Training network engineers to code, not vice versa

Did any of you read the Light Reading link in yesterday’s post about Google creating automated network operations services? If you haven’t, it’s well worth a read.

If you did, then you may’ve also noticed a reference to Finland’s Elisa selling its automation smarts to other telcos. This is another interesting business model disruption for the OSS market, although I’ll reserve judgement on how disruptive it will be until Elisa sells to a few more operators.

What did catch my eye in the Elisa article (again by Light Reading’s Iain Morris), is this paragraph:
Automation has not been hassle-free for Elisa. Instilling a software culture throughout the organization has been a challenge, acknowledges [Kirsi] Valtari. Rather than recruiting software expertise, Elisa concentrated on retraining the people it already had. During internal training courses, network engineers have been taught to code in Python, a popular programming language, and to write algorithms for a self-optimizing network (or SON). “The idea was to get engineers who were previously doing manual optimization to think about automating it,” says Valtari. “These people understand network problems and so it is a win-win outcome to go down this route.”.

It provides a really interesting perspective on this diagram below (from a 2014 post about the ideal skill-set for the future of networking)

There is an undoubted increase in the level of network / IT overlap (eg SDN). Most operators appear to be taking the path of hiring for IT and hoping they’ll grow to understand networks. Elisa is going the opposite way and training their network engineers to code.

With either path, if they then train their multi-talented engineers to understand the business (the red intersect), then they’ll have OSS experts on their hands right folks?? 😉

Merkator acquires NetworkMining

Merkator acquires NetworkMining.

Merkator nv/sa, a geospatial asset management solution provider, announced the acquisition of NetworkMining nv/sa, an independent supplier of IP & Optical Network Mediation Software for Communication Service Providers & Utilities. For more than a decade, NetworkMining has been recognized as a specialist in IP/optical mediation and inventory software and as such will bolster Merkator’s expertise and portfolio of Telco & Utilities solutions.

Merkator and NetworkMining, both Belgian-based private companies, have gained the confidence of Tier-1 Telco and Smart Grid operators in Belgian & Luxembourg and throughout EMEA and Asia. NetworkMining deployments cover passive fiber and cable infrastructure, as well as active network technologies, including SDH, WDM, IP/MPLS, Ethernet and Microwave. At present devices from all leading IP & Optical Networking vendors are supported by NetworkMining’s software solutions.

Geert De Coensel, Director of Merkator nv/sa, explains: “The requirement for utility operators to combine both the physical network inventory with logical network information has been a big challenge for the past decades.” Merkator will provide unique software solutions to integrate the network design and build workflows together with real-time operations and maintenance. “This first acquisition allows us to better support network operators with their current and upcoming business challenges.”, added Geert De Coensel.

NetworkMining will be further consolidated into Merkator nv/sa with respect for all pending and future contracts. Roland Leners, CEO of NetworkMining, explains: “This is excellent news for our existing customers and partners. It enables NetworkMining to strengthen its position in the vibrant market of automation software for IP/optical networks. We also have immediate access to the Geo-expertise of the Merkator people and together we can offer a full stack solution to our customers.”

Automated Network Operations as a Service (ANOaaS)

Google has started applying its artificial intelligence (AI) expertise to network operations and expects to make its tools available to companies building virtual networks on its global cloud platform.
That could be a troubling sign for network technology vendors such as Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), which now see AI in the network environment as a potential differentiator and growth opportunity…
Google already uses software-defined network (SDN) technology as the bedrock of this infrastructure and last week revealed details of an in-development “Google Assistant for Networking” tool, designed to further minimize human intervention in network processes.
That tool would feature various data models to handle tasks related to network topology, configuration, telemetry and policy.
.”
Iain Morris
here on Light Reading.

This is an interesting, but predictable, turn of events isn’t it? If (when?) automated network operations as a service (ANOaaS) is perfected, it has the ability to significantly change the OSS space doesn’t it?

Let’s have a look at this from a few scenarios (and I’m considering ANOaaS from the perspective of any of the massive cloud providers who are also already developing significant AI/ML resource pools, not just Google).

Large Enterprise, Utilities, etc with small networks (by comparison to telco networks), where the network and network operations are simply a cost of doing business rather than core business. Virtual networks and ANOaaS seem like an attractive model for these types of customer (ignoring data sovereignty concerns and the myriad other local contexts for now). Outsourcing this responsibility significantly reduces CAPEX and head-count to run what’s effectively non-core business. This appears to represent a big disruptive risk for the many OSS vendors who service the Enterprise / Utilities market (eg Solarwinds, CA, etc, etc).

