The Devils in the detail, but detail can’t be seen from the sky, but what you can see is the world from up here

The devils always in the detail but sometimes you need to catch a plane to see the big picture.  I’ve been immersed in one particular programme of work with numerous work streams for two years now.  Attention to detail is often what keeps things on track. It is one of the most important traits when running any programme.  However I tend to keep a big picture view in my head, which I sometimes struggle to communicate to team members.  Building a big picture and thinking the solution through, catering for all eventuality and the constantly re-routing and re-planning of priorities, resources, projects and approaches. With experience this becomes natural and is very fluid, but for new members of the team its often difficult to see the wood for the trees.  So I wanted a tool that is not a project plan, but more of a high-level resource allocation and scheduling tool from a 30,000 feet perspective. A tool that enables you to quickly re run scenarios.  A what if we try this or that approach? After some searching and piloting of the many online project management tools I couldn’t find anything that would give me that 30,000 foot viewpoint.  But what I did find was 10000ft.com give it a try.

We hate Enterprise too but…..

13 years I’ve been dealing with large platforms in multi-countries and territories.  At the start of each project we say to ourselves how can we do it differently, how can we be more lean, more agile, more flexible, more fluid.  I’m a coder at heart, I’ve recently fallen back in love with the open source world and love hacking away in whatever spare time I have, building apps in an agile free flow manner.  It keeps me up to speed.  I can still code an application (not in the most elegant way, mind) with the best of the geeks in some hackathon in soho or some more exotic climate if I’m lucky.  This is my first instinct, just get shit done.  Don’t faff over architecture, spend money.  I hate layers of bureaucracy that develop in projects.  Why can’t we just sit down and code out functionality in a permanent beta rollout.  That’s surely the future? Its surely something we all aim to achieve? So yes I hate enterprise and everything that gets in the way to slow things down.

But and there is a massive but. I have learnt over the years that the odd software project can come off the rails.  Why? Geeks maybe? Bad management maybe?  The reality lies in the complexity of solutions as they gather momentum.  Whether that’s momentum in terms of the reach of the application such as a global platform, increased functionality, increased numbers of developers churning out code,  increased product stakeholders.  Even the very nature of the application becoming business critical with many moving parts. All of which need to be tamed, this agile constant beta development approach is great in startup mode but like a new puppy they eventually need to be tamed otherwise developments have a tendency of becoming unplanned. Resulting in unmanageable code and an unsustainable solution.  We need to organise the chaos into a controlled ecosystem and as the complexity increases, the modules and lines of code grow, all increasing the management burden which in turn, make the whole approach of getting releases out more rigid as we fight to tame the beast that we have created.

Getting the architecture right at the beginning helps with this process, but with everything, progress and ideas keep flowing all of which challenge this architecture immediately.  We adapt to keep up, but with this adapting, changes the nature or our original intentions and starts to introduce the odd little bit of chaos into the solution.  This chaos is a good thing, it challenges us, it helps progress our thinking, however it needs to be managed.

The real reason why enterprise ends up coming into play is because software development, which running into thousands of lines of code is by very nature complex.  But this is a myth its actually quite simple.  The thousands of lines of code have all been written to keep up with our new fast paced market and our insatiable demands for innovations, ideas and pace.  It’s our market place that is creating the requirement for enterprise, the more ideas we have the more structure we need to keep in place to tame the beast that we could end up creating.

And at the top of the human food chain with the ever increasing ideas is our digital marketeers who want us always to stay ahead of the game.  These beasts could reinvent our efforts every week. The problem is without enterprise thinking we have controls that naturally have to fall in place to protect the investment we have made so far.  On smaller solutions that do not require such heavy lifting at the backend, we can simply throw away and start again if it gets complicated.  This leads to consumable software solutions, which have their benefits and place.  However these are strategic decisions and must be made at the beginning.  Trying to change a large scale business critical solution with a strategic corporate investment into a consumable solution will lead to some very expensive software development cheques.

So what’s the answer.  I think the problem is not about about whether enterprise is a bad or a good thing.  Its about how we design the conveyor belt, how we ensure we can load the hopper of our product roadmap and ensure there is a common understanding of the order of releases.  Sometimes this requires patience, sometimes things have to wait for those larger releases that will benefit someone in your organisation but not necessary our new sexy urgent idea we may be trying to push out. Remember we are trying to bring some order to something that could quickly get so complex and out of control that the only thing we can do is throw it away and start again.  This is the real risk, every I.T. project is only a few scary ideas away from the scrap heap and this costs a lot more money in the long run.

