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Jon Stace

Innovate UK Machine Learning Project Team
Living the dream with Eric Clapton, ice-cream and machine learning…
Living the dream with Eric Clapton, ice-cream and machine learning… 1024 680 Jon Stace

So, what are the best collaborations in history? Eric Clapton lends a mighty ‘slow’ hand to The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield shared a passion for the frozen stuff before going into business together. Today they are worth an estimated $150m, each. And I’m not even going to mention what became of the pairing of the ‘Steves’, as in Jobs and Wozniak.

Machine learning collaboration

At Software Solved we’ve got our very own and very exciting collaboration going on. It’s not music or food related even though we do have plenty of talent in that department. But we’ll save that for a later blog.

We’ve teamed up with some very clever people at Plymouth University and our client RSA UK. Backed by funding from Innovate UK, we have collectively fired the starting gun on an exciting two-year research programme into machine learning and advanced data analytics for the corporate insurance sector.

Data insight

Leveraging data architectures to model relationships and interactions to mitigate risk, the aim is to derive greater value from the large volumes of datasets used in the industry.

Dr Ian Howard and Dr Luciana Dalla Valle of the University of Plymouth are providing research expertise in the areas of machine learning and pattern recognition, data modelling, statistics and predictive analytics, with Aneeq Ur Rehman, Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, being based at Software Solved for the project.

RSA UK role

RSA UK are another key partner in the project. We already have a close working relationship with them. Their underwriters use the award-winning RSAred application for a real-time view of risk, along with a secure, mobile-accessible client risk portal for brokers and customers to understand, benchmark and manage property and casualty risk in real time, both created by Software Solved.

With all this in mind, and with RSA UK’s experience as one of the world’s longest standing and most forward-thinking of general insurers, it made perfect sense to invite them to be part of the project. They will be providing the data and working closely with us so they and their clients can benefit from the advantages of automated data integration in risk assessment.

We’ll be updating everyone on the project as it progresses and we will be looking to hold some workshops at key milestones to involve and share with others.

Special thanks to Innovate UK for funding the project and if you’d be interested in joining one of those workshops (in person or online), or if there are other truly great collaborations we clearly should have flagged, then walk this way and tell me!

Jon Stace, Principal Technical Consultant and project lead




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Turning Developers Into Testers
Turning Developers Into Testers 1024 683 Jon Stace

As you will have seen from last week’s blog article, we recently went to the TechExeter conference. One of the sessions that I attended that really piqued my interest was a talk on replacing testers with developers by Dave Longman.

This subject, once you get past the contentious session title, is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The premise comes down to modern testing practices, such as automated end-to-end testing, needing development skills to implement.

Is it easier to train testers with development skills, or would it be more effective to train developers with tester skills? Dave felt that it was the latter. Developers already test their code when they write it, so let’s get them thinking more like a tester. Let’s review the traits of a good tester:

  • Domain knowledge
  • Analytical and logical thinking
  • A ‘test to break’ approach
  • Great communications skills
  • Awareness of the business impact
  • Taking the customer’s perspective

Surely, developers need all these skills as well! Dave appeared to be suggesting that with all developers acting as QA, we don’t need a separate dedicated QA team and he gave a couple of examples of larger organisations with this structure. In the end, he was looking for no dedicated testers, a controversial point!

Developing and testing go hand-in-hand

Well, the majority of the logic I agree with: to be a truly successful developer, you need all those tester skills. To deliver modern testing practices, you absolutely need the combination of both skills sets. At the basic level, the sooner you fix a bug, the cheaper it is to fix.

If you consider the feedback loop associated with a developer writing code and addressing a bug, if they spot the bug during development, e.g. during unit testing, they are already in the code and it can often be a quick fix. If the developers are also working on integration tests and end-to-end tests, they are still closer to the code than if a release was handed over to a QA team to manage and then issues were raised later.

Quality Assurance is still essential

However, the true value that a dedicated QA team provides is in their independence. Their way of thinking differently to the developers who wrote the software, to seek out more obscure bugs. They are able to take more of a customer’s perspective. This is harder for a developer when they might also have to be battling with low-level issues deep in the codebase. We should get the developers to do all the modern test practices, which frees up the QA team to really focus on delivering business value, not spending all their time dealing with ‘but it worked on my machine’ type issues.

