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Digital Platform in a turbulent energy market

Michiel Valk
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The energy market has been undergoing significant changes, with rising energy prices and a heightened awareness among customers about their energy consumption. This has propelled energy management into the spotlight and set higher demands for the availability and user-friendliness of digital platforms in this space.

For me and my teams, this has been a challenging yet fulfilling period of learning and growth. Our journey has taught us valuable insights and experiences that have helped us create a stronger foundation for a scalable digital platform. We've learned that energy is not just a necessary commodity, but a product of significant interest to our customers. As a result, we've worked tirelessly to make energy management easier and more accessible than ever before. In this blog post, we would like to share our journey and the lessons we've learned along the way. So, join us on our journey and discover how we're pushing the boundaries of what's possible in energy management.

Always on Digital Platform

At Essent, we realized our customers have increasing expectations for our app or online portal. They expect a seamless and swift experience, no matter the time of day. Our experience has shown, however, that a large media attention on energy prices can instantly lead to a surge in usage of our app. For example, we have seen how a news item can immediately result in a spike in customers seeking information about their contract.
Despite leveraging advanced cloud technology and integrating non-functional requirements into our design patterns, we faced significant challenges when dealing with a 300%(!) surge in usage compared to previous peak periods. As a consequence, our services experienced slow functionality or even extended outages. The time to act was now. To accommodate such a high volume of usage, we had to re-examine the configuration of our Digital Platform and the services it provides. Our aim was to ensure that our platform remains operational at all times, even in the face of unforeseen spikes in usage. As a result, we implemented the following enhancements:

• We revamped our Digital platform's essential services using serverless technology, implementing caching principles, streamlining service complexity, and optimizing the setup for scalability. As a result, we achieved improved uptime and reduced response time variability. Our journey was so transformative that we plan to publish a dedicated blog post about it, as there is much to share!

• We fine-tuned the data usage of our apps and portals by modifying the timing of data consumption from our backend services. This optimization helped us achieve faster response times and prevent sluggishness. Our team learned a valuable lesson about the significance of data-driven analysis in optimizing service performance. By closely scrutinizing service behavior, we gained valuable insights that enabled us to make crucial improvements.

• We incorporated a "virtual waiting room" feature to address extreme usage peaks from our customers. In such exceptional scenarios, it is nearly impossible to avoid temporary performance degradation. Therefore, we implemented the virtual waiting room, which requires customers to wait briefly before accessing our online portal. Our intention is for this feature to be a temporary solution. Ultimately, our goal is to minimize and eliminate the need for the "virtual waiting room" in all situations.

The War Room

During times of performance challenges, we found that we often required multiple teams to work together to identify the root cause. For complex services, this was nearly unavoidable. Initially, we observed that the teams sometimes would pass the buck when it came to finding the root cause, but we quickly realized that establishing a "war room" with lead engineers from each team was crucial for accelerating the problem-solving process. This not only created collective ownership in finding the root cause but also led to more efficient combination of insights, resulting in faster and more accurate improvement actions. We have now made the war room approach a standard for major issues, including a clear procedure for the problem-solving process.

Main learnings in the “war room approach” is that you must define clear roles during the problem-solving process. It’s not that easy by only bringing the expertise at one table will solve the puzzle. It has to be clear who leads this war room, who monitors the progress on the milestones, who registers the actions in the problem solving and who collects the data for further analysis. Throughout the problem-solving process, it's crucial to take deliberate steps to prevent jumping to conclusions and overlooking critical data. We've also discovered the importance of regularly evaluating our approach to become more effective at problem-solving. To facilitate this evaluation, we implemented a "blameless postmortem" process, where all team members involved in the response effort reflect on the root causes and the problem-solving process.

Ingraining digital transformation principles into our DNA

My personal takeaway from our journey is that integrating these insights and patterns into a business in a structured and disciplined manner is not an easy task. However, the key to success lies in making these principles a fundamental part of our culture and values, ingrained deeply in our people's DNA. This is what will enable us to cultivate a mindset of continuous improvement, striving to enhance our digital platform every day and maintaining an always-on presence in the online world.

Of course, this pursuit comes with its own set of challenges, requiring a lot of commitment and consistent effort to achieve progress. But by integrating these learnings, we can foster a culture of innovation, experimentation, and growth, empowering our team members to take calculated risks and challenge the status quo in order to drive progress and create sustainable impact.
We believe that by instilling these values in our team, we can create a company culture that thrives on finding new and better ways to serve our customers. We're excited to push our boundaries and continue to learn and grow, knowing that our efforts will ultimately benefit not only our organization but also our customers, who can expect an even better and more efficient experience on our platform. So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Michiel Valk

Chief Information Officer

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