BT is one of the UK’s biggest telecommunications and network providers. It has operations in 180 countries worldwide, and its applications and services are used by millions of customers every day.
At the heart of delivering those applications is BT’s technical engineering team, made up of over 1000 people. They’re tasked with servicing 20 million customers by shipping code, resolving incidents at speed, and ensuring BT’s website, apps, and services deliver a great experience. Collaboration—within each squad and with other teams—is essential, and Slack acts as an engineering’s digital hub to collaborate over.
Jonny Wooldridge, Digital Engineering Director at BT, recently joined V Brennan, Senior Director of Engineering at Slack, for an exclusive Q&A for Inside Telecom. V and Jonny delved into how BT uses Slack to empower its 1000+ person team to break down silos and move with the agility of a startup, the growing importance of asynchronous work, and tips for motivating tech teams.
V Brennan, Slack: Let’s start with the big picture. BT is a very large and complex business—how do you manage that scale and what exactly does the day-to-day in your engineering team look like?
Jonny Wooldridge, BT: For the day-to-day, we’re completely focused on shipping code to BT customers, with the goal to improve all the different elements of their user journey and experience. And, if there are any technical incidents with a product, we’re also the team that fixes it.
It’s a big, global operation, with about 1000 people in my team and hundreds of others we collaborate with from the wider business. Despite that scale, agility is essential. We operate in a tribe and squads model, with every squad able to move fast and have autonomy over their specific focus area.
Slack has been a key part of enabling that agile structure and helping us avoid becoming siloed despite our scale. Using Slack channels, we can let the projects evolve organically. Everyone is empowered as equals to join a new project and share their expertise with other squads—with instant access to a transparent, non-siloed record of everything that has come before.
We are now scaling the principles we have learnt within my team across the whole of BT through our integrated CI/CD pipeline called Mobius. Mobius provides an integrated core set of tools, puts the engineer’s experience front and center, and also enables best practices to be shared and exploited across this even larger cohort. The balancing act is to take the ‘big company’ bureaucracy away from the engineers and enable agility, efficiency, productivity, and a good developer experience.
Slack channels also help us learn as a community. For example, one product owner runs an API community channel for anyone interested in learning about what they have in development. That continuous learning and sharing of knowledge are built into the team’s day-to-day work.
V Brennan: You mentioned the importance of agility. Could you tell us more about how you’re creating a digital HQ to help you move faster?
Jonny Wooldridge: Being able to compete with the disruptors as well as the tech giants is key to being competitive in our industry. We might be big, but it’s our ambition to move at the same speed—or faster—than any startup.
Even before the rapid move to hybrid work, we’d always been a distributed global team, and Slack is where our information and team live. Having our engineering team use Slack, and taking a digital-first approach to all our work, has been an important part of achieving that goal of startup speed at scale in a few key ways.
First is the use of integrations. We’ve integrated Slack with GitHub, GitLab, Jira, and the Atlassian stack, as well as peer review tools and Jenkins. That means information from those apps—tickets, notifications, and alerts—gets pulled straight into the channel. That information is there alongside messages and files, where we can act on it without swapping tools or searching for information.
Second, with custom workflows, we’ve streamlined work. We can update a review request and status simply by using a one-click emoji reaction in Slack. Or report a bug by filling in a standardized form in the channel. It reduces time lost to admin and context switching.
We’ve also really focused on automation in our digital HQ. One of the innovations we’re most proud of is our own custom-built bot that can create a whole front-end user experience template from just a few commands in Slack. It reduces a process that could take hours down to a matter of minutes.
Finally, Slack has improved our ability to work asynchronously—developers don’t want to spend their time responding to emails or in live meetings. Slack has meant we can minimize those activities and focus on the skilled development work that really matters to our team.
V Brennan: We’re also big champions of asynchronous working here at Slack. Do you have any examples of how enabling asynchronous work has improved your team?
Jonny Wooldridge: Meetings are one example; at BT, we don’t want our developers to spend all day in blocks of 30-minute calls. Instead, people will record an audio clip that others can catch up on when they choose or hop into a Slack Huddle, a lightweight audio-first way to start live conversations—which doesn’t need to be scheduled—when they want to ask questions live. Those conversations are generally quick, saving everyone time they can put back into meaningful work.
Incident response is another area where asynchronous work shines. By providing everyone with transparent access to all the information that has been shared so far, collaborating in the channel makes it much easier to handover between teams.
V Brennan: Developers are always in high-demand, so giving that time back and ensuring teams feel a sense of purpose in their work is vital. How else do you go about engaging and motivating your engineers and developers?
Jonny Wooldridge: Being able to differentiate our offering is a key part of our appeal, and that’s why we’ve been so focused on building a compelling digital HQ.
Tech teams were always ahead of the curve on this. For example, we were already well set up to move to remote work when the pandemic hit. Now we’re seeing the next stage of evolution, which is all about embracing automation, asynchronous processes, and autonomy.
Developers mainly just want to develop and make an impact. They don’t want to be searching for information or doing admin. By giving them the tools, they need to get the job done faster, we are respecting the value of their time and expertise.
This also has a positive effect on culture. By communicating transparently, we’ve built an environment where it’s safe to ask questions, share concerns, and think outside the box. It drives up engagement, so more people are sharing knowledge. Equally, we build a real sense of teamship and camaraderie by using those channels to also shout-out successes and celebrate great work.
We’re proud that we can demonstrate that our developers have access to industry-leading tools, a fantastic culture of learning, and the time to focus on what matters to them and the business.
V Brennan: To finish up, what’s next for your digital HQ?
Jonny Wooldridge: One big challenge, given our focus on autonomy, can be keeping track of who is working on what and why. Part of the next stage of our digital HQ will be looking at how we can learn from how our tech team has been using Slack and our other tools, spotting what’s working and where we can do better, then expanding and refining our approach to drive up engagement.
In the meantime, we’ll also be continuing to focus on moving faster, reducing silos, and ultimately empowering our developers to build experiences that delight our customers.
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