Back in 2017 Aberdeen Asset Management and Standard Life merged to form one of the world's largest investment companies - Aberdeen Standard Investments - managing assets that total $644.5bn on behalf of governments, pension funds, insurers, companies, charities and individuals.
For the past seven years the organisation has been running a complex and highly customised Salesforce environment, to support its sales and marketing teams. Since joining the company two years ago, Aberdeen Standard's head of client delivery, Andrew Johnson, has been focused on speeding up the development of its Salesforce platform by shifting to DevOps mode.
This is being done both through the use of Copado, a native DevOps tool for Salesforce, and by retraining teams to streamline their development processes and shift to continuous feedback loops.
Now six months into the project, we got the chance to speak to Johnson about the company's approach, its ambitions and lessons learned. He explained that he is responsible for the systems supporting sales, as well as some marketing areas, that covers a 900 seat Salesforce instance. Johnson said:
We had a very, what I suppose you'd consider, old fashioned way of running Salesforce. It was using all the old development tools, the old processes. One of the things that I identified pretty quickly is that we needed to change how we go about our Salesforce delivery.
It was the classic thing that we weren't agile enough, our processes were too slow, we kept making repeatable mistakes. We've got a very customised Salesforce set up, lots of custom code, almost every object in the system requiring lots of development to look after it.
The rate and pace of change demanded by our business [means that we have to take] advantage of all the additional product types that they wish to sell and bring a lot of efficiencies to our sales team as well. It was borderline annoying that we couldn't push new novel things.
A difference approach
Knowing there was a need to modernise Aberdeen Standard Investments' approach to its Salesforce environment, Johnson and his team headed down to Salesforce's UK customer event - World Tour - in London to learn more. He said:
We started a programme of work to say, how can we improve? We started by getting our people aware of the steps they needed to take, but then we realised that we needed to look at tooling. Salesforce was putting its old toolset into end of life and it was at that stage we asked, how do we do version control? And how do we go about deployments and builds?
At the time, Aberdeen Standard Investments was considering three options - doing it in house using the Salesforce toolsets, or making use of external tools made available by AutoRABIT or Copado. After meeting with Copado at World Tour, Johnson was won over by the company's usability. He said:
The thing that swung it for Copado was actually the ease of use. What Capado gave us on top of the other applications was a real ease of use and a nice easy learning curve to take those developers on that journey.
Johnson's team has been using Copado for six months now and describes Aberdeen Standard Investments as still in the first stages of its journey to achieving a full DevOps approach. And as any company that has gone through this transition will know, cultural change is at the heart of success. Johnson explained:
If you're going to go on a full DevOps journey where you are tying the support staff in with development, in with the business, that feedback loop takes a lot of transformation and takes a lot of cultural change. We are at the start of that cultural change.
But in the first six months of this year we have focused on the core technical aspects of it. Can we actually do the basics well and then that gives us the opportunity to build on it and start to have a conversation with the support teams and business and start to blend it together. But we need to get that baseline in first.
Johnson said that at the moment his team is focused on practicing good source control, good configuration management and being able to quickly build, quickly release - as well as getting the team to understand what it means to make change. He added:
We need to get their heads into that mindset. That's a big enough transformation for them. And then later we will be looking at how we go sideways.
Benefits and learnings
In terms of getting support for the project, Johnson said that it was a simple business case that showcased the ability for Copado and the change in approach to save core development hours. He explained:
The old way of working would have required a certain amount of effort per year to do source control, configuration management, build and release - based upon a monthly cycle. The benefit was shown by, how much is that going to reduce by? How many more times can I do that release in that monthly cycle?
If you nail release to production we can do it not monthly, but fortnightly. And we can probably get it quicker than that in the future. For every sprint we are saving in the region of up to two to four days in time. That's quite a compelling case when you look at it across 52 weeks of the year.
The business case basically had to show that we were going to save more money than we were going to spend - and we will do that by a decent margin, with our system being so complicated and code heavy.
One other key benefit is how the company can now manage changes made by Salesforce administrators. In the past those administrators were able to do this using the Salesforce Lightning framework, making drag and drop configuration changes. The problem was that this used to happen straight in production, which Johnson said is "never a good thing".
This was stopped a few years ago, but then led to the slowdown of administrator changes. Copado is helping speed this up. He said:
They can now make changes in pre-prod, they can push it to production quickly and then safely bring those changes back into the main body so that we don't overwrite it. There were a couple of issues last year before we did all this where we overwrote the code.
So that's a positive for the business team, they can push their changes quickly. We've got that control. There's also lots of regulations in that area, so we are out of the eye or risk and compliance and doing it the right way.
Secondly, it's just time to market. We are spending more time on development, testing and building than we are on managing the environments, managing the code, releasing the code - so that gives us more bandwidth to move things faster. We are now thinking about ‘many times per month' as opposed to ‘once a month'.
Finally, in terms of learnings, Johnson said that if he had the opportunity to go back and start the project again, one thing he would do differently is spend more time with developers, getting them to deeply understand the fundamentals of the changes at hand. He said:
I think I would have done more work with my Salesforce developers and the admins up front. I would have done more work and really pushed them hard in terms of the training. Getting into their heads the concepts and the interfaces being used. Getting solid grounding in modern development, that's something that I would have pushed harder earlier on.