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Welcome to the XCellAir Blog! A few promises:

  1. Self-promotion will be kept to a minimum and if the occasional blurb on some achievement is jotted down, it’ll be accompanied by a market or technology-related piece or two.
  2. We’ll be posting regularly…otherwise, what’s the point?!
  3. Periodically, the blog will have nothing to do with industry stuff. Our team is comprised of interesting individuals and we’d like to let you see behind the curtain.

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Guerilla Engineering Part 2

Posted by Todd Mersch on 12 May 2017

Welcome to the second installment of our “Guerilla Engineering – Tales from the Start-Up Trenches” series of blog posts. This edition is half bravado and half ingenuity with a splash of impatience. As an independent software vendor, our customers (i.e. operators) are always afraid of the effort, coordination and support needed for our solution to work with their Wi-Fi hardware. Horror stories abound filled with a few common themes:

  • Hardware vendors not being willing to, or charging prohibitive fees to, support integration with a 3rd party software solution. There’s nothing nefarious here: these companies, like all of us, have a lot on their plate and always more requests than engineering capacity.
  • Poorly coordinated integration and on-going support between the independent hardware and software vendors. Generally, people play nice until an issue comes up… and then begins the finger pointing.

These situations combine to lead to untenable schedule delays and more complex vendor management.

We knew this perception would be a hurdle for us to get into the market, so since the beginning we’ve always aggressively taken on the responsibility to integrate and support our software with 3rd party Wi-Fi access points. Most of the time the integration was completed with limited to no assistance from the Wi-Fi equipment maker. This proactive approach has given us double digit proof points (i.e. we have successfully integrated with over a dozen different Wi-Fi APs), which often is enough. However, for this tale and particular customer it was not.

To set the stage, we had been the selected vendor for a field trial out of an extensive RFP. As the next step, the customer requested we put together a trial plan and scheduled a meeting to review it. The first step in the plan, of course, was to get our solution working with their existing Wi-Fi router. The meeting was nearly derailed by the abject fear of this process. Comments such as “our vendor will take months to support you” and “we’ll need to broker a three-way engagement” were thrown around, and regardless of all the examples we gave to the contrary we could not convince them it would be a simpler process than they imagined.

As we left the meeting and were walking back to the hotel (this was a Thursday), the group of us immediately agreed we had no choice but to prove with action where our words failed. Two actions immediately went into motion. First, we had to get our hands on the customer’s Wi-Fi router; second we needed to get their Wi-Fi hardware vendor to commit to allow us to complete the integration.

For the first action, as this was a residential product, we initially tried to find a friend, colleague, or otherwise who was a subscriber and had that specific router. When we struck out with that approach the next stop was online shopping – basically hunting through Craigslist and eBay. Luckily, we could find a few individuals selling the routers of this operator (note – this is completely legal as the routers had been purchased from the operator versus rented). After a few emails and meetings to pick-up the equipment (no time for shipping) we had three routers in our office the following Monday.

For the second, everyone on our team turned to their personal network to get in touch quickly with the correct people at the vendor and convince them that it was good for them, us and the customer to move this program forward quickly. It extends the life of the vendor’s Wi-Fi router at the operator, we were not going to bug them for a bunch of support, and it’s always great to do something the customer wants. They agreed to notify the customer that they were supportive of us running an application on the hardware, removing the need for any weighty three-way contracts. This happened on that Wednesday.

With those two boxes checked, the next challenge was to get into the Wi-Fi platform. Thankfully our team determined the root password and with that they were off and running. This was much easier than earlier platforms, where we soldered wires onto a Wi-Fi router to get serial port access. With the right platform access it took the Engineering team less than a week to integrate with the operator’s Wi-Fi router, we had their vendor on board with the engagement, and agreed to deliver a fully-tested integration by the end of the month. So by the Friday (i.e. 5 business days) after the original meeting we had assuaged concerns about engaging an independent software vendor to manage and optimize the operators existing and planned Wi-Fi equipment. Just another week at a start-up.

As I wrote in the introduction to this series, this is not something impossible to get done at a bigger company, but often the culture makes it more difficult. The engineer who bought the routers would have needed to enter it into a purchasing system and somehow gotten the individual private sellers of the Wi-Fi routers approved. Business development would have needed to go through specific channels to get a discussion going with the Wi-Fi equipment vendor and may have been reticent to get into specifics on the customer engagement without a formal partnering arrangement in place. These tools and processes are useful and necessary to scale – but when you’re fighting it out in the trenches they simply slows things down. The whole point of working with a company like XCellAir is speed and agility, otherwise it may not be worth the risk of engaging a smaller (I like to say “focused”) player. Thankfully, time and time again we have been able to make good on that promise.

Some may ask – “well how do you plan to scale the approach?” Fair question for sure. We have a dedicated team within our organization focused solely on new integrations and on-going support of existing integrations with supported Wi-Fi routers. This has been a part of the planned required investment since day one and fits well into our growth models. It requires investment and an organizational commitment – easier problems to tackle then the algorithms the team’s designed to solve Wi-Fi congestion!

Well that’s it for this round. Look out for more in the weeks to come.

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