giffgaff: Putting community at the heart of the innovation model
Steve McDonald, giffgaff’s chief operating and technology officer
Photography: John Angerson
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giffgaff: Putting community at the heart of the innovation model

James Lawrence — January 2020

Steve McDonald, giffgaff’s chief operating and technology officer, outlines how the mobile network provider has enriched and accelerated service delivery by drafting its members into the software development process.

‘Putting your customers at the heart of the business’ is a mission statement most of the world’s forward-thinking companies aim to live up to. What’s more, many of them have gone through major transformation programs — with varying degrees of success — in their attempts to put the customer at the center of their activities. But at UK mobile network operator giffgaff such an approach to doing business goes far beyond an aspiration: it’s part of the company’s DNA.

That baked-in customer-centricity manifests itself in many ways: its identity as ‘The mobile phone network run by you’; its reference to its subscribers as ‘members’ rather than customers; its helpdesk operated by members.

But the greatest example of its customer focus in recent times has been how chief technology and operating officer Steve McDonald and his team have combined the active engagement of giffgaff’s members with the company’s DevOps approach to accelerate its software release cycle and deliver a flow of service enhancements requested by members. The shift in the past year has certainly been profound: the average number of updates has surged from just 26 for the full year of 2018 to 1,500 per month today.
Member-inspired delivery

As a core part of its business model, members have been able to suggest and vote on new features and updates ever since the company was founded 10 years ago. But in 2018 McDonald took a critical look at how that process could be improved — and turbocharged. “Members and mutuality are pervasive throughout the organization,” he says. “So it makes perfect sense that it’s central to product development. But while it may take a second for a member to come up with a great new idea, it was sometimes taking us two months to implement. And that inevitably meant we were always going to have a backlog.”

Rethinking that, giffgaff started to ask how it could get members meaningfully involved — “not just in ideas generation but right across the enhancement journey, including implementation and testing,” says McDonald.

A gauging of interest levels among its tech-savvy members resulted in an overwhelmingly positive response. But the giffgaff team still had to figure out a new way of working that would make that extended development model practical.

The answer was relatively simple: work faster and smarter. Historically giffgaff would schedule software updates every two weeks. “That gave us just 26 opportunities a year to take in feedback from members,” says McDonald. “We realized that if we were actually going to get members involved in this development lifecycle, we’d have to release a lot quicker and more often.”

This resulted in McDonald’s team rethinking much of the complex software stack that had been built up over many years, with a view to rebuilding core elements as continuously deployable microservices. “We didn’t set out to rewrite the whole stack as individual services — that’d be a lot of work before you see results! We’re on that path now but it will be a year or more before it’s completed. Instead, we looked at the legacy stack and asked, ‘How can we improve this so that we can release multiple times a day with no manual intervention?’”

As well as a whole new approach to development, a key to enabling rapid release cycles was the introduction of a far greater degree of automation.
Natural-born disruptor

In keeping with giffgaff’s first decade, such disruptive and agile thinking might come as no surprise. When the business launched in 2009 as a mobile virtual network operator spin-off from O2, the UK subsidiary of €49 billion ($54.4bn) Spanish telco giant Telefónica, it deliberately had no customer service or sales teams. Instead, in a large-scale crowdsourcing experiment, it encouraged its membership to provide these services to other members or potential members in return for rewards such as credits or donations to charity via a scheme called Payback.

Now with that modus operandi highly mature, the model of keeping members closely involved with the organization’s activities has become intrinsic to the development cycle.

However accelerating the software release cycle, and getting so close to members that they are actually contributing code and bug fixes, has not been plain sailing. An early step was to reduce the complexity of the multiple stages of each release.

“giffgaff's Steve McDonald

McDonald brought the whole team together to capture details of the steps for each release. “Two hundred-plus Post-it notes covered a large table, and added up to 3,000 to 4,000-man days a year — just for the mechanics of testing and releasing. For an organization that prides itself on being a lean and efficient that was a bit jarring,” he says.

But by making giffgaff members part of the equation, in late 2018 McDonald was able to make a compelling business case to the board. By rethinking product development and tapping into the potential of member involvement at more stages of the lifecycle, many of those wasted hours could be eliminated and the equivalent of a couple of extra teams made available. “Everyone agreed it sounded great. There was just one catch: it was really hard to do,” he says.

Notwithstanding the challenges, within three months of obtaining board approval, giffgaff made its first fully automated code deployment in January 2019. And it has been releasing software updates almost every working day since. By the end of October that year, the business hit the rate of 1,500 successful releases per month.
Tackling management challenges

But huge cultural and organizational shifts were required to get to this state, says McDonald.

Despite talk of a ‘magic feedback loop,’ the team was aware that its existing processes did not bring it into close or often enough contact with members.  “We ask ourselves: “How do you get a member involved while you’re writing code? ‘How do you get them to explain their ideas? How do you get them to test a particular bit of functionality for you to see if they have a different experience to our internal one?’” says McDonald.

The team’s solution was to work with the marketing department to set up a new members’ subgroup, called ‘giffgaff pioneers.’ “Several thousand members said they’d be interested. That makes it easy for our product teams to get access to members — in the office to sit with the team for an hour or more, agreeing to complete surveys or getting them on a Zoom call and just asking them to play and give feedback on something.”

Nonetheless, transforming the traditional software developer into a fully member-facing employee has been challenging, admits McDonald. “The technology typically isn’t that difficult. But changing the way software is written to take a ‘test first’ approach, and to make sure all testing is automated, that’s obviously a big change. So we’ve made big demands of our software teams.”

It meant creating multi-dimensional team members, he says. “We know that the mindset of a tester, for example — who wants to get into the nitty-gritty of a problem and come up with innovative and unforeseen ways of breaking code — is really useful to us. And we know that the ability to write production quality code is really important too.  But we want everyone to be able to do both. And that’s a journey that many of our people are still on and there’s a significant amount of effort that they’re putting in to learn those new skills.

“giffgaff's Steve McDonald

“When a developer has to take a lot more responsibility for the quality of their code, they start thinking about the different ways that code could be used, how people interact with it, how it might be inadvertently or maliciously broken,” says McDonald.

The introduction of pair programming teams has also been fruitful, despite some initial challenges, he says. “Two developers see the same screen, and it allows them to work together on a problem — and in itself that’s a difficult discipline to adopt as now you’ve got to communicate your thought process with someone. But it’s brilliant because we’ve got two pairs of eyes and two different perspectives on every piece of code that’s written, which means we get better quality code in the first place.”
Reaping the business benefits

However, McDonald is convinced that identifying, tackling and solving these challenges has brought giffgaff no end of advantages, most importantly enhanced customer satisfaction.

“I could talk about efficiency or time saved or reliability,” he says on the key business benefit of the new approach. “But, above all, it’s having that touchpoint with a giffgaff member. It’s having the ability to put a feature in front of them and see how they react. It’s giving them more of a voice in software development.

That voice is vitally important. “It’s really hard to build something that is going to be liked across a diverse audience. But the more you can listen to the voices of members, the more you give them opportunities, the more your software is going to be something that they enjoy using.”

First published January 2020
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