The challenge for us how to we maintain our competitive advantage. A solution to this is a well thought out roadmap thinking ahead about the market, using real metrics about performance, your user base and how best to plan in functionality to keep them satisfied.  Enterprise is a game of chess, its hard to master and takes time.  Each move requires us to think well ahead and plan.  Even if that means planning in your agility. Its not a gain for short term game and requires a lot of patience.

Lists, Lists and Lists

OK a quick blog post,  however I have to say I’m a little frustrated how good discipline is often thrown out the window when it comes down to running technology projects.  Maybe because its because I work in the Digital world, which often as its fair share of people with good ideas but lack of ability to deliver those ideas or see the course through.  A little harsh as most groups of people will have different levels of talents and the best team needs a spread of these talents.  However good uncluttered, regimented discipline is required to close down a project.  Today we are blessed with more tools than ever to manage projects and project closure.  Atlassian being the best of all to enable planning, rescheduling on the fly and above to have a clear view on what we still have to do to close something down.  Above all there are some really simple rules that we should always follow;-

  • Manage lists of tasks
  • Schedules those tasks
  • Keep scheduling those tasks
  • Make sure everything is ready and organised before that tasks is scheduled to start
  • Make sure people know what they are doing before they start
  • Track progress
  • Keep agile and replan to ensure we are efficiently getting around those tasks with the hours we have remaining
  • Aim to close don’t leave areas open
  • Keep information to the highest of quality. Remember shit in means shit out.
  • And above stay on top of it.  We are managers you need to be on top of it all, don’t step away, stay close to the data and stay close to the rhythm and flow of the project.

Atlassian’s Greenhopper planning boards with good burndown charts enable us to do this on a daily basis but we must work with them and make them work for us.  This involves finally conducting your team, removing barriers, creating workarounds.  Its all about timing and ensure we can get from a to b in that window of time.

Anyway back to the lists.

Big Data Diary

I was recently asked by Figaro Digital to keep a record of all my data interactions over the course of a single day and to explain their significance.

Here’s my story behind my daily big data trail:

Monday 8 April 2013:

I’m heading to Chicago today for a business trip. I have a long flight ahead of me so I’ve prepared several downloads from BBC iPlayer onto my iPad. I’ve also downloaded several audio books onto my iPhone to listen to on the plane whilst working, and for my training runs between meetings up the Lake Michigan coastline.

The data day

I wake early and book a taxi to take me to the airport via my iPhone application. The app knows my home address, it has my credit card details saved and can send a clean, wifi-enabled cab within minutes of ordering. Rather than the driver ringing the doorbell and waking the kids up, an SMS arrives to tell me that the driver is waiting outside. I sneak out of the house and jump into the cab.

As usual I’m bored straight away so I check Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which is something I regularly do first thing every morning. I have received a couple of requests from LinkedIn but post nothing myself. We come into traffic on the north circular and I’m worried about flight times as I always leave it to the last minute. I look at Apple maps to check traffic conditions. Luckily there are no major problems so I should get to the airport on time.

Next I decide to check in for my flight. I downloaded my favourite airline app some months ago which means my boarding card is already waiting and my loyalty card is input so I have access to the lounge and have not missed the valuable points I collect from each flight. It shows me some hotel options with good discounts and at the usual standard of quality which my company affords me, so I select one and book it.

My flight is shown as departing on time but I’m flying out of T5 at Heathrow, famous for its three satellite terminals and I want to know which gate I’m leaving from to give myself enough time. The airline app doesn’t give me the gate details but TripIt does. It’s a neat little app that stores all my travel plans, from flights, hotels and car hire, and keeps track of everything from delays to reward points, constantly alerting me about my travel plans. It also keeps my family in the loop about my whereabouts and allows my colleagues to book the same flights and hotel as me if we’re travelling together.

I arrive at the airport and in less than 40 minutes after leaving my house, big data has entered my world, harvested valuable information and provided me with equally rewarding data.

Harvest and reward

The entertainment downloads I made last night have all been logged and tracked against my profile and they allow me to be targeted with more personalised content in the future. Equally, they know where I’ve downloaded the content from and to, so they know which devices I prefer These are then logged as interest types on my profile for future push personalisation. For the organisations, logging this information in the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platforms enables them to source further content to reach my demographic.

