Digital Transformation Earns Its Wings with Schiphol Airport’s Maud & Lennart

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A podcast about the low-code shift & the makers bringing ideas to life.

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Episode 9

Digital Transformation Earns Its Wings with Schiphol Airport’s Maud & Lennart

Synopsis

Maud and Lennart discuss how collaborating with a wide array of stakeholders is key to their development process, focusing on people and process first as they digitize airport operations, how low-code has enabled their team to quickly respond to changes due to COVID, and finally, the importance of unlocking and applying data as they create the future of Schiphol’s operations.​

Transcript

/ Mark Manning /
Welcome to Make/Shift. Mark Manning here, Customer Evangelist at Mendix. We’re here to explore how your peers have adopted low-code, and the pain points they’ve addressed with the platform. We’ll take an authentic, unfiltered look at the solutions our customers are building to digitize their processes, to deliver much-needed solutions to market more quickly, and to cut down the cost of development.

With nearly 72 million passengers served in 2019, Amsterdam Schiphol is the third busiest airport in Europe. And on today’s episode, we chat with Maud, a product owner from Schiphol and Lennart, a Mendix expert from our implementation partner Ordina. On this episode, Maud and Lennart will take us through the Schiphol Today app, which provides tools for customer-supporting airport employees to digitally manage their tasks. Using the app, these employees are helping to streamline the airport’s operational tasks. Today we’ll talk about how collaborating with a wide range of stakeholders is key to their development process, focusing on people and process first as they digitize airport operations, how low-code has enabled their team to quickly respond to changes due to COVID, and finally, the importance of unlocking and applying data as they create the future of Schiphol’s operations.

Thanks for joining today. Maud and Lennart, would you mind introducing yourselves and your roles at Schiphol and Ordina?

/ Maud Schijen /
Yes. So my name is Maud. Well, I just turned 30 this year. I live in Amsterdam for 10 years now, where I studied economics and I started my career with a two-year multi-company traineeship. And then in 2018, I started as a product owner at Schiphol and there, I got the responsibility to build a team, to develop the Schiphol Today app.

/ Lennart Spaans /
Great. My name is Lennart Spaans. I’m a Mendix developer, I have a senior developer role at Ordina Digital Services. And I’ve been involved with the project since about a year now, since the start. I’m coming from a business background originally and I’ve gradually moved towards IT more and more during my career. And I love working with Mendix because of that great combination, of Business and IT.

/ Mark Manning /
Great to hear it. I suppose, a logical place to start would be with you Maud. As the product owner could you tell us a little bit about the Schiphol Today app?

/ Maud Schijen /
Yes. Yeah. The Schiphol Today app we, with my team, make an application, the Schiphol Today app, for the mobile workforce of Schiphol, and the mobile workforce currently need an easy-to-use tool, that helps them to perform their job. And with this application, we give them access to all the relevant information they need to perform the tasks on a daily basis. And we also give them the tools to digitally execute these tasks. And what we are actually trying to achieve, and our mission, is aligned with our mission that is to create operational excellence by actually empowering the people and that we do with Schiphol Today app.

/ Mark Manning /
And could you give us an example really of how this has helped Floor Managers in their day to day and perhaps something they really appreciate you’re building for them?

/ Maud Schijen /
Yeah, so one, I can, one of the main responsibilities of the Floor Manager is to keep the terminal safe and clean and in their best state for the passenger. And that means that they have the responsibility to report any defects or unsafe situations when they encounter them. And how they were previously doing that was that they would call the right party to solve the problem. And then they would tell each other what happened during the shift handover, and that they already reported that incident so that their colleague in the next shift would know what was going on. But then you can imagine that after three shifts handovers or so, this message is lost in translation. So what we built for them was, two, where they could report these incidents or unsafe situation directly to the right party, so they don’t have to call anymore. And at the same time, it’s also locked into the app. So you get a clear overview of what’s going on where, so I think that’s one good example.

/ Lennart Spaans /
Well, I think an important thing about that is they have an overview for specifically the area that they’re working in at that moment, but they also have the possibility to add and to read updates about the information. So, they can follow exactly the entire trail of every step that’s being taken to solve the incident. And I think that everybody gets a sense of control, that they never had before.

/ Mark Manning /
And could you go into what folks on the floor at Schiphol are doing with the application, the specific tasks that it helps enable and perhaps how they were doing it before you provided them an application?

/ Maud Schijen /
Yeah, so the Floor Managers, that’s the users of the application. They are working 24/7. So they have three shifts during the day that they’re working. So logically they hand over their shift information to another colleague. And what actually happened was that because of a lack of tooling, they mostly use the porta phone or WhatsApp or other pen and paperwork or other log tooling, lots of information got lost in transition. So what we did now, we provided an overview in which they can document and register all the particularities or incidents or defects that they encountered during their shifts and can hand over that to their colleagues. So that’s one of the functionalities of the application.

/ Mark Manning /
Interesting. And was this sort of a paper-based process before? Or how was this being done prior to…

/ Maud Schijen /
Well, they have a briefing three times a day where they just tell each other what happened and then the other one writes it down or documents it in their phone. That’s basically how it was done.

