Technology Preparedness – How well does it serve us?
Written by Gerald Vassallo
The MITA Customs Team is a team within the Program Management Department (PMD). The team’s main role is to support and provide the Customs department with the required IT and software infrastructure to address national and EU IT obligations. The team is made up of a small bunch of enthusiastic individuals, with the necessary drive to affect changes in the IT System that supports imports and exports of goods to and from the country.
The team has moved away from a traditional software development life cycle and paper deliverables to a more agile and iterative support and development lifecycle. PMD embarked on a massive project to modernise Government’s IT systems as part of a major MITA initiative which is also EU funded. The Customs IT systems are no exception and thus we have streamlined our operations through the move towards Cloud-enabled applications. This new way of working has helped us a lot to cater to the challenges and changes brought about by Covid-19.
How did we get here?
Through the use of cloud products like Jira and Confluence among other tools and the underlying infrastructure provided by MITA, the team has created a virtual extended team made up of the MITA Customs team and the Customs Department IT team. Our team has been using Jira for a number of years to support the two main functions carried out by the team, that is: – Provision of new functionalities/improvements and secondly, issue resolution management. Through these tools, bug fixes and development of new enhancements can be planned, produced and tracked throughout. The following are some functions that showcase how these tools allow us to remain agile and effective:
Incidents – Following a call to MITA call centre, software issues are usually logged in the Marval system; MITA’s Incident management system. Once an issue on a custom’s IT system is logged, our team is notified, and a new task added to the team’s worklist. Rather than following the issue resolution through traditional channels like phone calls, physical meetings, paper documentation or emails, the team uses JIRA software for the actual Incident resolution life cycle. JIRA allows for the entry of the required descriptions, screen dumps and other documentation that can help our team arrive at the root cause of the issue. The platform also provides a setup where the developer and the Customs Department IT officers can exchange a technical dialogue to resolve the issue. JIRA provides full traceability in between issue creation in Marval all the way through to deployment of the bug fix.
Improvements development – New enhancements are also managed through JIRA in tandem with Confluence, another cloud platform. Confluence, which is a knowledge management cloud system, is also being adopted by the team to create, collaborate and organise all the knowledge, documentation and artefacts required in the software development life cycle. With this integration to JIRA the requirements use cases, design, test cases and test reports are generated through templates and managed through Confluence. Another benefit is that these artefacts are linked to the JIRA issue which thus provides one seamless experience for the users. Furthermore, the tools provide an excellent auditing and versioning features, where any change is recorded and thus providing the required accountability.
Software development life cycle – Using sprints, several enhancements and bug fixes are grouped to be developed and go live to production on a particular date. Using Bit Bucket, another tool which is also integrated into JIRA, the development team will have full traceability of the code that was released to production. The change management is governed again through Marval, where all the various entities that will have to contribute to the change are notified by the system. Here again, all related work is carried out from the various people without physical interaction. This setup provides full traceability and accountability from inception to deployment.
Knowledge Management – with 30 years’ experience in harnessing knowledge, MITA acknowledges the importance of retaining and disseminating knowledge across the agency and to our stakeholders in an easy, effective and secure way. This is particularly true in such situations where knowledge cannot be transferred from one person to another through normal physical training and induction. For the past years, our Team has worked diligently to capture important information required for the smooth operation of our systems. This provides tried and tested procedures that can help team members to provide support, fix issues and establish normality to the customs IT systems as soon as possible. Here again, the team has made use of Confluence to capture, manage, and make available this information to other team members and Customs Department IT officers. Such information is stored securely in the cloud and can be accessed from anywhere with the right security credentials depending on one’s role. Apart from support purposes, this information is particularly important and useful when it comes to providing training and content exposure to new members of the team.
Virtual Private Network (VPN) – MITA having excellent family-friendly measures like teleworking and offering worksites both in Malta and Gozo, always strived to provide its flexible secure network across the Maltese Islands to its employees and government entities. In this regard all our team members have VPN connection and 4G connectivity. VPN provides all team members with the same office access environment such as access to files and folders, same functionalities with the same performance and security, irrespective from where they are connecting.
Microsoft Azure, Azure stack and other cloud services – Through this powerful, flexible and scalable hybrid cloud platform, the team was able to create, manage and maintain the underlying hardware architecture required for the Customs system to work efficiently. Through self-service functionalities, the team has the possibility to create the required infrastructure online; and thus, provide autonomy and a faster reaction to change.
System monitoring – Through Azure monitoring dashboards and notifications, the team members can have really the time information of the health and status of the underlying infrastructure. The team has been also using Kibana among other tools, an elastic search functionality that gives the team the possibility to analyse messages that are being handled in between systems and thus providing help in issue resolution when the system integration is not working at its best.
Collaboration and communication – From the beginning of its introduction Microsoft Teams has been used to create virtual teams with our clients, other MITA colleagues and suppliers. Through these virtual teams, we can communicate through video conferencing, share documents easily, Chat and notify each other of the task/s progress at hand.
What we have learnt – looking ahead
In a matter of days, our normal lives changed. Many were affected in their daily routine. The parameters within which we were used to operating, had to change in order to safeguard each other’s wellbeing. With COVID-19 continuing to impact people and countries around the world, teams everywhere shifted to working remotely.
The Customs team has also been impacted by this situation. One day we were working at the office, supporting the operation of the Customs IT Systems and delivering new projects. The day after we were doing exactly the same thing; however, without having the comfort of meeting face to face with our team members, other sections within MITA and ultimately our clients.
Truth be told, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic did not hinder our operations; rather it helped us to streamline further our work and become more effective. Being a small team meant, giving us plenty of time to build a mindset around flexibility, agility and creativity. All these skills gave us the opportunity to shift our operations with minimal impact. In addition, having in place agile approaches to software development and tools for improved communication helped us to work even closer with our clients as an extension of the team and having our processes adapted in such a way that could be carried out from anywhere. What we have learnt from this experience is that having the right tools is very important to counter for challenges that the environment can pose, but as well as the importance to be creative and integrate such tools to provide an ecosystem that at the end can work for you. Preparedness only can be established once you dive in headfirst and test your environment. The investments done by MITA in the IT infrastructure and the implementation of the Modern Workplace have enabled us and Government, in general, to work effectively outside of the office.
From where I stand, the pandemic proved to show us that our modus operandi is indeed a successful one. This change was business as usual and taught us that stellar work should not necessarily be tied to one office location; technology provides the facility to work effectively from anywhere.
The investments done by MITA in the IT infrastructure and the implementation of the Modern Workplace have enabled us and Government, in general, to work effectively outside of the office.