Frequent Iteration is the Antidote to Monolithic, Big Bet Software Projects

October 5, 2017 Jeff Kelly

Learn how West Corp.—the company that powers 70% of all 911 calls in the US—adopted a modern approach to their business.

Nebraska is a long way from Silicon Valley. But that hasn’t stopped West Corp. from undertaking an ambitious digital transformation effort with the help of Pivotal and New Relic.

The Omaha-based company is in the global communications and network infrastructure services business and you’ve almost definitely used its services — even if you didn’t realize it. When you get an automated call letting you know your child’s school is closed due to snow, more than likely the call is powered by West. Have you ever received a reminder email to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy? That was likely thanks to West, too. And in the unfortunate event you need to get ahold of the police or the fire department, you can count on West, which supports more than 70% of the 911 traffic in North America.


Transformation and Innovation

The $2 billion company, which has grown both organically and by acquisition since its founding in 1986, is the market leader in many of the segments it plays in. But customer expectations have changed dramatically over the last 30 years.

West’s customers, which include government agencies, utilities, and hospitals, today expect the company to innovate in much the same way as they expect Facebook and Google to innovate, said Thomas Squeo, SVP of Digital Transformation and Enterprise Architecture at West. That means having the ability to quickly deliver new software-based services in response to customer feedback and changing market conditions, something difficult to achieve without moving away from traditional software development methods and infrastructure.

“Nobody wants to spend all that time and money on a new product only to find it is obsolete by the time it reaches production.” — Thomas Squeo

“The internal driver for this transformation effort is an efficiency opportunity that has not been realized due to our acquisition history,” Squeo said. “The external driver is not only addressing competitive pressure, but customer demand for new and different services we haven’t been able to deliver because previous bets had to be huge.”

Squeo is referring to West’s current approach to developing software, which is in large part dictated by the company’s fragmented and ready-to-be-modernized IT infrastructure. West developers, like many of their enterprise peers, still largely rely on traditional “waterfall” methodology. It’s an approach burdened with opportunity costs due to the slow pace of application delivery and because it requires a large up-front investment of time and resources. And because release schedules are largely linear and drawn-out, what’s delivered rarely aligns with what’s currently relevant to the organization.

“This inhibits the introduction of new products because the bar is so high in terms of what we’re willing to bet on. The stakes are just too high,” Squeo said. “Nobody wants to spend all that time and money on a new product only to find it is obsolete by the time it reaches production. So with our current approach we need a high degree of confidence that it will be successfully adopted before we move forward. And you just can’t be innovative with that type of conservative approach.”


Reducing Risk with Frequent Iteration

Squeo wants to transition West’s developers away from waterfall methodology to a more modern “agile” approach to software development. Developers practicing agile methodology develop software in multiple well-planned, small iterations rather than a single, extended, requirements-driven marathon. Agile reduces risk because each iteration is an opportunity to course-correct based on real user feedback and market changes. The faster the iterations, the lower the risk. But in order to practice agile methodology effectively, developers need a modern cloud and microservices-based architecture combined with a DevOps approach. In particular, that usually means a PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service) that enables quick, easy access to infrastructure and other resources as well as monitoring capabilities that not just keep tabs on application and platform performance, but continuously provide developers real-world feedback that informs what features and capabilities get built next.

This is where Pivotal and New Relic come in.

West is in the process of standing up Pivotal Cloud Foundry to serve as the platform-of-choice for its 1,400-plus software engineers. This platform-at-scale is designed to lower the price of trying new ideas with real users by providing developers a self-service environment in which to quickly write and test new code, push it to production, and gather usage data to inform the next round of iteration. It also makes messaging and data services available on-demand, so developers can quickly spin up the resources they need to support their code.

“With Pivotal Cloud Foundry, we’ll be able to afford to have a lot more experiments going on among our product development teams, which lowers the risk profile of any one experiment,” Squeo said.

“Digital is a team sport. It’s not just software engineers and operators that need to understand how our applications are performing, but folks on the business side as well.” —Thomas Squeo

But West’s transformation doesn’t stop there. With software playing such a central role in how West serves its customers, the entire company needs to start treating software as holistic product offerings, according to Squeo. The business—not just IT—needs to understand and continuously monitor how West’s software-based services interact with each other and their collective impact on the customer experience. It’s also important to maintain reliability as West moves applications from its legacy infrastructure to Pivotal Cloud Foundry. New Relic enables operators and the business alike identify issues with existing code before they go into production on the new platform — lowering the risk of new deployments, allowing West to accelerate moving workloads to PCF, and ultimately accelerating application delivery to customers.

“Digital is a team sport. It’s not just software engineers and operators that need to understand how our applications are performing, but folks on the business side as well,” Squeo said. “So how does a product manager or a member of our customer success team engage with the platform and understand how everything is impacting the customer? That’s critical to our business, especially our 911 business which is in the business of saving lives. Monitoring our Pivotal Cloud Foundry applications with New Relic makes that possible.”


Tying Application Performance to the Customer Experience

New Relic provides a modern take on application performance monitoring (APM). Traditional APM tools can help operations teams understand how a given application is performing. But they were not typically designed to monitor interactions between multiple applications or microservices and their collective impact on the user experience. Nor do they display data in ways that non-technical users can easily understand and turn into action.

In contrast, New Relic uses deep instrumentation and performance monitoring to track the complex relationships between applications and services, employing advanced analytics to make sense of the data. Just as important, New Relic present the results via smart alerts, customizable dashboards, advanced real-time querying capabilities and eventstream instrumentation to help users across the organization turn those insights into action, connecting performance to customer outcomes. New Relic is a Pivotal partner and is tightly integrated with Pivotal Cloud Foundry via the on-demand service broker.

West is doubling down on its transformation effort with a Pivotal “Application Transformation” Dojo, a multi-week engagement in which Pivotal engineers pair program with West engineers to onboard existing applications to Pivotal Cloud Foundry and teach agile DevOps practices to multiple West product teams. Once up and running, Squeo said he plans to migrate about 125 existing applications to Pivotal Cloud Foundry, which will also serve as the standard platform-of-excellence for all new applications. New Relic will help West better understand how the applications are performing and their impact on the customer experience, as well as help West’s ops team monitor the performance of Pivotal Cloud Foundry itself.

“We see this as a significant culture change for the company,” Squeo said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but with the combination of Pivotal Cloud Foundry and New Relic supporting our transformation, I think we’re in a great position to really improve our ability to experiment and innovate with software, all to the benefit of our customers.”


About the Author

Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly is a Director of Partner Marketing at Pivotal Software. Prior to joining Pivotal, Jeff was the lead industry analyst covering Big Data analytics at Wikibon. Before that, Jeff covered enterprise software as a reporter and editor at TechTarget. He received his B.A. in American studies from Providence College and his M.A. in journalism from Northeastern University.

Follow on Twitter Follow on Linkedin
How to Use Topic Maps to Run Generative User Interviews
How to Use Topic Maps to Run Generative User Interviews

Learn about one tool that can help you run more effective user interviews.Generative user interviews are a ...

A Motivating and Refreshing Approach to Software
A Motivating and Refreshing Approach to Software

This week for Pivotal Voices, we’re featuring Ichizo Umehara, Developer at Pivotal Tokyo.I didn’t start out...