Caring For Employees Through a Screen

Caring For Employees Through a Screen with Frosina Zafirovska

How To Provide Proper Care in Extraordinary Times and Circumstances


As a psychologist and a People & Talent officer, I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out ways in which I can make the life of the employees within IT Labs easier, more fun, and get them to be the best version of themselves – learning, creating, and becoming better every day. There are all kinds of scenarios in my head that I prepared for, but a global pandemic was definitely not one.  

This last month, we had our second health month at IT Labs, and it provided the People & Talent Department with much needed insight into what works and what doesn’t in these extraordinary circumstances – which is why I felt compelled to write this piece.  

Activities, Activities, Activities 

How do you develop an activity that will be beneficial to your employees – but through a screen? How do you even approach that?  

Rethinking activities is the first thing that comes to mind, and why not? Contrasting times, different approaches, right? Well, the truth is, drastic changes are not needed, but moving on from some of the events and activities developed in the 90s – some of which are still present today – is one of them. When an activity doesn’t produce any engagement, and interest in your employees, scrap it, ASAP, otherwise you risk undermining all your efforts – once bad or bland things starts rolling out of the People & Talent departments, employees will lose interest in anything you have to offer them, and this will lead to alienation, distancing, and sooner rather than later people will not want to stay with your company anymore.  

The solution? Don’t complicate things – in these times of isolation, do the things that will get people to feel connected with the world. Organize activities that will engage them with the world, and show them that they’re doing something worthy. Something that will make a change. At IT Labs, for example, we’re focused on projects and charities that make a difference in communities.  

The reason why this kind of activities works is because it unites the whole bunch under one common cause – and a sense of unity creates a sense of belonging which goes a long way in countering the devastating effect the pandemic has on the everyday lives of your employees. No need for crazy, out-of-the-box ideas that might work – stick to the ones that will show your workers that their efforts inside the company can have a strong, positive effect on the world outside.  

Old School Does The Trick Sometimes  

Working remote comes with its own set of benefits, but also drawbacks – and as more people choose to work out of office, HR departments around the world will need to adjust their strategies. Does this mean throwing old plans in the bin and starting all over? Of course not, but a slight tweak and going back to basics might do the trick.  

The core of the issue lies in the drawbacks that come with working remote: lack of community and team spirit, more distractions, lack of motivation, risk of burnout.  

So how can we help ease these and ensure employees are at their best? By giving them the main thing that’s missing in their work – a human moment. Yes, as leaders of People & Talent departments it’s our duty to stay in touch with everyone and check in on them every now and then, but how do we make it in a way that makes a difference? By having an open, heart to heart conversation with every single person. Poke and prod, spend 15-20 minutes to talk about all matters work and life related, show interest in their life, and of course, provide support and assure them that you are here for them to talk about any subject and matter that bothers them – a pure human moment can do a world of good for anyone struggling with alienation, isolation, and the ‘new normal’. 

The point is, we have an obligation to keep things professional, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lend a hand to anyone in need, especially in our work environment – it’s not our job, it’s our duty.  

The Future of Employee Care & Satisfaction  

About the future, there seem to be two opinions that circle – some say that the future is extremely near, and we would do well to prepare for it now, while others say that the future is now, and that what we do right now is the thing that matters.  

Both are true, but in their own, unique way – yes, today is the tomorrow we didn’t expect for another 5 or 10 years, but at the same time it’s as if there’s more to what can be done, so we look ahead. Hybrid models of working will become the new normal, and with that, leaders of people departments will need to find a way to keep employees happy, fulfilled, satisfied, and secure. And in the end, whichever system you have deployed and available to your employees, keep the following in mind – you can invent new activities and ways to satisfy your employees, you can try the craziest, adrenaline-fueled stunts, but nothing will have the same long-lasting, deep effect as a pure human connection.  

Conclusion 

Circumstances can and will change, environments will change, people will change – but the one thing that shouldn’t change is our desire to be the best versions of ourselves, by enabling and motivating others to be the best themselves. 


Frosina Zafirovska


Chief People and Talent Officer


Jack of All Trades Or Specialists? The Future of IT Through The Lens of A BA

Jack of All Trades Or Specialists? The Future of IT Through The Lens of A BA 

Erin Traeger


Business Analyst

There’s new tech, new ways of doing stuff, new platforms, new toys – but the debate regarding specializing or sticking to a jack-of-all-trades style is still ongoing. Now, before anyone gets excited, I’m not here to put it to bed – I’m here to add more oil to the fire. 

Just kidding – I simply believe that the perspective is way too simplistic than the reality. Of course, there’s the need for both, and yes, sometimes techies, leaders, and tech leaders can do both, depending on the project. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in the world of technology.  

As I’ve been in this line of work as a BA for more than a decade now, I also have experience as a Product and Project Manager, and I think it’s time I shared my two cents on the matter. I will not preach, nor give you a recipe for success – I’ll just write about what I’ve learned in the world of tech, regarding that title above.  

No more, no less. 

Delegating Responsibilities

Point for jacks. Delegating responsibilities is something that’s easier if you know what you’re getting yourself into as a team leader or a project manager. No, I’m not talking about just having some idea of how the project will go, with estimates and everything. I’m talking about having a good grasp on how much of an effort your team will need to put in to get the project over the line. 

Specializing in a few technologies or programming languages is all fine, and yes, that experience and knowledge will surely help, but imagine a team leader who knows the core problems of a project and is able to assess them better. 

As a BA, you don’t really have a lot of delegation to do, you’re in a way just running point, but as a product and project manager, it’s crucial.  

Knowing How to Approach Problems

Approaching IT problems is all about perspectives, and the more diverse your skill set, the easier it will be to see the pain points of a project. This isn’t just about planning and execution; this is also about setting up the project in which your team can be not just effective, but also learn and connect. 

I’ve learned things I never thought I’d have the chance to use, but you’d be amazed how something you consider irrelevant or impractical can actually be your rescue when facing complex problems. 

Furthermore, this helps add another dimension to the way you’re leading teams, and helps with delegating! Sure, knowing the core of the matter and having a sense of it is always nice, but why not use this knowledge and put it to something like nurturing. You can measure out your approach – go with passive listening and guide your team with questions, or you can engage and guide by doing. The correct way? Take a look at your team, and you’ll know – what they need and how they work will give you the answer right away. 

Working as a BA, product manager, and sometimes project manager, this can be achieved if one is ready to walk that thin line between having a front-row view of the project, and looking at it from the side – a mix of objectivity and subjectivity. 

Leading By Example

Autonomy in teams is something that’s desired, of course, but teams have leaders for a reason, as sometimes they have to step in and guide when someone hits a snag.
There isn’t one way to do this, and the key to figuring out the core of the problem is balance – being decisive, but not dismissive. 

Having your own MO is always nice – you know how things go, how they should be done, and you feel in control, right? But think of this – leading by example is not just about showing the best way something can be done, it’s about stirring debates, enabling team members to share ideas and engage in processes – which all can contribute to better product development and deployment.
Blindly following established processes can really spell doom for a project, and can actually hurt team dynamics and relationships.
See what works, don’t just decide before you listened and tried – adapt, improvise, overcome!

Flexibility

I know, I know, it’s something that’s talked about a lot. But I’m here to talk about the flexibility towards clients. Agile is a methodology that is applied to teams working on the project, but can it be applied to clients? Yes, and to a great extent. 

Sometimes, behind a project you have one client, and sometimes there are multiple stakeholders. All this can present a challenge, as there are multiple ideas about how to conceptualize and execute the development process, and sometimes these can be conflicting. For this, specializing comes to the rescue. 

Having something as a specialty can help you not just with understanding the project and envisaging it, but also help you convey your messages and recommendations to the client. Simple, short explanations that will help the client understand what you’re trying to achieve, and visualize your proposed changes and additions. 

And at the core of this lies the relationship you form with your clients – sometimes you might click, at other times you’ll need to engage: ask questions, ask explanations – whatever it takes for you to get a better understanding where the client is coming from. 

Mutual understanding lies at the heart of client satisfaction. 

Conclusion

We have this idea that methods, concepts, and MOs should become simpler, more concrete, and more fixed in a way – and it’s time we worked on changing that and accepting the looming reality: flexibility in methods and approach is what will drive efficiency, innovation, and success in the world of technology. 

My advice to all the BAs, project and product managers out there, and the ones aspiring to be that one day: stick to what you know, but don’t forget the following – anyone you meet knows something you don’t, and sometimes that knowledge can be the thing that makes a breakthrough in your projects! 

Erin Traeger


Business Analyst


Innovation has its bread and butter in one concept – an idea

Innovation has its bread and butter in one concept – an idea.

Blagoj Kjupev


CIO at IT Labs

Before the car was a car or the iPhone was an iPhone, it was an idea. So, everything manmade comes from the idea, which is based on a need or improvement, but yes – the idea is the foundation for anything related to innovation. But, the word idea to a lot of people sounds intimidating. Not in the sense that they cannot come up with one, but because of the socially applied pressure that only good ideas need to be heard – thus instantly placing their idea on hold. And the objective truth is that every idea is good at some point in time, the real question is if the time for that idea has come. 

On ideas and all things related, we sat down with Blagoj Kjupev, our Chief Innovation Officer, and talked about ideas, how to spot a good one, how to unearth them, and why engaging your teams to voice ideas is important. 

ITL: IT Labs has been in the tech industry since 2005. Where were you then – and where are you now as a company? Where is IT Labs positioned at the moment in the world of software development?