For organisations to do this effectively they need to harvest my data through clever apps and utilities, such as reward programmes. They then need to join the dots and build my profile around all of the interactive touch-points I have with that organisation. Algorithms are then used to extract and understand the data meaning. Finally, all this needs to be applied back to the user through apps and websites.

This enables the user to feel rewarded and ultimately, helps ensure that the organisation gets more custom from that individual. As consumers get more tech savvy, they enjoy utility, such as not worrying about collecting boarding passes, which ensure that the organisations they use the most know they are valued customers and will be rewarded.

Into the cloud

There’s no form of big data in the queue through the security lane. I hope the new security scanners aren’t sending images to the cloud, but something in me suspects that they are.

I often wonder about data privacy and who gets access to what. I run to the lounge, fly through the reception with my app (it is great that there is no need for a boarding card and loyalty card to get in). I grab a coffee just before my TripIt app makes the airport announcement noise – big data has pushed a live feed of departure and boarding announcements to my phone. I take one look and head to the appropriate gate. Jumping on the flight, I get settled and take off for the real clouds. I know for the time being that I’m disconnected, but this will become limited as most airlines are now investing in wifi on planes.

Seven and a half hours later I land at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Data from the immigration queue, fingerprints, photos and passport details goes straight to the US government’s private cloud. Goodness only knows what happens with that data!

Virtual data – real utility

Once I’ve made my way through security and collected my luggage, it is time to make a decision on how to get to the hotel. I have quite a few meetings throughout the week in various locations. Is it cheaper to use public transport all week, rely on cabs or hire a car? I opt for the car hire. Out comes the iPhone again and I fire up one of my favourite apps provided by Zipcar. I’m already a member of the car club so they have my driving license details and credit card details saved. I type in my location and see that there is a car free for three days and that it’s located in a nearby short-stay car park.

I head to the car and using my iPhone app, I click the ‘car unlock’ button. It sends a message to the cloud, checks my details then sends a message back to the car’s little black box, unlocking the car as if I had pressed the key fob. I hop in and drive to the hotel; the black box keeps a record of my mileage and charges my credit card accordingly. All the while, big data is recording mine and the car’s whereabouts. Now that’s real utility; the ability to hop in a car parked at the bottom of your street and pay as you go without having forms to fill in.

Dropping my bags off at the hotel, I drive to an office complex to get some work done. Each user pays a subscription to use the space (including a hot desk and meeting rooms) and uses their own technology to conduct their day-to-day business. The cloud and big data have a big presence here; they are being used to network, share ideas, innovate, collaborate and work on projects in a more flexible manner. This use of big data is not only about companies harvesting data, it is about using big data and the cloud in new ways to create a virtual, more globalised, connected world.

Easy access

With most of today’s examples, the biggest benefit of big data is to make my life easier. We still have to be vigilant about privacy and companies must continue to only use data to provide an enhanced service, giving consumers something back rather than selfishly marketing at them. All in all, it is about making our worlds much easier.

So, where next for big data? For me it is clear: on an average day I need to see the dots being joined around my touch-points with a particular brand. Whether it is an airline, car hire service or booking a hotel, I don’t want to keep retyping. I want convenience, quick access, intelligence and utility. Organisations that get this formula right and continue to innovate their service culture using big data will benefit in the long-term.

 

http://www.figarodigital.co.uk/editorial-article/Amaze/data-diary.aspx

More than half of companies providing e-commerce will look to re platform in the next 24 months

2013 will see significant investment in e-commerce technology and platforms as demand for e-commerce increases and as companies  innovate their multi channel retail offerings. The real winner will be platform providers that provide true commerce suites.   The concept of a commerce suite has evolved out of a driving requirement to combine what use to be very different technology, retail and marketing angles.  Each one of these angles meant that you would end up with a mash up of technologies like content management for your front end promotional and marketing platform, catalog management for your product information and then finally your e-commerce engine to take the order, take payment, check for fraud and pass off to the appropriate fulfilment partner.  To then combine this with all the subsequent technologies that need to be deployed for functionality such as analytics.  This miss match of technologies has meant that it has been difficult for companies to evolve and innovate their e-commerce platforms to take into account different e-trading ecosystems such as being able to work with partners such as Amazon, Apple(app), eBay, Google or even different approaches to commerce as demonstrated in China. It also has prevented them from innovating for different devices, channels and from providing a true omni channel experience between both online and instore worlds.  In addition to this the world of fulfilment has been changing, no longer are companies able to rely on one fulfilment model.

