As I opened the kitchen spice cupboard this morning I started to think about Robin Williams and “Good Morning Vietnam” – a film that really impacted me as a teenager.
Of course, I felt a pang of sadness knowing that we lost the brilliant Williams too soon, but I also smiled at the happy memories, in particular its fantastic soundtrack. The words of “Sugar and Spice” came to mind.
The sight of the kitchen spice cupboard got me thinking about the complexities of managing an international roaming business. I can assure you that there are lots of parallels between a well-stocked spice cupboard and an active roaming business!
Although I can’t claim much involvement in my own spice cupboard (my wife insisted I wrote that part), I do know a thing or two about roaming. Both require constant organization and supervision, asset management, stock forecasting, information sharing, process flows, and even comprehensive multi-dimensional reporting. OK, I’m getting a bit carried away with the analogy but, remember, you can’t cook tasty food if you don’t have the right spices to hand!
Let me now jump into the main theme of this blog…
- At this point I would like to state that this blog has the full input and consent of our anonymous customer who have agreed to be named in due course. This will be the first of several planned blogs relating to this project -
Almost two years ago I was attending an operator hosted conference in Western Europe when I received a call from a contact asking whether I was able to pop over to his office to discuss our Wholesale Business Advisor product. The conference was pretty dull, so I was grateful for the distraction.
The operator’s team was keen to hear about the capabilities of our Wholesale Business Advisor product and how well it could meet their needs. Whilst I can’t name the operator, I can describe some of their key attributes:
- large multi-national operator group
- sophisticated commercial roaming team
- user of an end of life in-house roaming management system
Their requirements were both comprehensive and sophisticated. I explained that whilst our tool was quite advanced, it wouldn’t currently meet their requirements. I encouraged them to assess the market to see what was available, but cautioned that I didn’t think any single vendor would get close to their expectations. I am a true believer that honesty is the best policy and therefore, I made the offer of a design partnership in case the market couldn’t satisfy their needs.
Some 6 months later I was contacted once again. As it turned out, my assessment of market capabilities was spot on. Several providers offered solutions, some of them pretty good, but none of them came close to meeting the complete requirements of this operator.
Around a year ago we agreed a full design partnership to jointly build a state-of-the-art flagship solution based upon the foundations of the Wholesale Business Advisor tool. Whilst we all recognized this would be challenging, we were confident we could pull this off in the required timescales.
Initially, progress was based around iterative rounds of documentation and, intensive, face-to-face workshops, every few weeks lasting several days. Whilst this helped stimulate the project, it was utterly exhausting for everyone and time consuming. For the customer it meant several continuous days away from their day jobs whilst for our own staff, allowing for travel time, it typically meant an entire week away. Not to mention the bureaucratic ordeal of managing Schengen visas – there is always someone that needs a new visa!).
Then, around March time, the world changed with COVID-19 and we had to rapidly find a new way to collaborate. Needless to say, there has not been a single face-to-face meeting since then, but I am pleased to say that progress has actually accelerated. We have all adopted to remote working and have eventually settled on collaboration tools that meet both security requirements and usability. But to get there, let me tell you one thing that many of you will find familiar, we went through quite a few conferencing tools that put our internet connections, as well as our nerves and patience, to quite a test! All calls are recorded and shared and this helps the engineers ensure all technical points are well captured and fully understood.
Each week there are multiple calls, with check points for all development. Proposed user interfaces are shared and reviewed in detail, step by step - from wireframe, to html, through to the developed product - to ensure that the product meets our customer’s needs. If you were to listen to some of the calls you might be surprised at the in-depth detail of some of the discussions. The explanation is simple: we are passionate about delivering the best possible customer experience and sometimes details such as mere field names, data display units, and format and alignment are what separates the good from the great.
For those of you who deal with roaming discounts, you will appreciate just how many discount models are in use and their complexity. I won’t bore you with the details, but I can confirm that, for every model, we provided multiple examples of the calculation using Excel to ensure that the agreed approach was correctly understood and implemented by the solution’s algorithms. As you can expect, there were plenty of ambiguities and it turned out that both our customer and ourselves had taken different approaches and arguably both were correct!
Furthermore, we are jointly designing this solution with the future in mind, delivering solutions for future, as well as current models.
The story of this project can be summarized by one small anecdote. Without doubt, the culture of our engineering team and the customer is very different. Our customer focuses on engineering excellence, and personal views are secondary to the best possible solution. Naturally this is music to our engineer’s ears. However, there was a cultural issue whereby our engineers were nervous to challenge the customer publicly when they thought an alternative approach would be better – in other words, unintentionally they were prioritizing personal respect for the customer above the best technical outcome. This cultural mismatch was soon identified, and we now allocate specific time for people to state their positions, even if we disagree, because our joint goal is to deliver the best possible product for today and the future.
The challenges of remote working, communication, and cultural mis-readings have long been studied and have resulted in some serious issues in the past. In 1999, NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter because engineers working remotely on the probe launch mixed up metric vs imperial measurements. Numerous fatal plane crashes have occurred because flight captains and first officers were unable to communicate fuel supply information, even though they were sat next to each other!
So, if there is one thing that we had to do, it was to acknowledge these challenges and adapt to this new reality by creating collaboration frameworks that allowed us to progress smoothly.
I am pleased to say that today we are no longer customer and supplier but very much partners, working in a joint effort, to bring the very best roaming management tool to market.
I will finish this blog with a quote from a recent call I held with our customer:
“Me: so if you could return the project to our working methodology pre-COVID would you?
Customer: No way, the change was hard at the beginning but now it is so much more efficient. We have made great progress, we have regular and productive calls and when I consider the progress to date, I am really proud of our accomplishments”