How France’s SFR used a ‘chocolate factory’ to launch a European cloud

This is a guest post from Benjamin Revcolevschi, who leads the cloud & services business for SFR, France’s second largest carrier. He’ll be speaking out our CloudBeat 2012 event on Nov 28-29.

SFR cloud strategy head

Above: Benjamin Revcolevschi

Around this time last year, France’s second-largest telecom carrier SFR asked me and my team to reinvent its cloud business.

Specifically, SFR tasked us to devise a competitive offering of cloud and other services. A French competitor to Amazon, if you will.

To pull this off, it was clear we needed to exert some change from within.

SFR wasn’t your sprightly startup. It was a 15-year-old giant, with $15 billion in sales and 10,000 employees and heavy on hierarchy and process. Aside from its roots as a telecom company, SFR is also a major IT supplier: So its IT department had its own standards. This was going to take some thinking outside of the box.

Happy Hour

Above: The Chocolate Factory

So … we broke our offices walls and created what we called the “Chocolate Factory.”

It started with a new working space for the small executive team that would launch this cloud project. First, we created an open-plan working space — almost unheard of among large French companies (closed-door offices are the norm). We wanted to make sharing, openness, collaboration more important than rules. We saw this as new way of managing. Almost all conversations and phone calls were made in the open. Targets, projects, ideas, crises, decisions, everything — we discussed all collectively.

SFR Chocolate Wall European cloudIn the middle of the Chocolate Factory sat a large oval table. It became the workplace for the 10 managers on our team. A few work counters lined the edges of the room. We also had some bean bags. No doors. No more boundaries. No meetings.

One of our principles was availability. An open, inviting place makes for open minds. Anyone from each of the executive’s teams — some 250 employees — or from even the wider SFR corporation in general — thousands of employees — could come and ask questions. We pledged to always take time to answer.

chocolate factory funShortly thereafter, last November, we decided to attend VentureBeat’s CloudBeat event in San Francisco. It was a critical juncture for us: We met a number of partners there, listened closely to the great conversations about where the cloud was headed, and came away with the conviction and authority to implement our strategy. More on how that unfolded in a second.

But we arrived back to our Chocolate Factory in France and surfed daily on the extraordinary collective energy we’d unleashed within our offices. We’re still surfing.

sfr cloud offering IaaSThe benefits and challenges are numerous. First, on the beneficial side, whenever a new challenge comes up, it’s immediately on the table — and so is every new idea to address it. With all of us there, we can put the pieces of the puzzle together instantly.

However, this also puts special demands on an executive team. They have to give up their accustomed comforts. Spacial privacy? None. They have to be unusually agile: able to manage their own existing organizations (outside of the Factory room) while also working 100 percent as a team (within the room). This requires multitasking — an ability to instantly pop on to team subjects and then to organizational ones.

cloudbeat team

Above: SFR team at CloudBeat 2011

It requires responsibility: Someone in the Chocolate Factory should always be there to make decisions on behalf of the team. And they need to do that, regardless of their specific responsibility, be it marketing, sales, R&D, or HR. Indeed, interchangeability is another key principle: Anyone present can decide for the others if not present, and we then collectively support their decision. This builds emulation and deep solidarity when problems surge. We like to run the business our own way: a very short paperboard meeting every Monday morning to share each of our priorities for the week, frequent short and improvised discussions, and regular debriefings.

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With our minds brought into this highly mobilized and hectic state, well, we often need to breathe — and we do that with the help of our chocolate. Members of the team bring in dozens of different sorts of chocolate, and it’s always on the oval table. This chocolate often spurs creativity. You can see it on the walls: pictures, drawings, achievements, key figures, serious slides and not-so-serious slides — all a good way to build a collective spirit!

We also actively seek to open this up to others in the wider organization: Happy hours take place in the Chocolate Factory every Thursday evening, where we share and exchange with our wider teams on progress and new ideas. Fun at work is also key: Decoration is fun, BYOD is common, and, of course, our chocolate!

Chocolate Wall SFR

Above: Chocolate Wall

OK, so about the cloud!

To change a big telco company like ours — a major IT user itself — and make it move to the cloud with both its customers and employees, you need three things: a bold and heavily sponsored strategy, expertise, and a kick in culture and environment.

  • Our strategy was, and is, clear: We have delivered an end-to-end cloud solution, complete with service-level agreements and IT/Telco bundling. This became even clearer after our trip to Cloudbeat 2011, the conference where everything came together for us. Among other things, we met storage provider, Scality, which became our storage provider.
  • Our expertise is sharp: Our team has 10 years of IT experience, and we’d also had three years of a strategic partnership with HP on our public cloud platforms. We have built our own cloud solution based on HP Operations Orchestration, and it will soon evolve to OpenStack.
  • And the kick came from the Chocolate Factory, as mentioned.

SFR cloudAnd it’s working! While we keep on selling our cloud offerings and developing our new Saas and storage offerings, we launched a new company, Numergy, this September. Numergy is a key new player in the European Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) sectors. It also has the French state behind it. Together, SFR, the French state and another IT partner, Bull, have invested $300 million into the company.

It took us four months to build the company and get the first customers in. With both public and private investors on the board, it’s difficult to believe we got things done that quickly. None of this would have been possible without the Chocolate Factory!

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