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February 4, 2010

Real-time collaboration halves BT development times

Telepresence and whiteboards enable agile working practices

By Vinod

BT has turned its development process on its head, adopting a collaborative, agile approach to creating products and dramatically reducing development times in the process.

This large-scale change programme links developers across five global development centres using a combination of telepresence and whiteboard technology. But the transformation goes far deeper than just providing workers with new technology to communicate; it creates an environment where true real-time collaboration and agile development are daily events. The result: faster and cheaper product and service development, fewer bugs, quick ROI and better job satisfaction for staff.

Early on, BT quickly realised that the key weapon in the developer’s arsenal was the whiteboard. This was where ideas were thrashed out and decisions made. So BT made the ability to share and make changes to the whiteboard in real-time a priority in the project, rather than the quality of the video link.

“The video is just about context, it’s not about seeing the whites of someone’s eyes or doing a negotiation. The focus is on the whiteboard,” said Alan Bateman, director of next-generation engineering at BT.

Developers can scribble away on circuit diagrams or PowerPoints and their annotations will immediately be visible to their colleagues on their whiteboard in another development centre. “It’s as close as we can get to being in the same room and sharing the same whiteboard,” points out Bateman.

The aim is to have one of these collaborative meeting points for every 12 or so developers. It’s a deliberately informal set-up. The equipment is located in the office among the developers so there’s no need to book a special room or time to talk to colleagues. Instead you call someone up and they can go to their nearest station where the two parties can instantly communicate.

This ability to communicate and share information is central to BT’s switch from a typical waterfall design and development process to an iterative, collaborative approach. Old-style development typically involved three weeks design, two weeks review of the design and two weeks to redesign. The move to continuous integration means that the moment something is developed, it is tested to check it doesn’t ‘break’ what has been done before. 

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“When we moved to the agile development world, design times went down to two-week sprints and you don’t have to have four people to review it,” says Bola Oshisanwo, director of the agile development centre.

Russell Strevens, E2E delivery lead, is part of the BT OpenReach development team working on next-generation access and was one of the early adopters of this new working model. It took his team nine months to develop and bring a product to market.

“I don’t think we would have got here in nine months and it don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say it would have taken at least double that without adopting agile working,” says Strevens. “The biggest challenge was we were doing everything at the same time and it wasn’t as if we had a very solid understanding of what we wanted – every aspect of that product was being engineered over that nine months.”

People naturally gravitated to the whiteboard, whereas before they would scribble on a document and pass it on. “On any given day, there were 20 to 30 developers round the whiteboard. We didn’t have reams of documentation – we don’t have time. Everyone goes away has some thinking time then comes back and works again on the design,” explains Strevens.

Initially, there were objections to the open-plan environment as people complained it was too noisy. Now the opposite is true and they say it’s hard to concentrate when it’s too quiet.

“We did experience a fair amount of resistance but the key thing is it’s not just about interaction but genuinely changing the way you work, so you have to rewire your brain,” says Strevens.

BT has also opened up the meeting points to certain customers and partners and brings customers in early on in product development, so that there’s a complete end-to-end team of architects, developers and testers working on a problem simultaneously.

“Before an architect wouldn’t have got out of bed without a customer signing off with the product guys first,” quips Bateman. “So this environment where we bring everyone together has been quite scary for traditionalists, but the benefits have been obvious.”

Although BT has enabled developers to collaborate nationally and internationally, it is keen to for each development centre to develop a specialism, rather than have individual developers dotted around the world. BT found that the 200 developers in Cardiff, for example, were working on 50 different pieces of work. Now this has been rationalised to three specific areas.

BT has also learned that although it is possible for more than two locations to work together, this tends to turn into a more of a briefing situation with one location taking control. As a result, it encourages meetings between two locations only.
“Rolling out the technology is the easy bit. The difficult bit is changing people’s working behaviour. Behind all of this, there’s a massive people change programme to try and get people to work differently,” Bateman notes. In order to accelerate the benefits they’ve tried to make the system as simple as possible, so little or no training is needed. 

The technology used to create the system is standard: the cameras and the voice technology are off the shelf, the whiteboard is from Smart Technologies. It costs about £20,000 per meeting point, but the cost is quickly recouped through savings on travel and faster product delivery times. Where BT’s expertise comes in is to integrate the whole lot together.

Rather than a replacement for other forms of collaboration, this is an extra resource, and the company still relies on Instant Messaging and applications such as SharePoint and Live Meeting to communicate and collaborate. 

Currently, BT has 59 installed serving 2,000 developers, rising to 100 and another 1,500 developers by the end of March, but the aim is to eventually have hundreds worldwide. There are also plans to extend its usage to ICT professional services teams and eventually to sell it to customers late this year or early next year.

BT expects to recoup 80-90% on its investment within a year, but the key benefits are the changes it has brought to the way people work. “We have better collaboration, but more importantly it’s improved people’s well being and stress about how many emails they had to answer. Now they can link up with that person any time,” says Oshisanwo.

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