T2/3 Telcos with relatively small networks that tend to run lean operations. In this scenario, the network is core business but having a team of ML/AI expects is hard to justify. Automations are much easier to build for homogeneous (consistent) infrastructure platforms (like those of the cloud providers) than for those carrying different technologies (like T2/T3 telcos perhaps?). Combine complexity, lack of scale and lack of large ML/AI resource pools and it becomes hard for T2/T3 telcos to deliver cost-effective ANOaaS either internally or externally to their customer base. Perhaps outsourcing the network (ie VNO) and ANOaaS allows these operators to focus more on sales?

T1 Telcos have large networks, heterogenous platforms and large workforces where the network is core business. The question becomes whether they can build network cloud at the scale and price-point of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, etc. This is partly dependent upon internal processes, but also on what vendors like Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia can deliver, as quoted as a risk above.

As you probably noticed, I just made up ANOaaS. Does a term already exist for this? How do you think it’s going to change the OSS and telco markets?

Is service personalisation the answer?

The actions taken by the telecom industry have mostly been around cost cutting, both in terms of opex and capex, and that has not resulted in breaking the curve. Too few activities has been centered around revenue growth, such as focused activities in personalization, customer experience, segmentation, targeted offerings that become part of or drive ecosystems. These activities are essential if you want to break the curve; thus, it is time to gear up for growth… I am very surprised that very few, if any, service providers today collect and analyze data, create dynamic targeted offerings based on real-time insights, and do that per segment or individual.”
Lars Sandstrom
, here.

I have two completely opposite and conflicting perspectives on the pervading wisdom of personalised services (including segmentation of one and targeted offerings) in the telecoms industry.

Telcos tend to be large organisations. If I invest in a large organisation it’s because the business model is simple, repeatable and has a moat (as Warren Buffett likes to say). Personalisation is contra to two of those three mantras – personalisation makes our OSS/BSS far more complicated and hence less repeatable (unless we build in lots of automations, which BTW, are inherently more complex).

I’m more interested in reliable and enduring profitability than just revenue growth (not that I’m discounting the search for revenue growth of course). The complexity of personalisation leads to significant increases in systems costs. As such, you’d want to be really sure that personalisation is going to give an even larger up-tick in revenues (ie ROI). Seems like a big gamble to me.

For my traditional telco services, I don’t want personalised, dynamic offers that I have to evaluate and make decisions on regularly. I want set and forget (mostly). It’s a bit like my electricity – I don’t want to constantly choose between green electricity, blue electricity, red electricity – I just want my appliances to work when I turn on the switch and not have bill shock at the end of the month / quarter. In telco, it’s not just green / blue / red. We seem to want to create the millions of shades of the rainbow, which is a nightmare for OSS/BSS implementers.

I can see the argument however for personalisation in what I’ll call the over-the-top services (let’s include content and apps as well). Telcos tend to be much better suited to building the platforms that support the whole long tail than selecting individual winners (except perhaps supply of popular content like sport broadcasts, etc).

So, if I’m looking for a cool, challenging project or to sell some products or services (you’ll notice that the quote above is on a supplier’s blog BTW), then I’ll definitely recommend personalisation. But if I want my telco customers to be reliably profitable…

Am I taking a short-term view on this? Is personalisation going to be expected by all end-users in future, leaving providers with no choice but to go down this path??

More places for the bad guys to hide?

Just wondering – do you think there would be any correlation between the number of fall-outs through an OSS/BSS stack and the level of security on a network?

In theory, they are quite separate. NetOps and SecOps are usually completely separate units, use different thinking models, don’t rely on common tools (apart from the network itself), etc.

The reason I ask the question is because fall-out rates amplify with complexity. And within the chaos of complexity, are there more places for the bad guys to hide?

Thoughts?

Networks lead. OSS are an afterthought. Time for a change?

In a recent post, we described how changing conditions in networks (eg topologies, technologies, etc) cause us to reconsider our OSS.

Networks always lead and OSS (or any form of network management including EMS/NMS) is always an afterthought. Often a distant afterthought.

But what if we spun this around? What if OSS initiated change in our networks / services? After all, OSS is the platform that operationalises the network. So instead of attempting to cope with a huge variety of network options (which introduces a massive number of variants and in turn, massive complexity, which we’re always struggling with in our OSS), what if we were to define the ways that networks are operationalised?

Let’s assume we want to lead. What has to happen first?

Network vendors tend to lead currently because they’re offering innovation in their networks, but more importantly on the associated services supported over the network. They’re prepared to take the innovation risk knowing that operators are looking to invest in solutions they can offer to their customers (as products / services) for a profit. The modus operandi is for operators to look to network vendors, not OSS vendors / integrators, to help to generate new revenues. It would take a significant perception shift for operators to break this nexus and seek out OSS vendors before network vendors. For a start, OSS vendors have to create a revenue generation story rather than the current tendency towards a cost-out business case.

