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A year of building: the latest from Visas

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Exemplar projects, Programme updates

It’s been a while since last had an update from the team working on the Home Office’s Visas exemplar. The team have been very busy - the public beta service was released early in the summer to excellent customer feedback and nearly 10,000 Visit Visa applications from China were completed in the first month.

In this post DevOps Engineer Surfraz Ahmed talks us through the team’s most recent milestone and Product Owner Laura Gregory shares some of the work that’s going on to extend the service and what’s coming up next. Over to Surfraz...

5000 Builds

The Japanese bullet train recently celebrated its 50th birthday, having made its inaugural journey on October 1, 1964.

The "Hikari Super Express Shinkansen" cut the journey time between Osaka and Tokyo from almost 7 hours, down to 4. The engineers behind the original design, threw out a lot of conventional thinking with regards to rail engineering projects and took a new approach, setting a number of industry firsts.

What was truly remarkable however, was their attention to quality and safety. Over the 50 years, there have been zero fatalities due to collisions or derailments and the trains have run with an average deviation from scheduled time of less than 30 seconds.

Not content with having a high-speed train line that is the envy of the world, the next iteration of Hikari Shinkansen trains will cut the journey time down to 1 hour 7 minutes. Impressive stuff...

Coinciding with this anniversary; on October 1 2014, work on the digital customer journey for the Visas exemplar project also passed a significant milestone. At 3pm we built our 5000th deployable artifact.

A deployable artifact is created by our Jenkins build robot every time a new feature or bugfix is committed to our code repository by one of our developers. Each artifact is able to configure an entire virtual server environment, deploy and configure each application component on that environment, and is able to validate the operation of the components by running automated tests.

Having an automated build and deployment pipeline allows the team to iterate fast and validate small incremental changes in a Production-like environment quickly and cheaply. This helps us to catch most bugs early in the development cycle so that we can concentrate our valuable test and development resources on the more important challenges, such as refining the user experience and adding new features.

Once a week, the team picks a successful build in order to take it through our exploratory test cycle. This build is then promoted for release into our production environment. The team have managed to maintain a weekly production-release cycle with a very high success rate for several months.

The early engineers behind the design of Japanese bullet train decided to build their own train track. This allowed them to test new prototypes in a controlled environment without having any of the delays associated with sharing existing track. This resulted in a fast feedback loop that allowed them to push the boundaries of what was then possible.

In the same vein, our use of automated builds, allows a developer to see their code working in a full-size test environment within 15 minutes of making a change. If the code fails to meet the mark the developer will receive quick feedback on exactly where the code failed. The resulting improvements in code quality have resulted in high customer satisfaction ratings with a corresponding reduction in support requests (and, dare I say it, zero fatalities!).

Statistics, Statistics and more Statistics

I thought this milestone would be a good point to pull out some statistics from our code repository to give an idea of the amount of work the Visas team have undertaken since the very first build that took place in June last year.

  • there are 3689 files in our code repository
  • they consist of 231585 lines of code
  • 635282 lines of code were added
  • 403697 lines of code were deleted
  • 7035 individual code commits took place
  • there were an average of 20.8 code commits per working day

And the team have managed to keep their weekends free:
blog-day_of_weekWhile the code has seen a steady pattern of growth:
blog-lines_of_codeIt’s great that the Visas developers can look back over their last year of deploys but we know that digital service transformation is not all about the numbers. A record that shows hundreds of thousands of lines of code is useful, but the team knows it’s the users’ experience that matters: positive feedback received from members of the public (such as “I believe you have done an excellent job to simplify the application process. I really appreciate your effort. Thanks a lot!”) and staff using the China visit visas beta service is what really reflects the amount of work and research that’s gone into improving the digital journey.

Here’s Laura on the Visa team’s current work and some of the releases that users will see in the run up to live…

There are two distinct parts to the Visas exemplar service, in country Tier 2 visas and China visit visas. As far as our users are concerned, the Home Office is a single organisation so having inconsistencies across the services would look really odd. For that reason, we’ve worked hard to bring the application processes in line and get a consistent look and feel for both in and out of country applications. It has been a team effort to release both parts of the service and ensure they meet the Digital by Default Service Standard.


Since completing a big China visit visas release over the summer, we’ve ramped up our delivery on Tier 2 and, on 24 October, we’ll deliver the next major release to our customers. We’ll open up the service to all in country Tier 2 applicants who are making an application in their own right. This release will start to give us a significant number of users of the public beta - not quite on the same scale as the China visit visas, but close!


Hot on the heels of this release we’re aiming to deliver system integration between the current caseworking system and the exemplar services. This is a huge step for the team and for the staff who process these cases. Giving staff all the information they need in one place and reducing the need for manual data entry means the IT will be working harder for them, freeing up their time to focus on doing the jobs that only people can do.


Another upcoming release is for family group applications. This release will pave the way for all online group applications across UK Visas and Immigration, making it easier for dependant families and groups to apply to remain or travel to the UK together. This will be our final deliverable under Tier 2 and the team is really excited about cracking that one.

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