Unitymedia: No escape

Vodafone is currently taking over the cable operator Unitymedia. The 18 billion acquisition is somewhat easier to digest thanks to the many IT-savvy employees who CIO Ulrich Irnich has trained in the “Escape Room”. And through an API hub from Mulesoft.


In the 2nd basement of Unitymedia, just behind the sprinkler system…


“True Dungeon” may have been the first Escape Game. But the real, real dungeon is hidden in Cologne, Aachener Straße 748. Disguised as the headquarters of Unitymedia, the building seems harmless at first. But this is where the IT department is located, in the second basement, behind the sprinkler control centre. The daylight has long since left the visitor when the fire door cracks open. Behind it, an IT technician lolls behind two 24-inch monitors and grins with pleasure as his four prisoners work their way through the escape room. This is where IT is trained.


…the daylight has long since left the visitor. There is a solution lighting up.


CIO Ulrich Irnich told the prisoners the following story: A hacker crawled behind the sprinkler system. He has seized the “Cable Master” system. Cable Master is the CRM solution that Unitymedia uses to deal with its approximately 7.2 million end customers. The thing used to be a standard Netcracker solution, but over the years it has been so successfully bent that only a few employees really know the code. And a hacker who implanted a Trojan. The task for the four prisoners in the escape room is: Get out of here in 60 minutes to stop the Trojan. “Don’t make them so bad,” says the IT expert behind the monitor.



CIO Ulrich Irnich


The task is fictitious, but the learning effect is real. By the way, every participant understands that he has to think along when it comes to IT security. And the group grows together. Since April, specialist departments have been sending teams of 4 to 6 people into the room. On three days a week, three of a total of 170 IT employees are allowed to stay away from their actual tasks in order to descend to the second floor. They are part of the team that came up with the Escape Game as part of the Unitymedia HR measure “Tell Your Story”. “I then gave them 3000 Euros so they could build the room,” says Irnich. The colleagues then started with their own cordless screwdrivers to, among other things, fix a shelf in the room, which plays a key role in the game. More will not be revealed. Anyone who has ever left the Escape Room is not allowed to talk any further about the solution. Just this much: “It’s already demanding”, says Irnich: “My expectations were far exceeded.”


A project that 15 IT experts implemented at the beginning of the summer is not quite as inexpensive but equally successful: In just six weeks, they built a test environment and redesigned 150 APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). The shortlist for the API hub included Apigee (purchased by Google in 2016) and Mulesoft (purchased by Salesforce in 2018). Arcana hadn’t made the shortlist, although Unitymedia’s former owner Liberty used exactly this API hub. Irnich chose his shortlist shortly after Liberty had just heralded the decentralized phase and delegated the IT decisions back to the regions. Soon after, Vodafone decided to buy Unitymedia and other Eastern European cable operators from Liberty Global for 18 billion euros. Irnich, who almost went to Vodafone before his time as CIO, smiles: “They could have got me for less money.”


In the end, the race for the API hub was only between Google and Salesforce. “They didn’t differ much from the solution,” says Irnich: “In the end, it was really small things and a better connection to our long-standing contacts at Mulesoft.” And they simply had the better connection to Mulesoft. But that was before Salesforce bought Mulesoft. “At first I had concerns: Oh, now the coordination is getting more complex and tedious. But that didn’t show up at all,” says Irnich. Sometimes the negotiations about the right license took longer than the release. All in all, however, it still went quickly. Even the contact persons are still the same.


There are plenty of programming interfaces at Unitymedia, because on the one hand systems like the beautiful old AS400 are still running in the company. Unitymedia has only been around since 2005, but IT has obviously started with some legacy. The CIO can’t find anything bad about the mainframes: “You have to be fair,” says Irnich: “AS400s or P9s drive like oil tankers. That’s all it takes.” On the other hand, the number of interfaces is multiplied by the number of partners who want to be connected to the systems. Media Saturn, Check24 and the many other service points would also like to know where cable television or fast Internet is actually running. “In the cable market, it is always important that if the product is available at the customer’s home address,” says Irnich: “And if it is not yet available, I have to be able to tell the customer when the product will be available.


All in all, Irnich comes up with 600 APIs that he would like to convert: “Then I would say that there is no service anymore that we no longer provide. So Unitymedia was able to implement a good quarter during the first project phase. However, the APIs that don’t cause much trouble also fall into this phase. The connection to Salesforce, for example, whose CRM Unitymedia also uses in the B2B environment. Mulesoft has been part of Salesforce since 2018. Mark Benioff’s company had the API hub cost 6.5 billion dollars. Sounds expensive. But it fits exactly into the concept of the Californians, who of course especially maintain Salesforce APIs from all the interfaces in the Mulesoft portfolio. “That was totally easy,” says Irnich, “it was done in minutes.”


The interfaces to the mainframe world are more difficult to rebuild. “We come from a time when the API was built in such a way that it made all the data available,” says Irnich. “But most of the time they don’t need the history of the last 12 years.” So the cable network operator is now tinkering with APIs that don’t make intergalactic requests – or if they do, then as rarely as possible. “How do I cache the mainframes so that they aren’t accessed all the time?” is Irnich’s core question, which he would also like to see depicted in a microservice: “I hope that the dream of service-oriented architecture will come true at some point.  The old approach of transferring the old systems and then shutting them down doesn’t seem to work.” 


On the first of August, Unitymedia migrated its systems from previous owner Liberty to Vodafone. The API hub helped Vodafone connect faster, says Irnich. The “Unitymedia” brand will disappear in the medium term. And how does Irnich see the future of his API solution? “In ten years, we won’t be talking about code or API, but you’ll be pulling it off an optical website,” he explains: “I actually share the Gartner point of view: then the designers will be more important than the developers.


Turnover: 2.5 billion euros (2018)
Employees: 2700 (2019)
Industry sector: Cable Network Operators, Telecommunications, Media
Headquarters: Cologne
CEO: Hannes Ametsreiter
CIO: Ulrich Irnich
IT employees: 170