ONAP provides an interesting new line of thinking though. As you know, it’s an open-source project that represents multiple large network operators banding together to build an innovative new approach to OSS (even if it is being driven by network change – the network virtualisation paradigm shift in particular). With a white-label, software-defined network as a target, we have a small opening. But to turn this into an opportunity, our OSS need to provide innovation in the services being pushed onto the SDN. That innovation has to be in the form of services/products that are readily monetisable by the operators.

Who’s up for this challenge?

As an aside:
If we did take the lead, would our OSS look vastly different to what’s available today? Would they unequivocally need to use the abstract model to cope with the multitude of scenarios?

A purple cow in our OSS paddock

A few years ago, I read a book that had a big impact on the way I thought about OSS and OSS product development. Funnily enough, the book had nothing to do with OSS or product development. It was a book about marketing – a subject that I wasn’t very familiar with at the time, but am now fascinated with.

And the book? Purple Cow by Seth Godin.
Purple Cow

The premise behind the book is that when we go on a trip into the countryside, we notice the first brown or black cows, but after a while we don’t pay attention to them anymore. The novelty has worn off and we filter them out. But if there was a purple cow, that would be remarkable. It would definitely stand out from all the other cows and be talked about. Seth promoted the concept of building something into your products that make them remarkable, worth talking about.

I recently heard an interview with Seth. Despite the book being launched in 2003, apparently he’s still asked on a regular basis whether idea X is a purple cow. His answer is always the same – “I don’t decide whether your idea is a purple cow. The market does.”

That one comment brought a whole new perspective to me. As hard as we might try to build something into our OSS products that create a word-of-mouth buzz, ultimately we don’t decide if it’s a purple cow concept. The market does.

So let me ask you a question. You’ve probably seen plenty of different OSS products over the years (I know I have). How many of them are so remarkable that you want to talk about them with your OSS colleagues, or even have a single feature that’s remarkable enough to discuss?

There are a lot of quite brilliant OSS products out there, but I would still classify almost all of them as brown cows. Brilliant in their own right, but unremarkable for their relative sameness to lots of others.

The two stand-out purple cows for me in recent times have been CROSS’ built-in data quality ranking and Moogsoft’s Incident Room model. But it’s not for me to decide. The market will ultimately decide whether these features are actual purple cows.

I’d love to hear about your most memorable OSS purple cows.

You may also be wondering how to go about developing your own purple OSS cow. Well I start by asking, “What are people complaining about?” or “What are our biggest issues?” That’s where the opportunities lie. Once discovering those issues, the challenge is solving the problem/s in an entirely different, but better, way. I figure that if people care enough to complain about those issues, then they’re sure to talk about any product that solves the problem for them.

Designing OSS to cope with greater transience (part 2)

This is the second episode discussing the significant change to OSS thinking caused by modern network models. Yesterday’s post discussed how there has been a paradigm shift from static networks (think PDH) to dynamic / transient networks (think SDN/NFV) and that OSS are faced with a similar paradigm shift in how they manage modern network models.

We can either come up with adaptive / algorithmic mechanisms to deal with that transience, or mimic the “nailed-up” concepts of the past.

Let’s take Carrier Ethernet as a basis for explanation, with its E-LAN service model [We could similarly analyse E-Line and E-Tree service models, but maybe another day].

An E-Line is a point-to-point service between an A-end UNI (User-Network Interface) and a Z-end UNI, connected by an EVC (Ethernet Virtual Connection). The EVC is a conceptual pipe that is carried across a service provider’s network – a pipe that can actually span multiple network assets / links.

In our OSS, we can apply either:

  1. Abstract Model – Just mimic the EVC as a point-to-point connection between the two UNIs
  2. Specific Model – Attempt to tie network assets / links associated with the conceptual pipe to the EVC construct

The abstract OSS can be set up just once and delegate the responsibility of real-time switching / transience within the EVC to network controllers / EMS. This is the simpler model, but doesn’t add as much value to assurance use-cases in particular.

The specific OSS must either have the algorithms / policies to dynamically manage the EVC or to dynamically associate assets to the EVC. This is obviously much more sophisticated, but provides operators with a more real-time view of network utilisation and health.

Designing OSS to cope with greater transience

There are three broad models of networking in use today. The first is the adaptive model where devices exchange peer information to discover routes and destinations. This is how IP networks, including the Internet, work. The second is the static model where destinations and pathways (routes) are explicitly defined in a tabular way, and the final is the central model where destinations and routes are centrally controlled but dynamically set based on policies and conditions.”
Tom Nolle here.

