PlusNet; Our Software Development Location Strategy (and other stuff).
I blogged last year about the software development teams that we have set up in India so I thought that now was a good opportunity to bring everyone up to date with the progress we have made and of our future plans. In my previous post I didn’t give the real big picture around why we are diversifying the physical locations of our software development team, so grab a coffee and read on… PlusNet’s internal Operating System (known as Workplace) is an extremely large and complicated software system that has been built-up over the previous 9 years. Way back in 1999, PlusNet’s software development team consisted of myself and 3 other guys, sat round a single desk at Victoria Quays, Sheffield. The live web-servers were located under the desk, so quite often you’d get up to make a cup of tea, kick the power cable out and the website would go down for a few minutes while we waited for the server to reboot. This is how it was back then; a small group of people around the business worked round the clock, 7 days a week to build up the business, build the system, support the customers, fight the fires and put in place automated software systems that enabled our customers to “self serve” instead of having to call and speak to our customer support centre. What this meant was that we were 100% focused on solving the problems we were faced with on that day or that week. Back then we had no idea that PlusNet would still be around in 2008, having been the subject of a £67m acquisition by BT. As a result, some of the software that was written was absolutely fine for 1999, but we didn’t always plan for future scalability. So, having gone through many years of growth and market changes, all requiring software system evolution and modification, we found ourselves in a situation where the PlusNet software system, although extremely sophisticated and flexible, was proving extremely complicated and time-consuming to enhance. This meant that when we needed to launch a new product or react to a supplier imposed interface change things were taking more effort than they really needed to. This situation is quite normal for a company of PlusNet’s age; and a situation that quite often leads to a business losing the ability to react quickly to market changes and making it very difficult to innovate in a cost-effective way. In recognition of this, and before it really had the chance to stifle us at PlusNet, we embarked on a fairly ambitious software development project, with the long term aim of being able to abstract away the complicated legacy software platform and surround it with a software framework, that would provide software developers a series of APIs in order to access legacy systems and data. The result of this is that when a software developer is writing a new system for the Workplace platform, they don’t need to understand how the 9 year-old legacy platform works in intricate detail (as has been the case previously); all they need to understand is how to interact with the new software framework; a significantly smaller knowledge base. What this leads us to is the ability to set up software development teams outside of the PlusNet HQ in Sheffield. Recruiting the cream of the UK’s software development staff into the Sheffield office is proving to be extremely difficult. In the past PlusNet has really worked people hard and with that comes a sometimes negative reputation. Nowadays it’s nothing like the effort that was required back in the day, but it takes time to change market opinion. Also, when you think about software development hotbeds in the UK, you think of London, the M4 Corridor, Manchester and Leeds; not Sheffield. Those of us that live in Sheffield see it as a vibrant, young city surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK; but you try convincing an outsider of that whose only experience of the city has been a DVD of the Full Monty. Given all this, UK recruitment is a large drain on our management team here, so looking further afield than the UK for people with appropriate skills now becomes a necessity, and, with the technological developments around PlusNet’s software Framework, it is now a viable proposition. So, given all that, we now have just short of 20 Indian developers working for us in two locations in India and we are just about to recruit a team in Poland to work on support and maintenance of our software platform. We have chosen these two locations for quite specific reasons. Our Indian teams are working in a city called Trivandrum in Kerala, India; we chose this location as I have prior experience of working with software teams from this part of India. My local knowledge and contacts in the area have enabled us to identify a partner who is ideally suited to working with PlusNet; they are highly skilled in the technologies that we employ at PlusNet (LAMP), they are experienced in agile software development methodologies (SCRUM), they are constantly on the lookout for new emerging technologies to solve business problems with and they have excellent communication skills. In terms of Poland, our reasons for choosing this location were, in part, due to the fact that historically PlusNet has employed many Polish software developers in the UK office. Over the years, we have found these guys to be fantastic members of the PlusNet team, without exception. Our big problem has always been when these guys decide to move on and/or go back to Poland; we end up losing some really talented guys. In order to tackle this I’m setting up a team in Poland that can be fed by the top universities in Poland. These guys can come and work for us in our Polish centre, then when the time comes for them to want to move to the UK we can offer them a role in our Sheffield office. Likewise, when they wish to return back home to Poland we can retain the guys in our Polish centre. It’s very important that we work hard at retaining good people. Further to this, PlusNet has always had an extremely open approach to international software development talent. Right now as I look around the office I see team members from Russia, Hungary, Pakistan, India, Hong Kong and Poland as well as from all over the UK. It is a blend that works well for us all; everybody comes with their own upbringing, educational background and ideas and the product of this is a challenging and stimulating working environment. In terms of the future, so long as we can continue to make a success of our location strategy in terms of both efficiency in delivery and cost effectiveness then I see no reason to change things. The brains of our operation will always revolve around our cultural centre in the Sheffield HQ, but if we can partner with people all over the world in order to make use of talent and technology then we will. Before I go, another very interesting development (for some) to come out of PlusNet’s Software Framework is the plan to open up parts of the Framework to our customers and the Internet user at large. Remember the massive spike in Facebook activity once they made the move to give access to their API so that 3rd party developers could add value to the site? (I blogged about this way back in July 2007) Well, we are currently working on doing something similar at PlusNet. So, an example might be that one of our customers feels that our “View My Broadband Usage” website tool doesn’t quite given them the features they are looking for. If that’s the case then they can just go ahead and build their own tool and share it with the rest of our customers. So it might be the case that someone would rather have a system tray application that gives them a real-time view of their data-usage in the current month; that’s fine, be our guest and build it. We’ll give access to the API calls that you need. Obviously with something like this customer data security is of the utmost importance, something we take extremely seriously as we know exactly what happens when you get things wrong in this area. Matt Grest Head of Future Development PlusNet
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