The new ways that customers are consuming energy are forcing energy and utility providers to evolve beyond being commodity-based. Customers want superior service, and for the first time, alternative energy sources are providing customers with options for where they get their services.
Avertra — a global integration services, product development, and consultancy organization — provides the tools that companies within the energy and utilities industry need to evolve—but first, the firm had to undergo a transformation of its own.
Macro problems require microservices
Avertra’s mission is to provide safe, secure, and innovative solutions that solve the problems that prevent energy and utility companies from delivering the superior service that consumers are increasingly demanding.
One of those core problems is a general lack of efficiency. The customer onboarding process is a good example. “An agent has to go through a series of validations to verify that a customer can and should be able to move into a service territory. An agent must know what they’re looking for, and they have to access multiple systems, screens, and applications to complete a simple process,” explains Avertra’s CEO, Bashir Bseirani.
Energy and utility organizations use a variety of stand-alone applications. Because the applications are siloed, manual work is required to bring data together and execute basic business processes like validating new customers. “A lot of our competitors are building products that are replication-based. It forces utilities to maintain data in multiple source systems and ensure data integrity. We were confident there’s a better way. That’s why we decided to build MiUtility,” Bseirani says.
“A lot of our competitors are building products that are replication-based. It forces utilities to maintain data in multiple source systems and ensure data integrity.”—Bashir Bseirani
The MiUtility platform integrates the various technical capabilities and services that utility companies need to serve their customers. MiUtility offers a microservices architecture with a reusable set of core domain models that become extendable into different features and services. This simplifies the number of clicks and screens agents have to navigate to carry out business processes. With MiAgent, one of the products within MiUtility, what was once a 16-minute on-boarding process is reduced to five minutes.
While Avertra’s thought leaders had a clear vision for transforming the utility industry with MiUtility, making that vision a reality was another story.
Over a five-year period, Avertra had invested over ten million dollars to fulfill its mission and build MiUtility. “Even though we have the best people in the game and we have the brightest minds working on these projects, we still faced issues, and technology was a part of it,” Bseirani says.
Avertra’s development team is distributed across the United States, India, the Middle East, and the Netherlands. Communication issues and time zone differences led to continuous refactoring and delays. “Misunderstandings by our engineering team led to issues with architecture, which caused issues with the actual development and delivery,” Bseirani says. “All those things required more time, more time, and more time.”
Communication problems and delays were compounded when changes were required to the platform, whether those changes were driven by legislation, evolving customer expectations, or the underlying technology. For example, upgrading to Microsoft .NET Core set the MiUtility project back weeks due to architecture redesign, integration testing, and usability testing.
Avertra had the industry expertise and development talent, but the challenges became a major roadblock, according to Bseirani: “We realized that unless we did something differently, these problems wouldn’t go away, and change would continually become harder and harder for us.”
Surveying the field
Bseirani performed a cost-benefit analysis to determine a course of action. “It was a no-brainer for us. It made financial sense to abandon tens of millions of dollars of investment and adopt a low-code approach to development,” Bseirani says.
He explains: “It wasn’t a question of ‘Why low-code?’ but ‘Why not low code?’ Low-code wipes out a lot of our architectural and technical debt. Instead of focusing on development, it frees us up to focus on innovation, design, user experience, and customer experience. Those are the most important things, and you need a great platform that will help your engineers focus on them.”
Avertra thoroughly assessed the vendors identified by Gartner as market leaders in the low-code development space. Avertra’s developers built the same application in each platform and evaluated the platforms based on a variety of criteria, including ease of troubleshooting. Bseirani wanted to know how easily and quickly his team would be able to solve problems on each platform. “From a troubleshooting standpoint, Mendix was by far the most powerful platform in terms of how fast we’re able to solve as well as educate ourselves about a problem,” he says.
“We wanted to make sure that we'd be able to integrate with things like SAP and Watson for cognitive services.”—Bashir Bseirani
Scalability was also key for Bseirani: “Our goal is for MiUtility.com to become the Salesforce.com of the utility industry. We felt super confident that Mendix could deliver the extensibility and scalability we need to do that.”
Bseirani also sought a platform with the most flexibility, which is important for ensuring that MiUtility can continue to support energy and utility companies well into the future. “We wanted to make sure that we’d be able to integrate with things like SAP and Watson for cognitive services,” Bseirani says. “We wanted to bring in machine-learning components.”
At the end of Avertra’s product evaluations, they chose Mendix. “We liked the Mendix story, because it reminded us of ourselves. We’re both innovators that are thinking in a different way, and trying to stand out as the market leader where there are bigger players,” Bseirani says.
Supercharged with low-code
Over the course of rebuilding MiUtility in Mendix, Avertra’s development team transformed itself. Because Mendix accelerates application creation with visual modeling tools and reusable components, smaller teams can collaborate on focused parts of MiUtility.
“Mendix has made our team more collaborative because we can operate in a smaller team environment. Jeff Bezos has his two-pizza model. Our philosophy is, we should be able to build an app with a team big enough to eat one pizza. When Bezos decided to do his two-pizza model, he didn’t know about Mendix, and he didn’t know about the power of it,” Bseirani says.
“Our philosophy is, we should be able to build an app with a team big enough to eat one pizza.”—Bashir Bseirani
In addition to improving collaboration, Mendix makes it easier for new engineers to become familiar with Avertra’s development environment. Prior to Mendix, it took three to five months for a new engineer to understand the model, architecture, business case, code base, and the development and deployment processes. With Mendix, engineers are up to speed in around four weeks.
Avertra’s development team now has ample time and opportunity to innovate. “We now have the ability to be free thinkers, to say to our developers and business leaders, ‘If you have the time, go build something that you think we can take to market, and bring it back and present it to us.’ That’s extremely important for us as a company,” Bseirani says.
3-5 months to 4 weeks
With Mendix, Avertra was able to significantly reduce engineer onboarding time.
A conduit for transformation
The new and improved MiUtility powered by Mendix is set to transform how utilities adopt and use technology to support their customers.
“MiUtility started as a humble, self-service solution and made its evolution into a multi-product platform with high levels of configurability,” says Matt Daniels, Director of Engineering, Research & Development for Avertra. “MiUtility’s integration architecture focuses on flexibility and the ability to integrate in many different ways.”
Avertra resells Mendix to its customers, enabling them to customize MiUtility to fit their needs. To that end, MiUtility supports a wide variety of integrations. Fully built extensions for SAP IS-U include over 100 web services integrations so utilities can start working with MiUtility out of the box. An extensive plugin framework also allows utilities to integrate the platform with other services commonly used by the industry, such as scheduling, identity verification, and payment systems.
Utility companies can also develop their own applications in MiUtility. They are enabling customers to support themselves. Customers can work side-by-side with Avertra or develop their own applications using MiUtility libraries that Avertra pre-built with their features, functions, and connections to enhance the customer’s overall business performance.
The crown joule of utility software
Avertra is poised to address whatever new challenges its customers encounter, having itself transformed to be more agile and responsive to the utility industry’s needs.
MiUtility’s flexibility extends to deployment as well. “With Mendix, we now can do a proof of concept in weeks. We can take a utility company from zero to hero with Mendix and MiUtility in less than six weeks. That’s unheard of. No other platform, no other combination of services can do that,” Bseirani says.
He continues: “All of that will make MiUtility the largest enabler that any utility could dream of for their digital transformation journey.”