For those starting out in OSS product, here’s a tip

For those starting out in product, here’s a tip: Design, Defaults*, Documentation, Details and Delivery really matter in software.”
Jeetu Patel here.

* Note that you can interpret “Defaults” to be Out-Of-The-Box functionality offered by the product.

Let’s break those 5 D-words down and describe why they really matter to the OSS industry shall we?

  • Design – The power of OSS product development tends to lie with engineering, ie the developers. I have huge admiration for the very clever and very talented engineers who create amazing products for us to use, buuutttttt……. I just have one reservation – is there a single OSS company that is design-driven? A single one that’s making intuitive, effective, beautiful experiences for their users? The obvious answer is of course engineering teams hold sway over design teams in OSS – how many OSS vendors even have a dedicated design department??? See this article for more.
  • Defaults – Almost every OSS I know of has an enormous amount of “out-of-the-box” functionality baked in. You could even say that most have too much functionality. There’s functionality that might be really important for one customer but never even used by any of the vendor’s other customers. It just represents bloat for all the other customers, and potentially a distraction for their operators. I’m still bemused to see vendors trying to differentiate by adding obscure new default features rather than optimising for “must-have” functions. See this article for more. However, I must add that I’m starting to see a shift in some OSS. They’re moving away from having baked-in functionality and are moving to more data-repository-driven architectures. Interesting!!
  • Documentation – This is a really interesting factor! Some vendors make almost no documentation available until a prospect becomes a paying customer. Other vendors make their documentation available for the general public online and dedicate significant effort to maintaining their information library. The low-doc approach espoused by Agile could be argued to be reducing document quality. However, it also reduces the chance of producing documentation that nobody will read ever! Personally, I believe vendors like Cisco have earnt a huge competitive advantage (in the networking space moreso than OSS) because of their training / certification (ie CCNA, etc) and self-learning (ie online documentation). See this article for more. As such, I’d tend to err on over-documenting for customer-facing collateral. And perhaps under-documenting for internal-facing collateral unless it’s likely to be used regularly and by many.
  • Details – This is another item where there are two ends to the spectrum. That might surprise some people who would claim that attention to detail is paramount. Well, yes…. in many cases, but certainly not all on OSS projects. Let me share a story on attention to detail on a past OSS project. And another story on seeking perfection. Sometimes we just need to find the right balance, and knowing when to prioritise resilience and when to favour precision becomes an art.
  • Delivery – I have two perspectives on this D-word. Firstly, the Steve Jobs inspired quote of “Real artists ship!” In other words, to laud the skill of shipping a product that provides value to the customer rather than holding off on a not-yet-perfected solution. But the second case is probably more important. OSS projects tend to be massive and complex transformation efforts. Our OSS are rarely self-installed like office software, so they require big delivery teams. Some products are easy to deliver/deploy. Others are a *&$%#! If you’re a product developer, please get out in the trenches with your delivery teams and find ways to make their job easier and/or more repeatable.

The digital transformation paradox twins

There’s an old adage that “the confused mind always says no.”

Consider this from your own perspective. If you’re in a state of confusion about something, are you likely to commit wholeheartedly or will you look to delay / procrastinate?

The paradox for digital transformation is that our projects are almost always complex, but complexity breeds confusion and uncertainty. Transformation may be urgently needed, but it’s really hard to persuade stakeholders and sponsors to commit to change if they don’t have a clear picture of the way forward.

As change agents, we face another paradox. It’s our task to simplify the messaging. but our messaging should not imply that the project will be simple. That will just set unrealistic expectations for our stakeholders (“but this project was supposed to be simple,” they say).

Like all paradoxes, there’s no perfect solution. However, one technique that I’ve found to be useful is to narrow down the choices. Not by discarding them outright, but by figuring out filters – ways to quick include or exclude branches of the decision tree.

Let’s take the example of OSS vendor selection. An organisation asks itself, “what is the best-fit OSS/BSS for our needs?” The Blue Book OSS/BSS Vendor Directory will show that there are well over 400 OSS/BSS providers to choose from. Confusion!

So let’s figure out what our needs are. We could dive into really detailed requirement gathering, but that in itself requires many complex decisions. What if we instead just use a few broad needs as our first line of filtering? We know we need an outside plant management tool. Our list of 400+ now becomes 20. There’s still confusion, but we’re now more targeted.

But 20 is still a lot to choose from. A slightly deeper level of filtering should allow us to get to a short list of 3-5. The next step is to test those 3-5 to see which does the best at fulfilling the most important needs of the organisation. Chances are that the best-fit won’t fulfil every requirement, but generally it will clearly fulfil more than any of the other alternatives. It’s best-fit, not perfect fit.

We haven’t made the project less complex, but we have simplified the decision. We’ve arrived at the “best” option, so the way forward should be clear right?

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. Even though the best way forward has been identified, there’s still uncertainties in the minds of stakeholders caused purely by the complexity of the upcoming project. I’ve seen examples where the choice of vendor has been clear, with the best-fit clearly surpassing the next-best, but the buyer is still indecisive. I completely get it. Our task as change agents is to reduce doubts and increase transformation confidence.

Interesting metrics from The Blue Book launch

When I first started the Passionate About OSS site / blog many years ago, I was lucky to get a handful of views per day. It’s grown by many multiples since then, fortunately.