Blagoj: Since IT Labs’ beginning 15 years ago, we’ve been cooperating with companies and businesses from various industries, located around the world. We started off with smaller projects and smaller teams, but over time, we developed our portfolio in several sectors and areas, and this allowed us to grow and expand as a company. As we rose through the ranks, we quickly became the main driver in the digital transformation of our partners. Now, we offer wide-spectrum products and services: from advising and consulting on business strategies, all the way to managing a full software-development process and cycle, including maintenance and support.

After opening our first dev hub and establishing and got a foothold in the market, we proceeded with expanding in the Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, covering business centers in the USA, UK, and the Netherlands. We have just opened an office in Serbia, since we identified that it has a strong IT capacity and a very developed business culture that will help us diversify, grow, and develop as a company.

 

ITL: What kind of clients do you work with? What kind of services do you offer them?

Blagoj: We offer a wide array of services, from deploying business agility to defining business strategies. Specifically, services regarding business analysis, product architecture, development, testing, DevOps, and cloud strategy. These include security services, which come in handy for clients with partial or non-existent coverage in this area. Our experts analyze security systems and their structures, and develop client-specific strategies.

With tech development and changes in the market, the services we offer also diversified and expanded, so now, we also offer AI and data science-related services as well. We have a team of experts in data analysis, data science, and AI who can transform clients’ product revenues by optimizing data flows and data analysis. Thus, leading the client with data that serves their unique position in the market. What sets us apart from the competition is the fact that we don’t just offer technical services. We offer highly skilled and professional teams which have worked on big projects, their success was measurable and tangible, and have helped clients develop and grow. There’s no need for the client to waste time and energy in putting together and nurturing teams to carry out tasks in various departments. We do all this for them, and then some. Our teams of professionals are focused on exceeding the expectations of the client, and we achieve this by treating people as the most valuable asset. We can guarantee quality in delivery and efficiency for our clients.

ITL: What makes an idea a good one?  

Blagoj:  The person giving the idea and the people listening to that idea. That’s it, there must be a good match. An idea in itself cannot be good or bad. It’s the room that the idea is presented in, figuratively speaking of course. Somebody’s bad idea can be someone else’s spark into an amazing adventure ending with a very successful product or service. Think of anything produced and developed by humans. How much of that was a complete, producible idea in its inception? If I had to guess it’s in the 0.00 margins. This means that on each idea an additional work has to be conducted to have it fully developed and understood by investors and companions that will help in its development.   

Ideas are an amalgamation of all our experiences, references to things we’ve seen, read, watched, listened to... When a problem is presented, our mind unconsciously goes through all of that and finds an approach to help us solve the problem. So, we all have ideas, every day. It’s just that most stay silent and undeveloped due to different reasons. Our focus during the incoming period will be to help our colleagues feel comfortable expressing and develop their ideas.   

ITL: So, ideas need to be voiced more often. As the Chief Innovation Officer at IT Labs, how will you change that?  

Blagoj: : After many discussions with my colleagues from the marketing and other departments, my expectations were confirmed that we have the manpower, know-how, and creativity in our teams to take ideas and turn them into real-life projects and products. We’ll further increase the number of activities that are taking place, to include brainstorming and open discussion events in which we’ll speak about solving already identified problems, existing solutions, new technological breakthroughs, and develop ideas that might turn into something amazing.  

ITL: What is the potential of the engineers to generate ideas in areas where ITL is present?  

Blagoj: I’d like to redefine the question a bit: we are not focused on collaboration with engineers only, but the focus is to engage all the employees in ITL, as they’re all welcome to participate and share. Ideas can come from any person, no matter their background or field of work, so there’s no one excluded. Moreover, in the beginning, we’ll be focused on collaboration internally in our company and soon we’ll open the possibility to collaborate with idea authors from everywhere. The local idea capital in geographical regions where we are present, I believe is not utilized properly and the initial goal will be to scratch below the surface using new approaches and reveal potential gems.  

ITL: Okay, we all have ideas, right? How do you decide which ones are worthy of being considered? How do you separate the “hmmm, that might work” from the “that’s just crazy”?  

Blagoj: Via open discussions and for some areas by having a guest who is great in specific areas of expertise which is touching the idea. Sometimes from one idea, there will be more ideas emerging, sometimes we’ll together with the author decide that the time is not right for that idea. Only through open discussions and brainstorming we can reach a common understanding of the real value of any idea and agree on next steps.  


Blagoj Kjupev


CIO at IT Labs


Achieving work-life balance: A Project Manager's Journey

Achieving work-life balance: A Project Manager's Journey

Zorica Redzic


Project Manager at IT Labs

With everyone around the world struggling to cope with the pandemic in the last year and a half, the talk about work-life balance – already a hot topic – turned from something we talked about, to a pressing issue.

The reason? Well, the lives we loved living were no longer an option. We had to adapt to the new normal, and in it, achieving work-life balance is something that can be the difference between living life to the best of our abilities and settling for something that is way below what we’re capable and deserve.

Like most, I’ve spent many hours figuring things out and finding my way around in these extraordinary circumstances, but something along the way just “clicked”. I was where I needed to be, and I was comfortable – work was getting done, and life was lived.

Just to put it out there – this is NOT a self-help article. I won’t tell you what to do, nor how to do it, as achieving work-life balance is different for everyone. This is just my two cents and my experience – a brief outlook on what has worked for me, Zorica Redzic, as a person and a project manager.

Let’s go.

On Reassessing Priorities

Dreaded, foreseeable, yet paramount – reassessing and resetting priorities. I, for one, dove head-first into this by pulling all the aces I had up my sleeves. Improvising left and right in all aspects of my work – from managing people to getting things done. 

Did it work? Yes. 

Was it the best way? Read the answer to the previous question.

While winging it has been a success for me, it doesn’t mean that it will be for anyone, nor should it be considered as a long-term solution. That’s why I set about reassessing priorities but from a laxer perspective. I started out by rooting them in general concepts, all captured in one simple personal motto that gave me both the freedom and energy to keep going – “there’s always work to be done, but don’t get stuck doing something that doesn’t fulfill you”.

I know, I know – it’s a cliche. But it works. I didn’t reevaluate my job position or the company I worked for – I did it with my tasks and day-to-day tasks. I simply focused more on the things I wanted to do, and treated it as a reward and an energy booster to do the things that were both time and energy-consuming.

This balance between the wants and the needs is the core of what I as a project manager found to be the golden ratio in my endeavors. In the bigger picture, this helps you establish a reward system – by you, for you – which can be a never-ending source of motivation.

The reason I talked about all this? The same thing applies to real-life situations. And this is not only something we need to do, it imposes itself as something we should definitely strive for, as focusing too much on the work part means leaving out the life part – and that’s a recipe for disaster. Rinse-repeat the same thing, and voila – a step closer to balance.

Finding Opportunities to Grow

The invisible pink elephant in the room – with the world at a standstill, how do I keep growing? How do I find the pockets of space, time, and energy to maintain my learning curve?

I didn’t just drown into all the material available on the web. Because learning opportunities don’t just come in the shape of courses, meetings, feedback sessions, webinars, and workshops – it’s about making the space for it.

Making the time and space to learn and develop as a project manager sounds impossible, right? But it isn’t. I set about delegating tasks and responsibilities to willing team members with the goal of enabling them to grow into their roles. I was then left with pockets of time and space in which I was free to do develop.

This was somewhat unexpected, but then it hit me – ‘you need to give in order to receive’ – an adage as old as time itself resonating in extraordinary times. This all led me to a simple conclusion – the circumstances have changed, but our values and principles need not. We still need to do what we’ve always been doing. It’s just the shape and this uncomfortable feeling around it all that somehow paints it all black.

Dear Project Managers, keep diving into your leadership and team-growing methods.

The Little Things That Make A Big Difference

As creatures of habit, any change to our everyday activities can be debilitating, and detrimental to our mental health and productivity. We all have our small morning or mid-day rituals, which whether we like it or not, play a big role in how we feel and how we go about our days.

I thought of my habits as being bound by certain processes and external circumstances, when in fact, I was bound by doing them. For example, getting up everyday and going through the whole work-prep was really important to me – washing up, working out, dressing up, breakfast, putting makeup, etc. – but is there a point to all these when you don’t go out and don’t have the chance to experience them in the same way as usual? 

The answer is yes.

As a project manager, I figured sticking to my habits and going through my morning plan kept me at my best, and not just in terms of productivity, but also in leading. As someone responsible for the well-being of his team, leading by example is the way to go. No, I’m not talking about pretending everything is fine and ignoring all the problems – I’m talking about showing your team that when the going gets tough, putting in the work to maintain your ways and can be incredibly liberating and comforting.

A morning person or not, we all do certain things that give us that sense of stability, a certain way in which we start and go about our day, a ritual of sorts – and while it’s something we rarely pay attention to, it can do wonders in helping us be at our best selves day in, day out.

Managing on Video

Even with all the tips and tricks, the structure, the awareness, the leading, things will go sideways from time to time. Your team(s) will suffer from dips in motivation and creativity, and sometimes will struggle – and the same can happen to you.

And then, there’s the worst-case scenario – you’re having a rough day, and a member of your team is going through something as well. When I first got in this kind of situation, I was literally at loss for words – and action! I was unable to even comprehend what was happening, and had no idea how to resolve this. I didn’t have the person in front of me, that direct, tete-a-tete moment was lacking, and I was unable to even get out of my own difficult situations.

