CIO50 2020 #26-50: Steve Kurzeja, Vocus
“This may sound simple, but CIOs and CTOs are prone to internal focus and defence of technology teams from the business, infamously known as the business technology divide,” says Steve Kurzeja, Chief Technology Officer at Vocus.
It is a reality that does not bode well for “modern organisations where success, if not survival, depends on technology enabling business and customer outcomes, which in turn rests on closely integrated teams working together rather than in adversity,” he states.
Thus, says Kurzeja, he is constantly focusing on breaking down the inevitable ‘silos’ which emerge between teams across technology and business domains.
For Kurzeja, there is no other way to lead technology in a company like Vocus, which was built from the origins of 40 different ISPs over the last 20 years.
The business technology strategy at Vocus also takes this into account.
“Integration activity has played a constant role in delivering smoothly functioning operations at Vocus,” he states. “It has also driven a constant focus to pay down technical debt while creating singular scale stacks at the core to create business agility.”
Kurzeja says a key core platform for this is Vocal, the Vocus BSS (Business Support Services) platform which includes billing capability and many other key business capability domains.
Originated two decades ago, Vocal has evolved into an API-first microservices architecture.
“This delivers the flexibility required by an innovative, rapidly moving telecommunications provider offering a diverse range of services to consumers and businesses alike,” says Kurzeja.
Paying down technical debt, and using techniques like Strangler patterns for microservice migration from legacy architectures (instead of costly and disruptive new build approaches), is instrumental to company success, he points out.
This has enabled Vocus to achieve rapid product development and delivery times, while also providing the capability to absorb - and then innovate - existing products from acquired entities.
Like overhauling an aircraft in flight
He cites as a group, Vocus issues millions of dollars’ worth of bills a month to hundreds of thousands of customers across multiple business units.
“Whether individuals or businesses, disruptions or inaccuracies in billing is not tolerated,” he states.
“Billing is so integral to the successful operation of our business, the successful redesign of the BSS system and subsequent launch of flexible billing is akin to completely overhauling an aircraft in flight.”
The value of a flexible platform was highlighted when Vocus acquired Switch Utilities in 2016.
Within three months, Vocus successfully launched a retail power company bundled into Slingshot and Orcon.
Over the past year, Vocus also introduced more flexible billing capability into Vocal.
“This has enabled our retail brand, Slingshot, to uniquely introduce flexible options of weekly, fortnightly billing on top of the normal monthly billing of broadband, power and phone service offerings in November,” says Kurzeja.
With consumer broadband an aggressively priced, highly competitive market, the capabilities of a flexible BSS aligns with customer demands and carves out a unique selling point for Vocus, he states. “Customers can choose their billing day and billing frequency to manage their budgets more effectively.”
“This supports better budgeting to manage debt, with more frequent billing in smaller amounts, especially with power bills in the winter months,” he says.
This flexibility also provided significant business value, since it reduced support calls by smoothing out “post bill” spikes, reduced churn with increased customer satisfaction, increased cash flow, and it provided marketing benefits by providing Vocus with a unique selling point in a competitive market.
The investment in a multi-tenant BSS also modernised other business units, specifically the Vocus Enterprise, Government, and Wholesale segment. This segment has customers and partners like primary producers, multinational organisations and nationally significant critical services like New Zealand Police.
With the API and microservices architecture, the platform is now capable of flexibly meeting the requirements of all Vocus customers, he says.
“Key stakeholders and executives have suggested, given the fact all service providers are limited by available technology to providing similar services, the Vocus billing system is the company’s real unique selling point – rather than the network, customer premise equipment, or even pricing.”
He says Vocus today has three main utilities offering flexible billing from the single Vocal BSS platform – something no other operator does.
On the surface, introducing flexible billing may appear routine, he notes. However, accurate, flexible and innovative billing at scale is integral to the success of a modern telecommunications service provider and is one part of an investment in an automated end to end value stream for delivering customer service, he states.
Ingrained assumptions on monthly billing cycles in various operational processes and systems means change to such a fundamental service is potentially seriously disruptive to operations.
This demanded an incremental approach, as the impact of any change has multiple touch points throughout the organisation, including technology, operations, finance and data analytics.
“Coordinating changes of this nature - even with the best lean, agile and DevOps principles - is challenging,” says Kurzeja.
“The technology and business teams delivered this through a clear focus on outcomes, and an iterative approach encompassing ‘experiment, verify, and release’.”
Kurzeja further highlights the importance of creating a work environment that allows both technology and digital teams to flourish.
He boils it down to culture. “‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is a quote so accurate it has become cliché,” he says.
For Kurzeja, culture is underpinned by values, “the invisible glue that holds an organisation together and defines behaviour, perception and sentiment both for those working there, for customers and the public at large.”
“The bottom line where culture is concerned is how an organisation behaves is more important than what it does or produces.”
He applies this insight to his current role, as he focuses fostering psychological safety and a generative learning culture.
“This is how I believe the best in people emerges and communication flourishes,” he states.
He is piloting quarterly objectives and key results across several key teams, aligning on ‘stretch’ goals back to company strategy to provide alignment beyond the delivery of ‘business as usual’ key performance indicators.
“Once proven on a smaller scale, we aim to roll this out company-wide to give us superpowers in business agility,” he says on this initiative.
“This is a powerful way to align goals from top to bottom, bottom to top, team to team, creating the agility to pivot the entire organisation to a strategic objective or faced with new challenges and adversity.”
The focus has shifted from individual performance to one where the organisational structure is aligned to foster high performance across the board.
“We are continuously focusing on time-to-value with a team-first approach aligned to value streams reducing bottlenecks, with product based instead of project-based delivery principles, empowering teams to be autonomous making local decisions aligned back to business outcomes” he states.
“The benefit is empowered, adaptable team members who are happy to be part of cross-functional product aligned teams. The team derives immense satisfaction from creating value that matters when put in the hands of our customers, and our customers value it too.”