/ Mark Manning /
And when it comes to prioritizing your work, how do you think about that? Is it enabling personas, is it customer experiences? And could you go into your thinking in how you develop because of that?

/ Maud Schijen /
Yeah. So what we do actually is we prioritize always based on value, the most value for the user while we keep in mind the overall goal of the entire project. So if we speak of the overall goal, we always try to implement, for instance, new working processes that contain fewer administrative steps, or we try to reduce communication layers or prevent data loss, but by implementing such a new process, we always try to keep in mind the need of the user. Yeah. That’s basically how we prioritize.

/ Mark Manning /
Getting into the process itself. And Lennart, I’m curious about your perspective on this, but could you dive a little bit into the development process and how you tackle something like this as a developer?

/ Lennart Spaans /
Well, sure, sure. I can explain something about the way we come up with new features. It all starts with Maud, because as a product owner, she really likes to get to know the business processes inside out. So she is the first one to start talking to the users. She is the one that gets them onboard, gets all the stakeholders onboard and she really maps out the business processes really well. And then of course we have to decide on backlog priority. So good to start at that stage to collect data from processes that we identify as being of interest and based on that data, Maud is able to analyze it and make an informed decision as to which process would actually add the most value for the business and also help the user perform their work better.

So based on those two options, Maud would prioritize and then we’d get the UX designer in, and the UX designer will go and do his research together with the users as well. And come up with some really nice designs. And once the designs are done, we can start the actual development process and we use the scrum methods for that. So it will definitely, we just, improve the application step-by-step and go into our testing phase together with the users. So, and then as a dev ops team, we manage everything ourselves. We do development, we do support for the application, building phase, user management, and we do releases of that. So it’s really a team effort.

/ Mark Manning /
I suppose this might be a question for the both of you. But I’m curious to talk about the collaboration between folks that own the product and are closer to users and folks who are technical. Could you folks bring me through perhaps an example of something that was brought from the business as feedback or requirements and the way you two work together to get to something that adds value to their day to day.

/ Maud Schijen /
Working at Schiphol means that you have a lot of different internal stakeholders. So yeah, on the one hand, of course, the users and their direct needs. And then on the other hand, you have the Chief of Operations, who initiated this project, with who I continuously align about the end goal we’re trying to achieve together and the progress we as a team made in between. But then you have all the departments and the people that you need in order to build a certain functionality. And then you have to think about for instance, the data team or the API team. So when you talk about where do I talk or collaborate with internal stakeholders and where does Lennart come in for instance, I think I start with the users, with the client or the project owner as it’s called, who initiated the project, was responsible for the project in the end.

And then when it comes to mapping out the current process and mapping out how we’re going to change that and what we will need based on data or other functionality, then Lennart comes in technically, and together, we discuss with the API team, how we’re going to, for instance, map a certain integration together. Yeah. Maybe Lennart, you can elaborate a bit on that part.

/ Lennart Spaans /
Besides the stakeholders for our own project, there are a lot of projects going on at Schiphol. And of course, as in any enterprise there’s limited resources. So Maud, alongside always has to make sure we get the resources we need for doing that technical development. And on the other side, she has to make sure that all the actual users, the people that got to use the app, and management layer on top of that, that they’re all on board as well. So that’s two sides of the spectrum that we really need in order to build the app. And Maud pretty much has to bring all of that together. And I assist as best as I can with the technical details.

/ Maud Schijen /
Yeah. It’s really nice to have someone on board who can fill that gap in for me.

/ Mark Manning /
That sounds like a great partnership. I did want to pick up on one interesting thread here that sounds like it came up and that’s around data. And it’s been interesting to see sort of a transformation in airports generally over the last few years. And Schiphol seems like no exception that your operations now are pivoting into being pretty data-driven and that big, vast troves of data feed how you operate. Could you talk about how you think about and approach the digitalization process and how important data is to that process.

/ Maud Schijen /
Yes. I do agree with you that you see there’s a change now in implementing new processes digitally. And I think that in a world where things are always done the way they are used to be done, you have to be very careful with digitizing processes. Because most of the times, there is a valid reason that it’s done the way it’s done, or certain choices are made the way they’re made. So yeah, you have to look into every process very carefully to understand why that’s the case. And then once you fully understand such a process, then you can try and can start to come up with a digital solution that actually solves current challenges. The user maybe didn’t even think they were facing before, because you brought them to the surface with your research. And I think, yeah, you have to have a very human approach when you do this. So I think that’s the answer to the first question, part of the question, and maybe Lennart can elaborate a bit on the data part.

/ Lennart Spaans /
Yeah, sure. I think Maud is making a very good point about the human approach because, it’s the users that provide the input that you need and they’re responsible for the quality of the data you collect as well. Of course, data nowadays it’s incredibly important, used to be gold or oil and nowadays it’s data. So, really what the app does is allows us to collect really quality, usable data directly from the workforce. And that provides a lot of information about what’s going on and it can provide a little insight about what’s going on as well, to users, to Floor Managers.

