When Digital Transformation = Remote Ready
How embracing digital transformation to build a cutting-edge tech consultancy was a win-win for our clients and for us. Continued investment in our business meant we were ‘Remote Ready’ - for clients it was a seamless transition when COVID came calling.
For the 12 new starters joining Consult Red in the UK and Poland after lockdown, it might have been a surreal experience. With no physical office to go to, how would they do their job as a developer? But, thanks to our ongoing investment in technology, processes and infrastructure along with the problem-solving mind-set of our people, their experience was seamless - just like the service to our global clients such as Liberty Global, Comcast and AT&T.
Our enthusiasm for digital transformation is understandable – it’s ultimately what we deliver to our clients day in, day out - we see the outcomes and the difference it makes to their businesses. In our case, investment in Consult Red’s own digital transformation and our enthusiasm to embrace new tech meant that we were Remote Ready when the lockdown loomed.
We can’t claim we knew COVID would impact us all as it has, but we did set out before it emerged on a strategy to build a resilient and robust company that can support clients anywhere in the world (for less dramatic business reasons!). Our approach has not been one ‘big bang’ event but rather a continuing evolution. This is an approach we would recommend. And in case it’s helpful, we thought we’d share here how we did it.
How we work
Since we established our business 15 years ago, we have had to solve the challenges of a distributed team and global partners. We've worked flexibly since day one, driven partly by values, partly by business need. Either way, at any given time we have employees regularly working away from the office using video and IM platforms to stay connected.
Portable people means portable tools
This flexible working policy means that everyone at Red is enabled to move should they need to; it may be to collaborate with a customer or partner, or to work from home where productivity can be higher. But, whatever the reason, we needed to ensure remote workers have seamless access to the tools they need to be effective - that could be raw compute or remote access to embedded hardware. So, we created a plan to provide this – to develop our own infrastructure.
'Doesn’t portable mean vulnerable?’ Well, it can, if you don’t think it through. You will need to have appropriate measures to protect data and provide physical security.
Building a private cloud: Place shifting the power
Our IT department created a very powerful and flexible internal server infrastructure. In other words, our own private cloud. It’s this that our engineers can use to stand-up the DevOps infrastructure or build machines that they need in their work.
Developed to ‘place shift’ the power needed in our front-line work it was an easy step to introduce mirroring in different countries to provide operational resilience and meet our business continuity needs, for example, to withstand various disaster recovery scenarios. This infrastructure is used to host our internal business systems too. After all, its great to be able to keep projects and services running, but you need to keep billing them too!
'Why not use the public cloud facility as everyone else does?' The answer is that many of our global customers have stringent rules about where their code and other Intellectual Property is hosted. It’s easier to just make the public cloud off-limits.
Our remote developer solution: Place shifting the problem
A lot of our developers work on devices at the edge of customers networks. Often this is Consumer Premises Equipment (CPE) such as Set-Top Boxes or Gateways for some of the world's leading media brands. Developing, integrating or resolving any issues with the CPE on the edge of a network require access to the network. Being a UK-based company with a global client list, you can see how this presented a challenge! So, from the very beginning, we needed to enable our developers in one location to work remotely with hardware in another place.
Thankfully, we are engineers who love solving problems and so we developed a unique system – affectionately known as Bigfoot – where our engineers can use a browser to interact with CPE remotely. They can control the box, as if it were right next to them, including power and infrared. They see the video output and have a virtual remote-control unit to control it. The system is secure, responsive and easy to use. It lets the developer update the CPE software, view logs, record video, detect video glitches, and they can also write test scripts and connect a group of devices in a network for whole home testing.
Even today, there's nothing that can match it in terms of functionality and ease of use. What does this mean in the context of the COVID lockdown? It means that our developers can continue to work with the hardware they need while working at home, delivering a seamless service for our clients.
Isn’t a virtualisation or emulation the way to go? Not in our experience. This is only cost and time effective in a few cases where the devices and networks are particularly well defined. You may end up spending more on developing and maintaining your model than you do the target. A lot of our work is integration and however good an emulation is inevitably work must also be done on the target.
Collaborative tools and operations
As a technology consultancy, we're always enthusiastic about new software tools and we designed our business systems so that anyone should be able to access our systems with simple tools and tech from anywhere. A few years ago, we switched to SaaS services hosted in the cloud to provide resilience and chose a cloud-based Professional Services Automation (PSA) solution hosted on the Salesforce platform. This system handles time tracking, resource management and forecasting and means most of the company's essential operations can be managed from any location. Again, very handy when one day our people can't get into the office.
The benefits of collaboration tools is nothing new to us. Our engineers use systems such as Confluence and Jira on dialy basis as part of their agile software development workflows. We took things a stage further and rolled them out across the entire organisation including HR, Finance and other operations. Having a common set of tools available to everyone has facilitated more data sharing and integration between functional areas, breaking down digital siloes that might have existed before.
Enhanced client reporting
We customised Confluence to automate internal processes but importantly we integrated it with our PSA software, so very quickly we could act to enhance the depth of our reporting to clients on projects to include new metrics such as sickness and productivity in response to the lockdown.
Recruitment and onboarding
We've always embraced video as part of the recruitment process, and we typically conduct a telephone interview as a first step, meaning we could quickly adjust to not doing face-to-face meetings.
As part of our selection process, we have been using a live, online system to set technical tests for potential employees called codinghire, and for the past five years it’s really increased the effectiveness of our online interview process. As you would expect we upload questions, but then we can see the candidate typing answers live, and we can ask supplemental questions and prompt them if we need to – as a result, we really get a feel for how they think when they are writing code. Working in this way means we have been able to continue our recruitment to meet client demand.
And as we use a SaaS tool for managing the recruitment process, including advertising on various digital platforms, we can carry on recruiting the additional 17 new people we need now as our business keeps growing.
A dry run
Thankfully, we all had some notice that lockdown was coming – in that time we asked all our employees if they needed to, could they work from home, and if they couldn't, how we could enable them to. We quickly filled these gaps and then found ourselves in lockdown. Lockdown is a salutary reminder that from time to time resilience plans need to be tested.
Looking after wellbeing
Mental and emotional wellbeing and support has become more and more important. We quickly stepped up communications to all staff, and more proactive support with mental health, for example, making a well-respected 'Mindful' application freely available to our employees.
Other initiatives have included moving the executive team to a ‘war-footing’ with daily stand-ups; we briefed and coached our leadership team to reach out more and we have encouraged more social integration.
We were also aware that some of our staff might live alone and may feel very isolated – to combat this, we encouraged everyone to shun the chat window and actually chat instead. We’ve also had virtual social events and beers, including fancy dress Friday, which was erm, interesting!