Hi! I am Vitaliy Mokosiy, CTO in Atola Technology. I have been working here with great enjoyment and enthusiasm since 2008. Today I am taking this opportunity to shed light on the development process of Atola products, how it drives me as well as our whole dev team.
We proudly presented Atola TaskForce to the forensic community almost two years ago. While the volume of digital evidence inevitably continues to grow, every day TaskForce imagers are out there helping save a great deal of time for our customers by imaging at 15 TB per hour of total performance.
From a user’s perspective it is simple:
- you plug 12 SATA evidence drives into TaskForce
- start imaging them simultaneously
- save 6-18 imaging hours within a day
Under the hood, though, TaskForce is way more complex: due to server-grade hardware reliability, extreme imaging optimization, and damaged drive support.
But how does my team manage to make the product simple to use while hiding all the complexity?
I believe 5 pillars created a basis for our success:
- Exceptional hardware expertise
- Custom agile methodology
- Customer-centered approach
- Balanced quality assurance
Exceptional hardware expertise
15 years ago, Atola was a startup searching for product-solution fit and working business models. At that time, Dmitry Postrigan, Atola CEO, was inspired by the idea of automating mundane, repetitive tasks in hard drive data recovery. He already had 7 years of experience working with storage media in Seagate and few DR companies. MHDD, his low-level HDD diagnostics tool, was first released in 2001 and instantly became the most popular drive-related freeware in the world. So we had this unique knowledge base before designing our first hardware product. And it helps in understanding how Atola business instantly became profitable with no need to attract investors.
A great deal of time has gone by since then. Three Atola Insight devices, Atola Bandura, Atola Disk Recycler… These days our product line consists of Atola Insight Forensic and Atola TaskForce. All of our devices smartly handle damaged drives.
As I am writing this, I just realized no one has left our hardware team since day zero of Atola! Moreover, the hardware team accumulated design experience and has grown larger. Not only do we continue to create new hardware systems, but we also experiment and innovate way more than previously.
Andrew Tyschenko, who heads our hardware development team, has 12+ years of building robust Atola products under his belt. Sustaining the premium quality of hardware remains an absolute focus for our hardware team. Nothing compares with it in the market. In fact, our confidence in the quality of our products allows us to continue offering a lifetime warranty for every Atola TaskForce or Atola Insight Forensic unit we have ever sold.
Custom agile methodology
Atola product development process is based on persistent self-improvement cycles. It is not a SCRUM, Kanban or XP methodology as someone might expect. We adopt different practices in our belief that the current team and each of its members must be at the core, and not the methodology itself. Some practices are taken from existing methodologies like the ones mentioned above; others are created from scratch. In a nutshell, here is what we are using at this point:
- Retrospective meetings
- Focus groups
- Feature leadership
- Classic stand-up meetings
- Innovation days
- Continuous integration
- Pair programming and pair testing
- Code reviews
- Design prototyping
- Deep one-to-one meetings
- Soft-skill-based group hiring
Our retrospective meetings happen after every software release. They have a very significant impact on our subsequent development cycles through introduction of new practices, techniques, experiments approved by the whole team.
“Know your customers, listen to them carefully, learn their pains” – the first piece of advice I give to young people trying out to run their startups. This approach is what defines many things and helps find great solutions in product design.
Steve Jobs once said: “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them”. Well, that is not how we do it at Atola. We always pay attention to what our customers say. It makes sense, and it makes a difference.
One of Henry Ford’s famous quote goes “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Yes, a faster horse is a wish or customer-expected solution. But it conveys a true necessity: faster transportation. Not to mention the inconveniences deriving from horse riding.
Be attentive to your customers’ opinions. Figure out the pains. Ask smarter questions if you want to get better answers.
While we have partners around the globe, we make a point of visiting 20+ conferences and training sessions annually. The understanding of forensic examiners’ pains while handling multiple evidence drives under tight deadlines is what pushed us to develop Atola TaskForce that is able to image 12 SATA drives simultaneously.
Balanced quality assurance
We focus on the end result, no matter what it takes. And QA is an extremely significant part of the process. Quality assurance requires an intellectual approach to produce a high-quality, low-risk product with optimum testing efforts. Finding that balance is key. At Atola we have a powerful QA team of 6 people who sometimes achieve what I personally regard as magic to discover and solve technical issues.
The way I would quantify our full quality assurance flow is:
- System quantification and testing efforts optimization
- Unit tests
- Automated testing imitating user behavior
- Continuous integration server that runs all automated tests and immediately notifies us
- Several hundreds of HDDs, SSDs, USB devices used in testing
- Exploratory testing
- Smart manual QA considering specifics of different device families
- Regression testing when our team goes through a wide test plan before every release
Our culture includes three team values: sincerity, experiments, and simplicity. It would take me three or more blogs to write about each of these values. Therefore I will only briefly describe how we are used to behaving:
- Seek first to understand the other, and then to be understood
- Helping a colleague is the first priority
- Focus on each other’s strengths
- An initiative is always welcome and discussed. We love to experiment.
- Experiment as often as possible
- Fail-friendly environment. Making mistakes is normal and helpful.
- We prefer simple solutions that are easy to change
- Simple helps focus on the task. Complex – distracts from the task.
With all of the above in mind, we like to put our heads together over tough technical problems. In my experience, it is the best way to resolve untrivial issues and evolve as a team. If one person solves a complex technical problem, only this person knows the details. It is better to have 2+ team members sharing expertise on something truly sophisticated.
We have personal performance reviews and one-on-ones every six months. That amplifies the focus on company results and personal growth. Salaries of our R&D office staff are reviewed every six months too. It is the consistent and sustainable growth of our business that enables us to keep things that way.
Last but not least, a conscious effort to maintain and improve team communication and collaboration brings you a massive boost in efficacy. It results in true synergy when 1+1 is not 2, not 3, it is 8. It is fair to say that benefits from effective team communication overshadow all other areas.
Life is never about goals as such. Life is about the journey. Atola team tries to enjoy every step of our work-life journey. We do not only work together – we live our lives together at work having a shared vision, sincerely discussing ideas, experiencing emotions yet being focused on goals.
- Atola TaskForce 2020.7.1 introduces RAID and connectivity features - October 1, 2020
- Forensic RAID rebuild in Atola TaskForce 2020.7 - July 30, 2020
- Q&A during the Interpol Digital Forensics Expert Group 2020 - June 19, 2020