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How T-Mobile Moved Thousands of Conference Rooms to Cisco Webex During a Pandemic
The ritual of logging on to a meeting with remote participants – whether over the phone or over a video conferencing platform – can be fraught with technical difficulties that frustrate the participants and eat up the time allotted for collaboration. Joshua Baever, Senior Systems Reliability Engineer at T-Mobile, was charged with finding a way to make videoconferencing work for T-Mobile's employees across multiple campuses.
During Cisco Live in June 2023, Baever sat down with No Jitter to explain why reducing hybrid meeting participants' log-in times matters to a company's bottom line, how to identify the pain points in meeting experiences, and what it was like working with Cisco to outfit 2,000-plus conference rooms with Webex during the beginning of the pandemic.
Q. Why is losing time in meetings such a problem? Why do you care if it takes people 15 minutes to log into a meeting?
Joshua Baever: It comes down to two or three factors. The first one is just user base burnout and frustration. I mean, think about the dread of every time you have to start a meeting – you know you're going to have to wrestle with the technology and it's going to make you look stupid, especially if you have clients coming in or clients trying to dial in and get them into the meeting. That not only makes you look incompetent, but it makes the business look incompetent like you can't put together a working solution.
The other one is just straight up cost. If I've got six employees walking into a conference room and they can't get a meeting working for ten minutes, that’s an hour of company time spent. Four years ago we only had 30-35 rooms using video telepresence out of maybe 3,000 and those rooms were handling 25 to 30 meetings a day and if employees are spending 10 minutes getting the meeting working, that's a lot of hours. That's a lot of money. A lot of wasted time.
Also, people were having to plan longer meetings as a result, which were taking more of their time, or they just get less time for collaboration, because a lot of people run back-to-back during a day. If I've got a 1 pm and then a 1:30 and I'm in a 12:30 meeting and it takes us 10 minutes to get up and running, then I only have 20 minutes to get the job done.
So, you know overall, the main thing was user burnout, just you know, awful meeting conditions. The second thing was just money burnout, right? We were just shoveling money into a fire.
Q. So it would not have been hard to go to upper management and hand them a dollar figure and say, "This is what we're losing –"
Baever: It wasn't hard. We went up and we handed them that dollar figure and the most difficult part was when they came back to us – because they came back and they said, "Okay, guys, we want [the user experience of] meeting join, audio, video and screen sharing under 60 seconds every day." And we were like, "The user base is seven minutes on average." I mean, how are we going to get to 60 seconds? It was insane. The research started.
Q: What kinds of data did you need to accurately diagnose where the pain points were?
Baever: This one was hard because [the answer] wasn't in the data we were currently collecting.
So at the time the data we were collecting was things like call data records meeting join time, which was really confusing because the average meeting join time was seven minutes, but my reports were showing me the average meeting join time was six seconds. This was because the system counted (meeting join time) the moment it connected. But then if microphones weren't working, if you couldn't get the projector up, if you couldn't share your screen, if you couldn't get video on, there was this invisible meeting join time experience that our users were dealing with.
I actually went to my manager and I said, "I'd like to take three days. I'd like to go sit outside conference rooms and I like to put a sign that says, 'Hey, come on in – give us 15 minutes of your time, get $5 Starbucks gift card. I just want you to make the room work.'"
And I sat there in uncomfortable silence while users tried to schedule, start a meeting look confused, do all this kind of stuff. And then the experience stopped at the 15-minute mark. Some people got done in two or three minutes. Other people never got it working.
I actually did it in half hour sessions. But for the first 15 minutes I let [the test subjects] kind of struggle with it. And then the last 15 minutes, I gathered their pain points, just user comments and I trained them on using the unit because most of them sat near these rooms. I did that for three days and three different rooms probably handed out 100 Starbucks gift cards. And but it gave us a great sampling of just random user data.