After winging it a few times I realized that the thing that will work time and time again is to have a purely human moment. Listen, reflect, share, offer support, and make the necessary steps you believe need to be taken to come to a resolution. And of course, assurance. Don’t forget that this void of activity is affecting everyone, and that sometimes team members just need to know that it’s okay for them to take a break and reflect.

Showing understanding is one thing, acting on it is the hard part – that’s what will help you keep your team happy, and bring solidity in these times of uncertainty.

Final Words

For anyone jumping into this article with the hope of learning a groundbreaking idea – I’m sorry. The internet is just filled with hundreds of thousands of pieces on how to stay productive, how to keep teams productive, how to stay happy, etc. – and this piece is not that.

Yes, our professional and personal lives changed drastically – but does this mean we have to change our values and what we do? No – we just need to change the way on how we do it.

So Project Managers and not-project managers, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, or our lives for that matter. We already know what sticks, so it might be best to stick to what we know.

Zorica Redzic


Project Manager at IT Labs


Every day at IT Labs is a shared and new adventure

Every day at IT Labs is a shared and new adventure

Kostandina Zafirovska

General Manager at IT Labs

ITL: IT Labs has been in the tech industry since 2005. Where were you then – and where are you now as a company? Where is IT Labs positioned at the moment in the world of software development?

Nina: Since IT Labs’ beginning 15 years ago, we’ve been cooperating with companies and businesses from various industries, located around the world. We started off with smaller projects and smaller teams, but over time, we developed our portfolio in several sectors and areas, and this allowed us to grow and expand as a company. As we rose through the ranks, we quickly became the main driver in the digital transformation of our partners. Now, we offer wide-spectrum products and services: from advising and consulting on business strategies, all the way to managing a full software-development process and cycle, including maintenance and support.

After opening our first dev hub and establishing and got a foothold in the market, we proceeded with expanding in the Americas, Western and Eastern Europe, covering business centers in the USA, UK, and the Netherlands. We have just opened an office in Serbia, since we identified that it has a strong IT capacity and a very developed business culture that will help us diversify, grow, and develop as a company.

ITL: What kind of clients do you work with? What kind of services do you offer them?

Nina: We offer a wide array of services, from deploying business agility to defining business strategies. Specifically, services regarding business analysis, product architecture, development, testing, DevOps, and cloud strategy. These include security services, which come in handy for clients with partial or non-existent coverage in this area. Our experts analyze security systems and their structures, and develop client-specific strategies.

With tech development and changes in the market, the services we offer also diversified and expanded, so now, we also offer AI and data science-related services as well. We have a team of experts in data analysis, data science, and AI who can transform clients’ product revenues by optimizing data flows and data analysis. Thus, leading the client with data that serves their unique position in the market. What sets us apart from the competition is the fact that we don’t just offer technical services. We offer highly skilled and professional teams which have worked on big projects, their success was measurable and tangible, and have helped clients develop and grow. There’s no need for the client to waste time and energy in putting together and nurturing teams to carry out tasks in various departments. We do all this for them, and then some. Our teams of professionals are focused on exceeding the expectations of the client, and we achieve this by treating people as the most valuable asset. We can guarantee quality in delivery and efficiency for our clients.

ITL: You said that you consider IT Labs as a value-driven company? Do you stick to those values, or are they really just for a good motivational poster at the office?

Nina: Integrity, excellence, proactivity, innovation, and people – these are our values. They are rooted deeply in how we work, they direct our perspective on business, help us innovate, and are the foundation of our strong team spirit. And of course, the cornerstone of every business decision we make.

We also use these values as the basis for our internal measurements – activities, individual and group performance – and it allows us to adjust our development plans and ensure our employees remain motivated and happy.  As I already said, we’re a company that it fulfilled its set goals, and we’re focused on providing quality service to our clients, but also creating desirable conditions for our employees, an environment in which they can develop but also be efficient at their work. Our employees like to act and work according to our values, and appreciate the results and benefits that come out from following them.

Me and everyone at IT Labs can clearly see how our values pave the way forward, and are part of what gives the company a unique face and position.

ITL: It’s in the nature of every business to grow and expand. Is that true for IT Labs?

Nina: We’ve been growing and expanding for a while now, with our next growth steps in Serbia. For us, it’s one of the main IT centers in the Balkans with a huge pool of skilled and experienced techies, and an excellent education system developing great IT engineers.

We’re extremely happy to be expanding there since it’s a country that has one of the biggest development hubs in the region. All the hubs in the region have many similarities and connections, so it will be a fun ride and a strong challenge for us.

ITL: Do you think that IT Labs can go head-to-head with a market such as the Serbian one? What does the company have to offer to the Serbian IT crowd?

Nina: Of course we can. We’ve done it before, and we’ve learned that the best way to approaching a new market does not differ in its essence from any other task you set out to do. Honesty and commitment are the best tools we have, and these will help us in networking with the local relevant entities, show support where needed, work with local startups and educational institutions, and just nest ourselves as best as we can.

We are confident that the Serbian IT crowd will recognize that we are a trustworthy partner, a great employer, and overall a benefit to the local IT community. IT Labs cares for each employee’s professional and personal goals, irrespective of the position or seniority, and I trust that approach will be highly appreciated by anyone who decides to become a part of our team.

ITL: How does one become a part of IT Labs? What does it take?

Nina: The recruitment process is very important for us as a company. We pay close attention to any candidate – regardless if it’s a someone fresh out of college, or a veteran in the IT world. Besides the technical part of the job interview, we also look for the core, personal values. With that in mind, our doors will always be open to candidates that share our values.

If a person is hired, depending on their previous experience, they will be taken through an onboarding process, and then in an adequate amount of time, they will get a taste of the IT Labs culture and MO. She or he will learn how we communicate and get to know the IT Labs way of working. After that, work on projects begins.

ITL: Is there room to grow in the company? Do employees get a chance to reach for their personal goals and achievements?

Nina: Growth is a natural process, right? It doesn’t make sense, nor is right, for the employees to not develop and grow parallel with the company. To us, the personal and professional growth of every individual is very important. It’s one of the key reasons why we encourage, stimulate, and enable this for every employee in every department.  We have an internal project called ‘The Happiness Strategy’, focused on finding the “needs & wants” of the people, and then engages in working towards them. Every person is unique in their needs and wants, and diversity in needs translates to diversity in quality, which in turn breeds innovation. It’s simple, really – give people support and the chance to express, and your teams will be better, stronger, and more efficient.

ITL: If you could name three things that answer the question “What differs IT Labs from other companies in the industry,” what would you say?

Nina: First of all, we’re unique in the way that we focus on solutions, not problems. We go that extra mile to find a new, creative way of dealing with various issues when working on a project. We find that little something that gives the client an edge in the market and helps his company in reaching its goals.

Second, we treat our people as our most valuable asset. This means that maintaining high morale and satisfaction among employees will always, and I mean always, translate in customer satisfaction. We go so far as to ensure our team members that the client gets 95% of their time. The other 5% are theirs to be used for personal growth.

And third, constant evolution, growth, and progress – we continuously share knowledge and have a quality mentorship program inside the company. Our “Ideas Lab” project enables employees inside the company to freely explore anything innovative, and exchange ideas and concepts. These are just some of the things we are proud to provide for our people, and call our own.

ITL: What do IT Labs bring to the IT community?

Nina: Valuable ideas, service, and an all-round contribution to growth. We draw strength through diversity, and it’s something we know various communities will benefit from. We’ve got quality people on our team, and we love to share their skills, experience, and wisdom with the community so we can all learn and grow together. The more differing opinions, ideas, and approaches, the better for all – inside or outside the company.

IT Labs’ people are continuously generating articles, comparisons on technologies, white papers, etc., most of which are published through our blog or web page, while we also do webinars, which are open to the public. Our IT Labs experts tackle pertinent issues and topics, and are up-to-date with all the goings in the tech world. This in turn helps us to try, test, implement, and work with new and existing tech. We’re also in close contact with educational institutions through our knowledge-sharing program. We also support non-profits and participate in a lot of community service-type activities as a team.

And finally, our flagship contribution to the tech community and great pride – ‘CTO Confessions with TC Gill’ – a podcast where well-known leaders from the industry all over the world share their experiences in the IT world, and their journey to the top.

ITL: You told us about the past and the present. Where do you see the company in the future?

Nina: Bigger. Better. Stronger. That’s what we strive for. Hard  work and dedication will be needed to get there, but considering how we’ve paved the way so far with the whole team, I know that in five years’ time, we’ll look back knowing we’ve achieved all our goals, and surpassed expectations. Bottom line is, we know what we need to do – keep developing and expanding this happy, diverse, innovation-driven bunch of people working here, and help them achieve their personal and professional goals in a friendly and radically-transparent environment!


Introduction to Blazor

Martin Milutinovic

Back-end Engineer

What is Blazor?

Blazor is open-source cross-platform framework that lets you build interactive web UIs using C# instead of JavaScript. Blazor apps are composed of reusable web UI components implemented using C#, HTML, and CSS. Both client and server code is written in C#, allowing you to share code and libraries.

The .NET code runs inside the context of WebAssembly, running “a .NET” inside the browser on the client-side with no plugins, no Silverlight, Java, Flash, just open web standards. Blazor works in all modern web browsers, including mobile browsers. Code running in the browser executes in the same security sandbox as JavaScript frameworks. Blazor code executing on the server has the flexibility to do anything you would normally do on the server, such as connecting directly to a database.

