An interview with an agile coach

I had an email from our communications department today, it was a forward of an article called  “Six ways to bring Agile Innovation into your company,” written by  Neil Perkin. It’s a pretty good article, although it only touches on the core principles of agile. Off the back of that, I was asked by my company if I would submit to an interview. Always happy to talk about myself, I agreed! You can link to the original here, or view it below:

Continual development of our technology products is central to the success of our proposition. As well as a 25 person-strong development team (and counting!), Affiliate Window and have invested in supporting resources to ensure that all of our technical departments are as efficient, productive and accountable as possible.

Investing in people and infrastructure matters, but so does establishing the right approach and attitude. We are aware that agile methodology is playing a huge role in this, so when we saw Neil Perkin’s recent Econsultancy article “Six ways to bring Agile Innovation into your company,” we went running to our dedicated Agile coach, Mike Pearce to find out more…

As Digital Window’s agile coach, you are the company’s advocate for agile methodology. Why do you feel it’s important to have a clear organizing system for our technical and product development work?

There’s a lot to get right in software development, from listening to our customers (not just verbally but also watching their trends and traffic on our platform to help us understand our users), to delivering valuable software to satisfy our users along with a whole lot of collaboration! With so much going on and regular changes in customer requirements, we need to maintain agility to keep pace with the changing performance marketing industry, as well as expanding on our foothold in the US and merging our legacy systems into the new Darwin platform. We, therefore need a coherent set of rules which allow us to work quickly, delivering quality and providing feedback fast. Agile offers us that (as well as other benefits).

How far do you agree with Neil Perkin’s key points in his recent article “Six ways to bring Agile Innovation into your company”?

I agree with all of them. The Agile methodology is fairly simple. The harder part, and the reason roles like mine exists, is applying the 4 core values and 12 principles of agile to the things we do every day. Traditionally, the Agile methodology is applied to software engineering projects, but increasingly I’m seeing articles like this, which extract relevant ideas from the Agile Manifesto and apply it to other areas of the business. I think it’s wonderful; if we’re all Agile, we can work in rhythm and that will make things easier and more efficient as we’re all dancing to the same song.

Do you think that Neil has prioritized the right areas? Within our own business environment, what key elements of agile innovation are most important?

Yes, although perhaps not in the right order. Our highest calling is satisfying our customer with early, regular releases of quality software (or, other soft services in other parts of the business). If we’re regularly releasing software – and regular could mean quarterly, monthly or fortnightly – then we’re getting feedback quicker and providing value sooner. After that, collaboration is very important. We’re not, for the most part, the primary users of many of our products and so we rely on those that are to help us steer the products in the direction most beneficial to these users.

I’m also in love with our feedback loop. Without this, we wouldn’t know what to build. I believe in the 80/20 rule, 80% of your users will use 20% of your product. So, this is where the value lies, in that 20%. This 20% is where we’ll get the most feedback from the most users and that feedback is driven straight back into our product team to help them make decisions on which direction the product should take.

There’s plenty of other agile elements that add up to our whole agile process, but the one I want to particularly mention is our inspect and adapt cycle. Once we finish an iteration, that is a period of development, we look back at not what we did, but how we did it and see if there are improvements we can make in our process. Toyota call this Kaizen, which simply means “improvement”, we look for weak points in our process – if we think we could test better, or analyse better, or collaborate better – and make a change for the next iteration, then ask “Did it work?” and, if so, try making something else better. We’ve all learnt one important thing (and it’s a bit cheesy): perfection is a direction, not a destination.

As a service provider as well as a technology company, in what ways do you think agile methodology can cross over between departments and benefit the company as a whole?

We’ve already started to see benefits. The features we work on now have stakeholders within the business, people with specialist knowledge of a feature, or a relationship with users who interact with the feature. These stakeholders are empowered to steer the direction of our products and it’s making a big difference. Also, our development teams work to two week iterations and the business knows that we could potentially deliver new features every two weeks (and we frequently do, our recent security improvements are testament to that!). This energises people as they can see constant change. It also means we’re getting fresh, relevant and valuable feedback which is incredibly important when planning new features, releases and changes.

One of the most interesting points that the article makes is regarding integration of customer involvement and feedback into the production process. As Digital Window continues to develop industry leading products, in what ways are we putting this point into practice?

Feedback happens on several levels in our development process and we do all we can to foster and encourage it. Firstly, there are our stakeholders, who, as I mentioned, specialise in their chosen project (eg, reporting, profiles, security, etc). They represent our users and our business. We collaborate with the stakeholders about twice a week, checking we’re on the right path and making minor course adjustments as we go.

Secondly, we’re heavily involved with our product managers day-to-day. Their vision and creativity helps set our products apart from our competitors and their feedback helps us explore new ideas with existing features.

Finally, when we launch our new features, we look forward to hearing feedback from our users. While it’s great to get good, positive feedback, it’s also very useful to get negative feedback. It helps us tweak our products in direct response to what our users like and don’t like. As I mentioned, our highest calling is early and regular deliver of valuable software. Without our users and stakeholders being involved and providing constructive criticism, it’s much harder to deliver the software our users want. Until someone can teach me to use a crystal ball effectively, I’ll rely on our feedback loop.

If you want to know more about our agile process, or gain some insights into what we’re doing in the Affiliate Window development team, then follow @AffWinTech on twitter.

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