NJASAP's Digital Transformation

NJASAP, an independent pilot labor advocate needed to transform how they were digitally servicing their members. New website, forum software, union management software, updated system integrations and mobile application integration.

Challenges

Digital transformation is not a project, it’s more of a journey. A journey, that once begun can lead to some very rewarding outcomes. When we first met NJASAP, they were in the market for a website redesign. Something we could definitely help with. There were some 3rd party integrations, but more or less, it was a straight forward website redesign with some additional web application development. Fast forward a bit in the future and we’ve completed that website redesign and in addition, completely replaced much of the software that once managed their members.  This digital transformation came with some interesting hurdles, some of the most notable challenges where:

  • Switching over union management software while maintaining historical data, service continuity and implementing a Single Sign-On solution for all products.
  • Moving the legacy vBulletin forum software either to a newer version or replacing it entirely.
  • Providing the smoothest user adoption plan possible. 

Knowing the challenges that we faced, we moved into the digital strategy and technical specification phase of our process to determine how we might overcome these challenges. 

Approach

Solid Digital’s approach to digital product development always begins with a digital strategy. Then, we move into our discovery process to build a strong delivery plan. Finally, we transition into the production phase using our agile product development best practices to complete the work.

It was clear that we had to answer a few crucial questions in order to provide our best recommendations.

  1. Would vBulletin support the organization for at least 5 years in the future and support the client’s goals? If not, what model would we use to make a decision?
  2. For existing members, what will be the potential pain points of the new systems? What will be the gain creators? Are the tradeoffs worth it? 
  3.  How will users interface with the union-management software? How will the union-management software always remain the single source of truth? How will users get access from the union-management software to use other services like the forum?

Ultimately it was decided to replace vBulletin with a newer solution called NodeBB. Tapatalk support was removed because the new forum software provided mobile support natively. We also created an inventory of all UnionWare integration points with their existing software and were able to update them to the new Aptify system on their website, NodeBB and mobile application.

Web Development

The web development process was one of discovery and felt like peeling back an onion, actually, multiple onions.  With each layer removed we could dig down to the next level and determine the next step.

SSO Integration (SAML)

We needed to determine how members would authenticate, then inventory all the areas that a member would log into the system. We knew that we wanted each software solution to interface with a single identity provider (IDP). Using SSO (single sign-on) was important to guarantee that systems were not managing unique accounts, and all personally identifiable information (PII) was managed in a single place. Aptify’s software provided this ability and we were able to accomplish this goal.

Migrating vBulletin to NodeBB

The existing vBulletin database was about 8 GB large, had thousands of users, tens of thousands of topics and just about a million posts. It was pretty big. There are a lot of tutorials on how to migrate vBulletin to NodeBB but none that dealt with a large database like this. In addition, there were some gotchas that we didn’t discover until we tried it out. Overall we successfully migrated the systems and learned a lot along the way.

  • Images need to be saved. in the database as binary in order to get imported (not documented)
  • Which plugins need to be activated or deactivated and when. Different plugins need to be activated at different times (not documented)
  • The functionality provided by vBulletin plugins or shortcodes would not be understood by NodeBB (can you imagine a forum without emojis?)
  • Uploaded videos would not work out of the box and we would have to find plugins or build our own to handle YouTube or Vimeo videos
  • Our database was too big to use the “clear data and restart import” functionality. That meant anytime there was a change we needed to make on the importer we would have to perform a full import again (hours of work).

In the end, our biggest lesson was learning the NodeBB plugin ecosystem and how to extend the platform.

Mobile App Integration

The mobile app existed before we began working together and. it contained a lot of legacy code and features. It had all kinds of connections to the UnionWare software and included functionality that did not yet exist in Aptify. The Solid Digital and Aptify teams worked together to implement each of the features required and updated the mobile application to use the new system and completely remove all of the UnionWare connection points.

Once all of the web development and QA (quality assurance) was completed, we launched.

Putting it all together

It took quite a bit of coordination, but all 3 systems needed to go live in a certain order with an incredible amount of care. Firstly, no new data could be created in the union-management software. There had to be a freeze in creating new data so that the data could be migrated. Next, the website was updated to use the new SSO authentication implementation. Then,  we had to do the final forum import. After some vigorous testing, we turned everything on so users could start using it. Once stable, we submitted the mobile app and users were forced to upgrade.

This was a major initiative for our client and our team. We were so proud of the effort and service our team provided and the client received a quality implementation. As far as major digital transformations go it went very smoothly.  We hope to help someone else with a project like this in the future.

“The work was performed impeccably and proved tremendously popular with leadership, members, and staff alike. Solid Digital’s exceptional project management, flexible assistance, and constant communication contributed to a rewarding partnership.”

Elizabeth Lykins, Executive Director, NJASAP

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