 

Organisations are faced with multiple fulfilment partners, multiple types of fulfilment from traditional ship to consumer models, to ship to store an in store pickup models.  Each require different levels of complexity and even different levels or integration requirements. Today commerce suite platforms provide a one stop platform that bring all this together under one architecture and one technology. Commerce platforms have evolved to combine content management, product information management, order management, customer services, analytics, fulfilment management promotions and campaign capability under one umbrella ecosystem, therefore allowing companies to be more agile and more costs effective when operating their e-commerce infrastructure.  The evolution of these suite of which we rate Hybris as the best is causing companies to think and take on the replatform of their current e-commerce estates.

 

Amaze are seeing a number of our customers and partners now undertaking these projects, however it requires a  unique capability;-

 

1) The right commerce suite platform which has the capability of providing one platform for all commerce requirements from marketing platforms, content management platform, campaign platform, brand platform,  product platform, promotions platform, order platform and finally fulfilment management.

 

2) The right commerce architecture that works with the suite, the fulfilment partners, your e-store design and your multi channel retail strategy.

 

3) The right model that takes into account your consumers, your markets and regions.  But also takes into account economies of scale between your stores.

 

4) The right integration approach that is open and encompass common standards.  Integration needs to be plug play allowing different fulfilment models and partners
5) The right retail control and optimisation approach that works with the site, the commerce suite and the data produced by your consumers to optimise trading, provide feedback and ultimately help provide intelligence to improve sales.
Amaze have developed a unique approach of consortium building, technology capability and the strengths of a traditional agency to provide the necessary one stop approach to re platforming your e-commerce functions. This traditionally is the realm of system integrators, but we have found that, as with the evolution of commerce suites, it requires a new type of business to deal with the challenges of todays e-commerce requirements.
So moving into 2013 we are going to see an 12% increase in online retail growth in the US and Europe but a far bigger percentage increase in e-commerce technology investment.  We will also see agency’s really come to grips with the commerce world with them starting to undertake the challenge of building significant commerce practices.

2013 Predictions

To download the podcast to go with this article click here.

The sky’s are getting greyer and the nights drawing in, the year starts to draw to a close and its time again to stick my neck out and put some technology predictions together for 2013.

So I’m firing these out with no particular research other than gut feel and what I’m seeing in our sector.  Here goes…

Mobile will continue (again) to play part of 2013

In the UK and much of the developed world, 4G will be upon us this year.  This means quicker speeds and more capability from our smart phones.  Mobile browsing will be come even more of a requirement for most of the websites out there.  However mobile apps need to be thought through before investing.  We are getting to the tipping point in the app stores now where your apps simply won’t get found.  Brochureware apps are no longer novelty, so we really need to think about real application and utility. Saying all this if you get the utility right or the entertainment factor right then consumers will make the download.  When setting out on your app journey in 2013 think about two things.  How close are you to your customers and would they value a utility or an entertaining app from you on their precious phone real estate? If you get this wrong then you are going to be throwing the investment away.

On the other hand mobile web and mobile web browsing will be major.  If your websites not mobiled up for smart phones then you are going to be singled out and branded slow to adopt.  We know most smartphones can zoom browse and therefore full screen browsing works, however consumers are expecting a fat finger touch experience as the first point of entry, they will switch to your classic site after that.

Also for 2013, here in London, the tube is starting to get wifi-ed up, again increased connectivity such as wifi on planes, the underground and trains will create a pull for mobile users to consume content and that content will often be video. From a developers perspective we need to keep embracing HTML5 and progressive enhancement.  The industry will need to keep pushing the boundaries,  2012 has seen the launch of more html5 compliant websites with richer assets all of which are putting pressure on current website performance however we need to persevere because bandwidth will keep up.  It won’t be quite like moores law but it will improve, so keep innovating.

Tablet Revolution will continue

This is such an obvious one but will continue into 2013. I will explain later how Windows 8 will help buoy this.  Apple launched iPad mini yesterday, Amazon will follow with the fire and I’m left explaining to my colleagues why its all a good idea.  Surely two different sizes of tablet, how can than be a benefit, how will they sell, surely they are cannibalising their other markets in the case of Apple? The answer is handbags, all different sizes but they are all needed and we(well not me) will have more than one. I think Apple have got it right and I’m determined to have all three sizes.

