Ernie Lam, Senior Manager of Digital Products & Applications at Sydney Trains, explains the impact of a DevOps lifecycle to drive quality that keeps passengers and staff safe and satisfied. Discover how Ernie eagerly adopts an Agile approach that extends to the continuous learning of his team, and uses cutting-edge technology such as augmented reality. Ernie challenges the status quo and asserts that team goals should be prioritized over individual KPIs to collectively stay on track. The transcript below has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
Emma: Hello listeners, it’s your host Emma, and I’m very excited to chat with our guest today. Based out in Sydney, it’s Ernie Lam, Senior Manager of Digital Products and Applications at Sydney Trains, as part Transport for New South Wales. Ernie has truly excelled in the transportation space for over 20 years, and now eats Agile delivery for breakfast, leading the charge in application innovation at Sydney Trains.
This our second episode of our Transformation Resolution series, where we talk to leaders about their digital transformation aspirations for 2022, and crucially, how they plan to achieve them. Listeners, you may have heard legend of Ernie before as he deservedly won the Champion Customer Award back in 2020, and that was for championing continuous testing excellence and its business value by leveraging Tricentis as a partner.
Now we’re a year and a half on and I can’t wait to hear what’s new and what’s ahead at Sydney Trains.
Sydney Trains have been a customer with Tricentis since 2018, and it’s fair to say that they lead the development of safe, integrated, and efficient transport systems for the people of New South Wales.
With you at the helm of digital products and applications, and as you specialize and facilitating that agile delivery, how do you go about ensuring agility runs across app development?
Ernie: We focus on two aspects: building the foundational building blocks for city transit and transport for New South Wales in allowing Agile development, but also then leading into the people element. That’s just on the foundational level. When we first started, we really wanted to leverage a lot of the industry standards or frameworks around scrum, and we now use the Nexus Scale Framework for our teams, leveraging the DevOps principles along the way. And that’s really what took us to Tricentis and the use of Tosca as a tool to help us in that DevOps lifecycle.
“Our big focus is building in quality; regardless of whether you’re a government entity or private enterprise, we need to have that focus on building quality. That’s where we look to Tricentis as our partner to instill that quality, right through the development lifecycle.”
Ernie: That gives us the foundation, but it’s really the people that need to come on the journey. So we have a major focus on making sure we bring on the right people who have the right mindset, to use things like Tosca, to contribute to the Agile development. I think moving forward, that’s our main focus; tools are great, but it’s about selecting the right people, investing in them, and having those community of practices.
The big thing is finding those principles of willing to continuously learn, and actually giving our employees that space to learn, because you can’t just throw these tools at them and expect them to magically use them if we don’t help them, mentor them, and coach them. Those two things together—getting the industry-leading tools with the best people possible—means you hopefully get the perfect marriage.
Emma: It makes perfect sense that you would adopt that framework off the basis of Agile, because it is a very dynamic way of working; fast-paced, moving from that waterfall model. You require that kind of dynamic mindset change; thinking quite fast on your feet, and of course the scrum aspect there and always working together with tight communication. It makes sense that it took that linear flow of tool and then people, but you kept that people focus as well, and that you continue to do that.
I read on your LinkedIn that in embracing Agile, it allows you to really challenge the status quo of an organization. I think that’s a really great attitude to have that if you take on your role, that you’re willing to really switch that framework around to give the best basis for innovation and achieving what you want to achieve at Sydney Trains.
Ernie: Yeah. We say to our teams, you’ve got to try and remove that fear or failure.
“Too often as managers, we put these KPIs on people and we expect them to perform, and yet we couldn’t do that when we’re performing those roles. So it’s not fair to expect that. We need to give them the space to try and experiment; even if you’ve got these tools, you need a chance to learn them.“
Ernie: I say to my team, “if things don’t make sense, just say no. Test the water, see what the reaction is”. Then quite often, most of the time people go, “Okay, we won’t do it”. If there’s no value in it, then challenge the process, because otherwise we’ll just become robots who just follow a list of tasks from 1 to 10 each day.
Emma: Totally. I think it’s such value to hear from your manager that you can push back if it’s not working. It sounds like you’ve got a really good culture there at Sydney Trains for encouraging the best in innovation, but also allowing your staff to reach their capacity. In the end, they’re going to produce better work. That’s an awesome attitude to have, Ernie. Really encouraging to hear.
We’re at the start of 2022. You mentioned a little bit about the tooling aspect, and of course, you set your team up incredibly well. What kind of digital initiatives lie ahead for you and your team?
Ernie: Because we’re a government organization, and our vision is around transport and delivering the best transport system we can to people in New South Wales, we don’t have that shareholder focus on making revenue as such, so our focus is customers and safety.
Today, our two major focuses, one is digitizing the work experience for our staff. The major initiative is taking our drives and guards—over two and a half thousand of them—they’re not in the office, so we want them to be driving trains. So how do we provide technology to support them? There are so many things from doing work, reading manuals, to helping them balance their worklife, to how do they swap shifts if they need to attend their kid’s school assembly. How do we let them create that opportunity, and swap with someone or request time off, when they don’t necessarily see their manager all the time.
