Above: Hassel Bacchus, CTO of TSTT. Photo courtesy TSTT.
Hassel Bacchus, Chief Technology Officer of TSTT sat for this interview with Mark Lyndersay, Editor of TechNewsTT to answer to a list of questions submitted to the company about failures in their billing system and customer relations management backoffice.
Bacchus answered some questions and declined answering others, framing his responses in relationship to the four pillars established in the five-year strategic plan launched in 2016.
Among those pillars was the evolution of TSTT’s technology, which included the need to, as Bacchus put it, “bring the ecosystems and solutions we used to provide services to the customer, to drag it into this century.”
Excerpts from this interview transcript were used in a BusinessDay story published on November 21, 2019. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Did TSTT run software that it knew was aging and increasingly outdated for more than a decade?
HB: We needed to grow our revenue (to do that) we needed to do some organisational realignment.
One of the strategies was the reengineering of the operational and business support systems underpinning the company’s operations.
We needed to change the way we view the customer, the way the customer interacts with us.
One of our billing systems, and we have more than one billing system, was CIS, and that is no more.
One of the things we had to do was to move from CIS, with one of its functions being billing.
At a high level, the software executed the seven main functions required by the company up to the 1990’s.
The solution we were moving it to existed before we started to migrate. We started to build customers onto that (new) solution before.
It was in that movement, when we were transferring, that we ran into some issues.
Q: I am told that this was software written in Cobol. Can you confirm that is the case?
HB: Some of it is in COBOL. It is a behemoth. It is a massive system that does almost everything for a company. It is handles point-of-sale, it is a provisioning system, they use a lot of different things to do that. We even had some things written in Basic inside of there.
We have people, and we still have people on a consultancy basis, who are pretty much expert on it. We brought in international experts as well as people we had here. It’s not like if we weren’t aware of what it was.
This is about issues that occur within the hardware and other pieces (and) that meant that we had to change the initial way we were going about what we were going about.
CIS was an amalgamating thing, it didn’t produce its own records; it got records from other places. Part of the migration meant that records weren’t going to CIS anymore, they were going to other places. What CIS had was a treasure trove of information from time immemorial, from the time it was turned on.
The company was finally able to extract that data and put it into a database, but then it faced the challenge of building a front end that would meaningfully access and parse that legacy data, a process it has also completed.
The information that was contained in it is still available in its raw form as well as in a migrated form in the new system.
Q: One source recalled that the migration effort had begun seven years ago and was won by a vendor who claimed to be able to do the work in six months, compare to other bidders who offered an 18-month project scope.
HB: I think you might be referencing a previous attempt at creating a single solution that did all the things (that CIS did). That was only partially successful, and it was also one of the systems that fed information into CIS.
That solution from that time is not part of our current operations. This is not a continuation of something that started seven years ago; this is a new effort that came out of our intention to transform the organisation in 2016.
The idea that you could do this in six months is not reasonable by any stretch. There is no transformation that you could do of this type that would run under eighteen months.
The complexity of what we are doing is not as simple as the migration of a billing system. You may be able to do migration of a billing system in six months, depending on the scope and the condition of what you are moving from and its alignment with what you are moving to.
There are very few people who have successfully migrated from CIS. Very few.
Q: Were there earlier attempts to migrate from CIS?
HB: CIS as a solution has a lot of facets. There would have been, at various times throughout the organisation’s history, that components of that would have been usurped or moved or a better way to do it would have been found.
CIS as it stood was a solution for everything. Part of the driver for this current dispensation was the clear and present danger that CIS presented was not just that it was old, we had a contract with C&W for its upkeep, so it’s not that it was unsupported.
It represented a significant enterprise risk to be running your cash till, your (service) provisioning on this system that is unstable at best and difficult to support even from the people who made it.
In that context, we had to readjust the priorities of the migration. Provisioning for our fibre customers was moved away a long time ago. We are not in the business of copper anymore, we are not adding any new copper customers.
Our new wireless services would never have been (on CIS), but as a cash till, it still had a role to play.
The version of CIS we had did not support wireless services. There are updated versions that we never got, but what we have now addresses all that (business issues).
Editor: Slides on the new version of CIS, Liberate are here.
The stack that we have now is not just a billing solution. It does other things, and there are things it doesn’t do as well.
Other vendors are part of the ecosystem that provides access to the customers and gives customers access to the services. It’s a significant number and we utilise almost all the technologies to provide our services.
We have multiple billing systems.
Q: Looking back over the last two decades, was there anything that you might have differently? That the company might have done differently?
HB: One of the things that must always drive things is a common understanding of what you are doing. The end result of this is that this company is completely customer focused.
If you go back far enough, what you will find is that the way networks were constructed is that the network was the service. In a voice-centric network the switch was the service, and all you do is connect people to it. The service availability was linked to the switch availability.
When things started to evolve, I think what people didn’t understand was the decoupling of the service from the network. People were also not looking at the way the new services, broadband type services were being consumed.
The organisation had to transform from a voice-centric organisation to a minimum service being a broadband service kind of organisation.
Once you do that, there are certain base prerequisites from a technical perspective, from a business and operational perspective, from a customer-facing perspective that you must do.
That concert of alignment that we have now, I don’t think existed in that detail and was as understood ten years ago. I think as a result of that (the approach) was a bit more fragmented and it wasn’t focused on the customer.
I don’t have any ambivalence about what my focus is; my focus is entirely on the customer.
That organisational focus is the big difference why we are successful now as opposed to some of the stop and start, some of the granular things we were trying to do.
Q: Was money budgeted for the migration spent on other projects?
HB: This wasn’t my project for the last ten years. I can speak to the time that I have been CTO. I know that we have spent significant quantities of money on multiple vendors and there has never been a want for funding for the achievement of this goal.
It sits squarely as part of the foundation of the strategic plan. It is one of the main strategic initiatives. Other things can suffer, not this.
Q: How much has been spent on this migration?
HB: I’m not sure that is something I want in the public domain. As one of our strategic initiatives, it gives us an advantage over the competition. That is not something I would want to disclose.
Q: When did the company leave CIS behind?
HB: Some of the systems existed before and leaving CIS behind meant decoupling from it and talking to the new system. That was not a CIS migration issue, that was turning things from it to something else (other software solutions).
We stopped billing people on CIS as far back as June. As it stands now, CIS has absolutely no function within the organisation as of a few months ago.
But CIS is not billing alone, and everything had to be migrated.
I think that is probably where the customer felt it most. I’ve heard stories of people going into stores, and they can’t find their accounts.
The challenge was making sure that everything that we wanted to have available on the new solutions was there. That has been the gap that we have been faced with from a customer perspective.
The majority of those things are behind us now, and by the middle of next month all our accounts will be working as they should as well as the new functionality that we are building into it.
Q: Who should customers talk to if they are not finding their information?
HB: Our primary interface from a walk-in perspective is the dealer stores and they have significant backline support. Our contact numbers remain the same, and our call centre is mandated to follow up on all queries. If you are unable to get the support you need from a dealer store, contact us directly.