The launch of The Blue Book OSS/BSS Vendor Directory generated some exciting metrics yesterday. The directory alone came within 5 pageviews of the highest count we’ve ever seen on PassionateAboutOSS.com (and PAOSS is up to nearly 2,500 posts now). That total appeared in only a 14-hour window because we didn’t go live with The Directory or metric collection until ~10am local time! The graphs are indicating that we should easily exceed PAOSS’s best ever count today.

If you were one of the many viewers who popped in from all around the world to look at The Directory, thank you! If you have any suggested improvements, we’d love to hear from you as we’re sure to be making many further tweaks in coming days/months.

But the most interesting fact about the launch yesterday was that a job posting appeared on UpWork to scrape all the data we’ve presented. On our very first day!! In fact a gentleman in the US reviewed bids and awarded the UpWork job all within about 14 hours of go-live.

That’s positive news because it means that at least one person must’ve thought the data was useful. 🙂

“The Blue Book OSS/BSS Vendor Directory” from Passionate About OSS has officially launched

We’re excited to announce that “The Blue Book OSS/BSS Vendor Directory” has officially gone live here at https://passionateaboutoss.com/directory

It provides a comprehensive directory of over 400 suppliers that produce OSS, BSS and/or related network management tools. Company details, product details and functionality classifications are included.

The Blue Book OSS / BSS Vendor Directory

Every network operator has a unique set of needs from their operational software – software that includes OSS (Operational Support Systems), BSS (Business Support Systems), NMS (Network Management Systems) and the many other related tools.

To service those many and varied needs, a large number of different products have been created by some very clever developers. But it’s a highly fragmented market. There are literally hundreds of product options out there and they all have different capabilities.

If you’re a typical buyer, how many of those products are you familiar with? Five? Ten? Fifty? How do you know whether the best-fit product or supplier is within the list you already know? Perhaps the best-fit is actually amongst the hundreds of other products and suppliers you’re not familiar with yet. How much time do you have to research each one and distill down to a short-list of possible candidates to service your specific needs? Where do you start? Lots of web searches? There has to be an easier way.

What if you’re a seller? These products tend to have lengthy life-cycles once they’ve been installed so it might be years before a prospect actually enters the buying phase. Yet there are so many prospects out there at different phases of their buying windows. There are bound to be some live ones at any time that suit your capabilities. The challenge for you as a supplier is how to make those prospects aware of you. You don’t have the time to establish trusted relationships with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of buyers across the globe (or maybe just within your region/s). Wouldn’t you love to be presented with qualified prospects who are in (or nearing) their buying window?

Well we at Passionate About OSS have created The Blue Book OSS/BSS Vendor Directory to simplify the task of bringing buyers and sellers together. With over 400 suppliers listed (and climbing), we provide a single, comprehensive repository for searching, matching and connecting. The tools allow you to do it yourself, or we can help you using the approaches we’ve developed, used and refined over the years.

Now just click on “Directory” to start your journey of searching, matching and connecting (and updating your listing if you’re a supplier).

A lighter-touch OSS procurement approach (part 3)

We’ve spoken at length about TM Forum’s, “Time to kill the RFP? Reinventing IT procurement for the 2020s,” report so far this week. We’ve also spoken about the feeling that the OSS/BSS RFP (Request For Proposal) still has relevance in some situations… as long as it’s more of a lighter-touch than most. We’ve spoken about a more pragmatic approach that aims to find best available fit (for key objectives through stages of filtering) rather than perfect fit (for all requirements through detailed analyses). And I should note that “best available fit” includes measurement against these three contrarian procurement KPIs ahead of the traditional ones.

Yesterday’s post discussed how we get to a short list with minimal involvement of buyers and sellers, with the promise that we’d discuss the detailed analysis stage today.

It’s where we do use an RFP, but with thought given to the many pain-points cited so brilliantly by Mark Newman and team in the abovementioned TM Forum report.

The RFP provides the mechanism to firm up pricing and architecture, but is also closely tied to a PoC (Proof of Concept) demonstration. The RFP helps to prioritise the order in which PoCs are performed. PoCs tend to be very time consuming for buyer and seller. So if there’s a clear leader from the paper studies so far, then they will demonstrate first.

If there’s not a clear difference, or if the prime candidate’s demonstration identified significant gaps, then additional PoCs are run.

And to ensure the PoCs are run against the objectives that matter most, we use scenarios that were prioritised during part 1 of this series.

Next steps are to form the more detailed designs, commercials / contracts and ratify that the business case still holds up.

In yesterday’s post, I also promised to share our “starting-point” procurement methodology. I say starting point because each buyer situation is different and we tend to customise it to each buyer’s needs. It’s useful for starting discussions.

The overall methodology diagram is shown below:

PAOSS vendor selection process

A few key notes here:

  1. The process looks much heavier than it really is… if you use traditional procurement processes as an indicator
  2. We have existing templates for all the activities marked in yellow
  3. The activity marked in blue partially represents the project we’re getting really excited to introduce to you tomorrow

 

A lighter-touch OSS procurement approach (part 1)

You may have noticed that we’ve run a series of posts about OSS/BSS procurement, and about the RFP process by association.

One of the first steps in the traditional procurement process is preparing a strategy and detailed set of requirements.

As TM Forum’s, “Time to kill the RFP? Reinventing IT procurement for the 2020s,” report describes:
Before an RFP can be issued, the CSP’s IT or network team must produce a document detailing the strategy for implementing a technology or delivering a service, which is a lengthy process because of the number of stakeholders involved and the need to describe requirements in a way that satisfies them all.”

