Nothing happens without communication. And in our world, so much communication is digitally mediated. It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet is a lifeline. Indeed, the past few years have shown this more clearly than ever.
2020 brought big challenges to the telecommunications sector. More and more people switched to home working and schooling - many for the very first time. And, as quarantine and lockdown orders were put in place to stem the tide of COVID-19, in-person socializing was out.
On the other side of a phone or webcam, we reached out to, grieved with, and cheered-up our friends and loved ones. But this new reliance on digital connectivity meant network demands like never before.
Fortunately, TPG Telecom was up to the challenge. The year 2020 also marked the completion of a merger between Vodafone Hutchison Australia and TPG Telecom, giving Australia a telecoms powerhouse just when it was needed more than ever.
From increasing 5G coverage, to providing higher network speeds across rural and urban locations, TPG is committed to delivering for customers. But in order for all of these vital developments and deployments to happen, the business has to be well-supported from the inside.
That’s where Cindy Tan’s team comes in. As General Manager of IT Planning for TPG, the business looks to Cindy to push the envelope of technological improvements that will keep TPG competitive and at the forefront of digital service delivery.
Heading up a large team with diverse technical skills, it’s up to Cindy to tell the business when crucial internal development projects can go ahead, and to make sure that TPG’s pool of gifted engineers, PMs, analysts, and developers are able to shine and use their time most effectively.
“There’s about 600 people in my team. And at any given time,” she says, “We run about 30 to 40 projects.”
Needless to say, managing an operation of this magnitude is not an easy feat. It’s been a learning curve as the team expanded over time to its current scale and capacity.
“There was a while when IT work was dealt with on an outsourced basis, but we eventually decided to embrace having an in-house team. And we grew from a small IT team to being a team of a much larger size.”
As a team newly brought in-house, within an organization that had just undergone a large merger, some operational challenges were inevitable. Add to that a fast growth in headcount, and it’s no wonder that it was becoming nearly impossible to maintain clarity over every project or assignment that moved through the team. But this lack of clarity was starting to inspire pushback from the rest of the business. Even though she could see that resource constraints were causing project delays, Cindy found herself having to counter questions over whether the team really did need to grow any bigger.
“Naturally, we make our hiring decisions based on the capacity that we have, and the demand for a skill. But in a large team, it can be hard to articulate what everyone is working on, and what are the skills gaps that we currently have. The result was that we were always coming up against the question: ‘Hey, what are all these people working on?’”
As well as fielding questions about what work the team was assigned to, Cindy often found herself confronted by people asking: “When can I expect X to start?”
The reality is that all parts of the company relies on the expertise of Cindy’s team. The TPG tech stack is extensive; to be able to handle it, the IT team has built out a diverse range of skills, and hired talent from varied technical backgrounds. But this means additional complexity and a need to keep clear oversight of which skills are particularly pressured or in demand.
“In the current labor market especially, with attrition being quite high, people come and go. So when someone leaves, how do you know if it’s left a gap in the team’s skills? This was a problem we faced.”
Requests for work come from all quarters, and projects vary in complexity and scope. A central aspect of Cindy’s job therefore involves estimating how long a project will take, and determining when a project will likely move from ‘backlog’ to ‘live’.
“Of course, there are competing priorities between divisions,” Cindy laughs, “It’s like anywhere - there’s always someone who wants their project to have been started ‘yesterday’!”
In this context, conversations about priorities are key. Every six months, TPG takes a look at every initiative in the pipeline, and determines whether they are tackling things in the right order. Projects get moved back or bumped up depending on criticality. For this sequencing process to work at its best, though, accurate capacity planning is vital. And it was this requirement that kicked off the search that led to Runn.
The first step in the journey towards getting their capacity planning under control was Excel - as it is for many organizations. Bringing in a team of consultants to advise, Cindy’s team set about building a capacity model. However, though this was a helpful place to start, it became clear that Excel wasn’t going to be the right fit for their capacity management in the long term.
“Earlier this year, when we built an Excel model for capacity planning, we were only able to model on a monthly level, rather than down to weeks or even days. We couldn’t get down to the granular level of resource skills.”
At a very high level, Excel was able to provide clarity on resource capacity. But maintaining it just wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long-term.
“Without a proper capacity management tool, we were not able to explain why we couldn’t get certain projects done; why we couldn’t commit to the projects that our business units needed.”
After this challenging experience, Cindy made up her mind: it was time to find a solution, purpose built to make things simpler.