“Connected Big Data”

I’m going to claim this term first before the rest of the tech world gets it.  We have seen big data growing in significance, like cloud computing in 2011, its a buzz word that means something to tech consultancy firms, but what does it really mean to our customers.  My view on this, is we are really starting to see the emergence of connected big data.  i.e. a lots of our customers are starting to join the dots between silos of data and systems with a single purpose to unify around their customer or consumer at the web layer.  The silos of data may be getting joined up globally or just with the sole purpose of providing unified information. We are seeing unification of product data, consumer data, crm data, analytical data and general content all of which require connected specialist with the ability to consult across all levels within an organisation. We typically see four core  data hubs occurring within most global companies;-

1) Product data and enriched product data

Here we are seeing platforms like SAP or Oracle working in collaboration with enrichment tools such as digital asset management platforms and content management platforms.

2) Customer and CRM data

Here we a seeing a unified customer view where we are connecting the customer with common data sources and we are joining the dots between data silos.  Starting with a single identity for a customer.  i.e. how do we create a identity passport and then map the users CRM footprint to that passport as they interact with your brand either via your website or on in the social and mobile worlds.

3) Transaction Data and Analytics

We are seeing even more sophisticated data mining techniques with business intelligence technology fed back to the web layer to optimise user experience and customer engagement.

4) Centralised and localised content

Traditionally the home of the enterprise content management platforms.  However we are seeing architecture and approaches challenging the dominance of these platforms.

So connected big data compared with just big data, sees the joining of dots at a global level between systems with big data silos such as SAP to surface that data to the web layer and allow web layer users to contribute and participate in that data as opposed to just surfacing that data for analytical purposes.

Social

Will the growth in social continue?

Yes most definitely but are we seeing increased demand to play in this area?  I believe we are seeing a plateaux in innovation, which is starting to slow down social network innovation, this means there is less opportunity for growth.  I think it will be still a major part of any digital agency’s portfolio but I think there is a level of maturity beginning to emerge.  Saying this I think we are ahead of the curve and there is still significant motion in this sector with lots of organisation now getting it and starting to put money into social for customer engagement, marketing and application.  So it will still be a big part of 2013 and certainly a time for agency’s to capitalise on the hype.  However innovation is required to lead the pack.  Facebook will continue to grow, but more slowly.  Verticalised social networks like pinterest will also see growth however there will be common sharing standards and approaches starting to emerge such a sign-on protocols like facebook connect.

The biggest advance in innovation will be context sensitive social.  It will be used to drive likes, connect friends and customise information.  Organisation that develop good delivery platforms for this from both a technology and campaign perspective will be able to take most advantage of this market as it starts to mature. Finally watch out for revenue drive innovation from the both Twitter and Facebook they have to do something in 2013.

Will Windows 8 make an impact?

Is Microsoft really on the decline, is Apple’s position now dominant for the next 10 years? As we eagerly await the launch of windows 8, are we really expecting a fundamental relaunch of good old microsoft?  Well Microsoft are expecting to spend big to push this one out.  I think it will start to make an impact on businesses with I.T. departments still hanging onto a level of control and still trying to hold off the day when they can no longer resist their staff enjoying a dose of Apple. However it certainly won’t be a revolution as we saw in 95. We will see interest regenerated by some new sexy devices, even some nicely designed tablet hybrids that will catch on.  But don’t expect too much.

What it will do is start to standardise the tablet and touch.  I know Apple, Samsung and practically every other vendor supports gesture and touch capability and have been doing it for some time. But with Microsoft coming online will mean we will start to see the standard fully adopted. Navigation of apps and web browsing will need to ensure touch is at the core of their design from now on. This will mean innovation in design, html5 and our favourite, Javascript.

Open Source at the Server

Open source is continuing grow and its now proving itself with organisations and in big projects.  One winner in this is Drupal which is rapidly becoming enterprise capable.  This will continue and Drupal could start to rival some big content management vendors. Watch this one closely for developments. We certainly are.

Content Management Platforms

This leads me on to platforms and CMS platforms in particular.  Our favourite has been Tridion for many years.  We feel it will be a push for Tridion to be knocked from its well earned enterprise content management leader. However the ones to watch and not ignore in 2013 are;-

  • Sitecore
  • Drupal
  • Adobe CQ
  • EpiServer

Amaze are developing strategies and approaches to ensure our customer can pick wisely.