The problem with most requirements documents, the ones I’ve seen at least, is that they tend to get down into a deep, deep level of detail. And when it’s down in that level of detail, contrasting opinions from different stakeholders can make it really difficult to reach agreement. Have you ever been in a room with many high-value (and high cost) stakeholders spending days debating the semantics (and wording) of requirements? Every stakeholder group needs a say and needs to be heard.

The theory is that you need a great level of detail to evaluate supplier offerings for best-fit. Well, maybe, but not in the initial stages.

First things first – I seek to find out what’s really important for the organisation. That rarely comes from a detailed requirements spreadsheet, but by determining the things that are done most often and/or add the most value to the buyer’s organisation. I use persona mapping, long-tail and perhaps whale-curve mapping approaches to determine this.

Persona mapping means identifying all the groups within the buyer’s organisation that need to interact with the OSS/BSS (current and proposed). Then sitting with each group to determine what they need to achieve, who they need to interact with and what their workflows look like. That also gives a chance for all groups to be heard.

From this, we can collaboratively determine some high-level evaluation criteria, maybe only 15-20 to start with. You’d be surprised at how quickly this 15-20 criteria can help with initial supplier filtering.

Armed with the initial 15-20 evaluation criteria and the project we’re getting excited to launch on Monday, we can get to a relevant list of possible suppliers quite quickly. It allows us to do a broad market search to compile a list of suppliers, not just from the 5-10 suppliers the buyer already knows about, but from the 400+ suppliers/products available on the market. And we don’t even have to ask the suppliers to fill out any lengthy requirement response spreadsheets / forms yet.

We’ll continue the discussion over the next two days. We’ll also share our procurement methodology pack on Sunday.

Do I support the death penalty (of OSS RFPs)? Hmmm….

As per yesterday’s post, I’ll continue to reference a TM Forum report called, “Time to kill the RFP? Reinventing IT procurement for the 2020s” today. Mark Newman and the team have captured and discussed so many layers to the OSS/BSS procurement process.

There’s no doubt the current stereotypical RFP approach to procurement is broken. It needs to be done differently. That’s why we have been doing it differently with customers for years now (another hint regarding a project we’re getting excited to announce this Monday).

The TM Forum report is really powerful and well worth a read. There are a few additional (and somewhat random) thoughts that go through my head when considering the death of the RFP:

  1. The TM Forum report is primarily coming at the problem from the perspective of a carrier that is constantly steering the development of its own systems, as implied through this quote, “The fundamental problem with the RFP process is that in a fast-paced technology environment, where cloud and software are fast becoming preferred options, it is difficult for CSPs to describe in lengthy, written documents what they want and need. The processes are simply too complex and cumbersome to support modern, Agile methods of working.”
  2. That perspective is particularly applicable for some buyers, ones that have committed to having significant developer resources available to build exactly what they want. That could be in the form of in-house developers, contract developers, long-term panel arrangements with suppliers or similar
  3. Others, perhaps such as utilities, enterprise and some telcos want to focus on their core business and delegate OSS/BSS configuration and customisation to third-parties.
  4. Some of those rely on COTS (commercial off the shelf) software to leverage the benefits of innovation, cost and development time that have been spread across multiple customers. Their budgets simply don’t allow for custom-built solutions
  5. COTS, be it on-prem through to cloud service models, are almost never going to be a perfect fit for a buyer’s needs. They’re designed to generically suit many buyers, so a certain amount of bloat becomes part of the trade-off
  6. In recent weeks, I’ve seen two entirely in-house developed OSS/BSS. They fit their organisations like a glove and there’s almost no bloat at all. In fact it would be almost impossible for a COTS solution to replace what they’ve built. In both cases it’s taken a decade of ongoing development to get to that position. Most buyers don’t have that amount of time to get it right though unfortunately
  7. Commercial realities imply a pragmatic approach is taken to procurement – which product/s provide default capability that best aligns with the buyer’s most important objectives.
  8. RFPs often get bogged down at the far right-hand side of the long-tail of requirements (where impact tends to be negligible), or in trying to completely re-sculpt the solution to be the perfect fit (that it’s unlikely to ever be)
  9. In my experience at least, the best-fit (not perfect fit) solution, or very short list of solutions, usually becomes apparent fairly quickly [we’ll share more about how we do that tomorrow]. It’s then just a case of testing objectives, assumptions and gaps (eg via a proof-of-concept) and getting to a mutually beneficial commercial agreement
  10. As one respondent in the TM Forum report put it, “The RFP glorifies the process, not the outcome.” A healthy dose of outcome-driven pragmatism helps to reduce glorification of the RFP process
  11. Also in my experience at least, scope of works quotes from vendors (which RFPs tend to lead to) tend to be written in a waterfall style that don’t fit into Agile frameworks very effectively. That can be partially overcome by slicing and dicing the SoW in ways that are more conducive to Agile delivery
  12. With so much fragmentation in the OSS/BSS market already (there are over 400 in our vendor directory), that means the talent pool of creators is thinly spread. Many of those 400 have duplicated functionality, which isn’t great for the industry’s overall progress. Custom development for each different buyer spreads the talent pool even further… unless buyers can get economies of development scale through shared platforms like ONAP

In summary, I love the concept of avoiding massive procurement events. I still can’t help but think the RFP still fits in there somewhere for many buyers… as long as we ensure we glorify the outcomes and de-emphasise the process. It’s just that we use RFPs like a primitive instrument and inflict blunt-force trauma, rather than using surgical precision.

