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OpenX exchanges broken Agile processes in bold 100-day reboot journey

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman September 6, 2018
The arrival last year of a new CTO at the world’s largest independent advertising exchange kicked off a radical makeover in the way that the company’s developers get software built.

OpenX CTO Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan

How can you tell if your software development team’s Agile process is in need of a reboot? According to Maurizio Mancini, co-founder and senior consultant at Exempio, a Montreal-based Agile consultancy firm, there are three common signs.

First, he says, the development team will be suffering from project overload. Many find they have three to four times more projects than their teams can handle.

Second, there’ll be numerous different ‘flavors’ of Agile being practiced - but none of them will be particularly sophisticated or delivering great results.

Third, the development team will be plagued by ‘feature-itis’, where it delivers new features at a steady clip, but these updates are small and typically disconnected from a wider product vision.

In a recent engagement at Los Angeles-based advertising exchange OpenX, Mancini uncovered all these problems and more, as OpenX’s affable CTO Paul Ryan willingly acknowledges. Recruited to the company in October last year, Ryan immediately saw that things needed to change, and called in Mancini, with whom he had worked on a previous Agile reboot at Yellow Pages Canada. Says Ryan:

As the company’s new CTO, I’m into transformation. But I also know from previous experience that you’ve got to take everyone with you on a transformation journey. You need buy-in at every level of the organization, including the top execs.

100-day deadline

OpenX is in the business of programmatic advertising - basically, matching brands that have advertising dollars to spend with available online ad space. It receives around 100 billion ad requests per day which, once auction processes are complete, translate to 2.7 trillion daily events on its systems.

When Mancini arrived to help Ryan give OpenX’s Agile strategy a makeover, 22 development teams were trying to cope with 43 ‘Priority One’ projects - and had a shed-load of Priority Two and Three projects on their radar, too. While Agile processes were nominally in place, many developers had lost faith in their effectiveness. Ryan and Mancini set themselves an ambitious 100-day deadline to tweak Agile practices and review the configuration and usage of the Atlassian tools the developers used to get work done. This transformation ran throughout October, November and December 2017, with a ‘go live’ set for January this year.

An initial strategic assessment, conducted before Mancini arrived, had made five key recommendations: putting in place an architecture review board (ARB) and product council (PC) for governance purposes; implementing ‘weighted shortest job first’ (WSJF), an Agile approach to prioritising work; to create a Kanban board in Atlassian’s Jira for upper management; making teams choose between SCRUM and Kanban, according to what made sense for a particular project; and establishing dynamic teams, which assemble and then disperse as individual projects begin and end.

Mancini then began with team assessments through one-on-one and group interviews and a survey. He found much to praise:

Teamwork at OpenX was awesome. Teams felt empowered and they were working together really well. The teams were self-organized. They had a consistent two-week release train running well and they missed very few deadlines.

Opportunities for improvement

But as in most engagements, he uncovered a range of opportunities for improvement around people, processes and tools. In terms of people, some team members needed Agile refresher sessions to get them ‘back to basics’ and fix some misconceptions that had crept in. In terms of process, there was a serious need to clean up that overloaded backlog of projects. The decision was made to close off any projects six months or older in the Atlassian Jira Software platform that OpenX uses for its Agile project management capabilities.

Turning to tools, Mancini found that tools were generally working well, but the set-up needed some tweaks. The main tools being used were Jira Software, as well as Atlassian’s Confluence product for documentation and HipChat for messaging. Alongside this were Aha! for portfolio management and a homegrown service desk platform.

An analysis of the base statistics for Jira Software revealed unnecessary levels of complexity in its configuration. The set-up involved 342 custom fields. There were 92 ways to define an issue and 154 ways to define a project’s status. And there were 14 options for resolutions - for example, ‘Done’, ‘Not an Issue’, ‘Cancelled’, ‘Fixed’. Ryan says:

For me, any more than three to five resolutions are too many, because anyone going to that drop-down menu won’t ever look beyond the fifth option.

Above all, there were 75 workflows for 135 projects, many of them doing the same thing. That sparked a Jira re-configuration, so that the platform was more efficient and easy to navigate. Each project in Jira was given its own space in Confluence for documentation. Aha! was swapped out, because it just added another layer of complexity, in favour of Portfolio for Jira. And the homegrown service desk was replaced with Jira Service Desk.

Moving in the right direction

The new Agile process was up and running in January 2018 and the results since then have been impressive, says Ryan.:

We kicked this off on schedule and since then, we’ve completed 22 projects, which is actually more than we did in the whole of the previous year. We prioritized projects well, we applied Scrum or Kanban to them as appropriate, and we had the right skills to get work done.

There were some issues, he concedes. The team at OpenX continues to work on reducing its backlog and on the number of developers working simultaneously on multiple project assignments:

Transformation is hard. I’ve been doing this for 35 years now and even if your processes are clearly broken, people will cling to them. People don’t like change and they get used to broken ways. Never underestimate how hard transformation is.

But he’s confident that things are heading in the right direction.

My advice to other technology leaders is this: If you change nothing, nothing will change. And don’t look back - because you’re not heading in that direction.


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