Sprint Goes Loco for 'Low Code'

Mitch Wagner
5/21/2019
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Sprint is using a technique called "low code" development to speed up and streamline the process of getting its wireline customers online.

"We have a true need for process automation," Kathy Eichholz, Sprint director of IT architecture, tells Light Reading. "We needed to connect pieces up and automate a lot of tasks. We use the low-code platform to enable that, and do it a lot faster than if we tried to use traditional development methods."

Like every carrier, Sprint faces the need to get its customers online faster and reduce costs. It needs to connect workflows in disparate, purpose-built siloed applications that perform discrete functions from pre-sales, to quoting to building, Eichholz says.

To tie it all together, Sprint turned to a "low-code" development platform from Appian. As the name suggests, "low-code" enables so-called "citizen developers" -- business managers with little or no coding experience -- to build applications without having to write much code. The citizen developers work in conjunction with the IT department, of which Eichholz is part. IT contributes a design, and the citizen developers build the applications using drag-and-drop. "Appian lets you build reports, screens and navigate from point to point easily," Eichholz says.

In a general sense, "low code" means less hand-coding and more building application through dragging and dropping visual components. Appian is one of multiple vendors providing low-code environments; others include Salesforce, Mendix and OutSystems. Google launched a low-code tool last year it calls "App Maker," for developing business apps on G Suite, and Red Hat built low-code capabilities into its Fuse application integration service.

Sprint's citizen developers work in sales, contracts, finance and other lines of business as part of the operations support teams, Eichholz says. Their full-time jobs are technology support; they are attached to the business unit, and have little to no sophisticated programming background. Titles include business analyst or operational support, depending on the organization.

Sprint started the project in 2016. Deployment is broad -- about 10,000 users.

The low-code development allows Sprint to streamline IT. Sprint retired all of its mainframes, and about half of its application portfolio. It exited three data centers, with two now running, Eichholz says.

(One legacy application is still running on leased mainframe capacity; it's a 35-year-old TDM multiplexing system that predates the transition to IP networking; Sprint plans to continue running it until it's no longer needed. "It was easier to isolate it than replace it," Eichholz says.)

The applications and low-code platform run on-premises, and Sprint has no plans to move to public cloud, for regulatory reasons.

The Appian way
Appian allows Sprint to track long-running processes, which can take days or months to complete, such as provisioning customers, generating a quote and signing a contract, and billing. That can be a complicated process. A salesperson needs to trace the process from beginning to end, and trigger escalation and moving to the next step, Eichholz says.

Appian allows Sprint to build applications once to run on any device. The process can start at 8 a.m. on a work laptop, and end at 10 p.m. on a mobile device.

For example, Sprint uses low code to automate the mundane, but important, task of tracking contract renewals. These contracts cover software, leases for rights of way for telecom equipment, and contract renewals for customers based on servers purchased. That's a data-intensive business -- particularly with regard to software. Purchasing from vendors can involve multiple agreements and expiration dates.

Sprint has internal organizations whose job is managing contracts, payment terms and negotiating prices. The low-code platform aggregates all the information related to those processes and distributes it so that individuals running the business didn't need to refer to spreadsheets and Word documents to aggregate information. The low-code platform routes the correct information to the appropriate people, Eichholz says.

Appian provides integration of multiple applications through a single screen. "The individual isn't swivel chairing through four or five applications to accomplish something," Eichholz says.

Culture shift
As with any business-facing application, IT had to partner with business managers to make the changes. "Anytime you have business processes, you need engagement from the people who do the work," Eichholz says.

The IT side ensures the application works from a technology standpoint. "Low code doesn't mean low design. Low code means I have less rudimentary coding work. Design is still vital to make sure you're creating something that operates well, has no memory issues, and does not leave tasks incomplete, hung up, or stuck," Eichholz says. Code built by Sprint's citizen developers goes through design reviews before deployment.

Meanwhile, the business side had to work closely with developers to ensure that the business process change accompanying the software upgrade made sense. "When we started automating tasks, we had to optimize them first. We had to create different hand-offs between teams working together at different points in time. They had been doing the same process the same way for 20 years," Eichholz says.

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