Lobbying hard for the death penalty for OSS RFPs

Earlier this year, the TM Forum published a really insightful report called, “Time to kill the RFP? Reinventing IT procurement for the 2020s.” There are so many layers to the OSS/BSS procurement discussion and Mark Newman and team have done a fantastic job of capturing them. We’ll expand on a few of those layers in a series of posts this week.

For example, section 2 articulates the typical RFI / RFP / RFQ approach. It’s clear to see why the typical approach is flawed. Yesterday’s post pondered whether procurement events are flawed from the initial KPIs that are set by buyers. Today we’ll take a look at the process that follows.

Two quotes from the TM Forum report frame some of the challenges with RFPs from buyer and seller viewpoints respectively:
QUOTE 1 (Buyer-side) – “CSPs normally distribute RFPs to a group of three to eight suppliers. These are most likely existing suppliers, previous vendors or companies the CSP is aware of through its own technology scouting. Suppliers are likely to include systems integrators who rely on other vendors to fulfill elements of the contract, and CSPs tend to invite bidders offering a range of options.
For example, they may invite a supplier that is likely to offer a good price, one that is a ‘safe’, low-risk option, and the incumbent supplier, which in many cases the CSP is looking to replace.
The document itself is likely to be several hundred pages long, a large portion of it comprising details of technology requirements, with suppliers asked to specify whether they comply with each requirement
.”
The question I’d ask about this process is how does the CSP choose 3-8 out of the 400+ vendors that supply the OSS/BSS market? Does their “own technology scouting” adequately discount the hundreds of others that could potentially be best-fit for their needs?

QUOTE 2 (Seller-side) – “We were holed up in our hotel for a month working feverishly on different aspects of the bid. We had 15 people there in total, and we were asked to come in for meetings with five different teams. The meetings go on and on, and you really have no idea when they’re going to finish.”
Let’s do the sums on this situation. 15 people x 25 days x $1500 per day (a round figure that includes accommodation, meals, etc) = $562,500. That’s over half a million dollars just for the seller-side of the post-RFP evaluation phase. Now let’s say there were 4 sellers going through this. [Just a small aside here – reading between the lines, do you suspect the buyer was taking the seller on a journey into the minutiae or focusing on what will move the needle for them? Re-read that through the lens of yesterday’s contrasting KPI perspectives]

You can see exactly why Mark has proposed that it’s, “Time to kill the RFP,” at least in its traditional form. These two quotes lobby hard for the death penalty. More on that tomorrow!

Also note that another hint was contained above in the lead-up to a project launch on Monday that we’re really excited about.

OSS/BSS procurement is flawed from the outset

You may’ve noticed that things have been a little quiet on this blog in recent weeks. We’ve been working on a big new project that we’ll be launching here on PAOSS on Monday. We can’t reveal what this project is just yet, but we can let you in on a little hint. It aims to help overcome one of the biggest problem areas faced by those in the comms network space.

Further clues will be revealed in this week’s series of posts.

The industry we work in is worth tens of billions of dollars annually. We rely on that investment to fund the OSS/BSS projects (and ops/maintenance tasks) that keeps many thousands of us busy. Obviously those funds get distributed by project sponsors in the buyers’ organisations. For many of the big projects, sponsors are obliged to involve the organisation’s procurement team.

That’s a fairly obvious path. But I often wonder whether the next step on that path is full of contradictions and flaws.

Do you agree with me that the 3 KPIs sponsors expect from their procurement teams are:

  1. Negotiate the lowest price
  2. Eliminate as many risks as possible
  3. Create a contract to manage the project by

If procurement achieves these 3 things, sponsors will generally be delighted. High-fives for the buyers that screw the vendor prices right down. Seems pretty obvious right? So where’s the contradiction? Well, let’s look at these same 3 KPIs from a different perspective – a more seller-centric perspective:

  1. I want to win the project, so I’ll set a really low price, perhaps even loss-leader. However, our company can’t survive if our projects lose money, so I’ll be actively generating variations throughout the project
  2. Every project of this complexity has inherent risks, so if my buyer is “eliminating” risks, they’re actually just pushing risks onto me. So I’ll use any mechanisms I can to push risks back on my buyer to even the balance again
  3. We all know that complex projects throw up unexpected situations that contracts can’t predict (except with catch-all statements that aim to push all risk onto sellers). We also both know that if we manage the project by contractual clauses and interpretations, then we’re already doomed to fail (or are already failing by the time we start to manage by contract clauses)

My 3 contrarian KPIs to request from procurement are:

  1. Build relationships / trust – build a framework and environment that facilitates a mutually beneficial, long-lasting buyer/seller relationship (ie procurement gets judged on partnership length ahead of cost reduction)
  2. Develop a team – build a framework and environment that allows the buyer-seller collective to overcome risks and issues (ie mutual risk mitigation rather than independent risk deflection)
  3. Establish clear and shared objectives – ensure both parties are completely clear on how the project will make the buyer’s organisation successful. Then both constantly evolve to deliver benefits that outweigh costs (ie focus on the objectives rather than clauses – don’t sweat the small stuff (or purely technical stuff))

Yes, I know they’re idealistic and probably unrealistic. Just saying that the current KPI model tends to introduce flaws from the outset.