Q. With the user-identified pain points, were you able to discern trends pretty easily?
Baever: On this data, we only had a very small sampling. And the data that we were collecting from the units, which was very limited at the time, was still showing us this really shiny picture of experience that just wasn't true.
Q. So how did you eventually get to the point where you could say, look, the six second join time is a lie, because all it does is indicate that this thing clicked on?
Baever: The user data that we’d gathered was enough to prove that, because our leadership accepted this random sampling of data and the extrapolation of it out to the entire company.
Q. It's always helpful when you can quantify things and you were on the record with how effective your physical surveys were. Did you go into your physical surveys with an idea of what you were looking for? Or was the goal just to sit there and see what was going on?
Baever: So my initial work in discovering that information was very much a shotgun-approach, let's see what's out there. Because I had no idea what to expect.
During this whole process we had a new division around workplace experience at T-Mobile spin up. Their whole job was surveys, pulse of the company, that kind of stuff. So when we started deploying Webex, that's when we started targeting surveys at the buildings that were getting the equipment pain points. We started getting incredibly good data that was incredibly targeted to the specific people who were using [the equipment] for the specific issues that were going on. It was then that we started solving pain points in that department.
Q. So that was a combination of data and organizational culture. What did Cisco bring to that? Were they handing over data that you could use in conjunction with deployment?
Baever: We were analyzing all the other stuff – Zoom rooms, Microsoft Teams rooms, we were looking at Blue Jeans for meetings. When we looked at Cisco Webex they said let's get you into the Cisco Customer Experience program, and that program gave us access to designers to technical resources and too a few licenses in Control Hub and three rooms worth of hardware.
Cisco came out, looked at the rooms design, the systems, [and how] we installed it, and those three rooms were just so successful. We had metrics and analytics on the back end. I could tell you if the unit was having issues, I could tell you who connecting to the unit was having issues.
So that allowed us to really tour our executives through those rooms, and they started (using the set-up) and they're said, ‘this is the path we're going.’
The first thing we did was replace all 35 rooms that had video presence, because that was kind of our those were our most problematic rooms. They were running for about three months and they were just incredibly successful.
Q. So the Cisco relationship or arrangement was, "We will give you these three rooms. This is the support we have built in. You roll it out," and then on your end, your job was completely separate. Part of your job was just kind of coordinating the data that was coming and going?
Baever: Yes. So thankfully, all their data was coming to me. Because that's what I needed. I needed all the data. So it was it was just a fantastic story of success.
And then the year after we did the 35 rooms, [T-Mobile management] came to us. It was hilarious. They came to us in October – I remember it was October 31, 2019, because it was Halloween. They came to us and they said they said hey, we've got $10 million in budget excess. Do you guys think you can spend it? The equipment has to be received – it doesn't have to be installed but it has to be received – in T-Mobile's warehouse by December 31.
Cisco really had to push – the time was eight to 10 weeks on equipment – but we got the order on the October 31st to design and deploy $10 million with the hardware. It took us another week to get the hardware put together.
I was working almost 13-hour days during that week, just churning data, trying to find the rooms and then we placed a big order placed about and a half million dollars' worth of equipment and Cisco saved a million and a half for deployment. We handed it to our technicians and said, "Here's the money you're gonna spend next year in deploying all this stuff," and they were like, "Okay," and we just rolled.
Q. That was in 2019? The timing…
Baever: We moved the entire company to Webex from the software side first and that actually that was the savior during the pandemic because people already had the ability to meet on a rock-solid platform. The pandemic actually shutting down our offices allowed us to explode from 30 rooms to 300 rooms to 2,400 rooms.
Q. Was it difficult to justify putting in the effort for in-person spaces when there had been such a strong cultural current with, "Oh, we now live in a hybrid workplace world?"
Baever: At T-Mobile [one of our] core values is customer first. These principles [management said], they always work best when we're in a collaborative environment together. So what T-Mobile did instead of worrying about the fact that nobody was in the offices, they kind of doubled down on their in-office experience, and they had offices that people would want to come back to.