Blazor has a separation between how it calculates UI changes (app/component model) and how those changes are applied (renderer). This sets Blazor apart from other UI frameworks such as Angular or ReactJS/React Native that can only create web technology based UIs. By using different renderers Blazor is able to create not only web based UIs, but also native mobile UIs as well. This does require components to be authored differently, so components written for web renderers can’t be used with native mobile renderers. However, the programming model is the same. Meaning once developers are familiar with it, they can create UIs using any renderer.

Blazor server-side and WebAssembly are both now shipping as part of .NET Core 3.2.0. Installing Blazor is now as simple as installing version 16.6 or later of Visual Studio, when installing, ensure you select the option ASP.NET and web development under the Workloads tab.

Creating a new project: 
  • Open Visual Studio
  • Click Create a new project 
  • Select Blazor App 
  • Click Next 
  • Enter a project name 
  • Click Create 
  • Select Blazor WebAssembly App or Blazor ServerApp 
  • ​Click Create 

Hosting models

Blazor is a web framework designed to run client-side in the browser on a WebAssembly-based .NET runtime (Blazor WebAssembly) or server-side in ASP.NET Core (Blazor Server). Regardless of the hosting model, the app and component models are the same.

The client-side version actually runs in the browser through Wasm and updates to the DOM are done there, while the server-side model retains a model of the DOM on the server and transmits diffs back and forth between the browser and the server using a SignalR pipeline.

Server-side hosting was released in September 2019, and Web Assembly was officially released in May, 2020.

In January 2020, Microsoft announced Blazor Mobile Bindings, an experimental project that allows developers to build native mobile apps using a combination of Blazor and a Razor variant of Xamarin.Forms (XAML).

On the client, the blazor.server.js script establishes the SignalR connection with the server. The script is served to the client-side app from an embedded resource in the ASP.NET Core shared framework. The client-side app is responsible for persisting and restoring app state as required.

Blazor Server


With the Blazor Server hosting model, the app is executed on the server from within an ASP.NET Core app. UI updates, event handling, and JavaScript calls are handled over a SignalR connection.

In Blazor Server apps, the components run on the server instead of client-side in the browser. UI events that occur in the browser are sent to the server over a real-time connection. The events are dispatched to the correct component instances. The components render, and the calculated UI diff is serialized and sent to the browser where it’s applied to the DOM.

In this diagram from the docs you can see that the Razor Components are running on the Server and SignalR (over Web Sockets, etc) is remoting them and updating the DOM on the client. This doesn’t require Web Assembly on the client, the .NET code runs in the .NET Core CLR (Common Language Runtime) and has full compatibility – you can do anything you’d like as you are no longer limited by the browser’s sandbox.

The Blazor Server hosting model offers several benefits: ​
  • ​Download size is significantly smaller than a Blazor WebAssembly app, ​and the app loads much faster. 
  • The app takes full advantage of server capabilities, including use of any .NET Core compatible APIs. 
  • The app’s .NET/C# code base, including the app’s component code, isn’t served to clients. ​
  • Thin clients are supported. For example, Blazor Server apps work with browsers that don’t support WebAssembly and on resource-constrained devices. 
  • .NET Core on the server is used to run the app, so existing .NET tooling, such as debugging, works as expected. 

The downsides to the Blazor Server hosting model are: 

  • ​Higher UI latency. Every user interaction involves a network hop 
  • There’s no offline support. If the client connection fails, the app stops working 
  • Scalability is challenging for apps with many users. The server must manage multiple client connections and handle client state 
  • ​​​An ASP.NET Core server is required to serve the app. Serverless deployment scenarios aren’t possible. For example, you can’t serve the app from a CDN​

Blazor WebAssembly


This is the hosting model that usually gets most interest, and for good reason. This model is a direct competitor to JavaScript SPAs such as Angular, VueJS, and React. Blazor WebAssembly apps execute directly in the browser on a WebAssembly-based .NET runtime. Blazor WebAssembly apps function in a similar way to front-end JavaScript frameworks like Angular or React. However, instead of writing JavaScript you write C#.

The .NET runtime is downloaded with the app along with the app assembly and any required dependencies. No browser plugins or extensions are required. The downloaded assemblies are normal .NET assemblies, like you would use in any other .NET app. Because the runtime supports .NET Standard, you can use existing .NET Standard libraries with your Blazor WebAssembly app. However, these assemblies will still execute in the browser security sandbox. A Blazor WebAssembly app can run entirely on the client without a connection to the server or we can optionally configure it to interact with the server using web API calls or SignalR.

The blazor.webassembly.js script is provided by the framework and handles:
  • Downloading the .NET runtime, the app, and the app’s dependencies.
  • Initialization of the runtime to run the app.
The Blazor WebAssembly hosting model offers several benefits:
  • Compiles to static files, meaning there is no need for a .NET runtime on the server
  • Work is offloaded from the server to the client
  • Apps can be run in an offline state
  • Codesharing, C# objects can be shared between client and server easily
The downsides to the Blazor WebAssembly hosting model are:
  • The app is restricted to the capabilities of the browser
  • Capable client hardware and software (for example, WebAssembly support) is required.
  • Download size is larger, and apps take longer to load
  • .NET runtime and tooling support is less mature. For example, limitations exist in .NET Standard support and debugging

Project structure


Program.cs

This file contains the Main() method which is the entry point for both the project types (Blazor WebAssembly and Blazor Server).

In a Blazor server project, the Main() method calls CreateHostBuilder() method which sets up the ASP.NET Core host.

In a Blazor WebAssembly project, the App component, which is the root component of the application, is specified in the Main method. This root component is present in the root project folder in App.razor file.

Startup.cs

This file is present only in the Blazor Server project. As the name implies it contains the applications’s startup logic and is used by the method CreateHostBuilder() in the fileProgram.cs .
The Startup class contains the following two methods:
  • ConfigureServices – Configures the applications DI i.e dependency injection services. For example AddServerSideBlazor() method adds Blazor server side services. On the IServiceCollection interface there are several methods that start with the word Add. These methods add different services for the Blazor application. We can even add our own services to the DI container. We will see this in action in our upcoming videos.
  • Configure – Configures the app’s request processing pipeline. Depending on what we want the Blazor application to be capable of doing we add or remove the respective middleware components from request processing pipeline. For example, UseStaticFiles() method adds the middleware component that can server static files like images, css etc.

App.razor 

This is the root component of the application. It uses the built-in Router component and sets up client-side routing. The Router component intercepts browser navigation and renders the page that matches the requested address. The Router uses the Found property to display the content when a match is found. If a match is not found, the NotFound property is used to display the message – Sorry, there’s nothing at this address. The contents are the same for the Blazor Server and Blazor WebAssembly projects.

wwwroot

For both the project types, this folder contains the static files like images, stylesheets etc. 

Pages folder

Contains the routable components/pages (.razor) that make up the Blazor app and the root Razor page of a Blazor Server app. The route for each page is specified using the @page directive.

_Host.cshtml is root page of the app implemented as a Razor Page. It is this page, that is initially served when a first request hits the application. It has the standard HTML, HEAD and BODY tags. It also specifies where the root application component, App component (App.razor) must be rendered. Finally, it also loads the blazor.server.js JavaScript file, which sets up the real-time SignalR connection between the server and the client browser. This connection is used to exchange information between the client and the server. SignalR, is a great framework for adding real-time web functionality to apps.

wwwroot/index.html 

This is the root page in a Blazor WebAssembly project and is implemented as an html page. When any page of the app is initially requested, this page is rendered and returned in the response. It has the standard HTML, HEAD and BODY tags. It specifies where the root application component App.razor should be rendered. You can find this App.razor root component in the root project folder. It is included on the page as an HTML element <app>. We will discuss razor components in detail in our upcoming videos.

This index.html page also loads the blazor WebAssembly JavaScript file (_framework/blazor.webassembly.js)which: 
  • Downloads the .NET runtime, the app, and the app’s dependencies 
  • Initializes the runtime to run the app 

MainLayout.razor and NavMenu.razor 

MainLayout.razor is the application’s main layout component.

NavMenu.razor implements sidebar navigation. Includes the NavLink component (NavLink), which renders navigation links to other Razor components. The NavLink component automatically indicates a selected state when its component is loaded, which helps the user understand which component is currently displayed.

Components


Blazor apps are built using components. A component is a self-contained chunk of user interface (UI), such as a page, dialog, or form. A component includes HTML markup and the processing logic required to inject data or respond to UI events. Components are flexible and lightweight. They can be nested, reused, and shared among projects. Components are implemented in Razor component files (.razor) using a combination of C# and HTML markup. A component in Blazor is formally referred to as a Razor component. ​
​​
Most files in Blazor projects are .razor files. Razor is a templating language based on HTML and C# that is used to dynamically generate web UI. The .razor files define components that make up the UI of the app. For the most part, the components are identical for both the Blazor Server and Blazor WebAssembly apps. Components in Blazor are analogous to user controls in ASP.NET Web Forms.

Each Razor component file is compiled into a .NET class when the project is built. The generated class captures the component’s state, rendering logic, lifecycle methods, event handlers, and other logic. When the application is compiled, the HTML and C# code converted into a component class. The name of the generated class matches the name of the component file. A component file name must start with an uppercase character. If you add a component file that starts with a lower case character, the code will fail to compile and you get the following compiler error.