Three OSS project responsibility sliders

Last week we shared an article that talked about the different expectations from suppliers and clients when undertaking an OSS implementation project.

The diagram below attempts to demonstrate the concept visually, in the form of three important sliders.

OSS Responsibility Sliders

When it comes to the technical delivery, it makes sense that most of the responsibility falls upon the supplier. They obviously have the greater know-how from building and implementing their own products. However, and despite what some clients expect, you’ll notice that the slider isn’t all the way to the left though. The client can’t just “throw the hand grenade over the fence” and expect the supplier to just build the solution in isolation. The client needs to be involved to ensure the solution is configured to their unique requirements. This covers factors such as network types, service types, process models, naming conventions, personas supported, integrations, approvals, etc.

Unfortunately, organisational change is an afterthought far too often on OSS projects. Not only that, but the client often expects the supplier to handle that too. They expect the slider to fall far to the left too. In my opinion, this is completely unrealistic. In most cases, the supplier simply doesn’t have the knowledge of, or influence over, the individuals within the client’s organisation. That’s why the middle slider falls mostly towards the right-hand (client) side. Not all the way though because the supplier will have suggestions / input / training based on learnings from past implementations. BTW. The link above also describes an important perspective shift to help the org change aspect of OSS transformation.

And lastly, the success of a project relies on strength of relationship throughout, but also far beyond, the initial implementation. You’d expect that most OSS implementations will have a useful life of many years. Due to the complexity of OSS transformations, clients want to stay with the same supplier for long periods because they don’t want to endure a change-out. Like any relationships, trust plays an important role. The relationship clearly has to be beneficial to both parties. Unfortunately, three factors often doom OSS relationships from the outset.

Firstly, the sliders above show my unbiased perspective of the weight of responsibility on a generic OSS project. If each party has a vastly different expectation of slider positioning, then the project can be off to a difficult (but all-too-common) start.

Secondly, the nature of vendor selection process can also gnaw away at trust quite quickly. The client wants an as-low-as-possible cost in the contract (obviously). The supplier wants to win the bid, so they keep costs as low as possible, often hoping to make up the difference through the inevitable variations that happen on these complex projects.

And thirdly, the complexity of these projects means challenges almost always arise and can cause cynicism being hurled across the fence by both parties.

You may be wondering why the third slider isn’t perfectly centred between both. You may claim that significant responsibility for humility, fairness and forgiveness lies with each participant to ensure a long-lasting, trusted relationship. I’d agree with you on that, but I’d also argue that the supplier carries slightly more responsibility as they (usually) hold a slight balance in power. They know the client doesn’t want to endure another OSS change-out project any time soon, so the client generally has more to lose from a relationship breakdown. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this leveraged by vendors too many times.

Do you agree/disagree with these observations? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Oh, and if you’re ever need an independent third-party to help set the right balance of expectations across these sliders on your project, you’re welcome to call upon Passionate About OSS to assist.

This OSS is different to what I’m used to

OSS implementations / transformations are always challenging. Stakeholders seem to easily get their heads around the fact that there will be technical challenges (even if they / we can’t always get their head around the actual changes initially).

When a supplier is charged with doing an OSS implementation, the client (perhaps rightly) expects the supplier to lead the technical implementation and guide the client through any challenges. It’s the, “Over to you!” client mentality at times.

However, it’s the change management challenges that are often overlooked and/or underestimated (by client and supplier alike). It’s far less realistic for a client to delegate these activities and challenges to the supplier. The supplier simply doesn’t have the reach or influence within the client’s organisation (unless they’re long-term trusted partners). Just doing a 2 week training course at the end of the implementation rarely works.

Now, if you do represent the client, change management starts all the way back at the start of the project – from the time we start to gather current and desired future state, including process and persona mappings.

At that time we can put ourselves in the shoes of each person impacted by OSS change and consider, “If your current normal is exactly what you need, then different isn’t worth exploring” (a Seth Godin quote).

How many times have you heard about operators bypassing their sophisticated new OSS and reverting back to their old spreadsheets (thus keeping an offline store of data that would be valuable to be stored in the OSS)?

Interestingly though, if you approach those same people before the OSS implementation and ask them whether their as-is spreadsheet model gives them exactly what they need, you will undoubtedly get some great insights (either yes it is and here’s why…
or not it’s not because…).

You have a stronger position of influence with these operators if you involve and listen pre-implementation than enforcing change afterwards.

To again quote Seth, they’re not always, “hesitant about this new idea because it’s a risky, problematic, defective idea… [but] because it’s simply different than [they’re] used to.”

Are modern OSS architectures well conceived?

Whatever is well conceived is clearly said,
And the words to say it flow with ease
.”
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
.

I’d like to hijack this quote and re-direct it towards architectures. Could we equally state that a well conceived architecture can be clearly understood? Some modern OSS/IT frameworks that I’ve seen recently are hugely complex. The question I’ve had to ponder is whether they’re necessarily complex. As the aphorism states, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Just take in the complexity of this triptych I prepared to overlay SDN, NFV and MANO frameworks.

Yet this is only a basic model. It doesn’t consider networks with a blend of PNF and VNF (Physical and Virtual Network Functions). It doesn’t consider closed loop assurance. It doesn’t consider other automations, or omni-channel, or etc, etc.

Yesterday’s post raised an interesting concept from Tom Nolle that as our solutions become more complex, our ability to make a basic assessment of value becomes more strained. And by implication, we often need to upskill a team before even being able to assess the value of a proposed project.