OSS of decades past worked best with static networks. Services / circuits that were predominantly “nailed up” and (relatively) rarely changed after activation. This took the real-time aspect out of play and justified the significant manual effort required to establish a new service / circuit.

However, adaptive and centrally managed networks have come to dominate the landscape now. In fact, I’m currently working on an assignment where DWDM, a technology that was once largely static, is now being augmented to introduce an SDN controller and dynamic routing (at optical level no less!).

This paradigm shift changes the fundamentals of how OSS operate. Apart from the physical layer, network connectivity is now far more transient, so our tools must be able to cope with that. Not only that, but the changes are too frequent to justify the manual effort of the past.

To tie in with yesterday’s post, we are again faced with the option of abstract / generic modelling or specific modelling.

Put another way, we have to either come up with adaptive / algorithmic mechanisms to deal with that transience (the specific model), or need to mimic “nailed-up” concepts (the abstract model).

More on the implications of this tomorrow.

Which OSS tool model do you prefer – Abstract or Specific?

There’s something I’ve noticed about OSS products – they are either designed to be abstract / flexible or they are designed to cater for specific technologies / topologies.

When designed from the abstract perspective, the tools are built around generic core data models. For example, whether a virtual / logical device, a physical device, a customer premises device, a core network device, an access network device, a trasmission device, a security device, etc, they would all be lumped into a single object called a device (but with flexibility to cater for the many differences).

When designed from the specific perspective, the tools are built with exact network and/or service models in mind. That could be 5G, DWDM, physical plant, etc and when any new technology / topology comes along, a new plug-in has to be built to augment the tools.

The big advantage of the abstract approach is obvious (if they truly do have a flexible core design) – you don’t have to do any product upgrades to support a new technology / topology. You just configure the existing system to mimic the new technology / topology.

The first OSS product I worked with had a brilliant core design and was able to cope with any technology / topology that we were faced with. It often just required some lateral thinking to make the new stuff fit into the abstract data objects.

What I also noticed was that operators always wanted to customise the solution so that it became more specific. They were effectively trying to steer the product from an open / abstract / flexible tool-set to the other end of the scale. They generally paid significant amounts to achieve specificity – to mould the product to exactly what their needs were at that precise moment in time.

However, even as an OSS newbie, I found that to be really short-term thinking. A network (and the services it carries) is constantly evolving. Equipment goes end-of-life / end-of-support every few years. Useful life models are usually approx 5-7 years and capital refresh projects tend to be ongoing. Then, of course, vendors are constantly coming up with new products, features, topologies, practices, etc.

Given this constant change, I’d much rather have a set of tools that are abstract and flexible rather than specific but less malleable. More importantly, I’ll always try to ensure that any customisations should still retain the integrity of the abstract and flexible core rather than steering the product towards specificity.

How about you? What are your thoughts?

An OSS conundrum with many perspectives

Even aside from the OSS impact, it illustrates the contrast between “bottom-up” planning of networks (new card X is cheaper/has more ports) and “top down” (what do we need to change to reduce our costs/increase capacity).”
Robert Curran
.

Robert’s quote above is in response to a post called “Trickle-down impact planning.”

Robert makes a really interesting point. Adding a new card type is a relatively common event for a big network operator. It’s a relatively minor challenge for the networks team – a BAU (Business as Usual) activity in fact. But if you follow the breadcrumbs, the impact to other parts of the business can be quite significant.

Your position in your organisation possibly dictates your perspective on the alternative approaches Robert discusses above. Networks, IT, planning, operations, sales, marketing, projects/delivery, executive – all will have different impacts and a different field of view on the conundrum. This makes it an interesting problem to solve – which viewpoint is the “right” one to tackle the challenge from?

My “solutioning” background tends to align with the top down viewpoint, but today we’ll take a look at this from the perspective of how OSS can assist from either direction.

Bottom Up: In an ideal world, our OSS and associated processes would be able to identify a new card (or similar) and just ripple changes out without interface changes. The first OSS I worked on did this really well. However, it was a “single-vendor” solution so the ripples were self-contained (mostly). This is harder to control in the more typical “best-of-breed” OSS stacks of today. There are architectural mechanisms for controlling the ripples out but it’s still a significant challenge to solve. I’d love to hear from you if you’re aware of any vendors or techniques that do this really well.