The other one is a big safety focus because we’re about keeping our employees safe whilst they’re at work. So we’re using augmented reality as part of tracking worker safety.
“We’re using augmented reality to help visualize and find assets, thousands and thousands of them. Assets being like a signal, gate, or piece of track. If we can help them find that piece of asset quicker, we reduce the time they spend on a track. The less time you spend, the less chance you get in an accident, which means ultimately we save lives. That’s our focus for the year. It’s great for the staff because saving lives means something to people. And when you can articulate that in value, people feel more passionate.“
Ernie: That’s where the quality comes in, because now you’re more focused on quality because the team are saying, “well, we actually need to use these tools in our testing lifecycle to make sure we build that quality.” If you don’t, the impact is bad. So we need to be building that quality product, otherwise it’ll never get used because it’s too risky.
Emma: There’s a video out for Sydney Trains about the self-service app, and it was really great to see that. As you say, you get that faster shift swap and that roster view now. It’s awesome to see that you’re pushing that for both employees and the experience of your travelers.
It’s really interesting to know that you’re doing this augmented reality, an enhanced version of the physical world to mimic what’s out there, ultimately for your customers’ safety. If that is the undercurrent of all of your work, then it makes sense that you then get that passion aspect really come up, and the will to commit.
Part 1 outro
Emma: It’s definitely rewarding to hear from Ernie that partnering with Tricentis is an essential part of the DevOps lifecycle at Sydney Trains, helping them drive software quality and ultimately provide optimum safety. Recognizing that adopting DevOps goes beyond tooling, Ernie’s investment in his team and their training is relevant to application teams across industries.
It’s also fascinating to hear that his team are using pioneering software like adopting augmented reality to track employee safety, and also pushing for quality with a digitalized staff experience.
Emma: When you accepted the Champion Award Ernie, you gave some awesome advice. You have already touched on the staff aspect and really investing in them, but also in that speech you say that you should really invest in the training and the development of your staff.
Why is investing in your staff crucial? How do you plan to continue to invest this year to assist the transformations that lie ahead?
Ernie: It is crucial because we believe in continuous learning. We hear in Agile that it’s around continuous integration, continuous development, incremental delivery, and very much focused on product and delivery itself. Now, if you extend that out on a personal level for everyone, continuous learning should be a natural extension of that. And that’s why we’re looking for people who are passionate about their learning.
“We always say that not everyone can know everything. There are no unicorns in life, and you will not have a team of unicorns in your scrum team. So what can you do? You can support your team to have the passion to learn, because technology is moving so fast, everyone’s learning stuff as they go along. We’ve learnt that we need to select the right people and provide that time for learning.“
Ernie: Probably the learning was that we didn’t do enough, and we probably should have provided more time. Because if we did, then we probably would have adopted and embedded Tosca even quicker—and then got the benefits earlier. As managers we don’t want that typical business case; how much is going to cost? X number of hours times the number of people, it shouldn’t be that focus. It’s how much value can you get earlier by getting people using this tool earlier; that’s really the focus.
“I talk a lot about people because without those people, it doesn’t matter if you buy the tool. I’m not an expert in Tosca, so I need my team to be the leaders of that, and I want them to lead. Even the selection of Tosca was decided by them, not by me; it was them selecting the best tool they found in the market that would work.“
Emma: I believe it was a CTO, Tommy Cheung; I read that he’d selected Tricentis as the vendor of choice. As you say, it comes from that level of buy-in. It’s awesome in a way, because then it has that real shared understanding. It trickles down then, and it might give more room for adopting that training. And as you said, investing early on, so that the teams really know how to use that tool.
I wonder too—if as you said, there’s a real kind of safety focus at Sydney Trains, an innovation focus, because it’s not quite as revenue focused—maybe there’s a little more leeway for investing that time in training and getting your employees up to speed.
Ernie: Yeah. It comes right from the top. There is that culture of learning, and we have a Technology Academy as a result of feedback from staff asking how they can have these learning opportunities. We’re supported by New South Wales investing in the Technology Academy; not just for permanent staff, but for contractors and people at work.
So we’re leveraging partners like Tricentis, and our other partners. There’s the Tricentis Academy where some of the Tosca courses are free, so for people who want to learn, not only can you do the courses because Tricentis are offering them, but we can provide the hands-on experience which is just as crucial as the course. We’re now opening up the opportunities for people to experience other teams, to learn if they have the passion to want to do it. So we’re not saying you will do it; it’s up to the individual.
Emma: That makes sense. It’s great to hear because on our end, I remember when that initiative launched—the free training—not long after the pandemic started, and the uptake was phenomenal. And it is great to see that it’s when it’s a matter of access, not the will to do it, then it showed us that there is that passion for learning and taking that time. So it’s really great to hear from your end that that’s been uptaken and driven as well from you and other leaders. It’s awesome to hear that you have that real championing of the tools from that level, and clearly you’re an incredible champion for testing excellence.
How does your team innovate in testing following your lead? Are there any kind of precedents that you set?