How to perform a cloud readiness assessment
How to perform a cloud readiness assessment 150 150 Jon Stace

Moving to the cloud can feel like a minefield. Especially when there are so many options out there. How do you ensure that your existing applications don’t fail or data is not lost? That’s where a cloud readiness assessment comes in.

What is a cloud readiness assessment?

A Cloud Readiness Assessment recommends the best approach for moving your applications, storage or hosting to the cloud. Typically a provider will examine every part of your existing systems, processes and usage to set out a migration path that is designed specifically for your business.

The five stages of a cloud readiness assessment

A cloud readiness assessment covers five core areas: priorities, applications, data, processing and usage. In this article I’ll briefly cover what is involved at each stage.

1. Understanding your business priorities

Reasons for moving to the cloud vary from business to business. To ensure we meet your expectations we need to know your objectives. What are you hoping to achieve from moving your application/storage/hosting to the cloud? A goal to reduce costs could result in a different cloud strategy to one that is about increasing the flexibility to scale resources.

2. Understanding your existing applications

What technologies are they using and how are they structured? The cloud readiness assessment determines how easily they be modified for the cloud. This will include recommendations for improving the scalability of applications as well as looking at any integration requirements. For example if you are looking to deploy new systems.

3. Understanding your business data

Next we assess the cost effectiveness of moving all of your data to the cloud. This is typically done by documenting how your applications/hosting/storage interacts with existing databases. What volumes of data do you need to migrate? This enables the efficient planning of the data migration part of your move to the cloud, without compromising security or downtime.

4. Understanding your processing requirements

At this stage it is necessary to interrogate the internal working of the system you want to migrate. How do your applications interact with external ones? Including any new cloud-based software you’re looking to adopt. If information needs to flow between them, this stage will drive the testing part of your cloud migration plan.

5. Understanding business usage requirements

A cloud readiness assessment goes beyond understanding your current users and usage volumes. You need to analyse how usage is expected to change in the short, medium and long term. Do you intend for volume/demand to fluctuate? And who will manage your resources? That way your migration plan will set out costs associated with the move to the cloud now as well as ongoing running costs.

Are you cloud ready? Why not get in touch to book your cloud readiness assessment today?

Microsoft Build 2016: fun for developers and good news for business
Microsoft Build 2016: fun for developers and good news for business 150 150 Jon Stace

San Francisco played host to Microsoft’s Build Conference last week. It was with excitement and anticipation (plus a little envy) that I caught up with the keynotes and presentations online. And I wasn’t disappointed – Microsoft has certainly made some clever moves to bring even better services to the development community with businesses likely to reap huge benefits.

Four top news announcements from Microsoft Build 2016

If you didn’t have the time to either fly to San Francisco or watch the conference online, here are my key take outs that are likely to impact our clients in the near future:

1. Microsoft makes Xamarin cross platform development available for free

Microsoft has successfully removed the two major barriers to building apps for all mobile devices: cost and complexity. In February this year Microsoft announced the acquisition of Xamarin. For anyone who hasn’t come across Xamarin, it’s the leading provider for cross platform mobile development. Through Xamarin, developers can target multiple platforms with a common codebase.

However the price of using Xamarin was quite cost prohibitive for many developers with a model based on price per developer, per platform, per year (if you want updates, which you would). And if you didn’t use a platform such as Xamarin or PhoneGap, developers would need to write code separately for iOS and Android, compounding the cost issue even further.

So for Microsoft to make Xamarin freely available, marks a major turning point for cross platform app development. Now anyone with a PC (and a Mac for iOS development) can in theory develop mobile apps that deliver the same native mobile experience to all major devices.

For those techies among you this means the ability to build mobile apps using Visual Studio and C#, bringing all the power of .NET to mobile app development. C# enables developers to write native APIs for each platform to easily share code and deliver better results.

2. Microsoft HoloLens for business applications

Yes that’s right, HoloLens isn’t just about gaming! At the conference Microsoft demonstrated a range of useful and innovative business applications for the emerging technology. HoloLens is helping to bring ideas and products to life across a range of industries.

In engineering and manufacturing HoloLens enables you to design new components of a product without having to physically build them. In the fields of medicine and education, HoloLens is providing incredible potential for simulated training from every angle. And even Nasa is on board using the power of HoloLens to explore Mars from the comfort of the Earth.