Top Down: This is where things get interesting. Should top-down impact analysis even be the task of an OSS/BSS? Since it’s a common / BAU operational task, then you could argue it is. If so, how do we create OSS tools* that help with organisational impact / change / options analysis and not just network impact analysis? How do we build the tools* that can:

  1. Predict the rippling impacts
  2. Allow us to estimate the impact of each
  3. Present options (if relevant) and
  4. Provide a cost-benefit comparison to determine whether any of the options are viable for development

* When I say “tools,” this might be a product, but it could just mean a process, data extract, etc.

I have the sense that this type of functionality falls into the category of, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should… build it into your OSS.” Have you seen an OSS/BSS with this type of impact analysis functionality built-in?

An embarrassing experience on an overseas OSS project

The video below has been doing the rounds on LinkedIn lately. What is your key takeaway from the video?

Most would say the perfection, but for me, the perfection was a result of the hand-offs, which were almost immediate and precise, putting team-mates into better position. The final shot didn’t need the brilliance of a Messi or Ronaldo to put the ball into the net.

Whilst based overseas on an OSS project I played in an expat Australian Rules Football team. Aussie Rules, by the way, is completely different from the game of soccer played in the video above (check out this link to spot the differences and to see why I think it’s the greatest game in the world). Whilst training one afternoon, we were on an adjacent pitch to one of that country’s regional soccer teams.

Watching from the sidelines, we could see that each of the regional team’s players had a dazzling array of foot skills. When we challenged them to a game of soccer we were wondering if this was going to be embarrassing. None of us had anywhere near their talent, stamina, knowledge of the game of soccer, etc.

As it turns out, it WAS a bit embarrassing. We won 5-1, having led 5-0 up until the final few minutes. We didn’t deserve to beat such a talented team, so you’re probably wondering how (and how it relates to OSS).

Well, whenever one of their players got the ball, they’d show off their sublime skills by running rings around our players, but ultimately going around in circles and becoming corralled. They’d rarely dish off a pass when a teammate was in space like the team in the video above.

By contrast, our team was too clumsy to control the ball and had to pass it off quickly to teammates in space. It helped us bring our teammates into the game and keep moving forward. Clumsy passing and equally clumsy goals.

The analogy for OSS is that our solutions can be so complex that we get caught up in the details and go around in circles (sometimes through trying to demonstrate our intellectual skills) rather than just finding ways to reduce complexity and keep momentum heading towards the goals. In some cases, the best way-forward solution might not even use the OSS to solve certain problems.

Oh, and by the way, the regional team did score that final goal… by finally realising that they should use more passing to bring their team-mates into the game. It probably looked a little like the goal in the video above.

Designing an OSS from NFRs backwards

When we’re preparing a design (or capturing requirements) for a new or updated OSS, I suspect most of us design with functional requirements (FRs) in mind. That is, our first line of thinking is on the shiny new features or system behaviours we have to implement.

But what if we were to flip this completely? What if we were to design against Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs) instead? [In case you’re not familiar with NFRs, they’re the requirements that measure the function or performance of a solution rather than features / behaviours]

What if we already have all the really important functionality in our OSS (the 80/20 rule suggests you will), but those functions are just really inefficient to use? What if we can meet the FR of searching a database for a piece of inventory… but our loaded system takes 5 mins to return the results of the query? It doesn’t sound much, but if it’s an important task that you’re doing dozens of times a day, then you’re wasting hours each day. Worse still, if it’s a system task that needs to run hundreds of times a day…

I personally find NFRs to be really hard to design for because we usually won’t know response times until we’ve actually built the functionality and tried different load / fail-over / pattern (eg different query types) models on the available infrastructure. Yes, we can benchmark, but that tends to be a bit speculative.

Unfortunately, if we’ve built a solution that works, but end up with queries that take minutes… when our SLAs might be 5-15 mins, then we’ve possibly failed in our design role.

We can claim that it’s not our fault. We only have finite infrastructure (eg compute, storage, network), each with inherent performance constraints. It is what it is right?…. maybe.

What if we took the perspective of determining our most important features (the 80/20 rule again), setting NFR benchmarks for each and then designing the solution back from there? That is, putting effort into making our most important features super-efficient rather than adding new nice-to-have features (features that will increase load, thus making NFRs harder to hit mind you!)?

In this new world of open-source, we have more “product control” than we’ve probably had before. This gives us more of a chance to start with the non-functionals and work back towards a product. An example might be redesigning our inventory to work with Graph database technology rather than the existing relational databases.

How feasible is this NFR concept? Do you know anyone in OSS who does it this way? Do you have any clever tricks for ensuring your developed features stay within NFR targets?

Assuming the other person can’t come up with the answer

Just a quick word of warning. This blog starts off away from OSS, but please persevere. It ends up back with a couple of key OSS learnings.

