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Agile Delivery at British Telecom

In the current issue of Methods and Tools, an online magazine on software engineering related topics, Ian Evans of British Telecom reflects on how re-orienting a large IT organisation from a well-established waterfall-based delivery approach to a truly agile delivery style takes patience, time, and a lot of commitment.

In BT, where the initial steps towards enterprise agile delivery were taken in late 2004, there has been a noticeable and decisive shift away from waterfall-based thinking. It has also transformed, quite radically, the traditional function of the IT department as a supplier of IT services to one where IT is now seen as integral to all major business initiatives.

Evans reports that, above all else, it has created an attitude, bordering on obsession, of delivering real value to the business through IT.  The article is in three parts:

Part 1 covers  "Drawbacks of the waterfall": Poor requirements capture, Disconnected design, Development squeeze, The integration headache, The deployment nightmare,

Part 2 outlines "The Challenges of Enterprise Agile" at BT, and the approach they decided to take:
  • Step 1 – 90-day cycles
  • Step 2 – Focus on Delivering Business Value
  • Step 3 – Instil a Collaborative approach
Part 3 lists some lessons learned along the way,including:
  • When you’re embarking on an agile delivery strategy at the enterprise level, it is imperative to quickly establish a ‘critical mass’ of people who not only grasp the ideas behind it but are also comfortable with its application.
  • Certain agile practices, such as test-driven development, are harder to adopt when most of your development is based on legacy code and / or externally-sourced components.
  • For Agile Development to work at the enterprise level, you still need to pay due attention to your systems architecture.
  • Not all delivery activity fits neatly into the agile development model.
  • To be truly effective, the agile approach needs to reach right across the business, not just the IT organisation.
  • "There’s no gain without pain!" Applying the principles described here on large projects or programmes in typical large organisations requires courage, determination, and no small degree of risk.
Despite some turmoil at the start, and some painful failures among some of the earlier hot houses & delivery cycles, the new practices have now become accepted as the norm across BT. And despite the challenges, Evans avows that few at BT would want to turn back to the old ways.

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