornerstone of Railinc's culture, the ways our teams use sticky notes are unique to each product group. Some use sticky notes to capture their tasks. Others focus on user stories. One team incorporates index card-sized printouts from a third-party Agile software that Railinc uses to track the progress of product development.

"The value the sticky notes is in the visibility," says Jose Solera, Railinc's director of enterprise services and our resident Agile evangelist. "With the notes, teams can see where they are in a project. They are easy to write and move around as things change. They're also a good way to prompt conversations about what's been done and what needs to get done."

—Railinc Corporate Communications