Long ago in the technology consulting game, I came to an important realisation. When arriving on a fresh new client site, chances are that many of the “easy technical solutions” that pop into my head to solve the client’s situation have already been tried by the client. After all, the client is almost always staffed with clever people, but they also know the local context far better than me.

Alan Weiss captures the sentiment brilliantly in the quote below.
I’ve found that in many instances a client will solve his or her own problem by talking it through while I simply listen. I may be asked to reaffirm or validate the wisdom of the solution, but the other person has engaged in some nifty self-therapy in the meantime.
I’m often told that I’m an excellent problem solver in these discussions! But all I’ve really done is listen without interrupting or even trying to interpret.
Here are the keys:
• Never feel that you’re not valuable if you’re not actively contributing.
• Practice “active listening”.
• Never cut-off or interrupt the other person.
• Stop trying to prove how smart you are.
• Stop assuming the other person can’t come up with the answer
.”

I’m male and an Engineer, so some might say I’m predisposed to immediately jumping into problem solving mode before fully understanding a situation… I have to admit that I do have to fight really hard to resist this urge (and sometimes don’t succeed). But enough about stereotypes.

One of the techniques that I’ve found to be more successful is to pose investigative questions rather than posing “brilliant” answers. If any gaps are appearing, then provide bridging connections (ie through broader industry trends, ideas, people, process, technology, contract, etc) that supplement the answers the client already has. These bridges might be built in the form of statements, but often it’s just through leading questions that allow the client to resolve / affirm for themselves.

But as promised earlier, this is more an OSS blog than a consulting one, so there is an OSS call-out.

You’ll notice in the first paragraph that I wrote “easy technical solutions,” rather than “easy solutions.” In almost all cases, the client representatives have great coverage of the technical side of the problems. They know their technology well, they’ve already tried (or thought about) many of the technology alternatives.

However, the gaps I’ve found to be surprisingly common aren’t related to technology at all. A Toyota five-why analysis shows they’re factors like organisational change management, executive buy-in, change controls, availability of skilled resources, requirement / objective mis-matches, stakeholder management, etc, as described in this recent post.

It’s not coincidence then that the blog roll here on PAOSS often looks beyond the technology of OSS.

If you’re an OSS problem solver, three messages:
1) Stop assuming the other person (client, colleague, etc) can’t come up with the answer
2) Broaden your vision to see beyond the technology solution
3) Get great at asking questions (if you aren’t already of course)

Does this align or conflict with your experiences?

I will never understand…

I will never understand why Advertising is an investment and customer service is a cost.
Let’s spend millions trying to reach people, but if they try to reach us, make our contact details impossible to find, incentivise call center workers to hang up as fast as possible or ideally outsource it to a bot. It’s absolute lunacy and it absolutely matters
.”
Tom Goodwin
here.

Couldn’t agree more Tom. In fact, we’ve spoken about this exact irony here on PAOSS a few times before (eg herehere and here).

Telcos call it CVR – Call Volume Reduction (ie reduction in the number of customers’ calls that are responded to by a real person who represents the telco). But what CVR really translates to is, “we’re happy for you to reach us on our terms (ie if you want to buy something from us), but not on your terms (ie you have a problem that needs to be resolved).” Unfortunately, customer service is the exact opposite – it has to be on the customer’s terms, not yours.

Even more unfortunately, many of the problems that need to be resolved are being caused in our OSS / BSS (not always “by” our OSS / BSS, but that’s another story). Worse still, the contact centre has no chance of determining where to start understanding the problem due to the complexity of fall-out management and the complicated data flows through our OSS / BSS.

Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Let me ask you a question – Do you have a direct line of learning from your unhappy customers to your backlog of OSS / BSS enhancements? Or even an indirect line of learning? Nope?? If so, you’re not alone.

Let me ask you another question – You’re an OSS expert. Do you have any idea what problems your customers are raising with your contact centre staff? Or perhaps that should be problems they’re not getting to raise with contact centre staff due to the “success” of CVR measures? Nope?? If so, you’re not alone here either.

Can you think of a really simple and obvious way to start fixing this?

When your ideas get stolen

When your ideas get stolen.
A few meditations from Seth Godin:
“Good for you. Isn’t it better that your ideas are worth stealing? What would happen if you worked all that time, created that book or that movie or that concept and no one wanted to riff on it, expand it or run with it? Would that be better?
You’re not going to run out of ideas. In fact, the more people grab your ideas and make magic with them, the more of a vacuum is sitting in your outbox, which means you will prompted to come up with even more ideas, right?
Ideas that spread win. They enrich our culture, create connection and improve our lives. Isn’t that why you created your idea in the first place?
The goal isn’t credit. The goal is change.”