All rendered Blazor views descend from the ComponentBase class, this includes Layouts, Pages, and also Components. A Blazor page is essentially a component with a @page directive that specifies the URL the browser must navigate to in order for it to be rendered. In fact, if we compare the generated code for a component and a page there is very little difference.

  • HTML markup which defines the user interface of the component i.e the look and feel.
  • C# code which defines the processing logic
There are 3 approaches, to split component HTML and C# code:
  • Single file or mixed file approach – Html and C# code are in the same [Name].razor file and C# code is placed in @code{} block
  • Partial files approach – Partial Class is a feature of implementing a single class into multiple files. Html code in in [Name].razor file and C# code in  [Name].razor.cs file. [Name].razor.cs file acts as a code-behind file for [Name].razor file. While writing class in [Name].razor.cs file we explicitly mention a partial keyword, but [Name].razor  Blazor file with Html Content, but .Net Compiler is good enough to read [Name].razor as a partial class, so on code compilation single [Name].cs file will be generated.
  • Base class approach – ComponentBase is a class that hooked up with all component life cycles of a Blazor Component. ComponentBase class is derived from the library Microsoft.AspNetCore.Components. This approach works with the class inheritance technique.  In this approach [Name].razor.cs file declares class like [Name]Base.cs which inherits ComponentBase class. Finally [Name].razor file inherits [Name]Base.cs class.

Aside from normal HTML, components can also use other components as part of their rendering logic. The syntax for using a component in Razor is similar to using a user control in an ASP.NET Web Forms app. Components are specified using an element tag that matches the type name of the component.

Parameters


In some scenarios, it’s inconvenient to flow data from an ancestor component to a descendent component using component parameters, especially when there are several component layers. Cascading values and parameters solve this problem by providing a convenient way for an ancestor component to provide a value to all of its descendent components. Cascading values and parameters also provide an approach for components to coordinate.

In ASP.NET Web Forms, you can flow parameters and data to controls using public properties. These properties can be set in markup using attributes or set directly in code. Blazor components work in a similar fashion, although the component properties must also be marked with the [Parameter] attribute to be considered component parameters.

Blazor has several ways to pass values from a component to its child. However, when there are several layers between the components, the best way to pass data from an ancestor component to a descendant component is by using cascading values and parameters.

The simplest way to use cascading values and parameters is by sending the value with a CascadingValue tag and getting the value from the child component with a [CascadingParameter]. ​

Event handlers


Blazor provide an event-based programming model for handling UI events. Examples of such events include button clicks and text input. In ASP.NET Web Forms, you use HTML server controls to handle UI events exposed by the DOM, or you can handle events exposed by web server controls. The events are surfaced on the server through form post-back requests.

In Blazor, you can register handlers for DOM UI events directly using directive attributes of the form @on{event}. The {event} placeholder represents the name of the event.
​​
Event handlers can execute synchronously or asynchronously. After an event is handled, the component is rendered to account for any component state changes. With asynchronous event handlers, the component is rendered immediately after the handler execution completes. The component is rendered again after the asynchronous Task completes. This asynchronous execution mode provides an opportunity to render some appropriate UI while the asynchronous Task is still in progress.

Components can also define their own events by defining a component parameter of type EventCallback<TValue>. Event callbacks support all the variations of DOM UI event handlers: optional arguments, synchronous or asynchronous, method groups, or lambda expressions.

Data binding


Blazor provides a simple mechanism to bind data from a UI component to the component’s state. This approach differs from the features in ASP.NET Web Forms for binding data from data sources to UI controls.

One-way binding

One-way data binding is also known as an interpolation in other frameworks, such as Angular. It have a unidirectional flow, meaning that updates to the value only flow one way. It is very similar to Razor and also it will be quite straightforward. In one-way binding, we need to pass property or variable name along with @.

In Blazor, when modifying a one way binding the application is going to be responsible for making the change. This could be in response to user action or event such as a button click. The point being, that the user will never be able to modify the value directly, hence one way binding.

Two-way binding

Blazor also supports two-way data binding by using bind attribute. The primary use case for two way binding is in forms, although it can be used anywhere that an application requires input from the user.

Razor rewrites the @bind directive to set the property Value and add an event handler for ValueChanged. Setting Value defines the original value for the child component. When the value is changed in the child component, it notifies the parent using the ValueChanged callback. The parent component can update the value of the Age property.

Component libraries


These are many libraries with Blazor components that can be used in Blazor apps. Some of these libraries  are free but for some the license must be paid.  Some of these libraries  are: 

Radzen Blazor Components 

  • Site: https://razor.radzen.com/ 
  • Pricing: Free for commercial use 
  • Blazor Server: Yes 
  • Blazor WebAssembly: Yes 

MudBlazor 

  • Site: https://mudblazor.com/ 
  • Pricing: free 
  • Blazor Server: Yes 
  • Blazor WebAssembly: Yes 

MatBlazor 

  • Site: https://www.matblazor.com/ 
  • Pricing: free 
  • Blazor Server: Yes 
  • Blazor WebAssembly: Yes 

DevExpress Blazor Components 

  • Site: https://www.devexpress.com/blazor/ 
  • Pricing: Free “for a limited time” 
  • Blazor Server: Yes  
  • Blazor WebAssembly: Yes

SyncFusion Blazor UI Components 

  • Site: https://blazor.syncfusion.com/ 
  • Pricing: Free community license or $995 /developer 1st year 
  • Blazor Server: Yes 
  • Blazor WebAssembly: Yes 

Telerik UI for Blazor 

  • Site: https://www.telerik.com/blazor-ui 
  • Pricing: $899/developer perpetual license 
  • Blazor Server: Yes 
  • Blazor WebAssembly: Yes ​​

Pages


In Blazor, each page in the app is a component, typically defined in a .razor file, with one or more specified routes. To create a page in Blazor, create a component and add the @page Razor directive to specify the route for the component. The @page directive takes a single parameter, which is the route template to add to that component.

The route template parameter is required and are specified in the template using braces. Blazor will bind route values to component parameters with the same name (case-insensitive).

Components in Blazor, including pages, can’t render <script> tags. This rendering restriction exists because <script> tags get loaded once and then can’t be changed. Unexpected behavior may occur if you try to render the tags dynamically using Razor syntax. Instead, all <script> tags should be added to the app’s host page.

Layouts


A Blazor layout is similar to the ASP Webforms concept of a Master Page, and the same as a Razor layout in ASP MVC.

In Blazor, you handle page layout using layout components. Layout components inherit from LayoutComponentBase, which defines a single Body property of type RenderFragment, which can be used to render the contents of the page. When the page with a layout is rendered, the page is rendered within the contents of the specified layout at the location where the layout renders its Body property. You can specify the layout for all components in a folder and subfolders using an _Imports.razor file. You can also specify a default layout for all your pages using the Router component.

When specifying a @layout (either explicitly or through a _Imports.razor file), Blazor will decorate the generated target class with a LayoutAttribute. Blazor will honour a LayoutAttribute on any ComponentBase descendant. Not only do pages descend from this class, but the LayoutComponentBase does too! This means that a custom layout can also have its own parent layout.

Layouts in Blazor don’t typically define the root HTML elements for a page (<html>, <body>, <head>, and so on). The root HTML elements are instead defined in a Blazor app’s host page, which is used to render the initial HTML content for the app (see Bootstrap Blazor). The host page can render multiple root components for the app with surrounding markup. ​

Routing


Routing in Blazor is handled by the Router component. The Router component is typically used in the app’s root component (App.razor). The Router component discovers the routable components in the specified AppAssembly and in the optionally specified AdditionalAssemblies. When the browser navigates, the Router intercepts the navigation and renders the contents of its Found parameter with the extracted RouteData if a route matches the address, otherwise the Router renders its NotFound parameter. The RouteView component handles rendering the matched component specified by the RouteData with its layout if it has one. If the matched component doesn’t have a layout, then the optionally specified DefaultLayout is used.

Routing mostly happens client-side without involving a specific server request. The browser first makes a request to the root address of the app. A root Router component in the Blazor app then handles intercepting navigation requests and them to the correct component. Blazor also supports deep linking. Deep linking occurs when the browser makes a request to a specific route other than the root of the app. Requests for deep links sent to the server are routed to the Blazor app, which then routes the request client-side to the correct component.

State management


For the best possible user experience, it’s important to provide a consistent experience to the end user when their connection is temporarily lost and when they refresh or navigate back to the page. The components of this experience include:

  • The HTML Document Object Model (DOM) that represents the user interface (UI)
  • The fields and properties representing the data being input and/or output on the page
  • The state of registered services that are running as part of code for the page

In the absence of any special code, state is maintained in two places depending on the Blazor hosting model. For Blazor WebAssembly (client-side) apps, state is held in browser memory until the user refreshes or navigates away from the page. In Blazor Server apps, state is held in special “buckets” allocated to each client session known as circuits. These circuits can lose state when they time out after a disconnection and may be obliterated even during an active connection when the server is under memory pressure. ​

Generally, maintain state across browser sessions where users are actively creating data, not simply reading data that already exists. To preserve state across browser sessions, the app must persist the data to some other storage location than the browser’s memory. State persistence isn’t automatic. You must take steps when developing the app to implement stateful data persistence.

Data persistence is typically only required for high-value state that users expended effort to create. In the following examples, persisting state either saves time or aids in commercial activities:

Multi-step web forms: It’s time-consuming for a user to re-enter data for several completed steps of a multi-step web form if their state is lost. A user loses state in this scenario if they navigate away from the form and return later.

