Electronic whiteboards and video-conferencing equipment are being installed throughout BT's global development organisation to speed up the introduction of new services including the UK's next-generation access network.
The2012 Olympics has focused a lot of attention on getting things finished. BT is among those feeling the urgency, following a promise it made in summer 2008 to offer faster broadband to 10 million homes in time for the event.
There's been briskness since, with the Next Generation Access (NGA) pilot being launched in July 2009 and then an accelerating roll-out. BT now plans to bring NGA within reach of half a million homes by February, one million by April, 2.5 million by late summer and four million in late December.It's not been easy, though.
Russell Strevens, director of the technical delivery hub at BT infrastructure provider Openreach, says: 'With NGA we were trying to: define the product; design the network infrastructure to deliver it; and develop the software stack that would allow us to deliver, sell and debug it, all at once. It's a hell of a challenge to do that in nine months.'
So BT has moved to an agile development model, in which the project team works in short bursts, with daily 'scrum' conference calls to keep everybody up to date and a technique of developing 'stories' to explain what the customer can expect, so the developers know what they're aiming for.
Agile development is not new it's a response to a problem in software design, in which projects have got larger and deadlines have grown longer. According to Alan Bateman, director of next-generation engineering at BT Innovate and Design, BT has also had the added complexity of working with a multi-skilled and multinational workforce spread out across development centres in the UK; Pune, India; Dalian, China; and Dallas, US.
'Enterprise-scale agility is difficult, so we took the things that work about it such as the co-location of people and the development of competence centres and scaled them up,' he says. 'We looked at where the competences were, where the people were and their skills and at the tools they used and the environment in which they worked and set out to build global development centres.'
Bola Oshisanwo, director of the Agile Development Centre at BT Innovate and Design, says that the move from a traditional process where design, development and test each take three months to agile development in which the design phase shrinks to two-week sprints means people have to work on the same document at the same time rather than relying on email exchanges.
Oshisanwo says his team went to India to ask the developers about the tools they felt they needed to work more effectively with colleagues abroad. The answer? The most pressing need was to see what colleagues overseas were writing on their whiteboards.
'The reason the whiteboard is so important is that it's how software engineers work,' said Bateman.
So the Agile Development Centre team set out to build a globally shared workspace, combining an electronic whiteboard on which people could collaborate in real time, and a large flat-panel display showing both a view over the shoulders of the remote collaborators at their whiteboard, and a wide-angle video feed of their workplaces to set context.
The video feed will run over a 2Mbit/s link, although it's the whiteboard data that is being prioritised by the system.
'We wanted to create a way of working together as if we were all in one place,' said Bateman. 'It's as close as we can get to being in one room and sharing one whiteboard. It's not about seeing the whites of someone's eyes in a negotiation.'
BT is now introducing hundreds of these Collaboration Stations, which cost about £20,000 each, throughout its development community: eventually it wants to have one between every 12 to 15 of its developers worldwide.
According to Oshisanwo, Collaboration Stations come in two flavours either using round tables to seat up to 12 people, or small stand-up tables.
'We deliberately didn't create a booking system for these Collaboration Stations, so that they could be use on anad hocbasis,' he explains. 'You can link more than two centres, but we don't encourage it because it becomes a briefing, with one centre in control. What we want is to encourage two equal teams to work together to solve a problem.'
Change is difficult. Some developers initially complained that the Collaboration Stations, which are in the thick of it in the developers' work areas, were too noisy. Over time, though, people have got used to this and come to appreciate the involvement they bring. Indeed, some developers are now distracted by the silence when they're not in use.
According to Bateman: 'What we have done to bring everyone together has been quite scary for the traditionalists. But it means we have been able to scale up the agile development process to include customers, architects, testers and designers. We can have an end-to-end team working around a project.'
BT is using the Collaboration Stations to help standardise and accelerate its development process, and also to make it easier to work with partners. It has also used them to work with customers at BT sites. Oshisanwo says that one customer, an ISP that resells Openreach's wholesale broadband service, went to a BT facility and ran its system from within the BT environment so that they could jointly debug it.
'I think we saved 6,000 engineer visits for one wholesale broadband customer by having their engineers on site to work through the customers' broadband problems,' he said.
According to Oshisanwo, the new approach to development is also helping foster better collaboration with customers, as well as the production of better software 'because we're not relying on documentation' to transmit the design intent. He also claims the approach is improving the wellbeing of his team 'because you can call people to a Collaboration Station and have a real, not an email, conversation'.
The approach is also saving travel costs to the point where BT estimates it has recovered 80 to 90 per cent of its investment in Collaboration Stations in the first year. Even the taxi drivers in Ipswich have noticed that suddenly there are far fewer Indian engineers to be ferried out to Adastral Park.
For Strevens, racing to upgrade the UK's broadband infrastructure so the parent company can launch new services over it in time for the Olympics, the new development model and the Collaboration Stations that enable it have been a vital tool.
'In any given day you'll see 20 or 30 designers working at either end of a whiteboard putting a design together. We work in four-week sprints, two weeks to design and two weeks to build, and try to get customers in to show them the solution working, iterating towards an ideal solution by involving all the stakeholders in the process.
'We couldn't achieve this without the agile approach: every aspect of the life cycle demands collaboration. It's not an exaggeration that it would take us at least twice as long to deliver NGA without this approach.