Improving development teams with agility

Improving development teams includes both Agile and agility in middleware development, cloud and mobile computing and business process management.

Few IT topics are as multifaceted, confusing and pervasive as Agile software development and business agility. As an application development reporter, I interview software pros of all kinds. The many uses of Agile and the need for business and development agility come up in almost all those conversations; so does the problem of Agile hype. This column, dubbed "Agility," is the first in a series that covers both agiles in middleware development, cloud and mobile computing, business process management and more … always with a hype filter firmly in place.

Jan Stafford

Today's column looks at two very different, almost polar opposite, projects in which Agile development fosters business agility. In one, a large software development organization steps into Agile 401 by giving development teams advanced business intelligence reports. In the other, a public library takes a wrong turn when acquiring software and finds that development methodology is a key criterion for product selection.

Advanced Agile metrics ease collaboration woes

Last week's annual Agile Alliance conference, Agile 2013, spotlighted Agile development's growth, not just in number of users, but also in the new practices and technologies that demonstrate the methodology's maturity. Agile 2013 speaker Raziel Tabib presented a beyond-basics Agile case study of HP Software's internal project for improving Agile development practices to reach product release frequency goals.

In our preconference conversation, Tabib said the Agile improvement project was driven by business agility needs. HP Software just could not remain competitive with its traditional 18-month product feature delivery. "We have to add in new functionality [to a] release every month," said Tabib, HP Software's director of products. "This is a line to business priority." So, the company dropped waterfall development over six years ago and adopted Agile.

Agile's iterative development model provided a format for meeting the monthly release goal; but another Agile process, using cross-functional development teams, created slowdowns. Collaboration was hampered by differences in language used by marketing, development and other departments. Most meetings consisted largely of everyone catching up with what others were doing, rather than planning the next moves. "The big question became, ‘How could each member of the team be aware of and understand the significance of others' activities?'" said Tabib. "We had to find a way to bring transparency across the organization."

Tabib's team focused on business intelligence, creating custom reports for all types of development team members. Reports are tailored to the team member, so that there is no jargon barrier. "With the reports, we are all immediately on the same page, so there's less time spent on bringing others up to date," said Tabib. "We can discuss just the things that are important."

It's not surprising that this technology, built for internal use, is now part of HP's application development tool suite in a product called Agile Lifecycle Intelligence. Obviously, software pros can put their companies' business intelligence reports to similar use.

A first foray into Agile development

No resale product has come out of from Puget Sound's King County Library System (KCLS) entry into Agile development yet, but becoming more competitive with online book and information providers has. KCLS, like other library systems, now has to compete with e-book providers like Amazon and the astounding growth in online research sources.

Open source expert Jed Moffitt, IT director for KCLS, began exploring advanced library systems software to meet the Internet challenge. His main challenges were far different from HP Software's: no in-house development staff, other than himself, and a slow-to-change, traditionalist user base -- i.e., librarians.

Moffitt's team had a long list of criteria for selecting a new library system. After the fact, he found that one key evaluation point was missing. The chosen system, The Evergreen Project's Evergreen software, was open source and had a large feature set and offered more flexibility to make changes than its predecessor did. Unfortunately, the type of development methodology used wasn't a selection criterion.

Agile is as Agile is done.

Jed Moffitt,
King County Library System

The Evergreen Project used waterfall development at the time, and its months-long functionality release schedule left KCLS librarians and customers impatient for new capabilities. "Acceptance of our stakeholders is a big driver of success or failure, and that acceptance is contingent on the rapidity with which you can release something well-built and usable," said Moffitt.

KCLS changed to Agile development, choosing Catalyst IT as a development services provider. While this switch promised to speed up releases, the users sometimes dug potholes in that fast lane. Agile empowers users by facilitating their feedback, but rapid feedback is needed. "Even though our users were complaining about the software, it was hard to get them to participate in their own solution," said Moffitt. "Agile is as Agile is done, and our users weren't doing it well."

Once the librarians saw the benefits of participating in the Agile feedback loop, participation improved. Today, KCLS gets weekly software updates based on business needs and user feedback.

The collaboration connection

Agile development without effective collaboration doesn't deliver agility. Collaboration helps companies' define the big picture -- business needs, competitive challenges and so on -- and refine the processes that can produce business agility. While technologies enable collaboration, the people factor is critical.

This was first published in August 2013

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