Monday 5 November 2012, 09:50
The BBC's digital coverage of this summer's London Olympic Games has been widely recognized as a great success, with audience online viewing figures and feedback exceeding expectations, as detailed in Cait O'Riordan's post "The story of the digital Olympics".
Reporting to Cait, as the L2012 programme manager, I was responsible for the delivery of the product development and in this blog, I'll review some of the challenges we faced in delivering this coverage, how they were met by the BBC's Future Media delivery team, the key lessons we learnt along the way and the legacy that remains for the coverage of future major events.
This blog post is aimed at project and programme managers, but will be of interest to anyone facing the challenge of managing large software projects.
Organisation and Development Approach
The complexity of delivering 24 hour live coverage of every event, with up to 24 streams of video, web pages for each of the 30 venues, 204 teams, 10,490 athletes and the results of every event, alongside coverage of the Torch Relay and 2012 cultural events, required a large team of product development staff working alongside key suppliers, over an 18 month period up to the Games.
The team had significant experience in 'agile' website development using scrum and kanban techniques, but had to define how this would work alongside the more traditional 'waterfall' development with an immovable deadline. We were also working with partners to deliver the new technologies needed to deliver the 2500 hours of video and data driving the dynamic creation of thousands of web pages, which added to the complexity of coordinating the programme of work.
The programme organised the teams into two enabling workstreams for the delivery of the dynamic streaming video and data infrastructure and the remaining six for audience-facing propositions, including the main Olympic sports pages, the interactive video player, a 2012 portal and Torch Relay, connected tv apps, mobile browser and apps and the red button service. This enabled each team with their own editorial and technical leadership, business analysts, UX designers, developers and testers to build their own products, within a common architecture and API's to the shared data services.
As well as dividing the work by team, the functionality to be delivered was prioritised by 'core, target and additional' scope, which helped to group features or 'stories' into releases, from which we scheduled the delivery of the highest impact areas first. Working with our editorial and business stakeholders, we established the audience value of features in terms of their expected reach, impact and value for money, against the technical challenges of various implementation options.
Detailed estimates of the development and testing of each story comprising a feature or task, was undertaken, as part of the sprint planning process. Once approved through the governance process, we were able to schedule the releases and assign the development and testing resources accordingly.
To ensure we kept to schedule with our commitment to deliver all the core and target functionality, the prioritised backlog of stories was tracked using "burn-down" charts, with the actual achieved velocity monitored at the end of each fortnightly sprint and remedial actions taken to re-establish track as required.
Testing and Releases during the Summer of Sport
We planned to start releasing features from the first quarter of 2012, in order to give plenty of time for integration of the components and their end-to-end testing. An overview of the BBC's on-line architecture for the Olympics and the strategy in testing for the expected traffic levels across all platforms is covered by Matthew Clark's blog post on building the BBC's Olympic site.
As each iteration of development was completed an end of sprint 'show'n'tell' session was held, where project team members demonstrated their latest features to the stakeholders and other teams. This gave early visibility on how requirements were being implemented, recognition for team members and built confidence on progress towards the planned release.
Throughout the product lifecycle, both functional and non-functional requirements were agreed, developed, tested and refined. As soon as a viable product was available, it was promoted to a staging environment for integration with other products and performance testing. A cloud-based testing service was used to simulate the levels of user interaction expected during the Olympics, to test performance under load and how caching could improve responsiveness.
We found this testing invaluable in improving the resilience of the products, under both desired operation and failure modes.
The wide range of sporting events and the Torch Relay, in the lead-up to the Olympics, also provided an opportunity to beta test the Olympic web pages and multiple events video player, with real data where available. The LOCOG test events, Formula 1 racing, Euros football and Wimbledon tennis tournaments allowed new features in the interactive video player to be trialled in a live environment with our audiences and their experience using it on a range of browsers, tablets, phones and connected TV's provided useful feedback to the product teams.
Communication and Keeping Track of Everything
The development programme produced over 500 product releases across the 8 workstreams, involving a significant number of technical inter-dependencies, with hundreds of emergent risks, issues and changes to be managed along the way. The development teams were also working across two sites; the London W12 Media Village and the recently established Media City in Salford.
Co-ordinating this and keeping everyone informed of progress required regular meetings with teams and stakeholders, ranging from daily team stand-ups, to weekly management reviews, fortnightly steering groups and monthly boards. We made extensive use of video and tele-conferencing, instant messaging, VoIP, wiki's and collaboration tools on both desktop and hand-held devices to do this.
To provide the latest input to these meetings and track progress, we required programme-wide, web-based information systems. For product development and
release, we used a ticketing system to plan releases, epics and stories down to individual task level and found this worked well, although it required significant effort to create and maintain the deployment tickets.
For project control and reporting, we configured a BBC in-house application to capture and constantly update all our milestones, risks, assumptions, issues, dependencies (RAID) and progress. This enabled RAID items that impacted across workstreams to be escalated and prioritised for resolution. Typical outputs were one page RAG reports, top risks and issues and release dashboards.
Using these communications and information tools, we were able to triage the daily workload of tasks and problems to be solved and keep a wide range of stakeholders engaged and informed of progress.
We captured the lessons from the programme as we went along, from end of sprint retrospectives and the rich data captured in our information systems above. At the end of the Olympics the project managers facilitated workshops to capture additional successes and improvement opportunities and share these with their colleagues. From these on-line surveys and interviews with stakeholders, over 300 lessons were captured in our project register.
The key lessons touched on above were the importance of organising and planning the work amongst self-directed, multi-disciplinary teams, with a layer of information and communication support provided by the management team.
The ability to prioritise the scope and deliver it incrementally with frequent opportunities to test at scale and in a live environment, contributed to the success of a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event for the BBC's on-line audiences.
The BBC's digital video coverage and results from the Olympics will remain online until the expiry of the rights on 13 Jan 2013. Beyond that, there will be an archive of material, available for audiences to enjoy for many years to come.
The technology that was developed to deliver this coverage continues to be enhanced, including the high definition video streaming infrastructure and the linked data, for use in other BBC on-line products and future live events. Keep an eye on BBC Sport site for on-going developments
The experience and lessons learned in delivering this exciting programme will be carried forward by the team members into their next projects, while the environment and process limitations identified, will drive improvements in technology provision and uptake of best practices.
Mark Smith is a Programme Manager in Knowledge & Learning, BBC Future Media
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