The search was not straightforward. Many capacity planning tools promised the earth, but just didn't match the way TPG prioritizes and schedules projects. Cindy really wanted to find something that would suit the team’s needs without much setup.
Cindy demoed a number of different tools, but nothing leapt out as a “best in class” solution for the IT team’s capacity management needs. But then she heard that a colleague in a different team was using something called “Runn”.
“When they showed me the tool, I could see straight away how it served a lot of my requirements. It also seemed very easy to use compared to other tools I’d tried - the interface was much clearer.”
Cindy started out by testing it - running a couple of projects on the platform to see how it would perform - and the results were promising. But the real test, of course, would be the capacity planning question: would Runn be able to give them the depth and clarity needed to forecast future capacity?
The capacity planning we had done in Excel - which had taken weeks - well, when we did that same work in Runn, it was completed in two days.
What had been complicated and time-consuming was suddenly…not. It was a relief for the team.
“Now that we are familiar with Runn’s features, as well,” says Cindy, “We think next time might be even faster than that.”
What particularly surprised Cindy was just how simple and intuitive Runn’s capacity planning features were. Being able to plan projects in “tentative” mode, experiment with “placeholder” resources, and analyze what/if scenarios in a sandbox environment - all of these helped build a detailed picture of the team’s capacity over time.
“Toggle a “tentative” project on or off, and you can immediately see how it affects our capacity. Look at the capacity report, and you can tell within seconds which team is the most constrained.”
As a result, Cindy could sequence a project pipeline that was more feasible and achievable, with all capacity constraints factored in. Project managers and team leads were able to look at Runn for an overview of what their next few months would look like, feeling confident in the information available to them. Needless to say, this renewed certainty made the team feel more secure.
Line managers feel like they have the ability to see what’s coming next - they can see what work is queued up for them and their team.
With an effective capacity planning solution in place, Cindy now had the information immediately to hand to answer the questions and provide the clarity that the TPG leadership team needed.
“Our executive team was so surprised by the clarity that Runn gave us. They’d say to me, ‘You’re managing assignments for 600 people; are you sure you know what they are all working on?’. So we gave them a demo of Runn and showed them, ‘Look, you can drill down and see for yourselves!’”
The information that Runn surfaces became a real touchpoint for communication. After all, knowledge is power. And being able to see what capacity and utilization looked like over time - right down to the level of individual workloads - has given Cindy more power to advocate for her team.
Being able to show overutilization is so helpful for explaining why something has been delayed, or why something cannot start yet. When we can show our stakeholders that overutilization is so high, they can empathize and understand the constraints of the situation. It helps facilitate conversations about priorities, about moving things back if needed, because they can clearly see that we’re at capacity. It gives us the ability to go back to other parts of the business and say, ‘Look, these individuals really can’t take on any more work.’
This enhanced ability to monitor individual workloads has, unsurprisingly, had significant knock-on benefits for Cindy’s team.
When managing such a large team of people, it’s not always possible to notice if one person’s workload slowly increases over time. That person might be at capacity, and you might not have a clue.
But Runn gives you the ability to step back and look at the data - to see an individual’s scheduled hours over time, and flag up if they are being assigned more work than they can do in their hours. In Cindy’s case, this helped her identify which people had become the “go-to” resources for certain needs, and were suffering from a heavy workload as a result:
We can see, for instance, if we always end up assigning certain kinds of work to the same person. Runn shows us if that person is overutilized, and then makes it easy to find someone else with the right kind of skills who might be underutilized and can do that task instead. This all contributes to enhancing the wellbeing of team members.
As well as supporting the team’s wellbeing, it would be remiss not to note that Runn has helped Cindy win back more time for the aspects of her role that excite her the most. With fewer hours lost to admin in Excel and back-and-forth communications caused by confusion, she is now free to spend more time, “Ideating, problem solving, and working with the rest of the business to see what can be achieved”.
With the additional bandwidth in her week, Cindy has been researching trends in the future of work, thinking about what could help her team get the most out of their work, be bold and innovative, and love what they do. And, honestly, it’s pretty exciting that Runn is a part of making that happen!
“I would ask any IT company that does in-house development to consider using Runn. It really does help you understand the demands on your team,” concludes Cindy, “Shareholders, executives, or directors are always going to ask you to justify why you need such a large team. But using Runn, you can clearly demonstrate the demand and the workload. And that’s the information you need to have some very constructive conversations.”