It seems to me that we need simpler architectures to be able to generate persuasive business cases. But it poses the question, do they need to be complex or are our solutions just not well enough conceived yet?

To borrow a story from Wikiquote, “Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he told the faculty member, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.

Making a basic assessment of OSS value

“…as technology gets more complicated, it becomes more difficult for buyers to acquire the skills needed to make even a basic assessment of value. Without such an assessment, it’s hard to get a project going, and in particular hard to get one going the right way.”
Tom Nolle
.

Have you noticed that over the last few years, OSS choice has proliferated, making project assessment more challenging? Previously, the COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) product solution dominated. That was already a challenge because there are hundreds to choose from (there are around 400 on our vendors page alone). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We now also have choices to make across factors such as:

  • Building OSS tools with open-source projects
  • An increasing amount of in-house development (as opposed to COTS implementations by the product’s vendors)
  • Smaller niche products that need additional integration
  • An increase in the number of “standards” that are seeking to solve traditional OSS/BSS problems (eg ONAP, ETSI’s ZSM, TM Forum’s ODA, etc, etc)
  • Revolutions from the IT world such as cloud, containerisation, virtualisation, etc

As Tom indicates in the quote above, the diversity of skills required to make these decisions is broadening. Broadening to the point where you generally need a large team to have suitable skills coverage to make even a basic assessment of value.

At Passionate About OSS, we’re seeking to address this in the following ways:

  • We have two development projects underway (more news to come)
    • One to simplify the vendor / product selection process
    • One to assist with up-skilling on open-source and IT tools to build modern OSS
  • In addition to existing pages / blogs, we’re assembling more content about “standards” evolution, which should appear on this blog in coming days
  • Use our “Finding an Expert” tool to match experts to requirements
  • And of course there are the variety of consultancy services we offer ranging from strategy, roadmap, project business case and vendor selection through to resource identification and implementation. Leave us a message on our contact page if you’d like to discuss more

OSS change…. but not too much… oh no…..

Let me start today with a question:
Does your future OSS/BSS need to be drastically different to what it is today?

Please leave me a comment below, answering yes or no.

I’m going to take a guess that most OSS/BSS experts will answer yes to this question, that our future OSS/BSS will change significantly. It’s the reason I wrote the OSS Call for Innovation manifesto some time back. As great as our OSS/BSS are, there’s still so much need for improvement.

But big improvement needs big change. And big change is scary, as Tom Nolle points out:
IT vendors, like most vendors, recognize that too much revolution doesn’t sell. You have to creep up on change, get buyers disconnected from the comfortable past and then get them to face not the ultimate future but a future that’s not too frightening.”

Do you feel like we’re already in the midst of a revolution? Cloud computing, web-scaling and virtualisation (of IT and networks) have been partly responsible for it. Agile and continuous integration/delivery models too.

The following diagram shows a “from the moon” level view of how I approach (almost) any new project.

The key to Tom’s quote above is in step 2. Just how far, or how ambitious, into the future are you projecting your required change? Do you even know what that future will look like? After all, the environment we’re operating within is changing so fast. That’s why Tom is suggesting that for many of us, step 2 is just a “creep up on it change.” The gap is essentially small.

The “creep up on it change” means just adding a few new relatively meaningless features at the end of the long tail of functionality. That’s because we’ve already had the most meaningful functionality in our OSS/BSS for decades (eg customer management, product / catalog management, service management, service activation, network / service health management, inventory / resource management, partner management, workforce management, etc). We’ve had the functionality, but that doesn’t mean we’ve perfected the cost or process efficiency of using it.

So let’s say we look at step 2 with a slightly different mindset. Let’s say we don’t try to add any new functionality. We lock that down to what we already have. Instead we do re-factoring and try to pull the efficiency levers, which means changes to:

  1. Platforms (eg cloud computing, web-scaling and virtualisation as well as associated management applications)
  2. Methodologies (eg Agile, DevOps, CI/CD, noting of course that they’re more than just methodologies, but also come with tools, etc)
  3. Process (eg User Experience / User Interfaces [UX/UI], supply chain, business process re-invention, machine-led automations, etc)

It’s harder for most people to visualise what the Step 2 Future State looks like. And if it’s harder to envisage Step 2, how do we then move onto Steps 3 and 4 with confidence?

This is the challenge for OSS/BSS vendors, supplier, integrators and implementers. How do we, “get buyers disconnected from the comfortable past and then get them to face not the ultimate future but a future that’s not too frightening?” And I should point out, that it’s not just buyers we need to get disconnected from the comfortable past, but ourselves, myself definitely included.

Only do the OSS that only you can do

A friend of mine has a great saying, “only do what only you can do.”

Do you think that this holds true for the companies undergoing digital transformation? Banks are now IT companies. Insurers are IT companies. Car manufacturers are now IT companies. Telcos are, well, some are IT companies.

We’ve spoken before about the skill transformations that need to happen within telcos if they’re to become IT companies. Some are actively helping their workforce to become more developer-centric. Some of the big telcos that I’ve been assisting in the last few years are embarking on bold Agile-led IT transformations. They’re cutting more of their own code and managing their own IT developments.

That’s exciting news for all of us in OSS. Even if it loses the name OSS in future, telcos will still need software that efficiently operationalises their networks. We have the overlapping skills in software, networks, business and operations.

