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.

How Agile Killed My Product (and Other Success Stories)

You know the process—blood, sweat, tears. Some tech projects just go down that way. You feel like you’re giving blood because you really want it to succeed. The sweat comes from all the hard work. Then tears. Most teams are disappointed when their project gets canceled. But this time they were tears of joy, because we knew we were doing something right.

And killing that project eight years ago signaled a breakthrough in the Railinc software development process.

We had already tried and failed once to apply the Agile software development methodology to one of our tech projects. While customers were indeed more engaged with us, it turned out that we had picked the wrong project. And we had insufficient infrastructure in place to support it. And we had stretched our development team too thin. And the list goes on. It just wasn’t right.

But we tried again because we saw opportunity. We could make products our customers would like better. We could lower our cost of doing business. We could transform our IT culture and become a more dynamic and highly productive organization. So the next time we tried it, we had the right project and the right people. We brought in Agile consultants to advise us. We had executive support and the infrastructure we needed. Our customers were on board and fully engaged.

Then, bam! It hit us. As our work progressed and we collaborated with our customers, the business team concluded that the product did not meet a viable market need.

We had worked so well with our customers—prioritizing needs, deploying iterations and assessing performance—that they quickly saw that the product was not right and wasn’t going to be right. So we killed it and transformed our business.

What Is Agile?

A group of software development methodologies based on iterative development, Agile enables product requirements and solutions to evolve through collaboration among self-organizing, cross-functional teams. Coined in 2001, the term refers to the Agile Manifesto, which espouses four principles:

  1. Individuals and interactions over process and tools

  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Unlike typical “waterfall” development, it has increased employee productivity, engaged employees and brought us closer to our customers. With Agile, customers become deeply involved with the product early in the development process.

A group of Railinc employees meeting in front of a white board."Agile and our culture are focused on having discussions, which is why you see sticky notes and white boards covered in ideas throughout our offices," said Jose Solera, Railinc's director of enterprise services and our resident Agile evangelist.

Based on customer input during the process, we immediately build relevant features that address their business needs. If a feature doesn't meet a need, we can fix it, throw it out or try something else, always improving the product as we develop it. Or maybe we just kill it because it doesn’t work. Customers feel empowered because of their involvement in the process. They feel valued because we listen to them. And they feel satisfied because they get what they want most, more quickly than they thought possible.

Agile also pleases our employees. They feel better about their jobs because the customer uses more of their work and values it. Plus their daily interaction with business representatives and end-users empowers them to innovate. Teams largely manage themselves, and teamwork improves as a result.

Adopting Agile Gave Us New Life

Few companies practiced Agile when we began considering it a decade ago. But Railinc needed a change. At the time, we were dragged down too often by problems like inadequate requirements, rigid schedules, buggy systems and the perception that our IT operation was just too slow. Like in any change in doctrine, some people felt threatened and others expressed skepticism that it would work. Something had to give.

We used external consultants to help us uphold the tenets of the doctrine. We carefully picked internal staff to propagate “the faith.” We put great deliberation into choosing our Agile pilot project to improve chances of success. We quietly converted development staff along the way to advance our cause one person at a time.
But killing that project gave us new life.

It enabled us to thoughtfully take on the challenge of changing our corporate culture and convincing customers to adopt Agile and its principles. The first several projects taught us much. We weren't well prepared early on, and that made customers uncomfortable. We learned, adjusted and improved. Now they become believers on Day 1 of every project.

Railinc Becomes a Leader in Agile

Almost 10 years later, we've gotten past the growing pains and learned how to do Agile at the enterprise level. Our people have grown to become Agile leaders recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Through our employees' hard work and commitment and our customers' willingness to collaborate, Agile has just become the way we get work done at Railinc.

Killing that project was one of the best things we've done at Railinc. Agile guides our work across the organization, from product development and infrastructure management to business and product planning. Our projects come in ahead of schedule and under budget, and deployments happen quicker and more often.