It’s great to be able to see each other’s work in real time. There’s no more information getting sort of lost in translation. They know all about status updates, they know about the terminal, you know about situations that have arisen, you know about changes in flights, for instance. And I think by using integrations between our Schiphol Today app and other systems that are in place in the Schiphol landscape, it allows us to send data to use directly from the source as well. So, we can also function as a communication tool where we can collect data at one site. We can show data directly from the source on the other site. So yeah, I think that’s a big improvement of how the processes were previously managed.

/ Mark Manning /
It certainly sounds it. And Lennart, if I recall from a previous conversation, this data came in handy with sort of disruptions in airport operations due to COVID-19, could you dive a little bit into how data helped you folks pivot and respond to that.

/ Lennart Spaans /
Yes, yes, of course. Well, of course we pretty much just released our application. First, we went live, everything was running smoothly, and users were happy and then all of a sudden COVID-19 hit. And what we saw immediately was that the business processes, they changed as well, work schedules changed. And basically, the requirements that the business had, the needs that they had, they were different all of a sudden. So, that was pretty unusual and pretty amazing in a way to witness. I think because of Mendix, we were able to respond really quickly to those awkward needs. I mean, once the new requirements were clear, it took us about one sprint to adjust the app and provide the support that the business users needed. So, that’s really nice to be able to work together with the business in such a way.

/ Mark Manning /
It’s interesting. And it sounds like sort of the beginnings of a new way of working in that, there might be a lot of exciting opportunities ahead. So I suppose the question there is, what does the future state look like for you folks when it comes to digitizing your operations. Perhaps Maud, do you have anything in mind in the coming months and years, or particular apps or processes that you’re going to tackle?

/ Maud Schijen /
Yeah, I certainly do because as I told you before, the application is for the entire mobile workforce of Schiphol. And with the current application, we only address the needs of the Floor Manager, which is just one role of the mobile workforce. So next up in a new year is a so-called Authority Officer. And that’s a role within the operation which is responsible for the surveillance and enforcement. And what we’re actually going to do is we’re going to build a new application for them, but where we will apply the same approach and the same vision and mission will apply there. But because their responsibilities are different, their processes are different. Their physical area is different or the work they need their own digitized customized app. But the good thing with Mendix is now that we can reuse, we try to reuse as many components as we can from the app we already built. So I think our goal is to implement the application for all the roles in the mobile workforce of Schiphol.

/ Mark Manning /
It’s interesting, and from a more technical perspective, Lennart, it sounds like you’re starting from a stronger foundation at least of data that’s available. And when it comes from Schiphol wanting to be a data driven business, and it seems like data is available. Can you talk about what you intend on doing with that or how helpful that might be to have all that data available to you in the future?

/ Lennart Spaans /
Yeah, I mean, that’s incredibly helpful. Yeah. Schiphol has a developer portal, in this portal, all available APIs are documented and any application that needs data out of this portal, they can just request access and use that data. So besides Schiphol today project, a lot of innovative project’s going on at Schiphol, we have smart assets projects with predictive technology, artificial intelligence, all sorts of data collection going on, and all the data is made available to this portal.

And I think Mendix fits in really well with all these other technologies, because we can just access the portal and use all the data we want and show it directly to our users. We are now as a new app, also barred off this developer community within Schiphol. So we’re also building new APIs together with the API platform team I think that’s really cool to be a part of that in the landscape.

/ Mark Manning /
And certainly is and, do you have any examples of the data? Is it arrival and departures? Is it closures? Is it passenger data? Can you give us an idea of what you have available to utilize and transform?

/ Lennart Spaans /
Well, it’s rather a lot. I don’t have it all in front of me here, but yeah, of course, definitely. It’s flight delays. It’s information about passengers. It’s information about construction works going on, it’s information about the weather. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going on. You know exactly where a plane is, there’s a lot of runways, you know exactly where each plane is, you know with respect to the runway. So there’s a lot of stuff you could find there and there’s even more coming to still help on the development as well.

/ Maud Schijen /
Yeah. Maybe to add to that answer what we are now doing with the API team together. So we are developing a new API where we actually do the other way around. So we are collecting the data and give it to the right databases or any existing in Schiphol.

/ Lennart Spaans /
Yeah. I think one thing we found, especially Maud is doing a great job at this, but it says it’s a bit of a journey of discovery, especially as a new app in the landscape, there’s already a lot of applications that people are using. You really have to figure out in what way does applications sort of manage these parts of the same process that you’re building application for. So it’s really important to not build the same functionality again, and if there are boundaries in which your application should operate and interface with the other applications through APIs. So maybe it’s because of Maud’s background in mathematics. It’s a bit of a puzzle sometimes but yeah, it works both ways. You get data and you provide data as well. And you also have to make sure that the data comes from where it should come from.

/ Mark Manning /
Well, it sounds like a really solid foundation for some interesting future work. So thank you for sharing this with us today, and we’re looking forward to seeing what you build next.

/ Maud Schijen /
Yes, you’re welcome.

/ Lennart Spaans /
All right. Thank you.

/ Mark Manning /
Thanks for listening and be sure to check out Mendix.com/MakeShift to subscribe and stay updated with our latest episodes.