Shopping carts: Any commercially important component of an app that represents potential revenue can be maintained. A user who loses their state, and thus their shopping cart, may purchase fewer products or services when they return to the site later.

An app can only persist app state. UIs can’t be persisted, such as component instances and their render trees. Components and render trees aren’t generally serializable. To persist UI state, such as the expanded nodes of a tree view control, the app must use custom code to model the behavior of the UI state as serializable app state. ​

Dependency injection


Dependency injection is a best-practice software development technique for ensuring classes remain loosely coupled and making unit testing easier. The Blazor supports Dependency injection in both the Blazor server and Blazor WebAssembly app. The Blazor provides built-in services, and you can also build a custom service and use it with a component by injecting them via DI.

The services configure in the Blazor app with a specific service lifetime. Basically, there are three lifetimes exist:
  • Singleton – DI creates a single instance of the service. All components requiring this service receive a reference to this instance.
  • Transient – Whenever a component requires this service, it receives a new instance of the service.
  • Scoped – This is means the service is scoped to the connection. This is the preferred way to handle per user services – there is no concept of scope services in WebAssembly as obviously it’s a client technology at this point and already per user scoped ​

JavaScript interoperability


A Blazor app can invoke JavaScript functions from .NET methods and .NET methods from JavaScript functions. These scenarios are called JavaScript interoperability (JS interop). JavaScript should be added into either /Pages/_Host.cshtml in Server-side Blazor apps, or in wwwroot/index.html for Web Assembly Blazor apps. Our JavaScript can then be invoked from Blazor by injecting the IJSRuntime service into our component.

To call into JavaScript from .NET, use the IJSRuntime abstraction. To issue JS interop calls, inject the IJSRuntime abstraction in your component. InvokeAsync takes an identifier for the JavaScript function that you wish to invoke along with any number of JSON-serializable arguments. The function identifier is relative to the global scope (window). If you wish to call window.someScope.someFunction, the identifier is someScope.someFunction. There’s no need to register the function before it’s called. The return type T must also be JSON serializable. T should match the .NET type that best maps to the JSON type returned.

For Blazor Server apps with prerendering enabled, calling into JavaScript isn’t possible during the initial prerendering. JavaScript interop calls must be deferred until after the connection with the browser is established. ​

Conclusion


In this article are covered the base elements about Blazor such as: 
  • Project structure
  • Hosting models
  • Components 
  • Blazor pages and layouts
  • Routing 
  • State management
  • Dependency injection 
  • JavaScript interoperability 

For more details and examples can check links in References section.

Blazor is certainly worth picking up for new projects because is a new technology and from Microsoft says that they will continue to invest in it. Blazor is certainly worth picking up for new projects. I think that even though the framework is not yet fully mature it has come far from short lifespan, and that even though Blazor is not widely used yet it is unlikely to go away considering that it is developed and supported by a large company like Microsoft.

I think that Blazor is interesting for back-end developers because they can develop UI using C#, that is more intuitive for them them unlike some UI framework such as Angular.


BA & QA synergistic approach: Testing software requirements

Daniela Zdravkovska

Business Analyst

In our company, high-performing teams are essential in achieving excellence in software development. A software’s performance on the other side, is built on good specifications & project requirements and BAs have their crucial role in defining them. Their task is to collect specifications from all stakeholders to ensure that the proposed software solution meets all of their requirements. Working on the requirements is a model that is built a bit ahead from the development with customer’s consent and active participation in the requirements elicitation phase. BAs work in advance on the scope definition on a project or on a sprint level, presenting them the business scope to the development team that is about to start working on the implementation. So, what does BAs have to do with QAs? The answer is simple: ensuring the solution meets the business requirements! They both test the workable pieces of software that are deployed as well as the final product making sure there is a match between the client’s expectations & needs and the actual result which is about to be delivered on the other side (BA side) and that what delivered to the customer corresponds to what defined in the business requirements documentation (QA side). Although there seem to be two different sides of the story or better said, different approaches to the same thing, still the purpose is the same: making sure that a high-quality software is developed according to the business requirements from the customer.

Requirements & Tests


Tests and requirements may sound different, but they both complement the view of the system that is built. Multiple views of a system—written requirements, diagrams, prototypes, and so on—provide a far richer interpretation of the system than a single representation would. The agile practices show a preference towards writing user acceptance tests, rather than detailed functional requirements. Writing detailed functional requirements accompanied by UAT provides a crystallized understanding of how the system should behave so that the project scope is met and value delivered to the customer and their end-users. When BAs, developers, and customers walk through tests together, they codify a common vision of how the product will function and boost their trust that the specifications are right. Given that many business analysts end up designing parts of the user interface, including them in usability testing is always a good idea. This is where the synergetic approach between BAs and QAs comes into place.

Good requirements are those that are testable


The most important step in solving every problem is to test the proposed solution. As a result, the tested outcomes are seen as a critical project success factor. We must first consider how “testing” fits into the overall picture of device creation lifecycles before we can begin dissecting it. Understanding the business logic means understanding the software’s requirements. As such, when gathering them and during the requirements elicitation phase, we as BAs need to know what good requirements are. Among their correctness, feasibility, clearness, and unambiguity, making sure that every requirement meets a specific business need that can be tested is crucial and it requires a specific criterion against which it can be validated. Requirements meeting the acceptance criteria are essential in avoiding conflicts between the stakeholders or unhappy customers. It turns out that acceptance criteria are kind of an agreement between all the parties. For instance, let’s consider the following requirement: “The system shall be user-friendly”. Fancy as it may sound, the aforementioned statement does not provide a clear and verifiable criterion of what user-friendliness is. We would not know whether to “pass” or “fail” this requirement simply because we miss the criteria against which we can test it! Instead of it, during the elicitation of this requirement, we could establish that the system will provide help screens, dialog boxes, easy menu-driven navigation, etc. Having this in mind, we can understand how important it is for all requirements to be testable.

BA role in different types of testing


Software testing happens at several stages during the implementation of a project. In some of them, the Business Analyst is directly involved, while in others, they are available to clarify requirements.

Integration Testing


During the integration testing, BAs act as support here providing guidance and answering questions that the developers may have.

System Testing


Considering that system testing is about making sure that the system as a whole works according to the specified requirements, the role of the BAs is more engaging. BAs are actively involved in making sure that each component works as per the specifications and that their integration corresponds to the business logic. Consequently, they can get involved in:

  • Writing test plans
  • Creating and executing test cases
  • Review the test cases prepared by the QAs
  • Provide guidance and make adjustments where needed according to the outcomes

Regression Testing


Changes in the business requirements mean also changes in the coding, therefore a regression testing is needed to ensure the software meets the business requirements after the modifications. Regression testing is something that a Business Analyst is well-versed in. As BAs, we can choose which important test cases to include in a Regression suite to ensure that all functionality remain intact after a code update.

User Acceptance Testing- UAT


User Acceptance Testing (UAT) is the process of testing an application by users who may be industry subject matter experts or end users to ensure that it meets the intended business needs as well as stakeholder and solution criteria. User Acceptance Testing is perhaps the most critical testing activity, and project managers, company sponsors, and users are all interested in it. This is because UAT is performed on product-like scenarios and environments with potentially real business data, and passing UAT tests indicates that the solution meets the business and solution criteria and is ready for deployment. A business analyst may play a variety of roles in User Acceptance testing, including (but not limited to) the activities mentioned below.

  • Carry out customer acceptance testing on behalf of business end users.
  • Assist in the creation of UAT test cases that cover the most important market situations and use cases.
  • Work along with the software testers to ensure software compliance with the business logic and requirements.

Role-based access Testing


Building tests for role-based security, which restricts user access based on their login, can be one of the most challenging test scenarios. The Roles & Permissions matrix defined by the BAs ensures the integrity of often sensitive information therefore when defining it, BAs usually do the following:

  • Identify the key roles within the system
  • Discover additional roles that require access to the system
  • Discover roles that should not have access to certain system functions and
  • Denote who can perform which activities/tasks within the system

Although when writing the business requirements documentation or the subsequent user stories the users’ roles & permissions are clearly to be identified, still testing them out separately is a good approach to ensure that the system works as supposed to. Role-based security testing guarantees that the program enforces user roles, so defining these roles and rights is a natural starting point for the testing process. Upon their definition and successful implementation, checking that they work as intended is essential in avoiding high fault rates or even security breaches. BAs take an important stance in this regard ensuring that not only the business logic is captured, but also that the system provides or restricts the access based on the defined role within the system. System-wise, QAs will be interested to make sure that the system behaves as expected according to the business requirements, while the BAs ensure that the requirements are developed keeping in mind the roles & permissions limits or constraints.

Writing conceptual tests


As mentioned above, writing test cases can also be a part of the business analyst role. In the early development process, BAs can start deriving conceptual tests from the business requirements which later on in the development stages can be used to evaluate functional and non-functional requirements, business models, and prototypes. BA tests normally cover the normal flows of each use case, alternative flows (if any), exceptions, or constraints identified during the requirements elicitation phase. What’s important is for the test to cover both expected behaviors and outcomes, and the exceptions on the other side. Let’s discuss an example I believe we are all familiar with. Consider an application for making reservations similar to Booking. Conceptual tests here would include:

  • The User enters the confirmation number to find the booked reservation. Expected result: system shows the reservation details (time, check-in and check-out date, included services, the price paid, etc.)
  • The User enters the confirmation number to find the booked reservation, the order does not exist. Expected result: “Sorry, we were unable to find your reservation”.
  • The User enters a confirmation number to find the booked reservation. No reservation has been booked. Expected result: “There does not seem to be a reservation made with the details you provided. Please double-check the information you entered or contact us at support@example.com”.