But I wonder about the longevity of the in-house approach unless we come focus clearly on the first quote above. If all development is brought in-house, we end up with a lot of duplication across the industry. I’m not really sure that it makes sense doing all the heavy-lifting of all custom OSS tools when the heavy-lifting has already been done elsewhere.

It’s the old ebb and flow between in-house and outsourced OSS.

In my very humble opinion, it’s not just a choice between in-house and outsourced that matters. The more important decisions are around choosing to only develop the tools in-house that only you can do (ie the strategic differentiators).

I was a huge bottleneck on my first OSS project

I became a problematic bottleneck on my first OSS project. It didn’t start that way, but it definitely ended that way. And I’ve been thinking ever since about how I could’ve managed that better.

I started out as a network subject matter expert but wasn’t a bottleneck in that role. However, the next two functions I absorbed were the source of the problem.

The first additional role was in becoming the unofficial document librarian. Most of the documents coming into our organisation came through me. Being inquisitive, I’d review each document and try to apply it to what my colleagues and I were trying to achieve. When the team had an information void, they’d come to me with the problem and I’d not just point them to the relevant document/s but dive into helping to solve the problem.

The next role was assisting to model network data into the OSS database. This morphed into becoming responsible for all of the data in the database. In those days, I didn’t have a Minimum Viable Data (MVD) mindset. Instead it was an ingest-it-all-and-figure-out-how-to-use-it-later mentality. When the team had a data void, they’d come to me with the problem and I’d not just point them to the relevant data and what it meant but dive into helping to solve their problem/s.

You can see how this is leading to being a bottleneck can’t you?

I was effectively asking for all problems to be re-routed through me. Every person on the project (except possibly the project admins) relied on documentation and data. I averaged 85 hour weeks for about 2.5 years on that project, but still didn’t get close to servicing all the requests. Great as a learning exercise. Not great for the project.

Twenty years on, how would I do it better? Well, let me ask first, how would you do it better?

You possibly have many more ideas, but the two I’d like to leave you with are:

  • Figure out ways to make teaching more repeatable and self-learnt
  • Very closely aligned, and more importantly, is in asking leading questions that help others solve their own problems

It still feels like it’s less helpful to not dive into solving the problem, but it undoubtedly improves overall team efficiency and growth.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re just starting out in OSS and want to speed up your own development into becoming an OSS linchpin – find your way into the document librarian and/or data management roles. After all these years on OSS projects, I still think these are the best places to launch into the learning curve from.

OSS orgitecture

So far this week we’ve been focusing on ways to improve the OSS transformation process. Monday provided 7 models for achieving startup-like efficiency for larger OSS transformations. Tuesday provided suggestions for speeding up the transition from OSS PoC to getting the solution into production, specifically strategies for absorbing an OSS PoC into production.

Both of these posts talk about the speed of getting things done outside the bureaucracy of big operators, big networks and big OSS. Today, as the post title suggests, we’re going to look at orgitecture – how re-designing the structure and culture of an organisation can help streamline digital transformations.

Do you agree with the premise that smaller entities (eg Agile autonomous groups, partners, consultants, etc) can get OSS tasks done more efficiently when operating at arms-length of the larger entity (eg the carrier)? I believe that this is a first principle of physics at play.

If you’ve worked under this arms-length arrangement in the past, you’ll also know that at some point those delivery outcomes need to get integrated back into the big entity. It’s what we referred to yesterday as absorption, where the level of integration effort falls on a continuum between minimally absorbed to fully absorbed.

OSS orgitecture is the re-architecture of the people, processes, culture and org structure to better allow for the absorption process. In the past, all the safety-checks (eg security, approvals, ops handover, etc) were designed on the assumption that internal teams were doing the work. They’re not always a great fit, especially when it comes to documentation review and approval.

For example, I have a belief that the effectiveness of documentation review and approval is inversely proportional to the number of reviewers (in most, but not all cases). Unfortunately, when an external entity is delivering, there tends to be inherently less trust than if an internal entity was delivering. As such, the safety-checks increase.

Another example is when the large organisation uses Agile delivery models, but use supply partners to deliver scope of works. The partners are able to assign effort in a sequential / waterfall manner, but can be delayed by only getting timeslices of attention from client’s staff (ie resources are available according to Agile sprint planning).

Security and cutover planning mechanisms such as Change Review Boards (CRB) have also been designed around old internal delivery models. They also need to be reconsidered to facilitate a pipeline of externally-implemented change.

Perhaps the biggest orgitecture factor is in getting multiple internal business units to work together effectively. In the old world we needed all the business units to reach consensus for a new product to come to market. Sales/Marketing/Products had to work with OSS/IT and Networks. Each of these units tend to have vastly different cultures and different cadences for getting their tasks done. Delivering a new product was as much an organisational challenge as it was a technical challenge and often took months. Those times-to-market are not feasible in a world of software where competitive advantages are fleeting. External entities can potentially help or hinder these timeframes. Careful design of small autonomous teams have the potential to improve abstraction at the interlocks, but culture remains the potential roadblock.

I’m excited by the opportunity for OSS delivery improvement coming from leveraging the gig economy. But if big OSS transformations are to make use of these efficiency gains, then we may also need to consider culture and process refinement as part of the change management.

