Q&A: Why being agile matters

December 1st, 2014 | by Aaron Tan
Q&A: Why being agile matters

The rapid advances in technology and growing consumer demands have put more pressure on companies to deliver products and services at a much quicker pace than before.

Some organisations have started to tackle this challenge using a process known as agile development, where work is broken down into smaller chunks that support quick prototyping.

At the Agile Singapore conference last month, we sat down with Bryan Tan, regional vice president for Asia at Rally Software to learn more about agile development and how organisations can become more agile.

(Note: The responses have been edited for brevity and house style)

Why should companies care about being agile?
The technology disruption curve is a lot steeper and shorter now, so companies need to be agile to stay competitive. Take TomTom, the GPS navigation equipment provider. We helped them to transform themselves as they were being overtaken by Google.

Being agile does not involve a big bang exercise. Neither does it mean a change in business model. It’s a long journey, and requires a mindset change and leadership support. It’s about re-educating people and putting them through a learning process.

Can you describe the agile development process?
In product development, you usually gather requirements from users before the technology development team takes over. It could take six months to two years to come up with a working prototype. Then, the product goes through a user acceptance test, but by that time business conditions may have changed.

In agile development, tasks are defined in smaller components called stories, which should be objective enough to meet requirements. Defining stories takes some skill too. For example, why do we swipe a credit card?

We do so in order to capture details so we can authorise and validate payments. These stories would be ‘carried out’ by agile, cross-functional teams that would look into different parts of the implementation process. Teams could be made up of designers, testers and coders. There’s also a product owner who ‘owns’ the product or business needs.

There are different ways to implement agile development. One of them is Scrum, an iterative agile software development framework. Some companies choose the Kanban method, which is more process-oriented. Whichever method they choose, teams usually take two to four weeks to deliver an iteration of a working product. Then, they refine the product and come up with the next iteration.

How is Rally Software helping organisations become more agile?
Some organisations that practise agile development have very large distributed teams, making it hard to track the progress of stories. That’s where you need technology. We provide a platform that teams can use to define and capture stories, as well as track how they’re performing against other teams.

Large-scale agile projects are a big challenge, especially in Asia where companies are later than those in the US in adopting agile development. We have also started Agile University, which offers classes online and in the classroom, to help companies train their people in agile development.

What are the biggest challenges in driving agile development in the Asia-Pacific region?
I think it’s the fear of failure that’s holding back adoption of agile development in the region. Most organisations are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The other challenge is having enough people who can be coaches. People are just too busy with their daily work to come out of their regular jobs and projects to help teams become agile. That’s why companies are looking at external coaches like Rally. We train our customers to be independent and self-sufficient.

The sooner companies have internal coaches to lead their agile development efforts, the faster they’ll see success. And that requires buy-in from senior management, as an agile organisational culture often means a less hierarchical one.

Being agile encompasses more than the work done by product development teams, isn’t it? If it take three months to buy a new server due to onerous procurement processes, there’s no way companies can become agile.
You are absolutely right. At Rally, our finance and HR departments are agile. As a company, we define our business goals and requirements in stories. We track the progress of those stories with our own tools.

We also use a collaboration tool to allow our teams to collaborate and chat on forums. Our finance department has daily stand-up meetings to identify roadblocks. The managers will escalate those roadblocks to management, which in turn looks at removing the impediments.

What advice would you give to companies that would like to start on agile development?
Be open-minded and look at how other companies have been successful. Then, try to internalise and localise those successes. But the most important thing is that a company’s leadership has to support the transformation into an agile organisation.

I know a CEO of a local bank who has done that, telling his team about the importance of being agile. That drives the culture so people will pay attention. From the bottom-up, you need to train your people to become agile. For those who are afraid of disrupting their businesses, start with one or two pilot projects.

We have helped companies do that, by assessing their pain points, followed by identifying a business unit to do the pilot. Then, we look at their process and train people in what we call a programme launch, which takes two to three months.

Once people are trained in agile development, we’ll do a team launch where we’ll look at translating stories into products. If the pilot project is successful, we can implement it for other business units.

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