Being Agile in the National Broadband Network Company (NBN Co) is not without its dangers according to the company's head of portals and online services Michael Bromley, who revealed that he almost cost the government-owned company $1.2 million on the wrong content management system.
Agile is a management methodology that has a number of different stages or "sprints" as parts of the project are delivered. At the end of each sprint, the project is evaluated and adjusted as required. It is designed to replace the conventional milestone-based "waterfall" methodology.
Bromley, a former Telstra employee, joined NBN Co 14 months ago to develop the company's website NBNCo.com.au, the intranet, the board portal, the access seeker portal and a number of the other online services that NBN Co requires. For his team, Bromley said, delivering in short time frames was vital, and Agile became about "getting better" by learning from mistakes.
"I made a massive mistake early on, bought the wrong content management system. Screwed up 1.2 million bucks. We didn't end up losing the money, but the easy thing I could have done would be to say 'you know what? let's just go with it'," he said at the Agile Australia conference in Sydney today, adding that ultimately NBN Co backed out of the contract.
"And since then, we've been able to implement a smaller, more flexible, less rigorous content management system that allows us to do a lot of other great things," he said.
When asked whether the fact that NBN Co appears before Senate estimates hindered NBN Co from wanting to adopt an Agile approach with less documentation about the project, Bromley said that it was important to understand their thinking behind the fear of that approach.
"You've got people who are under the spotlight, whether it's a Senate committee, whether it's Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott, it doesn't matter; the spotlight is there," he said, adding that the automatic defence mechanism would be to show that they have the project under control by dumping a 400-page project document to those who asked.
"Nobody will read it, and if they do, they'll learn nothing. But they won't find it's out of control. Having something you can point to in a way that is customary and familiar to you makes things easier. We're talking about changing those mechanisms, doing the same thing, providing the same governance ... but it's almost like learning a different language. And when you get under that spotlight, speaking that different language is scary."
Implementing Agile was still a work in progress for NBN Co, he said.
"We are one, semi-Agile part. The rest of the organisation, they don't even know what Agile is at this point," he said. "We're still working on getting that across the rest of the organisation ... and this coming from an organisation that bills itself as wanting to be Agile."
Working with different vendors such as IBM and Accenture in an Agile approach had been "painful" but he took the same approach as he had with the rest of the organisation.
"When we brought the Accenture guys in, we didn't say 'what you do is wrong ... you're an expert in this system, we need your expertise' but 'this is how we work, work with us'," he said. "Even in an organisation like Accenture, where it's a big behemoth with their own practices and their own processes, these are smart people and they see the value in it."
Agile was also built into the $200 million contract with IBM, when the company came on-board to be NBN Co's main system integrator.
"The recent contract we signed with IBM to help deliver a lot of our OSS systems had scope swap built into it," he said. "We had IBM with the ability to swap scope out on a point to point basis, to change without having to go through a massive change."
"It's hard, but we're happy with the success of it so far."