Sticky notes on a task board at Railinc, which practices the Agile software development method.

In 2015 alone, we will focus on a dozen critical industry projects that will lead to such outcomes as a multi-layered digital map of North America's busiest rail terminal; an industry capability to more quickly identify railcar component and equipment failure patterns; and the ability to assign mileage to railcars in real time. And we have lots of internal IT projects, too, including the implementation of a rules process management system and the completion of a disaster recovery program. Agile will help us to deliver on all of these projects and provide valuable, consequential technology solutions for the freight rail industry.

But proof is in the performance. Our customers appreciate what Agile has done for Railinc and our development process. We hear it in emails to our executive team and in conversations with customers. And our Net Promoter Score (NPS) reflects our success. The annual NPS survey asks one question: “How likely are you to recommend my company to someone you know?” Since 2010, our NPS has improved by 37 percent, and we’ve grown from 170 employees to almost 300 now. Our future shines brightly.

"The entire Railinc organization is focused on supporting our customers through the delivery of data," Solera said. "The focus of our leadership has been to make sure we deliver on that commitment."

And we do, thanks to Agile.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc Hits the Road to Connect with Customers

Railinc employees will rack up a ton of frequent flyer miles again in 2015, attending more than a dozen rail industry and technology conferences and meetings across the U.S. We'll be sharing industry insights, providing training opportunities, connecting with and learning from customers, and talking about Railinc and our products and services.

One place where we're a regular is the annual Rail Equipment Finance Conference, which each year attracts attendees including railcar leasing companies, financial institutions, and railcar and locomotive manufacturers. Railinc employees have presented there for the last 15 years, and we provide the event's opening presentation, which reports on demographics and trends related to the North American railcar and locomotive fleets. You can download the 2015 North American Railcar Review, the 2015 North American Locomotive Review and past years' reports here.

We also attend meetings of industry groups like the Association of Car Accounting and Car Services Officers. At these meetings, we often lead training sessions on car hire and cover a range of topics including including reporting and settlement of car hire, the reclaims process and interchange reporting.

"These events give us a chance to enhance our relationships with our customers and really get a deeper understanding of their opportunities and challenges," said Chuck Hieronymi, director of business solutions. "They help us connect with the industry and gain insights into how we can help solve our customers' most impactful business needs."

Railinc is currently scheduled to attend the events listed below in 2015. 
 

Date Conference Location
March 1-4 Rail Equipment Finance Conference La Quinta, Calif.
March 4-5 Pacific Northwest Association of Rail Shippers Portland, Ore.
March 24-26 Southeast Assocation of Rail Shippers Savannah, Ga.
April 15-18 TIA Annual Convention Orlando, Fla.
April 22-24 Northeast Assocation of Rail Shippers Newport, R.I.
May 4-7 North American Rail Mechanical Operations Seminar Indianapolis, Ind.
May 5-7 SAP Sapphire Orlando, Fla.
May 12-15 Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference Phoenix, Ariz.
May 13-15 Association of Car Accounting and Car Service Officers Springdale, Ark.
May 26-28 NARS Annual Meeting Chicago, Ill.
Aug. 9-12 OTM Users Group Philadelphia, Pa.
Sept. 27-30 CSCMP Annual Conference San Diego, Calif.
Oct. 4-7 Railway Interchange 2015 Minneapolis, Minn.
Oct. 7-8 Southwest Association of Rail Shippers Dallas, Texas
Nov. 2-6 Business Building Capability Las Vegas, Nev.
Nov. 11-13 Association of Car Accounting and Car Service Officers Albuquerque, N.M.


—Railinc Corporate Communications

Hua Wu Wins 2014 Railinc President's Award

A photograph of Hua Wu, Railinc's 2014 employee of the year.Congratulations to Hua Wu for receiving the President's Award as Railinc’s employee of the year for 2014. Hua was recognized at our February all-employee meeting.

