“We work best when asked to deliver the impossible,” says Randal Whitmore, the head of growth at Difrent, an agency that builds innovative digital solutions for social good. Delivering the impossible found new meaning when the novel coronavirus broke out in the U.K. In March last year, with the country in lockdown, NHSX, a digital transformation unit within the U.K.’s public health service, approached Difrent with an urgent request: to create and distribute Covid-19 test kits to thousands of key workers with unconfirmed symptoms so they could get back to the front lines.
The project would require quick decision-making and execution from no less than 40 partners, across tech, healthcare and government organizations. “From day one, we set up in Slack,” Whitmore says. Difrent not only pulled off the ambitious project; it also introduced new efficiencies in its DevOps processes along the way, such as automated reporting from Amazon Web Services (AWS).
From kickoff to live prototype in 8 days
With Slack, Difrent and its partners could collaborate and stay aligned even as information changed every few hours. They turned to Slack Connect, a secure way to share knowledge and collaborate with external partners in Slack channels. “Slack reduced a lot of the risks associated with organizations and companies that traditionally work in silos,” Whitmore says. “Instead, you interrogate areas and question things right in the open.” Teams across specialties could quickly align on goals, updates and next steps.
“Slack reduced a lot of the risks associated with organizations and companies that traditionally work in silos. Instead, you interrogate areas and question things right in the open. Slack empowers people to work together to solve problems.”
Given the pace of work, Whitmore encouraged transparency and communication among organizations. “If we weren’t using Slack, it would have slowed everything down,” he says. “Being able to iterate on feedback, have quick discussions and resolve problems as they happened was crucial.”
Five days after kicking off in Slack, the working group produced an end-to-end test kit ordering service fulfilled by Amazon’s network of delivery providers.
Difrent invited some key workers to test the service in a private beta trial. Initially, Whitmore manned the support desk himself. If users had an issue, they could call Whitmore directly and he would share screenshots and bug reports with developers through the #home-testing-pilot Slack channel. Issues were fixed in 30 to 60 minutes. “Slack gave us an efficiency boost,” he says, “and was one of the key tools that enabled us to deliver so quickly.”
The trial provided helpful feedback, and, thankfully, all the tests were negative. Within a month, the government announced that the testing service was ready for key workers, and the orders started to pour in.
Scaling support and supply chain management with Slack and Amazon CloudWatch
As demand spiked, the home testing delivery team had to quickly scale their support and DevOps workflows. This task was made easier by using Slack and Amazon CloudWatch, an application and infrastructure monitoring service.
The team used Amazon’s Simple Notification Service to send an API code into Slack using webhooks, which enabled the team to customize real-time updates. As the team worked toward a continuous development cycle, they automated parts of the DevOps process, including tests for different environments and releases.
Eventually, the team automated custom reports on their stockpile, such as sudden spikes in demand. All of these updates were sent back into Slack channels for the relevant team to triage. “CloudWatch being the live service monitoring component, we could create all sorts of custom reports based on any aspect of the service and pipe that back to Slack,” Whitmore says, “not just on the DevOps side but on the service side too.”
As the service ramped up even more, they also used this to scale round-the-clock support and service monitoring. Previously, this effort was entirely manual: People took turns monitoring the service and reporting analytics back to the team. This worked for a few weeks, but as the project grew, they needed to focus resources on higher-priority issues. “It’s inefficient to have people watching a service 24/7,” Whitmore says. “By using Slack and CloudWatch, we were able to reduce the number of people involved.”
A glimpse of the future
When speed was of the essence, Difrent did the unthinkable: It virtually brought some 40 organizations together in Slack to create a government-approved testing service that continues to bring health-care workers back to the front lines. “Slack is the de facto standard for multi-vendor, multi-organization delivery,” Whitmore says. “It’s safe for everyone to openly and constructively criticize things, but also understand that we’re trying to solve this problem together.”
“Slack is the de facto standard for multi-vendor, multi-organization delivery. It’s safe for everyone to openly and constructively criticize things, but also understand that we’re trying to solve this problem together.”
Difrent not only raised the bar for external collaboration but also introduced internal efficiencies with automations and integrations. So when the next digital innovation test comes in, the company is at the ready.