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CIO interview: Olivier Smith, head of IT at Sweden's Hi3G Access

The IT department at Swedish telco Hi3G is on a mission to a utopian planet, with Olivier Smith at the controls

The goal of the IT department at Swedish telecoms company Hi3G Access is to make it to “planet awesome, according to head of IT Olivier Smith.

This playful approach to the IT strategy sets the company apart, says Smith.

“We have visualised our journey to becoming excellent as a space trip to ‘planet awesome’. I do not think there are many other IT organisations that have tried to visualise their strategy in this playful and fun manner,” he says.

Hi3G Access offers mobile telephony and mobile broadband in Sweden and Denmark under CK Hutchison brand Three. The company co-operates with other companies operating under the Three brand around the globe. Smith says it has even shared some global software licence agreements, which has lowered cost of some applications.

Hong Kong-based investment company CK Hutchison owns a majority stake in most of the companies operating under the Three brand, and the original plan was that companies in all markets should use the same IT systems, according to Smith.

But it became obvious that the markets had different needs, so the different companies have gone their own ways,” he says.

Freedom to innovate

Hi3G Access has about 150 IT employees, divided into two separate organisations – development and operations.

I am head of development, with about 100 employees, plus 60 consultants. The reason we were divided into two separate departments was to give development the freedom to focus on coming up with new features, products and services, without having to focus on the operational aspects of our production environment.”

But the separation also comes with a risk, according to Smith. When we go into production with new code, it is the operations teams that experience it first-hand. That means that we in development risk not getting as much feedback as we might in a joint IT organisation.

Bringing IT in-house to improve quality

While development has split from operations, it has moved onshore and in-house. Almost all of its IT is in-house today. We used to work with a lot of developers in India, but during the past two to three years we have moved consultants to Sweden instead of offshoring IT development. We still use a varying amount of consultants, but now they are a part of our team.”

This shift has meant that the total number of people involved in Hi3G Access’s IT development has decreased. It is more expensive with personnel in Sweden, but we would rather have one person here than two people in India. The reason is that we want to create a tight team and smooth communications. We do not want lots of mailing of documents, which easily leads to misunderstandings. You get better feedback if you sit close together.”

We want to create a tight team and smooth communications. You get better feedback if you sit close together
Olivier Smith, Hi3G

The consolidation of IT development to Hi3G Access’s headquarters in Stockholm has led to a very strong increase in quality, according to Smith. We get fewer defects and the delivery time is shorter. We did not take the decision to stop offshoring in a single day – we have experimented with different team setups and found it is much better for us to have the team sitting together here in Sweden.”

The consolidation does not only mean easier communications within the team, but also with the stakeholders. We are sitting in the same house as the Swedish business, and if we have a question or need a clarification it is really easily sorted out. Face-to-face interaction is really important – it is not the same over telephone, webcam or email. We travel frequently to Copenhagen to ensure the same effect with our Danish business.”

Agile development for faster delivery

Another big change for the IT organisation was its decision to leave the classic waterfall development process in favour of an agile way of working four years ago, right before Smith took over as head of IT. Agile makes it possible to deliver faster, more often and with better quality,” he says.

But the switch has not been without its challenges. Everybodys roles have changed. It is no longer the individuals who should deliver, but the team, and the bosses have been transformed to agile managers. It has required effort to change the mindsets, and it is an ongoing process – the agile mentality is to never stop the efforts to improve.”

It is also an ongoing challenge for IT to get the business teams to adopt the agile process to the full potential, according to Smith. “They are used to giving us requirements, telling us when they want the delivery and then waiting. We do not have a mandate to change them, so we can only try to show them the benefits of an agile way of working. We are making progress, and we are hoping to be able to get the business to work even closer with IT as a part of everyday life.”

Read more Nordic IT head interviews

The journey to ‘planet awesome’

Hi3G Access has three strategic pillars – sales is our survival, fighting for more satisfied customers, and to be a challenger – according to Smith. “Our overarching strategy in IT is to support these three pillars,” he says.

And this is where the visualisation of the space journey to planet awesome has made its entrance. We do not know all the steps we have to take to best support the three pillars, since the environment and technology constantly change. But we know that the end goal is planet awesome, which is all about quality, speed of delivery and job satisfaction,” says Smith.

“The end goal is planet awesome, which is all about quality, speed of delivery and job satisfaction”
Olivier Smith, Hi3G Access

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The journey is constantly re-evaluated and new sub-targets are established. The most recent was to reach planet Jupiter. That meant that we wanted all teams to align their agile sprints to two weeks, and then put the code into production. A few years ago the delivery time was several months, so it has been a real challenge to shorten the delivery time this much,” he says.

This sub-target was reached through weekly standup meetings, where all development teams were represented. We discussed what changes had to be made to reach Jupiter. And the different teams shared dependencies they have on each other, telling other teams what changes they wish they would make. It is paramount that everybody in the IT department is involved, and that everybody understands the effect that is desired from our goals,” says Smith.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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