"Hua is one of the unsung heroes at Railinc. He has excellent technical skills and shows up every day committed to serving our customers," said Railinc President and CEO Allen West. "Hua finds ways to reinvigorate our work—evaluating and bringing new technologies, collaborating across departments and improving our systems for the benefit of the broader rail industry.”

Hua has had a solid career at Railinc, joining the company in 2006 as the Java technical lead. This year he earned the top rating for his position among senior software engineers. Over the years he has made significant contributions to the Embargoes, Forward & Store and Clear Path systems.

According to his nomination, the team faced challenges with the Forward & Store application, which was causing schedule risks for the mainframe migration projects and the Forward & Store upgrade project. Hua stepped in, led the team and resolved the issue. Due to his involvement, the Forward & Store upgrade project was able to start and end on time, which eventually led to a “perfect five” project survey score from Railinc customers.

"Hua is a dream employee for any development manager. He champions best practices but is also results-driven and practical," Joan Smemoe, senior manager of application engineering, wrote in her nomination.​

The other nominees for the 2014 Railinc President's Award were:

  • ​Chad Boos

  • Meshalle Carter

  • Alan McDonald

  • Eva Anderson

  • Matt Beaver

  • Doni Reece

  • Mark Hawkins

  • Angela Buccigrosse

  • Jerri Moore-Platis

  • Syam Balakrishnan

The Railinc President’s Award is part of our Rewards and Recognition Program, which recognizes and supports the good work that happens at Railinc during the year on an individual, departmental and company-wide basis.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Focus on Customers Delivers Big Results

Railinc is the railroad industry's reliable resource for IT and information services, and our work is 100 percent data-driven. But how do you apply logic and bytes to the human aspects of customer service?

The answer for us was an internal education and advocacy campaign that bolstered the customer service approach of our tech-focused employees. And it’s easy to see that the effort is paying off.

After holding steady for a few years, our product satisfaction scores have improved, and our Net Promoter Score® (NPS) rose 40 percent since 2012, from 45 to 63. That puts Railinc’s NPS in the range of some of the best known brands in the world, including Southwest Airlines (66), Netflix (50) and Google (53), and ahead of many others.*


A bar chart showing that Railinc's Net Promoter Score has increased by 39 percent, from 46 to 63, since 2010.


Looking at Railinc Through Our Customers' Eyes

The NPS survey asks one question: “How likely are you to recommend my company to someone you know?” (You can learn more about the NPS score and how it’s calculated here.) It focuses on the overall, long-term happiness of a customer and not just their latest transaction. We survey our customers every six months to gain insights and perspectives across a wide range of products and into overall company performance.

“We had to look at our applications from the customers’ standpoint,” said Paul Gaglione, Railinc’s director of customer experience. “The key was developing close relationships with our customers and delivering on their expectations.”

That might sound like a simple business philosophy. Simple, maybe, if you’re manufacturing bars of soap and can track customer satisfaction through sales. But Railinc has a unique array of more than 40 products and services, many of which have been railroad industry standards for years. We serve a mix of longtime legacy customers, along with new clients who are experiencing our products for the first time.

We knew our products were popular, but we also wanted to improve the total user experience for customers. We launched our first product-satisfaction survey in 2010 and included the NPS component. We have used the same survey for the past five years to gather information, establish benchmarks and track trends.

Railinc Focuses on Improving Customer Experience

At the same time we began using NPS, we also put together an internal team with experience in customer service. The diversity of their business backgrounds—Gaglione had once managed nightclubs!—helped Railinc develop best practices it could apply to all products and services.

The team realized that internal deadlines or technical solutions often drove product-design decisions. But we needed employees to become more focused on how satisfied customers were with our service.

