When constant technological evolution is the norm, how can companies keep up? Customers expect quality products quickly – no small task for engineers working with complex tech stacks and on shorter time frames.
At the recent 2021 Slack Frontiers conference, we looked at how fast-moving businesses get it done. Logan Franey, Senior Developer Solutions Manager at Slack, spoke with Jonny Wooldridge, Digital Engineering Director at BT, about how the company has successfully created a full DevOps pipeline and almost continuous deployment.
BT is one of the UK’s biggest telecommunications and network providers, and it has operations in 180 countries worldwide. With millions of customers using its applications every day, BT has divided its tech department into more than 50 elite squads, all working to create different parts of its product range. Collaboration – within each squad and with other teams – is essential, and Slack is where it happens. And, with all their most important apps integrated right in Slack, everyone can work quickly and effectively.
Automation and transparency = faster code deployment
BT’s tech squads have code deployment down to a fine art. Equipped with the right tools and software processes, they ship code every single day. Naturally, that requires a high degree of automation and transparency, something which is facilitated by Slack.
The tech squads use GitHub, GitLab, Jira and the Atlassian stack, as well as peer review tools and Jenkins. All tickets, notifications and alerts are automatically pulled into Slack channels – a central place for sharing messages, tools and files.
‘As soon as a sprint begins, the squad has immediate visibility on what’s happening,’ Wooldridge says. ‘The full life cycle of a ticket is integrated in Slack. It’s where we work on it; we have our wiki connected there. Context switching is reduced, so everyone stays on task.’
When the developers actually start development, pull requests and peer reviews are visible to all. Everyone has a clear view of what’s going on, and they can comment if necessary. And if there is an issue, the whole squad can swarm around it and get it fixed straight away.
‘I noticed today a developer in a squad saying, “Hey, I’m trying to find API that does a certain thing, do we have one that does that?”’ Wooldridge says. ‘Someone responded immediately saying, “Hey, take a look at these documents.” That developer could have otherwise spent hours trying to find an answer. Those speedy responses really enable us to deliver code very quickly.’
Having fully open Slack channels also allows anyone on the tech team to dive in and see what’s happening with a particular squad.
‘That’s useful for an engineering manager like myself,’ Wooldridge says. ‘It gives a single pane of glass into the build pipeline, which is super-critical for us.’
‘One of the great things about Slack is the audit trail that it produces. If you’re away for a day, you can just go back into the channel and see exactly what’s happened with the squad.’
Collaboration and camaraderie
Slack has become the place where BT engineers collaborate – not only within their own squads but with other squads as well.
‘It allows for more transparent, quicker communication,’ Wooldridge says. ‘When you get to almost continuous deployment as we have, developers don’t want to be continually checking for emails on the status of their deployments or their testing.’
BT also encourages its tech squads to foster connections with the wider company; Slack channels make it possible. For example, one product owner runs an API community channel for anyone interested in learning about what the team has in development. With in-channel discussions and ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, it’s where people can find out about BT’s APIs and the technology it’s creating.
‘That kind of thing really helps us get knowledge across the teams, and it’s all done through Slack,’ Wooldridge says.
BT’s squads are still working remotely and haven’t seen one another in person for 18 months. Slack is their virtual break room, and they have gotten creative with it.
‘For instance, if someone hasn’t arrived for a meeting, they’ll put up a GIF of the whole squad saying, “Hey, you’re late for the stand-up!”’ Wooldridge says. ‘They add videos to make us all feel good and give each other pats on the back for a job well done. The camaraderie is still there.’
‘I pretty much live in Slack because it’s clear to me that email is a slow way to communicate; you might not get a response in the next half an hour or even the same day. If you want me, I’m in Slack.’
Smoothing the day to day and planning for tomorrow
Wooldridge has a daily Scrum meeting with all the members of his enablement team as well as their direct leadership teams. It’s a large group, so they raise any issues they want to discuss beforehand in a dedicated Slack channel.
‘Everyone is on the same page when we start, and I already know if any escalations are needed,’ Wooldridge says. ‘We then have a super-slick five- or ten-minute conversation, and everyone is fully aligned for the rest of the day. You just wouldn’t get that with emails or phone calls.’
‘Slack democratises collaboration and communication. The level of transparency it brings is huge, and it shouldn’t be underestimated, especially in today’s climate.’
BT wants to solidify its position as an elite software development organisation, and Slack will be key to that mission. It has plans to add extra workflows and security-focused tools that don’t require separate sign-offs – the goal is to keep giving the squads more automation and more autonomy.
‘We’re already doing some pretty cool things with blue-green deployments and canary deployments, some of which are semi-controlled by Slack,’ Wooldridge says. ‘We’d like to do even more, so our squads are empowered to get software out the door as quickly as possible.’