Open-source solutions are changing the communications industry, and IT executives like Aamir Hussain are racing to stay ahead of the competition in accomodating these changes. As the executive vice president and chief technology officer of CenturyLink, a global communications, hosting, cloud, and IT-services company, Hussain recognized the need to improve its product-development process as the lines between platforms blur and open-source continues to proliferate.
CenturyLink is the third-largest telecommunications company in the United States, and it creates a formidable footprint that passes through 20 million homes and businesses, along with the scale, capabilities, and resources to maintain a leadership position in the industry for the foreseeable future. Hussain wanted to ensure that the company retained its innovative mindset, so at the beginning of 2015 he replaced its traditional waterfall approach (moving sequentially through discrete steps) with a fully agile model that has eliminated silos, increased collaboration and unified the architecture that supports innovations.
“Ultimately I focus on an individual’s talent and fresh perspectives. Those are the qualities that drive the diversity of opinions—and staying open to all those ideas is what helps us succeed by getting to our end goals faster and staying more agile.”
“Previously we weren’t thinking about building an end-to-end integrated platform with customers in mind,” Hussain says. “But now we view all our projects as one team that leverages a single platform to benefit the customer.”
Reprioritizing and Streamlining the Development Process
The first step was to make sure development was focused on customer demand and CenturyLink’s business goals, not exclusively on technology. That meant knocking down silos that sequestered various specialties and facilitating a collaborative approach to meeting development challenges.
To help accomplish these goals, CenturyLink has invested in two new technology development centers: the Technology Center of Excellence at the company’s headquarters in Monroe, Louisiana, and the Cloud Development Center in the Seattle area. Both foster collaboration by providing open environments where technologists, marketers, product managers, sales, and other teams can share expertise and work together in real time as they respond to the results of ongoing live testing. Previously, three different cloud development groups worked independently using three different platforms.
Hussain reports that focusing all developmental resources toward the same shared goals has produced dramatically improved results, including development velocity.
“Cloud-platform development, for example, used to take from nine to eighteen months to roll out new initiatives,” he says. “Now, we have thirty different feature teams delivering in four to six weeks. It’s very exciting for everyone to create that kind of velocity and to get to see the results of all their hard work so quickly.”
Treating Development Innovations as Investments
Hussain views his development team as a profit and loss center in order to keep it aligned with the company’s business goals. To effectively monitor that alignment, he has divided the team into three functional working groups.
First, a small group explores potential innovations that may or may not be deployed. Next, the largest group works on current development projects with clearly defined revenue and sales targets and customer commitments. Finally, an Operational Excellence group monitors and measures all activities in order to identify trouble spots, make improvements, and ensure that best practices are repeatable in the future.
“We are organized to look at ROI before we move forward, and that allows us to direct investments, directions, and goals so that they line up with business priorities,” Hussain explains. “It also helps us develop standards that are put in place before we embark on any project. That all creates a ‘North Star’ that helps everyone—from both a technology and business perspective—to keep their eyes on the intended destination.”
He adds that the “North Star” can evolve over time as the result of ongoing testing and customer feedback. He calls it “instant feedback with instant gratification” that enables as-needed adjustments and the addition of more functionality as development progresses.
Building A More Diverse Development Infrastructure
In addition to eliminating silos and increasing collaboration, the new approach has brought about a new diversity of ideas that focuses on innovation and expertise. Hussain believes that by encouraging an environment in which “there are no bad ideas,” it enhances the agility of the company’s technology and improves the inclusive makeup of the staff that creates it.
For example, younger developers might value greater independence, less formal reporting, and more collaboration than their predecessors who are accustomed to more traditional structures. But by being receptive to new approaches, styles, and concepts, Hussain says that the company will ultimately benefit through the innovations they reveal. It will also help make CenturyLink an employer-of-choice in the highly competitive technology marketplace.
“Ultimately I focus on an individual’s talent and fresh perspectives,” Hussain says. “Those are the qualities that drive the diversity of opinions—and staying open to all those ideas is what helps us succeed by getting to our end goals faster and staying more agile.”
He has even expanded this openness to include the creation of an advisory board that assists the development team. The board is made up of individuals from a range of industries and backgrounds who provide semiannual feedback on product ideas and strategic roadmaps. Their comments are then used to make course corrections as needed and to enhance product offerings.
Using Technology As a Means To An End
The development team’s restructuring has all been motivated by the idea that technology is not an end in itself, but the means through which CenturyLink is able to reach its overall business goals: providing comprehensive offerings in the cloud environment, responding nimbly to market demand, and making the customer experience consistent, seamless, and intuitive.
“By developing our technology with the greatest possible agility, we leverage the most value from all our existing resources,” Hussain says. “And that enables us to offer solutions that are truly greater than the sum of their parts.”
Photo by Nils van Houts