Real-World Applications of Increased Visibility

What can change in an organization when you increase visibility? A lot.

Previously I wrote about how providing visibility to key information is a core enabler of high-functioning, high-speed teams. When put into practice, information visibility increases can lead to transformative results. In this post I’ll use a mix of Scalyr customers and others I’ve worked with in my couple of decades here in Silicon Valley to show you concrete examples where companies have realized these benefits.

Common to all of these use cases is the elimination of “middlemen” and dramatically decreasing latency in the information retrieval process. Giving employees direct, rapid access to the information they need to make effective decisions facilitates decentralized decision-making and chips away at organizational silos. Enhancing knowledge worker productivity using this approach is not new. Harvard Business School analyzed the implications of decentralized decision-making, and GE conceptualized its path to eliminating silos more than 25 years ago. Unsurprisingly, in both cases the benefits far outweighed the costs.

Whether we’re talking about engineers or customer service specialists (and we’ll cover both) remember that Data != Information. Simply having access to data—even if it represents every event happening everywhere in your environment—isn’t enough. Care and effort must be taken to ensure that data is processed and organized to be immediately consumable by the intended audience.

As a general rule of thumb, figure that half of the work will be in gathering, storing, and calculating the raw data. The other half of the work is around the presentation and organization of information.

Engineering and SaaS Use Cases

These next examples walk through the benefits that result from giving engineers increased visibility into production environments. Similar impacts can be seen in Dev/Test environments, visibility into CI/CD pipelines, testing status, and related environments. In short, any situation with multiple teams and a potential “black box” is a candidate to reap the benefits of increased transparency.

Shortening the Product Defect Lifecycle

This is such a common—and important—use case for increased visibility that we wrote an entire post on it. Visibility is the first step in the process: Is the Customer Support team immediately alerted to issues? Can your CS and Dev teams get direct access to logs when troubleshooting? Do all of your teams have clear visibility into the same data? Answer no to any of those and your teams are wasting valuable time because they lack the visibility required to shorten the defect lifecycle.

Our customers report that their internal latency times around bug triage, inter-team escalations, and root cause analysis typically decrease by a factor of 5-10 when using Scalyr. Interestingly Scalyr customers have told us that this change matters less over time because increased visibility into log data doesn’t just shorten the product defect lifecycle—it actually decreases the number of product defects. They attribute this decrease to individual engineers’ very high engagement with the log data leading to them catching a correspondingly greater percentage of issues earlier in the development process.

Next Generation Deployment Techniques

Imagine if you will a traditional code deployment pipeline, one where the engineering team hands over a release to Ops, Ops deploys it during a specific window within which QA tests, and both Ops and Customer Support stand by post-deployment to verify the health of the running system. But if your goal is to deploy continuously, with multiple releases per week (or per day!) or partial releases via feature flags, blue/green deployments, or similar incremental deployment strategies, the traditional process quickly breaks down.

Why? In traditional environments, engineers monitor releases with prebuilt dashboards and tools (like daily email reports) but cannot access individual server logs or system/application performance metrics for the full stack. As companies move to a more integrated code release pipeline, developers need a more granular and up-to-date view of their code operating in production.

The continuous delivery model can only succeed if engineers have easy access to:

  • The current state of production systems
  • The detailed state of their code (dashboards aren’t enough)
  • All relevant log files (and when in doubt, let them see the data)

Logs as Primary Data

This next use case is slightly different since not only do employees need access to logs, but they need it fast enough to use in their typical decision-making workflow. Once you have that in place something magic happens… your logs become a primary information source, not one of last resort. The specific implications of this are pretty wide-ranging, but among Scalyr customers, the most common benefits are:

  • Better logging. Once developers know they can get to the logs for real debugging, they start putting more, and cleaner, logging events in their code.
  • Democratized access to logs. When engineers can freely explore how applications are running in production, more eyes are on the lookout for problems, engineers build code for “what is” vs. how things were described to them, and teams operate more asynchronously.
  • Better tools. Knowledge that the data you need is reliably in a central location allows enterprising teams to build specific tools to assist with team-specific issues. This is particularly powerful as over time teams build numerous small tools that would never make the official roadmaps but still provide tangible benefits.

The exact implications for you will depend on how your teams decide to make use of this new power. As the saying goes, “Garbage in, garbage out,” but clean and descriptive logs can transform a business,  as I’ll show in the next use cases.

From Engineering and SaaS to Customer Service

Visibility is not just a high-leverage tool for teams reporting to the CIO or VP of Engineering. Any team working to decentralize decision-making or increase organizational efficiency can benefit. The next two examples highlight how non-technical customer-facing teams made transformative changes by enabling employee visibility into operational metrics and data.

Improving Customer Support

Recently Return Path, a leading provider of outbound email services, granted all of their Tier 1 customer support employees direct access to the production application logs. This simple but dramatic shift reduced ticket turnaround times from three business days to about five minutes for customer issues like the following.

Previously, when a support rep received a ticket from a customer complaining that an email wasn’t delivered, the three-day investigation process went something like this:

  1. Work with the customer to verify common email client or other end-user issues weren’t to blame.
  2. Contact Ops to verify that no known issues for the application were to blame.
  3. Create a ticket for the Ops team to pull the relevant logs.
  4. Receive the logs and review the delivery status of the email(s) in question.
  5. Get back to the customer and if required, open a second ticket with Ops or Engineering for any application issues found.

Not the best experience for the customer…

Fast-forward to today and that the same ticket is handled much differently. While on the phone or chat with the customer, the support rep:

  1. Gets the customer’s message ID.
  2. Queries the application logs for the full status of that message (or any other potentially relevant messages) to identify the issue.
  3. Gives the customer an immediate answer and if required, creates a ticket for Ops or Engineering.

Not only is the customer experience dramatically improved, both the customer support and Ops teams can spend more time on actual work and less time passing around tickets.

Contact Center Employee Optimization

My last example veers off the standard software development and SaaS path to a very different type of organization: contact centers. For those of you not familiar with the space, contact centers consist of inbound customer support centers, inbound or outbound sales teams, and medium- to large-scale call centers. Contact centers have long had a multitude of metrics used to track their performance. These metrics are used for several key things, most importantly the contact center’s financial and employee performance.

A startup I once worked with called Merced Systems, stepped into the contact center space with a fairly simple proposition. If employees, frontline managers, and company executives had access to key metrics in a timely manner through a user interface that allowed them to understand the raw data, they could use that information to drive more efficient and successful customer engagements. In other words, they built a product that enabled employee visibility into contact center operational metrics and allowed their customers to operate more efficiently.

Customers realized these efficiency gains in several key areas:

  • Employees could self-optimize their actions to meet real-time goals.
  • Managers could evaluate employee performance based on actual vs. perceived performance.
  • Executives could analyze contact center performance along various dimensions.

Net result? Extremely happy customers like T-Mobile, Coca Cola, Echostar, and many others— and Merced Systems going from idea to $170m acquisition in less than 10 years. All from the simple idea that granting everyone visibility to key information leads to more efficient operations.

These examples give you some ideas on where, and how, you can apply increased visibility to your environment. If you have a story about how visibility into the right information transformed your environment, we’d love to hear it about it in the comments below!

Next time I’ll be talking about the nuts and bolts of enabling visibility in SaaS environments and where we’ve seen the biggest bang for the buck.

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