Railinc kicked off an internal campaign in 2013—supported by the newly created Customer Experience group. The project began by asking employees to focus on:

  1. Developing a relationship with the customer

  2. Understanding the customer's needs and expectations

  3. Delivering on your promise

“In 2013, we were all about changing the mindset of our own people,” Gaglione said. “It’s everything from the way we answer the phone to how we walk customers through our upgrades. A red button on an online dashboard might sound like a great change to us internally, but if customers are used to a blue button, then it could be very disruptive for them.”

Close Customer Contact Drives Results at Railinc

Using a product satisfaction survey helps Railinc quickly respond when changes are needed. In 2012, we saw scores drop for one product following an upgrade. So we reached out to that product's users with additional surveys. Then we assigned technical staff to make quick adjustments that better met customers needs. The scores for that product were on the rise within six months.

“We all saw the benefit of that,” Gaglione said. “I use it as my shining example of what happens when we listen to the customer.”

Railinc also invested in quality assurance to improve overall customer satisfaction. “We want to wipe out problems in the design phase,” Gaglione said. “Our goal is to never have problems reach the customer.”

Product Support has also focused on reducing the time it takes to respond to and resolve customer concerns. Many of these are thorny technical issues, but we’ve succeeded in cutting the resolution time in half. We are also using a new post-incident survey to help us monitor product satisfaction between the semi-annual NPS surveys.

All the customer-service initiatives are delivering results and changing perceptions of the company.

"From 2013 to 2014, our NPS score took a huge leap," Gaglione said. "We're very proud of that, but the work is not finished. We have to continue to educate and advocate for a customer-centric workforce.

“I tell people it’s simple: If you don’t know what the customer needs, just ask.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

*These comparative scores were published by Satmetrix Systems for 2013.

Net Promoter, Net Promoter Score, and NPS are trademarks of Satmetrix Systems, Inc., Bain & Company, Inc. and Fred Reichheld.

The Word from MARS: Life Is Good for Freight Rail

More than 600 people gathered on January 14 and 15 for the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers (MARS) annual meeting. The weather was typical of winters in Chicago, but the meeting produced a warm glow. For most everyone involved in freight rail, it seems like these are good times. The meeting was upbeat and enthusiastic.

Barbara Wilson, president of First Union Rail set the tone. “Demand is strong across the board for rail cars,” she told the group during her address, titled "Life is Good."

A ballroom full of attendees of the January 2015 meeting of the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers (MARS).Shipments are increasing, including in intermodal which she sees as a particularly “exciting” area. And she said congestion problems caused by the unusually snowy winter last year are being resolved through the tireless efforts by tens of thousands of North American railroaders. Railroading is hard work, but it is paying off.

We were at the meeting, too, enjoying our role as a critical connector for railroads and supporting the industry’s need for data to improve operations and help keep freight moving. Meetings like MARS give Railinc a chance to spend time face-to-face with customers and to hear from key leaders what’s going on in the industry. It makes us smarter and keeps us focused.

That’s important especially because Railinc applications and services are embedded in critical operations and financial systems throughout the industry. They support railroads, rail equipment owners and rail industry suppliers at many steps in the supply chain. We deliver millions of data messages over our EDI network each day, including data related to transportation waybills, advance train consists, blocking requests and responses and trip plans that help keep trains moving.

And we work closely with the people on important industry committees sponsored by the Association of American Railroads. These committees identify common business problems that can be addressed through centralized data and technology resources.

For example, products like Railinc’s track and trace services help customers locate cars and their shipments in the rail network. Other products help communicate train traffic conditions to prevent or reduce train congestion in critical areas like the Chicago Gateway. We also maintain Industry References Files, the only industry-accepted version of the North American railroad industry's official code tables. These are the data files that everyone uses to ensure a smooth exchange of information among business partners.

So that’s why we attend important events like these. In the coming years, Railinc will continue to create value behind the scenes with more essential products and services. And, of course, our people will continue to participate in key freight rail conferences and meetings and committee gatherings—even taking more trips to places like MARS.

—Railinc Corporate Communications