Guest author Jeff Kelly works in product marketing at Pivotal. This post was adapted from Frequent Iteration Is the Antidote to Monolithic, Big Bet Software Projects, on Pivotal’s Built to Adapt publication on Medium.
The Omaha-based company is in the global communications and network infrastructure services business, and you’ve almost definitely used its services — even if you didn’t realize it. When you get a notification call letting you know your child’s school is closed due to snow, more than likely the call is powered by West. When you receive a reminder email to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, that was likely thanks to West, too. And in the unfortunate event you need to get ahold of the police or the fire department in an emergency, you can count on West, which supports more than 70% of the 911 traffic in North America.
Transformation and innovation
The $2 billion company, which has grown both organically and by acquisition since its founding in 1986, is the market leader in many of its segments. But customer expectations have changed dramatically over the last 30 years.
West’s customers, which include government agencies, utilities, and hospitals, today expect the company to innovate in much the same way as they do Facebook and Google, said West’s SVP of Digital Transformation and Enterprise Architecture Thomas Squeo. That means West needs the ability to quickly deliver new software-based services in response to customer feedback and changing market conditions, something difficult to achieve without moving away from traditional software development methods and platforms.
Thomas is referring to West’s legacy approach to developing software, which is in large part dictated by the company’s fragmented and ready-to-be-modernized IT infrastructure. West developers, like many of their enterprise peers, still largely rely on a traditional waterfall development methodology. It’s an approach burdened with opportunity costs due to the slow pace of application delivery and because it requires a large up-front investment of time and resources. Just as important, because release schedules are largely linear and drawn-out, what’s delivered rarely aligns with what’s currently relevant to the organization and customers.
“This inhibits the introduction of new products because the bar is so high in terms of what we’re willing to bet on. The stakes are just too high,” Thomas said. “Nobody wants to spend all that time and money on a new product only to find it is obsolete by the time it reaches production. You just can’t be innovative with that type of conservative approach.”
Reducing risk with frequent iteration
Thomas wants to transition West’s developers away from waterfall development to a more modern, agile approach. Agile developers work in multiple well-planned, small iterations rather than a single, extended, requirements-driven marathon. Agile reduces risk because each iteration is an opportunity to course-correct based on user feedback and market changes. The faster the iterations, the lower the risk.
But frequent iteration not only requires evolved software development methodologies, it requires a modernized technology platform. West is in the process of implementing a number of architecture changes to help the company make the leap to cloud-based, microservices-oriented application delivery. Investing in this strategy is laying the foundation for a future where West can release new application features to customers at a lightning pace, enabling the organization to stay competitive and serve its customers better than ever before.
Setting the stage for success with New Relic and Pivotal
Delivering software designed to consistently exceed customer expectations is nothing new for West. With an eye on end-to-end visibility into application performance, reliability, and availability, several of its business units—including SchoolMessenger, West’s trusted platform for parent and community engagement—now have applications fully instrumented using the entire New Relic platform. New Relic helps West’s Site Reliability Engineers focus on delivering a great customer experience and preventing incidents from impacting end users.
That has been crucial as West took the next step in its transformational journey by choosing Pivotal Cloud Foundry (PCF) Platform-as-a-Service for its 1,400-plus software engineers. Using New Relic, the organization mapped out workload migration with confidence knowing it could eliminate issues before going into production.
PCF is the cloud-native platform for deploying and operating modern applications. Using PCF, the West DevOps organization will be able to migrate existing, and build new, application functionality using faster, more flexible software development approaches including loosely coupled, modular microservices. PCF will serve as the deployment layer, providing automation, runtime, and security services. New Relic will act as the spotter, ensuring flawless execution.
Adopting PCF enables West to lower the price of trying new ideas with real users by providing developers a self-service environment in which to quickly write and test new code, push it to production, and gather usage data to inform the next round of iteration. It also makes messaging and data services available on demand, so developers can quickly spin up the resources they need to support their code.
“With Pivotal Cloud Foundry, we’ll be able to afford to have a lot more experiments going on among our product development teams, which lowers the risk profile of any one experiment,” Thomas said.
With software playing such a central role in how West serves its customers, the entire company needs to start treating software as holistic product offerings, according to Thomas. The business—not just IT—needs to understand and continuously monitor how West’s software-based services interact with each other and their collective impact on the customer experience.
It’s also essential to maintain reliability as West moves applications from its legacy infrastructure to Pivotal Cloud Foundry. New Relic enables operators and the business alike to identify issues with existing code before they go into production on the new platform — lowering the risk of new deployments, allowing West to accelerate moving workloads to PCF, and ultimately accelerating application delivery to customers.
“Digital is a team sport. It’s not just software engineers and operators that need to understand how our applications are performing, but folks on the business side as well,” Thomas said. “So how does a product manager or a member of our customer success team engage with the platform and understand how everything is impacting the customer? That’s critical to our business, especially our 911 business which is in the business of saving lives. Monitoring our Pivotal Cloud Foundry applications with New Relic makes that possible.”
Tying application performance to the digital customer experience
New Relic provides a modern take on application performance monitoring (APM). Traditional APM tools can help operations teams understand how a given application is performing. But they were not typically designed to monitor interactions between multiple applications or microservices and their collective impact on the user experience. Nor do they display data in ways that non-technical users can easily understand and turn into action.
In contrast, New Relic uses deep instrumentation and performance monitoring to track the complex relationships between applications and services, employing advanced analytics to make sense of the data. Just as important, New Relic present the results via smart alerts, customizable dashboards, advanced real-time querying capabilities, and eventstream instrumentation to help users across the organization turn those insights into action, connecting performance to customer outcomes. New Relic is a Pivotal partner and is tightly integrated with Pivotal Cloud Foundry via the on-demand service broker.
“New Relic and Pivotal Cloud Foundry are central to the digital transformation initiative at West,” Thomas said. “The dramatic architectural changes we are making as we shift to more modular, portable application delivery with Cloud Foundry are not without risks. New Relic provides the safety net required to dramatically reduce risk and speed our transformation with confidence.”
West is doubling down on its transformation effort with a Pivotal “Application Transformation” Dojo, a multi-week engagement in which Pivotal engineers pair program with West engineers to onboard existing applications to Pivotal Cloud Foundry and teach agile DevOps practices to multiple West product teams. Once it’s up and running, Thomas said he plans to migrate hundreds of existing applications to Pivotal Cloud Foundry, which will also serve as the standard platform-of-excellence for all new applications. New Relic will ensure reliability, availability, and performance of those workloads as well as enable West’s ops team to monitor Pivotal Cloud Foundry itself.
“We see this as a significant culture change for the company,” Thomas said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but with the combination of Pivotal Cloud Foundry and New Relic supporting our transformation, I think we’re in a great position to really improve our ability to experiment and innovate with software, all to the benefit of our customers.”