In the Age of the Internet, tech giants Apple, Google and Netflix are considered the bastions of new thinking, speed and innovation.
The cable industry? Not so much. But a transformative force is moving surely — and not so slowly — through the industry. Top cable operators and key technology suppliers, as well as peripheral vendors, are accelerating the turnaround time to develop, deploy and continuously improve new products.
Cable giant Comcast, for one, is becoming more Agile.
Agile is a development model — a way of thinking, really — with roots that fittingly trace back to the software industry that many in cable are now trying to emulate. The work process, which weighs more heavily on human interaction and flexibility over process and technology, has been overtaking a more rigid and regimented workflow known as “Waterfall.”
Waterfall, a process that many of cable’s engineers learned in school, is highly structured. Progress occurs in a very sequential order — conception, analysis, design, etc. — ending in a giant product release, leaving little room for tweaks and changes along the way.
Agile, by comparison, breaks everything down into smaller bursts of work called “sprints,” typically over two-week periods. Agile is also considered more transparent because it breaks down the walls between the company’s software developers and IT operations people, forcing them together on a “DevOps” team.
STAND-UPS AND SPRINTS
In the Agile approach, those cross-functional teams hold daily “stand-up” meetings that last 15 to 30 minutes and provide everyone with the tactical status of the project at hand. Typically, team members offer a rundown of what they are doing on a given day, recap what they did the day before and mention any “blockers” that are preventing them from achieving the goal of the current sprint.
“Now, the people building [a product] are also more responsible for supporting it,” Comcast senior vice president and chief software architect Sree Kotay said.
“For me … from the time you start writing code to the point a customer gets it, that’s what defines your sprint,” Kotay said. “We’re trying to minimize that time. We think about how to enable velocity in the business.”
Added Mark Muehl, senior vice president of product engineering for Comcast’s NE&TO (network engineering and technical operations) organization: “We want to see progress on a regular cadence and to allow for experimentation.”
The Agile approach, codified in a manifesto and its own terminology, is a big cultural shift in how things get done. “It’s more of a mindset than a process,” Meg Aronson, director of product management at Vubiqiuty, said, allowing for quick course corrections — and flexibility — amid the prospect of inevitable change.
Those changes might entail work on a single feature, a bigger software release, or the deployment of a service. “This [process] works well because we can easily juggle a variety of different work streams. It offers a lot of flexibility,” Jon Moore, a Comcast fellow and architect and strategic engineer in its Technology & Product Development group, said.
For example, with Comcast’s X1, the MSO’s IP-capable next-generation video platform, the teams developing the devices that run the apps and services operate at a different pace than the group working on the X1 guide, which iterates on a weekly basis.
“Service velocity is at the tip of everybody’s lips,” John Maguire, director of strategy and marketing for S3 Group, a company that develops automated test products for set-tops and other video devices.
The cable industry, he said, has had to find new ways to achieve that “without the legacy, slow Waterfall approach.”
The Agile approach has become a keystone of X1, which features a cloud-based user interface and serves as the foundation for an expanding library of internally-developed native applications and the ability to integrate third-party, Internet-delivered apps from sources such as Facebook and Instagram.
Comcast, which is cultivating its image as a software company, has been billing X1 as an “entertainment operating system.”
And some of the fruits of that effort have been clearly evident this year, as Comcast rapidly migrated over to a completely new and more personalized version of its X1 interface (internally dubbed “X2”), and, at The Cable Show in April, announced a bevy of new apps and services that will come to X1 in the months ahead.
Among them is Share2TV, an app that will allow triple-play customers to live stream video from their mobile device to the set-top box, and “Instant On Demand,” a service akin to Time Warner Cable’s Start Over service that enables customers to begin watching select shows via the MSO’s Xfinity On Demand menu immediately after the live broadcast begins.
Comcast’s X1 also beat the Xbox One to market with a Twitter integration that shows viewers which programs are buzzing on the social network.
“It’s almost impossible to look at the velocity we’ve had in the last two years and even compare it to what the rest of the industry is doing in terms of feature delivery,” Kotay said.
Because Agile allows products to be developed at more iterative stages, it also allows for more risk, because it’s not saddled with the kind of “point-of-noreturn” issues that can encumber Waterfall-based projects. “If we get some things wrong, we can very, very quickly make adjustments,” Kotay said.