Having this in mind, both BA and QA will work together to define test scenarios. Inconsistencies between the views expressed by the functional specifications, templates, and tests can result from ambiguous user requirements and differing interpretations. While developers convert specifications into the user interface and technological designs, BAs and QAs work together on transforming conceptual requirements into verifiable test scenarios and procedures.

As we can see in the above diagram, testing the business requirements requires a common approach both from the BAs and the QAs.

The testing


Following up the previously mentioned example diagram, here is how a test example would look like. The testing process combines a common understanding of the business requirements.

Use case

In the aforementioned example, a use case would be “checking/finding an already made reservation”. The path included in this process allows the users to search through a certain database where the specific reservation is stored.

Description:

  • The end-user enters the previously received confirmation number in a reservation search system.
  • The system offers a search field from where the end-user will be able to find the reservation or make a new one.

Functional requirement

  • If the system contains the searched reservation, then it should display it.
  • The user shall select to open the found reservation, if any, or create a new one.

Based on the diagram, we can see that the abovementioned use case has several possible execution paths, therefore it makes sense to compose several test plans, especially if we keep in mind the exceptions. At this point, usually, BA tests are more on a high level because they intent to cover the business logic scenarios. As we move with the development phase, QAs will work on making more specific test cases including all aspects of both positive and negative scenarios. Testing these requirements means making sure execution is possible by going through every requirement. The easiest way for both BAs and QAs is to visually draw an execution line that will make obvious the incorrect or the missing part, so the process can be improved, and the test refined. This way of approaching the testing and the combined effort between the BAs and the QAs allows to avoid missing parts or to remove redundant requirements before a code is written.

Conclusions


Although a joint effort is required, still BAs gather the requirements first. Since assigned project testers are seldom present during the gathering of business specifications, test data must be produced and recorded consistently for the assigned testers. This strategy would make it easier for testers to complete their assignments and for business analysts and project managers to coordinate such research. In reality, before a QA joins the team, BAs need to collaborate with the tech people on the project to develop the test scenarios ensuring their validity and traceability before they are provided to the dedicated QAs. This way, they don’t need to revalidate test data that do not correspond with the exact business requirements.  Although testing is something that BAs and QAs have in common, yet there is one crucial difference: UAT primary purpose is to define that the system fits the business logic and that it serves both the customer and the end-users, while the system testing purpose is to make sure the software behaves the way it is supposed to according to the defined business requirements. In the end, we can just confirm that good software is based on a collaborative approach of all involved parties in its development cycle, while conceptual testing remains a powerful way for discovering requirements gaps and ambiguities and solve them!


Daniela Zdravkovska

Business Analyst
June 2021


Is Creativity Crucial In Today’s Business Environment?

Risto Ristov

Project Coordinator & Content Editor

Creativity is more than just art

People are not used to the topics of creativity and business in the same conversation. A lot of people out there believe that business is purely financial and about making money, while creativity is more of an artistic value. Yes, an artist should be creative and share creativity with the world, but so should a software engineer in order to build rational and sustainable solutions, a mathematician to solve the hardest math problem , a salesperson to attract perspective clients, or a CEO to lead a company in the right direction.

Creativity is a crucial factor in today’s business environment because it represents a way of thinking that can inspire, challenge, help people to solve existing problems and find innovative solutions. It’s the source of inspiration and innovation. Simply put, it is solving problems in original ways.

Creative people in companies

Creative people are needed across every industry and every function more than you think. Software companies don’t just want someone who can write code, they want someone who can dream up new solutions to fix old problems. Companies don’t want business analysts who just crunch numbers; they want analysts who can think of creative solutions based on what the numbers are telling them. People need to think “out of the box” and bring progress and value to their projects and ultimately to their company.

If we want to steer our career in the right direction, there’s no better approach than focusing on thinking more creatively. We should stop using solutions that worked previously and push ourselves to think of newer, better ideas, ideas that could bring better performance.

Business

There is no business or project that had great success without any creative or innovative ideas being implemented. Creativity is one of the most important reasons why businesses can thrive in a world of “big” technology-sustainable ideas. In today’s challenging and groundbreaking technology market, creative business ideas set companies apart from one another. Without creativity, we might be going around in circles and doing the same things, over and over again. What kind of a fun world and competition would that be? Where would progress be? What would set us apart?

Top 10 skills

The World Economic Forum placed creativity in top 3 required skills to run a business in 2020.

in 2015

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Coordination with Others
  • People Management
  • Critical Thinking
  • Negotiation
  • Quality Control
  • Service Orientation
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Active Listening
  • Creativity

in 2020

  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Service Orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive Flexibility

Source: Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum

In 2015, creativity was in the top ten skills but it was placed in 10th place. In 2020, the World Economic Forum placed it in 3rd place. According to their research, more companies are starting to realize how important creativity is to their overall business success.
What does creativity brings to a business?

  • Competitiveness
  • Improves company culture
  • Increases productivity
  • Solves problems
  • Brings Innovative solutions that can change the world

Every company tries to grow and expand while surpassing the competition. It is crucial to bring some new ideas, something different, something helpful to your customers in order to achieve greater value. If you simply copy what other businesses do, you can’t expect to become the best in the industry. You need to innovate, come up with the best rational solutions, and push the boundaries of what is really possible out there.

There is no dumb idea

Every idea during a creative process has merit. Whether or not the idea sounds good, or is laid out perfectly, it can be worked and modified and morphed into absolute brilliance. People should stop being so critical of their inner geniuses. There should be no restriction to dumb ideas from reaching their potential. When an idea pops up in our minds, let’s not right away say that it is a dumb one. Rather, communicate it with the team and work your way around it, shape it into the best possible solution and the results can be nothing short of extraordinary in the long run.

Creativity can be found in environments that are prone towards adaptability, flexibility, environments that are based on trust, respect, who welcome new ideas, experiments and encourage people to be curious and explore.

There is no business without its people behind it. Companies need to find smarter ways to attract new clients and to keep the interest of the existing ones. This is why nurturing creativity within employees which often goes together with problem-solving, can create opportunities and overcome challenges. With a mindset of growth and curiosity, companies can become the best version of themselves and a catalyst for innovations, therefore, offering greater value.

Exploration is very tightly related to creativity and even though it sounds exciting, it is still not an easy task. You get to explore something new, something that you haven’t seen so far. You get to play with your idea, share it with others, and possibly shape it to the best version you can think of. There should be no pressure into delivering results right away. Innovation takes time but waiting for it is totally worth it.

Productivity Boost

A major benefit of creativity is that it helps boost productivity. It will bring a feeling of belonging, a feeling of creating something new, something innovative. It will make people feel appreciated, and with that kind of motivation at hand, we can expect for them to surpass the limits and the expectations. This doesn’t mean that people are not susceptible to make mistakes, but it means that when mistakes happen, it will be easier to accept them and understand feedback about it at the highest level.
Despite what you have thought before, creativity is a skill. And just like other skills, it can be developed and nurtured if everyone works on it.

In the very end, I will say this, step out of your comfort zone, explore new solutions, and stimulate creativity. The world is up to you to change it. Dream big because in terms of technology, anything is possible if we just get our minds into it.


Risto Ristov
Project Coordinator & Content Editor
May 2021


Provisioned Concurrency for AWS Lambda functions

AWS Provisioned concurrency – why use it

Elvira Sorko

Senior Back End Engineer at IT Labs

In my company, we’ve recently been working on a serverless project that is using AWS Lambda functions for backend execution of REST API Gateway. But with Lambda functions, cold starts were our greatest concern. Generally, our Lambda functions are written with Java and .NET, which often experience cold starts that last for several seconds! Reading different articles, we found that this was a concern for many others in the serverless community. However, AWS has heard the concerns and has provided the means to solve the problem. AWS in 2019 announced Provisioned Concurrency, a feature that allow Lambda customers to not have to worry about cold starts anymore.

So, if you have Lambda function and just deployed as a serverless service, or if it has not been invoked in some time, your function will be cold. This means that when you invoke a Lambda function, the invocation is routed to an execution environment to process the request. If a new event trigger did occur to invoke a Lambda function, or the function has not been used for some time, a new execution environment would need to be instantiated, the runtime loaded in, your code and all of its dependencies imported and finally your code executed. Depending on the size of your deployment package, and the initialization time of the runtime and of your code, this process could take more seconds before any execution actually started. This latency is usually referred to as a “cold start”, and you can monitor it in the X-Ray as initialization time. However, after execution, this micro VM that took some time to spin up is kept available afterwards for anywhere up to an hour and if a new event trigger comes in, then execution could begin immediately.

Our first try to prevent cold starts, was to use warm-up plugin Thundra (https://github.com/thundra-io/thundra-lambda-warmup). Usage of this warm-up plugin in our Lambda functions requires implementing some branching logic that determines whether this was a warm–up execution or an actual execution. However, while the warm-up plugin didn’t cost anything, except the time spent on implementation in our existing Lambda functions code, the results were not satisfactory.

