How Sky UK uses Atlassian tools to improve communication between developers and business teams

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The tools are used to manage software development for Sky's CRM platform

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Sky UK is using Atlassian collaboration tools to manage software development for its customer relationship management (CRM) systems, helping to improve communication between developers and business teams.

The company has more than 12 million customers across its television, broadband, and telecoms service. Keeping all of them happy is no easy task, but Sky UK still consistently tops Ofcom's customer satisfaction reports. Central to this success is the performance of the CRM platform used in the company's contact centres across the country. Atlassian products are used to manage software development for the platform and communicate on its progress.

The tools has helped break down the barriers between the business and the IT team by making the entire process of deployment clear for everyone involved. Previously project managers and delivery managers would regularly complain that they weren't being kept abreast of developments on products that each other were working on. Atlassian has made the progress of each process visible to all. 

"It's been a real game changer," says Sky UK software development tools specialist David Grierson. "[The tools] don't necessarily tell you the answers; they tell you the questions to ask. So if you see something trending one way or the other, then it tells you who you need to speak to and what actually might be worth finding out. It's really opened up a culture of communication that just wasn't there before.

"The great thing is that you can go from software delivery all the way upstream to the overarching business need, or you can start at that business need and see how that feeds down the tree into hundreds and hundreds of user stories.

"It's about traceability; it's about auditability. Not necessarily aspects of control, but encouraging visibility of development rather than hiding things in silos. Breaking down those walls is really critical to me."

Atlassian tools

Atlassian produces a number of collaboration tools designed to support IT teams across the software development lifecycle. The best-known of them are the Confluence collaboration platform, and the JIRA Software project management and bug-tracking system. The former is a space to organise, share and discuss project information, while the latter provides actionable insights into each new sprint as it develops, with features such backlog management, project tracking and a choice of agile boards and reports.

Atlassian also produces a chat application called HipChat, and a code tracking tool called FishEye that lets users search, track, visualise and report on any changes to software code.

Grearson and his UK Information Systems (UKIS) team at Sky use JIRA to plan, track and prioritise software releases. Projects are structured into units of individual tasks, known as "stories", or large bodies of work, called "epics", and any connected ideas and issues are logged by the product.

They also use Confluence to collaborate on project plans and product requirements from development tracking through to release management and operations. Work is organised across a structured hierarchy that users can search and leave feedback on by commenting on inlines, pages and files.

[Read next: Nine of the best enterprise collaboration software tools]

All of their source code is indexed with FishEye, which connects back into JIRA where changes can be tracked. All three Atlassian products can be searched to find out about any aspect of the process of the software updates.

JIRA also functions as an operations deployment engine that can automate new releases, so developers no longer have to contact somebody else to request that they are made.

"At the end of March we were at 2,000 deployments executed in this calendar year, so that's on track for 40,000 deployments to environments for 2017," says Greirson.

"The cost savings associated with we estimate are going to be about £700,000 in developer efficiency, just by being able to use JIRA to initiate those deployments, rather than a developer having to wait for somebody to actually execute it for them. That's a no-brainer. The amount of effort that it took us to automate that was minimal."

Implementing Atlassian

Grierson joined Sky in January 2013, a few years after the team had first begun to experiment with Atlassian tools as a result. As is often the case with the adoption of new software in enterprises, says Grierson, they were initially used because "a developer had an itch to scratch." That itch was the existing system in place to control software development: IBM ClearQuest.

"We were unable to extend the reporting, we were unable to get data out, we were unable to carry out modern methods like burn down charts," explains Grearson.

"You had to export the data to excel and then come up with an appropriate graphing mechanism for exporting that data and ClearQuest was just left behind essentially as a product. IBM stopped really developing it."

The developers at Sky were using JIRA to work around those inadequacies. Grierson was tasked with fully implementing the software as a replacement for ClearQuest, a process he says was straightforward due to Atlassian's open APIs, an integral aspect of company's developer ecosystem.

[Read next: Atlassian launches first data centre in Europe as part of global expansion]

The software supports any programming languages that can interpret the JSON open-standard data format. Sky has therefore been able to independently add any integrations they've required, without the need to involve external vendors that would bind them to the company.

"I'm a big fan of heterogeneous environments with regard to vendors," says Grierson. "The vendor support when you get locked into a particular stack always makes me cautious, and Atlassian are good because their data is exposed.

"They allow us to integrate [Apache] Subversion of GitLab or our own release note mechanism. It's not that we have to use Bitbucket or we have to use release notes within JIRA. We can actually extend the product ourselves."

Atlassian products were initially known for occasional stability issues and a focus on features at the expense of performance, but neither are any longer an issue at Sky.

"They have got a hell of a lot better," says Grearson. "I can't remember the last outage we had for our apps caused by an app crash."

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