When you have worked for companies the likes of NBN Co, Telstra and Research in Motion, you become used to working in the spotlight. In fact, Michael Bromley, general manager for portals and online services (POV) at NBN Co, seems to revel in it.
Just as well, as Bromley plays an integral role in the delivery of NBN Co’s overall online strategy, technology and lifecycle management, as well as components such as customer relationship management and several technical platforms. Delivery is the key word here. And it has to be fast. NBN Co employees refer to the process as ‘from zero to enterprise in two years’.
Such tight timeframes leave little room for error. Not an ideal situation for a company that is building — literally — a broadband platform that is set to spearhead a new era of digital business in Australia. But Bromley and his team have something up their sleeves; a philosophy where agility enables continuous delivery so that lessons become part of the journey rather than part of the problem.
“We were the world’s biggest start-up for about a year,” says Bromley. “We’re now shifting to a business-as-usual focus. And that velocity has absolutely contributed to the adoption of Agile, and in particular, to continuous delivery because the need for that kind of speed and growth has not given us any other option.”
NBN Co teamed up with consultancy, ThoughtWorks, to create a culture where continuous development and delivery has helped create a level of flexibility previously unseen in Australian telecommunications.
“We’ve had to be able to deploy quickly, we’ve had to be able to be flexible and agile — with a small ‘a’ — in order to meet the absolutely critical time deadlines in a very large spotlight,” Bromley says. “So, it’s really a marriage of convenience, but the truth is, I don’t know if we could have done it any other way.”
It helps that Bromley has the backing of NBN Co’s CIO, Claire Rawlins, who worked with ThoughtWorks during her time at AAPT — a serendipitous situation Bromley describes as “a confluence of relationships”.
“I’ve learned more from what we did wrong than from what we did right”
Bromley himself was introduced via NBN Co’s Tony Christensen, whom he worked with at Telstra as head of online. There, he learned a valuable lesson: When you try new things, you will inevitably fail at some point, so failing fast is the best thing you can do.
“I’ve learned more from what we did wrong than from what we did right over the years,” he says.
NBN Co has had to balance inevitable growing pains with a record for delivery. It must engage with multiple stakeholders and organisations across the industry at both a technical and personal level, each with different processes and agendas. Meanwhile, its every move is analysed to the nth degree.
“NBN Co has a very aggressive timeline to roll out the network, and on the back of that must establish an organisation that will do the construction, support and maintenance,” explains ThoughtWorks executive, Ben Escudero. “On top of that, they have the challenge of being a government led initiative that is constantly in the spotlight. A private commercial entity is not under the same sort of scrutiny that NBN Co faces every day.”
The answer: A multi-pronged attack that begins with the idea of continuous integration, where testing and delivery spread from ‘a couple of pockets’ within the group to other parts of the business. It has also helped foster innovation through ‘what-if’ scenarios and ‘dry-run’ deployments.
“We are able to test all kinds of scenarios and come up with results before we’ve actually even hit the go button,” Bromley says. “That has made us far more efficient and effective and far more risk averse while having the same approach across multiple delivery strings.”
Bromley’s ‘Holy Grail’ is that of continuous deployment from delivery teams.
“We’re not there yet; that’s much more of a corporate and business change process than it is a technical process,” he says. “But we’d love to get to the point where we’re delivering and deploying software multiple times a day, where we’re doing minor changes and constant updates so we can be incredibly responsive and reactionary where appropriate.
“In order to get there, we have to continue to hone our craft and our capabilities and, more importantly, spread it within the rest of the IT organisation. That’s happening. Really, it’s a function of time on the capability side of things.”
And then there’s the issue of change management — whether continuous deployment is in the best interest of the individual stakeholders.
“In some cases it may well be, in other cases it may not be. So, I envision over time that we will get the continuous deployment in some areas and not in others,” he says. “But I think that’s the right approach.”
Time will tell whether the National Broadband Network delivers the promise of fast broadband to Australia. In the meantime, the team at NBN Co focuses on being flexible enough to make it happen, regardless of the political climate.