Ernie: I think it’s around letting the team make decisions. I still go back to the scrum framework of inspection and adaption. When we first looked at this many years ago, as I said, it was the team that decided how do we do this better? So we created a proof of concept. They tried all the market tools without Tricentis knowing, and we tested [Tosca] out and saw how easy it was in a real life example with one of our current products; how easy it was to automate tests. So we did all that before we even spoke to Tricentis, or any of the market vendors. So that was a team decision, and we carry that forward. That was just the start of it.
“We explore. We ask, how do we test this better? We say to the team to give it a try. Create a product backlog item to try out, and communicate your recommendation back to the team.“
Ernie: Quite often, this is where we will leverage Tricentis Support, because we’ll say, “OK, this is new to us, how do we try this?”, and get their advice on how to accomplish things. In the testing space, that’s really pushing as far as we can to embed it in the DevOps lifecycle. Some people might just go, well, we’ll just do it for regression testing only. But then, how do you make it part of your development? How do your developers use it as part of their day-to-day unit testing?
The other thing we then started doing was showcasing the tool to our internal customers, and that builds customers’ confidence in the quality you’re building. In one of the other sessions I had with Tricentis, they asked what my favorite feature was, and I said to them my favorite feature was to be able to demo, and record a test to our customers, because they don’t want to know about Tosca or the tool. They want to know what you’re doing, and now you’ve saved me 30 minutes x 80 test cases. You can explain the benefit and value to them of investing in a tool.
Emma: That’s awesome. It’s really encouraging to hear that, and it makes sense that the demo feature allows you to show that real recorded test case, and then ultimately show the impact. Thank you for giving me that kind of level of detail, moving from embedded regression to incorporating developers; I feel like that’s DevOps in its essence.
You’re really giving the power and responsibility to your team. For example, that they research the tool, give it a try; it’s that soft play which is clearly paying off. Really good to hear that.
In 10 words or less, what’s your best advice for anyone aiming to reach their digital transformation goals in 2022?
Ernie: Have flexibility in the journey that you’re going to be taking. Everyone’s journey is going to different. There’s no consultant who can come in and deliver you a 20-page pack that will tell you exactly how to get from A to B; you’ve got to do it yourself.
“It’s our responsibility as managers and leaders of teams to be prepared to stand up for our staff. To say the journey is often unknown, be prepared for failure, and be prepared to change. We have to make sure we drive that culture through our leadership and senior management, because if we don’t, then we’re not going to have that culture.“
Emma: It makes sense considering your Agile focus, being flexible and malleable, and also recognizing that everyone’s journey is different. I think that’s crucial to any digital transformation that lies ahead.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the application development world, what might that be?
Ernie: If you let me take liberty of two different answers; my first one, at a team level, I would make sure that every person speaks to the customer, regardless of whether you’re a business analyst, a developer, or even a tester. We say to our testers, “you need to engage with the end customer. Because if you don’t understand why they want something, how are you making sure that you’re building the best product?” So that typical voice of the customer type. We can say to IT companies, just give the opportunity for every person to at least speak to the customer somehow; workshops or some format.
Secondly, at a management level, I think we should get rid of all individual KPIs. My personal belief is that what individual KPIs introduce is a human tendency to strive to that, and what that creates is putting yourself to achieve the KPI ahead of the team. Quite often individual’s KPIs may conflict with team objectives. And I think with the traditional model we sit down every year and say, let’s create these targets. And I think that creates selfishness potentially, and conflict for everyone.
We don’t need to do that. If we say, “here are the team objectives, we want you to contribute to the team or the company objectives as a whole”, not “here is percentage we want you to hit; we want you to complete 50 stories this week, or you need to hit a velocity of 80 points, otherwise, you will have not met or failed your KPI”; to me that doesn’t work. And yet too many companies are still going down this traditional model.
Emma: Yeah, it’s interesting you’re challenging that, and it’s not something I’d really considered until now. But it does make a lot of sense, because if you’re working as a team, and of course as a team you have these goals to aspire to, it seems disjointed if each individual on that team has these different KPIs. And then that could create a team framework that is conflicting, as you say.
I really liked your point about having that customer contact; I feel incredibly fortunate that I’m able to speak to customers through the podcast and have that interaction. It really does bring what you do to life. I read that one of Sydney Trains’ main tenants is putting the customer at the heart of everything that you do. It’s great to hear that that’s not being like signalled; that is being embodied at the company, and it’s really encouraging to hear. And there’s been a definite theme of the people focus throughout this conversation, which I think is obviously testament to your great management skills.
Part 2 outro
It really struck me when Ernie asserted that continuous learning of teams is crucial, alongside the aspects of Agile that relate to product and delivery such as CI/CD. Extending agility to people as well as process is clearly key to him and his team’s success. Their scrum framework also results in smart and collective decisions on testing, like how to test better or what to automate.
Taking a leaf or two out of Ernie’s book, by valuing customer feedback and prioritizing team goals over individual KPIs, could really set you up for success this year.
Check out the latest podcast episodes for more insights from thought leaders like Ernie.