Seven OSS transformation efficiency models

Do you work in a large organisation? Have you also worked in smaller organisations?
Where have you felt more efficient?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some massive OSS transformations for large T1 telcos. But I’ve always noticed the inefficiency of working on these projects when embedded inside the bureaucracy of the beast. With all of the documentation, sign-offs, meetings, politics, gaining consensus, budget allocations, etc it can sometimes feel so inefficient. On some past projects, I’ve felt I can accomplish more in a day outside than a week or more inside the beast.

This makes sense when applying the fundamental law of physics F = M x a to OSS projects. In other words, the greater the mass (of the organisation), the more force must be applied to reach a given acceleration (ie to effect a change).

It’s one of the reasons I love working within a small entity (Passionate About OSS), but into big entities (the big telcos and utilities). It’s also why I strongly believe that the big entities need to better leverage smaller working groups to facilitate big OSS change. Not just OSS transformation, but any project where the size of the culture and technology stack are prohibitive.

Here are a few ways you can use to bring a start-up’s efficiency to a big OSS transformation:

  1. Agile methodologies – If done well, Agile can be great at breaking transformations down into smaller, more manageable pieces. The art is in designing small autonomous teams / responsibilities and breakdown of work to minimise dependencies
  2. Partnerships – Using smaller, external partners to deliver outcomes (eg product builds or service offerings) that can be absorbed into the big organisation. There are varying levels of absorption here – from an external, “clip-the-ticket” offering to offerings that are fully absorbed into the large entity’s OSS/BSS stack
  3. Consultancies – Similar to partnerships, but using smaller teams to implement professional services
  4. Spin-out / spin-in teams – Separating small teams of experts out from the bureaucracy of the large organisation so that they can achieve rapid progress
  5. Smart contracts / RFPs – I love the potential for smart contracts to automate the offer of small chunks of work to trusted partners to bid upon and then deliver upon
  6. Externalised Proofs of Concept (PoC) – One of the big challenges in implementing for large organisations is all of the safety checks that slow progress. Many, such as security and privacy mechanisms, are completely justified for a production network. But when a concept needs to be proved, such as user journeys, product integrations, sand-pit environments, etc, then cloud-based PoCs can be brilliant
  7. Alternate brands – Have you also noticed that some of the tier-1 telcos have been spinning out low-cost and/or niche brands with much leaner OSS/BSS stacks, offerings and related culture lately? It’s a clever business model on many levels. Combined with the strangler fig transformation approach, this might just represent a pathway for the big brand to shed many of their OSS/BSS legacy constraints

Can you think of other models that I’ve missed?

The key to these strategies is not so much the carve-out, the process of getting small teams to do tasks efficiently, but the absorb-in process. For example, how to absorb a cloud-based PoC back into the PROD network, where all safety checks (eg security, privacy, operations acceptance, etc) still need to be performed. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

The OSS Tinder effect

On Friday, we provided a link to an inspiring video showing Rolls-Royce’s vision of an operations centre. That article is a follow-on from other recent posts about to pros and cons of using MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) as an OSS transformation approach.

I’ve been lucky to work on massive OSS projects. Projects that have taken months / years of hard implementation grind to deliver an OSS for clients. One was as close to perfect (technically) as I’ve been involved with. But, alas, it proved to be a failure.

How could that be you’re wondering? Well, it’s what I refer to as the Tinder Effect. On Tinder, first appearances matter. Liked or disliked at the swipe of a hand.

Many new OSS are delivered to users who are already familiar with one or more OSS. If they’re not as pretty or as functional or as intuitive as what the users are accustomed to, then your OSS gets a swipe to the left. As we found out on that project (a ‘we’ that included all the client’s stakeholders and sponsors), first impressions can doom an otherwise successful OSS implementation.

Since then, I’ve invested a lot more time into change management. Change management that starts long before delivery and handover. Long before designs are locked in. Change management that starts with hearts and minds. And starts by involving the end users early in the change process. Getting them involved in the vision, even if not quite as elaborate as Rolls-Royce’s.

The OSS Minimum Feature Set is Not The Goal

This minimum feature set (sometimes called the “minimum viable product”) causes lots of confusion. Founders act like the “minimum” part is the goal. Or worse, that every potential customer should want it. In the real world not every customer is going to get overly excited about your minimum feature set. Only a special subset of customers will and what gets them breathing heavy is the long-term vision for your product.

The reality is that the minimum feature set is 1) a tactic to reduce wasted engineering hours (code left on the floor) and 2) to get the product in the hands of early visionary customers as soon as possible.

You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries not everyone.”
Steve Blank here.

A recent blog series discussed the use of pilots as an OSS transformation and augmentation change agent.
I have the need for OSS speed
Re-framing an OSS replacement strategy
OSS transformation is hard. What can we learn from open source?

Note that you can replace the term pilot in these posts with MVP – Minimum Viable Product.

The attraction in getting an MVP / pilot version of your OSS into the hands of users is familiarity and momentum. The solution becomes more tangible and therefore needs less documentation (eg architecture, designs, requirement gathering, etc) to describe foreign concepts to customers. The downside of the MVP / pilot is that not every customer will “get overly excited about your minimum feature set.”

As Steve says, “Only a special subset of customers will and what gets them breathing heavy is the long-term vision for your product.” The challenge for all of us in OSS is articulating the long-term vision and making it compelling…. and not just leaving the product in its pilot state (we’ve all seen this happen haven’t we?)

We’ll provide an example of a long-term vision tomorrow.

PS. I should also highlight that the maximum feature set also isn’t the goal either.