Not only is Microsoft making virtual reality a reality for businesses, the development has been made easier too with the ability to now write universal Windows apps that can run across all devices including HoloLens and Xbox and PCs. This provides fantastic potential for businesses to work better using HoloLens but also integrate information and data derived from it quickly and securely.

3. Microsoft makes Linux available on Windows

Developers spoke and Microsoft listened. You can now use Microsoft tools to build apps, sites and services on Linux. Specifically the Microsoft is bringing the full set of Ubuntu tools and applications to Window including the sopen source tool Bash.

Linux is often favoured by businesses for its cost effectiveness when running your own hosted applications or servers. Unlike Windows, you don’t face the high licensing costs associated with each client licence regardless of actual usage (although this isn’t an issue in the cloud).

For developers this latest move by Microsoft means the ability to use Linux-based development tools within their Windows apps. The new functionality will be enabled as part of Microsoft’s anniversary update to Windows 10 this summer.

4. Microsoft AI bots powered by machine learning

Although Microsoft’s Azure machine learning services have been around for a while, at Build 2016 we learned that AI bots (intelligent APIs that recognise voice and language) are the future. Building on the existing machine learning marketplace of datasets, logic and analytics, businesses can now plug into an increasing framework of Microsoft bots to do everything from booking hotels to ordering lunch without having to ever manually enter any data. And it’s quite simple too. With some relatively straightforward coding, the technology is open to anyone.

So how does it work? Using the wealth of data available from Cortana and Bing, Microsoft has shaped these bots to recognise natural language, images and even translation. Developers can create their own bots to integrate with services such as Skype to enable users to perform tasks with voice recognition alone. A great example was a demonstration within Skype of a user requesting a hotel for a conference. There was no need to insert any dates or times anywhere, the bot simply returned a selection of hotels in the right location and at the right time.

The future of the AI bot framework lies in continuously improving machine learning. Microsoft can keep refining these services based on real-time user information to make them even more effective.

How to make the most of your data without a £10m gift from the Chancellor
How to make the most of your data without a £10m gift from the Chancellor 150 150 Jon Stace

With the government pledging £10m for a data science hub in this week’s budget, you’d be forgiven for thinking that making the most of data requires an eye watering amount of investment in ‘cutting-edge technologies’. For most businesses this sets a frightening precedent. But it doesn’t have to.

It is reported that “the new hub for data science will help the public and private sector make better use of data, which has the potential to reduce cost and improve public services.” These core aims are the same in any business; getting the most value from data in the most cost effective way to deliver the most benefit.

The good news is that these goals are achievable for any size organisation. And they don’t need a large investment in new technologies; harnessing data is not only the preserve of large organisations and never has been. Here are three ways you can start making the most of your data today:

Share data easily and quickly across your organisation

If you have different systems such as customer databases or billing systems that work in isolation but staff ideally would like them to ‘talk’, they can. Integrating systems ensures that the most accurate and up to date information is being used by every part of your business. The most straightforward way is by writing APIs. These bits of code tell different applications how to transfer and use data. And it’s far more cost effective than building a completely new system in completely new technology.

Manage, analyse and report data better

This is really what every business needs data for – to make better decisions. Through simple techniques like consolidating databases or building user-friendly front-end portals, you can make it easier for staff to input and access data. A ‘re-skin’ or ‘face-lift’ of an existing system is sometimes all it takes to improve the usability of your data. We’d also recommend exploring some bespoke reporting functionality using something like Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). This will give you the exact reports and dashboards your business needs to make reliable and informed decisions.

Automate manual processes and data entry

Your business needs accurate data. However when it resides in spreadsheets or is keyed into systems manually by different people, you could be exposed to inaccuracies. The obvious way to replace unstable spreadsheets is to build a database solution. Or in some cases where spreadsheets have to be used, they can be ‘locked down’ to ensure that only the right data is inputted, in the right format. Having one central repository of data will save time and improve efficiency. Plus, databases are also often the powerhouses of other business applications so this one small change could revolutionise the way your whole organisation uses data.

To discuss how your business could make the most of data without breaking the bank, request a call back today. Our experts are here to discuss the best solutions for your needs.