When agile came in, cubicles went out

In January 2010, Progressive Medical Inc. began a move to agile methodology and realized an almost immediate improvement in development time. The takeaway metric is this: When the pilot project began, there were 40 people in the development team at the Columbus, Ohio-based company, but by September of last year, there were 70.

After Progressive, a cost management services provider, saw that the agile development method could cut project development cycles by 25% to 40%, it decided to invest in more development staff.

The reason, said Ben Blanquera, vice president of IT at Progressive, is that the CFO, CIO and other top company officials wanted to clear the development backlog “and position ourselves for growth.”

It was “a pretty big vote of confidence” for agile development, Blanquera said.

Agile has gained adoption in IT shops, replacing what’s called waterfall methodologies. With waterfall, the development team collects project requirements from the business over a period of time and then codes and tests it and then gets business feedback.

The problem with waterfall development, said Steve Naylor, director of IT at FHLBank in Topeka, Kan., is the length of time involved with the process. While the developers are working on a project, business requirements may change.

Naylor, who also uses agile development , said it is a process that includes frequent rollouts of new functionality, “so if there is a change, you are catching it early in the process, which is less expensive.”

Agile also requires a more collaborative approach , involving continuous feedback. It’s a change for both the development team and the business.

“This is a really big buy-in by the business — they are committing to significant hours where they didn’t before,” Naylor said.

It is also why Blanquera needed backing from the CFO, CIO and others in the company to make the change to agile. It was a big move – not just for the business, but also for the development staff.

Agile brings dramatic change, which Blanquera illustrated with photos he displayed at Computerworld’s Premier 100 conference. The level of collaboration required by agile removes walls, literally.

Once the decision was made to embrace agile completely, Progressive eliminated cubicles and created, instead, an open work environment to encourage constant collaboration and communication.

“If people are used to having a personal space – when you don’t have it, that’s a big change,” Blanquera said.

White boards are used extensively. (Blanquera’s tip for white boards: Home Depot shower walls, 4×8 sheets at $12, are the “cheapest white board you will ever find.”) Not left out are telecommuters, who are connected continuously, observable on large flat TV screens via Webcam and Skype.

There are four to five teams with 10 to 14 people in each.

Among those who make up the teams are the product owner, someone from the business, who will invest half-days for the first three weeks, and then two hours a day. Each team will have a “stand-up meeting” every day (Stand-up meeting are intended to be quick) and department meetings are held each week. “Lunch and learn” sessions, where peers share information are also held, Blanquera said. “That’s pretty powerful.”

The intent is to create an atmosphere where employees are “passionate about creating great software,” Blanquera said. “What’s important are team capabilities, not individual capabilities.”

Agile development has been gaining rapidly, according to recent studies , and its pace of adoption may have been accelerated by the recession. It may already be in use in more than half of IT development shops.

The development team works on a weekly cycle, with a commitment to build, test and demo functionality each week. The demos are done during a 30-minute meeting each Wednesday, and 30 to 50 people from across the business will attend for a “quick and crisp” level of exchange, Blanquera said.

Prior to adoption of agile methods, Blanquera established management groundwork, which included creating systems to provide better time accountability and building a portfolio governance process.

The waterfall development process worked and wasn’t broken, said Blanquera, adding that the decision to move to agile was intended to improve the process. Close business involvement is critical, because that group may not have a complete idea of it wants or what’s even possible, he said.

Many companies have outsourced development to extend capability, but Blanquera said that wasn’t a choice. “Our culture says we believe in the power of our team members to do it,” he said. “It really wasn’t an option,” he said.

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