It's not often that you get a call from the NHS asking you to build a learning platform from scratch, using the latest technologies and delivered using agile management practices, but one February morning we were faced with exactly that.
Alongside good friend Harry Roberts (who's also done a nice write up of the project here) we met Jason, the NHS Leadership Academy’s Programme Lead, and after a short discussion we agreed this was definitely a project we'd like to be involved in.
The aim of the project was to build a learning platform that could be used to distribute educational content to anyone, at any level within the NHS. Whether they're a nurse or an executive, the platform needed to provide a place for them to take part in online programmes and report their progress back to coaches and programme leads.
On top of this, we also needed to make sure that the content packages were easy to author and manipulate. The platform needed to satisfy the users who administered the programme content just as much as the participants, as the quality of the content was just as important. There were already systems out there that supported a variant of what we needed, but they didn't fit the delivery model we had in mind, so we worked with the authors to build something more suitable for the platform. This resulted in a custom package format that meant authors could create learning content, add resources such as videos and images, and bundle it all up into a single upload to publish on the platform.
One of the most refreshing aspects to this project was how it was run and delivered. IT projects in the public sector are mostly publicised for being monolithic beasts resulting in bloated software and off-the-mark deliverables, but I'm glad to say that this project couldn't have been more different. It's a huge credit to Jason and his team that the project was delivered on time and to the specification.
On top of that, it was all done in an agile manner. We used tools like Trello and Slack to keep communication tight, and GitHub to keep conversations around code focused and relevant. During a series of 14 sprints we took the project from MVP to final deliverable. We used a staging server to preview code before production releases to ensure internally we were happy with how things worked, and we used automated deployment processes to push code live.
It was made even more enjoyable by Jason allowing the development team to just "get things done" without too much bike-shedding about how we were doing things, with the knowledge that we had the experience to deliver what was asked of us.
The main platform project was build in Rails 4, using a small handful of gems to speed up development of some common features. Alongside this, Harry worked on a UI Toolkit written in Sass. We worked on the functional and presentational sides of the application in separate branches (using Git), until we were ready to pair the work up.
A bit more detail about the technology used on this project:
- To run the app itself we used Foreman and Unicorn. Using Unicorn allowed us to deploy the app with zero downtime using rolling restarts
- Dragonfly was used a lot, not only for image uploads, but storing assets and content packages, and post-processing assets into cloud storage
- App Signal meant we were notified of any production errors or performance regressions
- Rack Cache helped us tune some heavy page requests and dragonfly downloads
- Ember.js allowed us to create mini applications that we could embed into certain parts of the site which required richer features (such as private user portfolios)
- Capybara and Site Prism allowed us to thoroughly test the entire stack, along with the usual unit and controller specs
Alongside the technologies listed above we also created some private gems to support some more bespoke features of the platform such as content delivery (which used our custom package format), application permissions, and feature flags so we could easily enable features for certain participants.
It was a pleasure to be a part of such an agile team, especially on a project with such a large impact on its user base. We can't wait to see how the project evolves and matures as more learning content gets added, and we look forward to seeing the Leadership Academy continue to improve the jobs and lives of people who have used the platform, delivered by a small team in just a few months.