A similar process has taken hold at Time Warner Cable as it looks to ratchet up the development of cloudbased interfaces for set-tops and extends its services to an increasing array of devices, including tablets, smartphones, Roku boxes and Xbox 360 consoles.
All video development — from cloudbased UIs for set-tops to numerous TV apps — now runs in an Agile fashion, and the cable operator also extended that process to all website development. TWC is looking to bring Agile to other development areas across the organization, Matthew Zelesko, senior vice president of TWC’s Converged Technology Group, said.
“There’s a very unpredictable element to software development,” Zelesko said. “Agile has been so successful there because of that unpredictability.” With Agile, he said, there’s more “introspection and iteration and adjustment.”
Using Agile, the MSO now averages a release per month for the TWC TV app and a new release of its new cloud-based navigator roughly every two weeks. “Each [new release] offers an opportunity to add new features into the loop, even if we hadn’t heard of it a month or two ago,” he said.
Under the old Waterfall method, in comparison, the product team would build a full requirement document and “throw it over the wall” to the development team, which would then proceed with building it. The two sides wouldn’t communicate much until it was complete, or until they had to report that they were falling behind schedule.
Cisco Systems, one of the cable industry’s top suppliers, converted its cable unit to the Agile workflow about two years ago, and the whole company is now shifting toward it. One product that’s getting the Agile treatment is the cBR-8, a fullyintegrated Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) that will replace the uBR10K as Cisco’s flagship cableaccess product when it becomes commercially available next year.
ActiveVideo Networks, a company that specializes in video apps and user interfaces, adopted Agile about three years ago, particularly around its transition to an HTML5- based platform, Ronald Brockmann, the company’s chief technology officer, said.
The old Waterfall method, which “was not giving us great results,” was limiting; before, the company had perhaps two release points during a year, Brockmann said. With Agile and its shorter product sprint cycles, ActiveVideo can triple those release frequencies while also maintaining a single platform code that everything works off of, he said.
SOME DON’T ADAPT; OTHERS DO
Some employees don’t immediately take to the new system, with its increased transparency across groups and daily stand-up meetings. “It’s uncomfortable for some people,” Theresa Hennesy, senior vice president and group technical advisor for Comcast’s NE&TO organization, explained. “Some don’t adapt, but the large majority do.”
Her group’s journey into the development model started off more than two years ago with training and small trials, but it is already paying dividends. One product that evolved from a concept using the Agile process is Comcast’s new “My Account” app, which relies on data and people from multiple groups, including those within NE&TO as well as third-party vendors that aren’t typically co-located.
Although Agile centers on service velocity, the initial result is typically the opposite as teams begin to apply it.
“Usually the productivity of the team goes down for a while,” Muehl acknowledged. “But typically, in a couple of months, as they figure out how to work together in this way, they shoot through the roof with greater productivity.”
Said Zelesko: “You can’t just bang the organization on the head and expect that it’s all going to be Agile the next day. It starts small and grows and you have to build off of those small successes.”
Combining teams that historically have operated separately presents some new challenges. Trust is a big barrier that must be overcome as companies migrate to Agile and fuse together teams that once worked in separate silos. With those walls brought down, there’s a transparent view into everyone’s day-to-day work.
“That’s a little bit of an art to making that trust relationship work,” Muehl said.
Do You Speak Agile?
While Agile is considered more of a philosophy or workflow than a formal process, the model has also spawned several new terms and labels:
Scrum: Refers to Agile’s project framework, outfitted with defined sets of roles, rituals and team behaviors. Rather than completing work using long development cycles (planning, development, implementation, testing and deployment), the Scrum team swarms around smaller units of work.
Sprints: The amount of time a Scrum has to complete a project and have it ready for review. The length can vary by product type, but it’s common for Scrum teams to work in two-week sprints. “You have teams that are committ ing to bursts of work,” Vubiquity’s Aronson said. “It sets up a cadence and a pace for the team that doesn’t change.”
ScrumMaster: The person tasked with boosting the likelihood that the project is successful. ScrumMasters achieve formal certification by knowing the Scrum values, practices, and applications beyond what one might see from a more typical project manager. The ScrumMaster is also tasked with removing impediments and facilitating the rituals of Agile, including daily stand-up meetings.
Blockers: Something (or possibly someone) that is holding up development or the team from completing a sprint.
The Manifesto for Agile Software Development
We are uncovering bett er ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
Working software over comprehensive documentation;
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation;
Responding to change over following a plan; That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.