E-Commerce Platforms

E-commerce continues to grow and grow.  Choice of platform remains critical and its becoming an increasing requirement as businesses start to look at second generation commerce capability.  Obviously depending on your size will depend on your choice of platform.  But if you are in the enterprise bracket i.e. you are operating a global platform or have substantial business being run through e-commerce then we still would recommend Hybris as number one.  Why? Because it is more complete than any of the other big vendors. i.e. you get more to start with; for example product information platform, e-commerce accelerators, customer support, content management and mobile.  This therefore leads to less complex software integration programmes and less risk.  It also means you can get to market quicker. We feel its still number one and one to embrace in 2013.

Content Delivery Networks

Is a big theme for infrastructure going into 2013.  There are still a lot of companies that have not even looked into this let alone deployed CDN.  With content increasing and globalisation becoming an ever increasing factor content delivery networks are becoming a necessity.  There are only a few key players that do this well;-

  • Akamai
  • MaxCDN
  • Edgecast
  • Amazon
  • Rackspace

So happened to?

Finally I just wanted to wrap up by revisiting last years buzz word and trends that I have not mentioned here.

HTML5 – adoption continues.  Yet still not a ratified standard but the industry is ploughing ahead. It must continue to be embraced.

Cloud – interest and adoption growing more slowly than the hype, however its here to stay and will continue to be a big factor in any big infrastructure project.  Microsoft Axure has been slowest to succeed whilst Amazon is trail blazing.  What we are seeing is growth in vendors starting to provide onDemand services to their traditional software license models.  This is good news for the industry.

Making our developments more efficient

Podcast available for download with this article click here.

We’ve been developing software and web solutions now since 96. Our development processes have changed throughout the last decade, however our fundamental development approach has always been waterfall and the tools and techniques we’ve been using have been driven by traditional software and project management methodologies.

In the last five years Agile has been a big catalyst for change in our industry. It promised speed, agility and flexibility and above it may hold the golden ticket to increase productivity. However the struggle still remains that Agile only works efficiently if your customer trusts you implicitly and is bought into the concept of time and materials. This always remains a challenge as project budgets remain finite and it will continue to remain a leap of faith for any customer buying a web solution or software. But we persist, we love agile and we believe it can give us the necessary productivity and efficiency gains. We just need to wrap it within a traditional fixed price process.

So this is what we are doing

All our development still remains waterfall. i.e. you have a start, you have fixed phases and then you have a delivery. Equally you have capped and managed budgets and delivery dates. Our customers know what they getting and when they are getting it. However when we dig deeper into the phases we use a mixture of true agile for development and a colloaboration driven approach to get the project into development. I’ll start with the latter to explain how we begin the journey;-

Starting the project is key and starting any project well sets the foundations for its success or not. There are a number of things that we must get right here…

1) Project control and governance

The plan and budget are the key fundamental controls in any project. The hardest thing to do is set out a framework plan for the project when you haven’t begun your requirements capture or discovery. However this is what we do first. Immediately as we begin discussions with our customer we use our project planning process to itemise the solution. What we mean by this, is that we use our plan to capture all the discussions we need to have about how the solution evolves, we capture what needs to be discussed, designed and who needs to participate. We then set targets by when these tasks need to be completed, not how long they will take. We set a target based on experience and then we go for it. This forms the basis of our design phase. There are technical design(TDs) activities or create/ux (UXs) design activities. We then document and run workshops and design sessions to hit the targets we set. The plan then goes on to form the governance of the project to ensure we don’t loose anything and we have the appropriate targets and budget controls. As we continue our design and specification process we then are able to evolve our build estimates, team size and run order. Governance goes on to cover more aspects of the project which I will discuss later but starting it right is our biggest governance step.

2) What are we delivering, what is our specification?

As I discussed above we use the plan to itemise the project. Its worth discussing itemising a project and what we actually mean. Itemisation means all the discussions about bits of the system, design, questions and answers that need to be dealt with to start to specify the solution. By itemising the project what we are doing is starting to create a framework for our requirements to come together. Each discussion can be grouped into functional and non functional requirements under our TDs or UXs items. We then start to structure our specification but this is where things have changed more recently. Our specification is a collaborative knowledge base that our partners, customers and suppliers can all jointly work on to design and specify the itemised elements of the solution. The knowledge base we use for all our projects is Atlaissions Confluence it gives us the necessary collaboration capability to build requirements, document them and database them. At the end of the phase we still sign off before we begin build. But the result is a collaborative knowledge base that supports the project and gives the customer and the team a clear view of what we are building.

