How agile development can lead to real business gains

In January 2010, Progressive Medical began a move to agile methodology and realised an almost immediate improvement in development time.

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Removing walls

Agile brings dramatic change, which Blanquera illustrated with photos he displayed at the Computerworld 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 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. 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 "standup meeting" every day 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."

Accelerating pace

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 what 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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