By Guest Columnist Charlie Kennamer
The wireless industry is experiencing a pace of change that is unprecedented in its history. These changes are putting increasing pressure on network providers to deliver wireless infrastructure that does not simply keep pace with customer demand, but provides a competitive advantage. The pressures on wireless providers are no secret: more and more devices that rely on wireless networks, data-hungry apps streaming audio and video that push networks to the limit, increased competition from providers who function without the responsibility of operating their own network, limited infrastructure budgets, and ever-changing expectations from customers and from corporate boardrooms. All of these pressures combine to create a very difficult environment for those responsible for building, expanding and maintaining wireless infrastructure.
The stakes are higher than ever before because network performance is one of the few remaining levers that telecom companies have for influencing customer experience. In the past, a customer’s satisfaction was driven by a number of factors, including the quality of voice service, differentiated technology standards, robust customer service channels, unique wireless devices between service providers, etc. Over the last decade, those other differentiators have largely disappeared and wireless carriers are left with one overriding factor that determines whether their customers are quietly satisfied or very noisily dissatisfied: Can the network deliver the connectivity and high bandwidth that customers expect to be accessible anywhere and everywhere?
Most wireless services companies deploy networks using methods that mirror the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). It is composed of four sequential phases:
• Step 1: Planning
• Step 2: Design
• Step 3: Implementation
• Step 4: Maintenance
In our industry, Planning (Step 1) tends to be driven at the regional or even national level in alignment with a company’s top-level objectives and budget decisions about network expansion. Focus areas and criteria are established and then disseminated to the local markets. The RF engineering group generates a design, which passes through multiple reviews by the real estate, construction, and A&E teams. Once a final design has been reached, the real estate team acquires the lease, the associated permits, and fulfills the zoning requirements. Construction then builds and integrates the solution into the network, ultimately handing it over to the performance and operations teams and eventually the client end user.
This sequential process makes a lot of intuitive sense because it is orderly and appeals to the engineer in all of us. The problem with this traditional methodology is that things change at such a fast pace in our industry that by the time a project reaches Implementation (Step 3), circumstances have likely evolved to such a degree that the project is obsolete before the first shovelful of dirt is moved. Everyone reading this piece has likely been through this, and understands the resulting frustration from inefficient efforts. The good news is that this exact development conundrum has existed in other industries, and the wireless community can learn from their adapted practices to introduce more flexibility, proactivity, collaboration and speed into the deployment process.
Ultimately, customer satisfaction in today’s world boils down to whether a provider is able to build out and enhance its network fast enough and efficiently enough to anticipate and meet the endless demand coming from more users, more devices and more bandwidth-guzzling apps. That tremendous pressure on the network team has revealed inefficiencies in the traditional SDLC process that wireless carriers use to plan and deploy their networks. If traditional processes cannot keep pace with the demands placed on today’s wireless providers, then alternative deployment methods must be considered.
Agile development is a methodology that came about from the software industry in the early 2000s. A group of innovative software developers conceived a new model for software delivery that was far more adaptable and responsive to customer needs than the traditional linear model. In the sequential model, it often took years from the planning stage to end product delivery, and this slow time to market typically left customers scratching their heads as they found themselves with a product that did not resemble what they wanted or needed. The introduction of Agile Software Development created a seismic shift in the software industry because it facilitated shorter development cycles, welcomed constant input, adapted to changing customer needs, and delivered high quality incremental value on a frequent basis. Companies that adopted agile methods tended to be nimbler, more responsive to customers, and better able to adjust to evolving needs. Companies that continued to use the linear methodology were stuck behind the ball, delivering outdated products to dissatisfied customers.
The wireless industry is admittedly very different from the software industry, but the lessons of Agile Software Development are very applicable as they directly address the limitations of the traditional linear methodology that most wireless companies use to deploy their networks.
The primary tools in Agile Development are:
• Small cross-functional teams, including a product owner, software developers and product testers, complete all aspects of product delivery. This team works collaboratively towards the goal of rapidly creating a shippable product.
• Stories articulated from a user perspective communicate the function and the value required from the product. Ideally stories are small in scope and can be verified quickly. Tests are then outlined to verify that the story works once the product is completed. The story should not be documented through extensive paperwork, but rather, recorded often through spreadsheets based on end user feedback to outline the link between the story and product enhancements.
• Backlogs are the mechanism for prioritizing the order in which stories should be addressed and completed. The backlogs contain the list of stories ranked by their priority. Points are typically assigned to each story to denote its priority level, with higher numbers signifying greater importance. During planning sessions, stories will be assigned to development cycles based on size, complexity, and points.
• Sprints are the individual product development cycles and typically last from one to two weeks. Often all needs are not fully understood at a project’s onset, but this agile timeline grants the flexibility to address additional needs as they are uncovered.
• Daily Stand-up Meetings held among the cross-functional team to discuss the prior day’s progress, today’s plan, and the problems identified to date. These meetings are brief – just a few minutes to touch base and focus the team on the current sprint’s tactical aspects.
Agile Development provides a stark contrast to the way most wireless services providers operate today. This methodology is even more valuable when you factor in how many wireless companies rely on external companies for various steps in the process, such as design and construction, but with an agile team approach all project aspects can be consolidated to a single inter-disciplinary team. The hallmark of Agile Development is the regularity and effectiveness of the communication it fosters between the key stakeholders. Communication is what facilitates efficiency and permits the flexibility to adapt to evolving needs along the development timeline. Communication enables minor and major adjustments to happen in an organized fashion that minimizes delays and setbacks. I have seen firsthand how dramatically faster and more flexible the development process can be when you take an Agile approach.
To read more about the implementation and benefits of Agile Wireless Deployment in the wireless industry, download your complimentary white paper at http://www.centerlinesolutions.com/white-papers/.
About the Author:
Charlie Kennamer is the VP of Operations for Colorado-based Centerline Solutions, a leading provider of all things wireless to the telecommunications industry. Charlie brings nearly two decades of wireless experience to the table, wielding broad knowledge in engineering, software development and project management. He has worked for wireless operators and suppliers in the United States, Europe and South America and is particularly skilled at bringing together diverse teams to solve engineering or technology-related problems. Charlie oversees all of Centerline Solutions’ engineering, field and professional services teams. That includes new product development to support the company’s service delivery and address wider industry issues, including customer attrition among wireless carriers. Earlier in his career, Charlie co-founded Symmitry Corp. and held leadership positions at T-Mobile and Telecom Italia Mobile. He earned a B.S. in civil engineering from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.