Then we decided to set aside a certain budget, as AWS services costs money, and use the AWS feature Provisioned Concurrency. As the AWS documentation says, this is a feature that keeps functions initialized and hyper-ready to respond in double-digit milliseconds. It works for all Lambda runtimes and requires no code change to existing functions. Great! That’s what we needed.

How it works

When you enable Provisioned Concurrency for a function, the Lambda service will initialize the requested number of execution environments so they can be ready to respond to invocations. With provisioned concurrency, the worker nodes will reside in the state with your code downloaded and underlying container structure all set. So, if you expect spikes in traffic, it’s good for you to provision a higher number of worker nodes. If we have more incoming invocations and provisioned worker nodes can’t satisfy these requests, then the overflow invocations are handled conventionally with on-demand worker nodes being initialized per the request.

It is important to know that you pay for the amount of concurrency that you configure and for the period of time that you configure it. When Provisioned Concurrency is enabled for your function and you execute it, you also pay for Requests and Duration based on the prices in the AWS documentation. If the concurrency for your function exceeds the configured concurrency, you will be billed for executing the excess functions at the rate outlined in the AWS Lambda Pricing section.

The Lambda free tier does not apply to functions that have Provisioned Concurrency enabled. If you enable Provisioned Concurrency for your function and execute it, you will be charged for Requests and Duration.

Configuring Provisioned Concurrency

It is important to know that Provisioned concurrency can be configured ONLY on Lambda Function ALIAS or VERSION. You can’t configure it against the $LATEST alias, nor any alias that points to $LATEST.

Provisioned Concurrency can be enabled, disabled and adjusted on the fly using the AWS Console, AWS CLI, AWS SDK or CloudFormation.

In our case, we selected the alias LookupsGetAlias that we keep updated to the latest version using the AWS SAM (Serverless Application Model) AutoPublishAlias function preference in our SAM template.

Provisioned concurrency enabling can take a few minutes (time needed to prepare and start the execution environments) and you can check its progress in the AWS Console. During this time, the function remains available and continues the work.

Once fully provisioned, the Status will change to Ready and invocations are no longer executed with regular on-demand worker nodes.

You can check that invocations are handled by Provisioned Concurrency by monitoring the Lambda function Alias metrics. You should execute the Lambda function and select the Lambda function Alias in the AWS console and go to monitor Metrics.

However, as before, the first invocation would still report as the Init Duration (the time it takes to initialize the function module) in the REPORT message in CloudWatch Logs. This init duration no longer happens as part of the first invocation. Instead, it happens when Lambda provisioned the Provisioned Concurrency. The duration is included in the REPORT message here purely for the sake of reporting it somewhere.

But, if you enable X-Ray tracing for Lambda function, you will find that no initialization time is registered, only execution time.

If you trigger Lambda function via Amazon API Gateway using the LAMBA_PROXY as Integration request, you will need to set Lambda function Alias in the Lambda function reference.

Another important thing to keep in mind when using Amazon API Gateway, Lambda functions and you want to prevent cold starts is to provide Provisioned Concurrency to all Lambda functions used in the API GW. For example, if you are using custom Authorizer in the API GW Authorizers, you should do the following:

  • Configure Provisioned Concurrency on custom authorizer Lambda function Alias
  • Use Lambda function Alias reference in the API GW Authorizers.

  • Set Permissions with Resource-Based policy on custom authorizer Lambda function to be able to invoke with defined API GW.

You can track the performance of your underlying services by enabling AWS X-Ray tracing. Be aware of AWS X-Ray pricing.

Otherwise, end user will experience longer load time, caused by custom authorizer lambda function initialization. We can see this in the AWS X-Ray traces by enabling X-Ray tracing on API GW Stage.

Scheduling AWS Lambda Provisioned Concurrency

For our project purposes, we found that spikes are usually during the day, from 10 am until 8 pm, and there is no need for provisioned worker nodes during the night. That’s why we decided to use Application Auto Scaling service to automate scaling for Provisioned Concurrency for Lambda. There is no extra cost for Application Auto Scaling, you only pay for the resources that you use.

We are using AWS SAM to schedule AWS Lambda Provisioned Concurrency and to deploy our application. The following code shows how to schedule Provisioned Concurrency for production environment in an AWS SAM template:

In this template:

  • You need an alias for the Lambda function. This automatically creates the alias “LookupsGetAlias” and sets it to the latest version of the Lambda function.
  • This creates an AWS::ApplicationAutoScaling::ScalableTarget resource to register the Lambda function as a scalable target.
  • This references the correct version of the Lambda function by using the “LookupsGetAlias” alias.
  • Defines different actions to schedule as a property of the scalable target.
  • You cannot define the scalable target until the alias of the function is published. The syntax is <FunctionResource>Alias<AliasName>.

Conclusion

The use of serverless services, as AWS Lambda function, and their downsides, affects the end-user experience. Cold starts impact your serverless application performance.

Provisioned Concurrency for AWS Lambda function helps to take greater control over the performance and reduce latency in creation of execution environments. In combination with Application Auto Scaling, you can easily schedule your scaling during application usage peaks, and optimize cost.

Enjoy your day and keep safe!

 

Written by:
Senior Backend Engineer at IT Labs


Multi-Tenant Architecture

MULTI-TENANT ARCHITECTURE DATABASE APPROACH

Ilija Mishov

Founding Partner | Technology track at IT Labs

How to implement

The purpose of this document is to define and describe the multi-tenant implementation approach. Included are the main characteristics of the proposed approach, commonly known as “multi-tenant application with database per tenant” pattern.

Multi-tenant app with database per tenant

With the multi-tenant application with a database per tenant approach, there is one secure store that will hold the tenants secure data (like the connection string to their database, or file storage etc.). Tenant separation is achieved at the “Tenant handler” layer, where the application resolves which tenant data to use.

Client

The client application is not aware of multi-tenant implementation. This application will only use the tenant’s name when accessing the server application. This is usually achieved by defining the server application’s subdomain for each tenant, and the client application communicates with [tenant_name].app-domain/api.

Server Application

With database per tenant implementation, there is one application instance for all tenants. The application is aware of the client’s tenant and knows what database to use for the client’s tenant. Tenant information is usually part of the client’s request.

A separate layer in the application is responsible for reading the tenant-specific data (tenant_handler layer.) This layer is using the secure store service (like AWS secrets manager) to read the tenant-specific database connection string and database credentials, storing that information in the current context. All other parts of the application are tenant unaware, and tenant separation is achieved at the database access (database repository) layer. The repository layer is using the information from the current context to access the tenant’s specific database instance.

Secure store service

The Secure store service is used to store and serve the tenant information. This service typically stores id, unique-name, database address, and database credentials for the tenants, etc.

Tenant database

Each tenant database is responsible for storing and serving the tenant-specific applications. The application’s repository layer is aware of the tenant-specific database, and it is using the information from the current context to help the application’s domain layers.

Depending upon the requirements, the tenant’s database can be hosted on either a shared or a separate location.

Figure 2: Example – Tenant A database is on Database Server 1. Tenant B and Tenant C databases are sharing Database Server 2.

Figure 3: Example – All tenant databases are sharing Database Server 1

Characteristics

Data separation

There are a couple of items which must be considered regarding data separation:

  • For good cross-tenant data separation, data is separated in the specific tenant’s database, and there is no mixing of data for different tenants.

In the case of added complexity, where report(s) need to summarize data from all tenants, usually, some additional reporting approach is implemented on top of the implementation.

Database performance and reliability

The database per tenant approach ensures better database performance. With this approach, data partitioning is implemented from the highest level (the tenants.) Also, since data is separated per tenant, one indexing level is avoided. With a multi-tenant database approach, all collections/tables will generate an index for the tenant specification field.

Because the tenant’s instances are separated, if some issue arises with one tenant’s database, the application will continue working for all the other tenants.

Implementation complexity

Most of the application is tenant unaware. Tenant specific functionality is isolated in the tenant-handler layer, and this information is used in the data access (data repository) layer of the application. This ensures that there will be no tenant-specific functionality across the different application domain layers.

Database scalability

For small databases, all tenants can share one database server resource. As database size and usage increase, the hardware of the database server resource can be scaled up, or a specific tenant’s database can be separated onto a new instance.

SQL vs No-SQL databases

For No-SQL database engines, the process of creating a database and maintaining the database schema is generally easier and more automated. With the correct database user permissions, as data comes into the system, the application code can create both the database and the collections. Meaning that when defining a new tenant in the system, the only thing that must be done is to define the tenant’s information in the main database. Then the application will know how to start working for that tenant. For generating indexes and functions on the database level, the solution will need to include procedure(s) for handling new tenants.

For SQL database engines, the process of defining a new tenant in the system will involve creating a database for the tenant. This includes having database schema scripts for generating the tenant’s database schema, creating the new database for the tenant, and executing the schema scripts on the new database.

Deployment and maintenance

The deployment procedure should cover all tenant databases. To avoid any future complications, all databases must always be on the same schema version. When a new application version is released, databases changes will affect all tenant instances.

In the process of defining maintenance functions and procedures, all tenant instances will be covered. It should be noted that many tenants can result in extra work to maintain all the databases.

Backup and restore

A backup process should be defined for all tenant databases, which will result in additional work for the DB Admin and/or DevOps team. However, by having well-defined procedures for backup and restoration, these procedures can be performed on one tenant’s instance at a time without affecting all the other tenants.

References

A showcase implementation of the Multi-tenant approach

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Need help with Multi-Tenant approach?

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