Mobile and Responsive Dev

Learning from Philae

Dec. 1 2014
Shawn Smiley
Director of Engineering Operations

How to Plan, Execute & Succeed in Your Drupal Development Projects

On November 12, 2014 the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully landed its space probe Philae, on the comet dubbed 67P. After orbiting in space for 10 years, circling around Earth and Mars, then around Earth twice more, Philae finally reached its destination. Once latched onto the comet, Philae began its mission to drill and collect data from the 67P’s core. So why should a Drupal development company care about the Philae mission? Besides the groundbreaking precedent that Philae set for future comet and asteroid exploration, Philae is important because it is a great example to learn from in regards to planning a large complex project such as launching a rocket or completing an enterprise software project. While the accomplishment alone is worth an infinite amount of praise, one cannot truly appreciate the mission until you learn about the extensive planning, attention to the most minute details and collaborative effort that was required for mission success.

As more information has come out about Philae in the aftermath of its mission, one thing that has become apparent is that Achieve Internet and the ESA share a very similar philosophy with regards to how we launch projects. While they trail blaze uncharted paths in space exploration we do the same for our clients. One of Achieve’s founding principles was to always be on the cutting edge of digital technology – this is as true today as it was in our early years. This deeply rooted philosophy has been the driving force that allows us to deliver advanced technology solutions to our clients as they look to maintain a competitive edge in their respective industries.

How Exactly are We Similar?

Planning is Crucial

The mission to land a probe on a comet was first conceived in the 1980’s. It was approved in 1993 after 10 painstaking years of planning. As the old adage goes, failure to plan is planning to fail. This is why we dedicate a phase of development entirely to planning. During the discovery phase, one of our solution architects intently analyzes and synthesizes all potential information for the project including, business objectives, potential end users, the key stakeholders, and the desired functionality of the final product. They use this information to build the basic outline of our blueprint.

We take this stage seriously because it synthesizes the clients’ ideas and needs from a concept into the foundation with which we use to deliver the final solution. Our planning phase produces a number of key documents that consist of requirements definition, wireframes and prototypes to clearly define the client’s expectations. This helps bring bold ideas from concept to reality. ​

 

Always be Prepared for Curveballs

Construction of the probe finished in 2000 but as fate would have it, a rocket problem delayed the launch forcing a new comet to be selected for landing, which delayed the launch another 4 years. During its approach to the comet, Philae bounced off the surface twice and lost communication with mission control before settling on the surface. Once stable, Philae’s anchors failed to launch and there was fear that the mission had failed. Engineers always have confidence in their abilities that their projects will run smoothly, but past experience tells us that that is very unlikely.

It’s important to note that curveballs don’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. By applying and adhering to a disciplined process it is possible to absorb challenges along the road and turn them into opportunities. Rather than forgoing the mission the ESA had the ability to select a new comet and completing their mission. Who knows, perhaps the original comet was not as optimal as 67P – only time will tell. In our experience we have had challenges with completing integration work due to limited resources from the client side when writing web services to facilitate the integration. Again, rather than giving up on the projects we have been able to adopt that work and take on the .net development without causing too much strain on our resources. The discipline to our process allowed us to easily incorporate the new technology and work – turning a challenge into an opportunity. 

Stay Committed to Your Process

The 67P landing was a 30-year mission from start to finish. Over the course of 30 years a lot of things had to change, but one thing that surely remained the same was an operational process that the ESA was firmly committed to. While our projects are on a much shorter timeline, our engineering team still stresses an unwavering dedication and adherence to our own operational processes. What that means practically is the utilization of our JIRA workflow so our team can track all of the issues that we are working on. We deploy an agile development methodology and sprint planning as the overarching engineering philosophy. We utilize code reviews as well as architecture and planning sessions to ensure that we are adhering to the clients’ requirements.

One of the most rigorous steps in our process is Quality Assurance (QA). We recently collaborated on a project with Trailer Park, the world's leading entertainment agency, which demanded a very thorough QA process. That included intensive device testing for every screen permutation to ensure pixel perfect display for the high profile site. The reason that we stress this process is to employ as much standardization as possible. Big projects are complicated so a standard process is paramount to maintain the necessary level of continuity for success.

Have the Right Team

Philae was a joint effort by 13 European nations and Canada with each party taking on a different role, for example Austria developed the anchor system while Poland provided the surface sensors used for landing and so forth. To accomplish great things you must have the right people on your team. Our process requires copious amounts of collaboration and coordination across our entire organization to ensure that we’re all rowing in the same direction. This methodology has proven to be key in the past when we were asked to take over projects and “right the ship”. This requires a level of process and culture integration with the other teams involved to ensure that the projects launch on time and exceed client expectations.

While we have never launched a spacecraft into orbit, the similar philosophy between the Philae project and Achieve is a testament to who we are as a company. We don’t want to take on projects for the sake of cranking out something that simply works. We set out to build large and complex enterprise Drupal solutions that demand total commitment from the entire organization.

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