Next up is the build

This is where we embrace agile. We know what we are building and we know how long we have. So we are able to define how many sprint windows we have. The first thing to set is your sprint window time. We recommend two week sprint windows, this gives ample time for the dev team to deliver something, but not too much time that we can’t monitor progress against objectives.

Once the sprint cycle length is defined we can then start to do our planning. To do this we revert to our specification(knowledge base) and look to break the user stories out. The team then plans around the user stories. This is a team approach using the agile methodology. But essentially all the team are doing is loading a hopper of work for each sprint cycle to then execute, based on skill, performance and ability. Again we turn to Atlaissions Greenhopper product to plan the sprints, load the hoppers and monitor performance against those hoppers. Greenhopper gives us the necessary repository of historical performance, burn down tools and planning boards to do this collectively and efficiently within the team. Here the Kanban approach provides the necessary collective organisation of the team and their status reporting against task.

So during the sprint cycles we can back off the plan a little and just report progress against sprint. We don’t need to worry about too much detail in your project plan, just key milestones and the sprint cycles and performance against those sprint cycles, the software does the rest.

During the project we use continues integration on our builds so we manage the build of the software and source control. We are also starting to look at automated functional testing. Here we are looking at platforms such as Teamcity and Selenium testing. We need to do more work to standardise our approach across all our technologies, however automation is key to improve quality and keep the code base together.

Another area we are also addressing is the concept of review boards for peer reviewing of checked in code on projects. This sounds bureaucratic, however it is essential to sanity check code but also to provide knowledge sharing across the whole solution. We haven’t quite got a full solution rolled out but its something we are definitely looking to apply to our next round of projects.

Testing

Often over looked and left to the last minute to plan for.  Amaze’s approach is to wrap testing into all phases of the project.  The test plan starts up at the specification phase of the project.  We focus on acceptance criteria and unit testing with the final wave of alpha and beta testing being performed by independent teams either within Amaze or externally via our partners. Again we turn to Atlaisson and the Jira platform to manage issues as they are raised and to ensure the correct fix, deploy and re test cycle is provided.  It is also key that all our projects are fully tested independently for security, cross platform/ device, performance and load testing and any compliance requirements such as QCI.

Project Governance

Finally we turn back to overall project governance and programme management again.  We mentioned it at the beginning of this article however it is the most critical function of any project. Failure to build the right set of principles into the project governance leads to projects loosing control and often overrunning.  So these are our principles..

1) The team own the solution and the project not the project manager.  The project manager must ensure joint and joined up ownership is maintained throughout on the project.

2) Start each week as if its the last.  Keep the pace up on the project and ensure we are delivering every step of the way.  There’s not time for last minute saloon on any project this is not University.

3) Budgets and hours burn are key.  Make sure we are not wasting time and we look at productivity throughout.  This includes quick decision making, collective ownership, delegation. Don’t be afraid to off load heads from your project if they are slowing down decision making or complicating things. Smaller teams can deliver much quicker.

4) The plan must be target driven not reflective.  We need to drive ownership and weekly deliverables using the plan.

5) Use the tools to report status, removing the need for reports and spreadsheets that are often not read.

6) Ensure smooth an open communication across the whole team and your customer.  There should never be surprises.

7) Deal with problems never put you head in the sand.  If somethings difficult it is most likely a problem that is not going to go away the quicker its dealt with the lesser the impact.

8) See the big picture.  Its not next weeks onsite discovery you need to just worry about, its the end game, the live project.  Don’t loose sight of what we are here to do.

So to conclude

Agile is not everything and will not fix the majority of projects out there, particularly the fixed price ones.  Its not a magic wand, however it has brought about some good tools and collaborative approaches that encourage good shared ownership in the project deliverables.  Each project should be looked at from a ownership perspective, we should look a production values and how we streamline delivery using efficient approaches to both share information and to manage how we assign tasks to the development team.  The teams themselves need to exposed to this thinking and able to contribute in the direction of the project.  Above all we need to stay results driven, very efficient and share ownership in the end game.