A friend of mine has lots of great ideas. Enough to write a really valuable blog. Unfortunately he’s terrified that someone else will steal those ideas. In the meantime, he’s missing out on building a really important personal brand for himself. Do you know anyone like him?

The great thing about writing a daily blog is that it forces you to generate lots of ideas. It forces you to be constantly thinking about your subject matter and how it relates to the world. Putting them out there in the hope that others want to run with them, in the hope that they spread. In the hope that others will expand upon them and make them more powerful, teaching you along the way. At over 2000 posts now, it’s been an immensely enriching experience for me anyway. As Seth states, the goal is definitely change and we can all agree that OSS is in desperate need for change.

It is incumbent on all of us in the OSS industry to come up with a constant stream of ideas – big and small. That’s what we tend to do on a daily basis right? Do yours tend towards the smaller end of the scale, to resolve daily delivery tasks or the larger end of the scale, to solve the industry’s biggest problems?

Of your biggest ideas, how do you get them out into the world for others to riff on? How many of your ideas have been stolen and made a real difference?

If someone rips off your ideas, it’s a badge of honour and you know that you’ll always generate more…unless you don’t let your idea machine run.

Re-writing the Sales vs Networks cultural divide

Brand, marketing, pricing and sales were seen as sexy. Networks and IT were the geeks no one seemed to speak to or care about. … This isolation and excommunication of our technical team had created an environment of disillusion. If you wanted something done the answer was mostly ‘No – we have no budget and no time for that’. Our marketing team knew more about loyalty points … than about our own key product, the telecommunications network.”
Olaf Swantee
, from his book, “4G Mobile Revolution”

Great note here (picked up by James Crawshaw at Heavy Reading). It talks about the great divide that always seems to exist between Sales / Marketing and Network / Ops business units.

I’m really excited about the potential for next generation OSS / orchestration / NaaS (Network as a Service) architectures to narrow this divide though.

In this case:

  1. The Network is offered as a microservice (let’s abstractly call them Resource Facing Services [RFS]);
  2. Sales / Marketing construct customer offerings (let’s call them Customer Facing Services [CFS]) from those RFS; and
  3. There’s a catalog / orchestration layer that marries the CFS with the cohesive set of RFS

The third layer becomes a meet-in-the-middle solution where Sales / Marketing comes together with Network / Ops – and where they can discuss what customers want and what the network can provide.

The RFS are suitably abstracted that Sales / Marketing doesn’t need to understand the network and complexity that sits behind the veil. Perhaps it’s time for Networks / Ops to shine, where the RFS can be almost as sexy as CFS (am I falling too far into the networks / geeky side of the divide?  🙂  )

The CFS are infinitely composable from RFS (within the constraints of the RFS that are available), allowing Sales / Marketing teams to build whatever they want and the Network / Ops teams don’t have to be constantly reacting to new customer offerings.

I wonder if this revolution will give Olaf cause to re-write this section of his book in a few years, or whether we’ll still have the same cultural divide despite the exciting new tools.

Does the death of ATM bear comparison with telco-grade open-source OSS?

Hands up if you’re old enough to remember ATM here? And I don’t mean the type of ATM that sits on the side of a building dispensing cash – no I mean Asynchronous Transfer Mode.

For those who aren’t familiar with ATM, a little background. ATM was THE telco-grade packet-switching technology of choice for most carriers globally around the turn of the century. Who knows, there might still be some ATM switches/routers out there in the wild today.

ATM was a powerful beast, with enormous configurability and custom-designed with immense scale in mind. It was created by telco-grade standards bodies with the intent of carrying voice, video, data, whatever, over big data pipes.

With such pedigree, you may be wondering then, how it was beaten out by a technology that was designed to cheaply connect small groups of computers clustered within 100 metres of each other (and a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 10Mbps).

Why does the technology that scaled up to become carrier Ethernet exist in modern telco networks, whereas ATM is largely obsoleted? Others may beg to differ, and there are probably a multitude of factors, but I feel it boils down to operational simplicity. Customers wanted operational simplicity and operators didn’t want to have a degree in ATM just to be able to drive it. By being designed to be all things to all people (carriers), did that make ATM compromised from the start?

Now I’ll state up front that I love the initiative and collaboration being shown by many of the telcos in committing to open-source programs like ONAP. It’s a really exciting time for the industry. It’s a sign that the telcos are wresting control back from the vendors in terms of driving where the collective innovation goes.

Buuuuuuut…..

