Create a walking skeleton/steel thread

One of the challenges of operationalising a model is integration. Having a model ready to be called as an API is one task, having the external systems calling it is a completely separate and often complex task.
Usually, the team that is operationalising the model doesn’t do the changes on the external systems, it's the teams responsible for those systems. These inter-team dependencies are always hard to manage and can directly affect the delivery of a machine learning project.
In addition, the complexity of integration depends directly on the systems that will integrate with the model. Imagine that the goal of a model is to be used by a big, old monolithic system that is very hard to change or to add features, with a cumbersome deploy process. Without testing, the integration will be time consuming and it will require effort from other teams that need to prioritise in their backlogs.
Based on the previous description, the best practice to minimise the impact of these external dependencies on the ML project, is to deploy a skeleton of a model. A skeleton model can be a dumb model that returns always one constant prediction, and with this dumb model the external teams can start to ingegrate since the start of the project.
One key aspect of the integration is that it should have a feature flag that indicates when the model should be used, so the skeleton model can be integrated, also being called but without affecting the behaviour of the external systems.

Experience report

In one of our ML projects, we created a model to predict the behaviour of a user on a webapp. The webapp was composed of a monolith, which was deployed once a week. The webapp team always had a large backlog of features so prioritising external integrations was always a slow process.

To make integration easier we created a mock API at the start of the project. This decoupled the integration from the model development, meaning that a lot of the work could happen in parallel, significantly reducing the time to the first working version.

Miguel Duarte Data engineer
Equal Experts, EU