Just like with ATM, are the big open source programs just too big and too complicated? Do you need a 100% focus on ONAP to be able to make it work, or even to follow all the moving parts? Are these initiatives trying to be all things to all carriers instead of changing needs to more simplified use cases?

Sometimes the ‘right’ way to do it just doesn’t exist yet, but often it does exist but is very expensive. So, the question is whether the ‘cheap, bad’ solution gets better faster than the ‘expensive, good’ solution gets cheap. In the broader tech industry (as described in the ‘disruption’ concept), generally the cheap product gets good. The way that the PC grew and killed specialized professional hardware vendors like Sun and SGi is a good example. However, in mobile it has tended to be the other way around – the expensive good product gets cheaper faster than the cheap bad product can get good.”
Ben Evans
here.

Is there an Ethernet equivalent in the OSS world, something that’s “cheap, bad” but getting better (and getting customer buy-in) rapidly?

Blown away by one innovation. Now to extend on it

Our most recent two posts, from yesterday and Friday, have talked about one stunningly simple idea that helps to overcome one of OSS‘ biggest challenges – data quality. Those posts have stimulated quite a bit of dialogue and it seems there is some consensus about the cleverness of the idea.

I don’t know if the idea will change the OSS landscape (hopefully), or just continue to be a strong selling point for CROSS Network Intelligence, but it has prompted me to think a little longer about innovating around OSS‘ biggest challenges.

Our standard approach of just adding more coats of process around our problems, or building up layers of incremental improvements isn’t going to solve them any time soon (as indicated in our OSS Call for Innovation). So how?

Firstly, we have to be able to articulate the problems! If we know what they are, perhaps we can then take inspiration from the CROSS innovation to spur us into new ways of thinking?

Our biggest problem is complexity. That has infiltrated almost every aspect of our OSS. There are so many posts about identifying and resolving complexity here on PAOSS that we might skip over that one in this post.

I decided to go back to a very old post that used the Toyota 5-whys approach to identify the real cause of the problems we face in OSS [I probably should update that analysis because I have a whole bunch of additional ideas now, as I’m sure you do too… suggested improvements welcomed BTW].

What do you notice about the root-causes in that 5-whys analysis? Most of the biggest causes aren’t related to system design at all (although there are plenty of problems to fix in that space too!). CROSS has tackled the data quality root-cause, but almost all of the others are human-centric factors – change controls, availability of skilled resources, requirement / objective mis-matches, stakeholder management, etc. Yet, we always seem to see OSS as a technical problem.

How do you fix those people challenges? Ken Segal puts it this way, “When process is king, ideas will never be. It takes only common sense to recognize that the more layers you add to a process, the more watered down the final work will become.” Easier said than done, but a worthy objective!

Blown away by one innovation – a follow-up concept

Last Friday’s blog discussed how I’ve just been blown away by the most elegant OSS innovation I’ve seen in decades.

You can read more detail via the link, but the three major factors in this simple, elegant solution to data quality problems (probably OSS‘ biggest kryptonite) are:

  1. Being able to make connections that break standard object hierarchy rules; but
  2. Having the ability to mark that standard rules haven’t been followed; and
  3. Being able to uses the markers to prioritise the fixing of data at a more convenient time

It’s effectively point 2 that has me most excited. So novel, yet so obvious in hindsight. When doing data migrations in the past, I’ve used confidence flags to indicate what I can rely on and what needs further audit / remediation / cleansing. But the recent demo I saw of the CROSS product is the first time I’ve seen it built into the user interface of an OSS.

This one factor, if it spreads, has the ability to change OSS data quality in the same way that Likes (or equivalent) have changed social media by acting as markers of confidence / quality.

Think about this for a moment – what if everyone who interacts with an OSS GUI had the ability to rank their confidence in any element of data they’re touching, with a mechanism as simple as clicking a like/dislike button (or similar)?

Bad example here but let’s say field techs are given a design pack, and upon arriving at site, find that the design doesn’t match in-situ conditions (eg the fibre pairs they’re expecting to splice a customer lead-in cable to are already carrying live traffic, which they diagnose is due to data problems in an upstream distribution joint). Rather than jeopardising the customer activation window by having to spend hours/days fixing all the trickle-down effects of the distribution joint data, they just mark confidence levels in the vicinity and get the customer connected.

The aggregate of that confidence information is then used to show data quality heat maps and help remediation teams prioritise the areas that they need to work on next. It helps to identify data and process improvements using big circle and/or little circle remediation techniques.

Possibly the most important implication of the in-built ranking system is that everyone in the end-to-end flow, from order takers to designers through to coal-face operators, can better predict whether they need to cater for potential data problems.

Your thoughts?? In what scenarios do you think it could work best, or alternatively, not work?