Many organisations consider Agile development as a nice-to-have way of improving their efficiency and driving change. For document management provider Aconex, however, the adoption of Agile was a lifeline after its operations faced almost paralysing pressures from an increasingly complex product, ever more-demanding customers and sales staff, and heady growth that has propelled the Melbourne startup into 35 countries.
The problems arose years ago, as the company’s sales staff and customers began to tire of the intensive, top-down development process that meant each new version of the company’s eponymous document-management software — which is critical to construction projects such as Melbourne’s Eureka Tower, which involved hundreds of thousands of projects — took months of waiting.
With competitors nipping at its heels, Aconex’s 70-strong team of developers worked furiously to add as many features as they could, but the need for thorough testing and development meant the company just couldn’t move fast enough. One release required 47 updates before it was stable, and a later version had more than 400 bugs and took 12 weeks to test and debug.
“We had an ever-growing list of developments that we needed to deliver,” explains CEO, Lee Jasper. “Modules were getting bigger and bigger, and it was getting really hard to deliver that to market in time. We were so scared to roll out a release that we’d add more into each release because we were trying to anticipate features; the engineering team had become the ‘no’ shop internally because every time the sales team asked for a feature they would get a ‘no’ back. It was pretty disheartening.”
Recognising the need for change, an engineering-driven effort to embrace Agile led to a complete reinvention of the way Aconex built its bread-and-butter software. Whereas the entire team previously collaborated to build the same features, it was split into subgroups that each handled different functionality using Agile techniques. Requested features could be added more quickly, and streamed into the overall code base without the uncertainty that had plagued the company early on.
Customers quickly began noticing the difference, says Jasper, and salespeople found themselves enjoying more success as they were able to prioritise must-have features; Aconex was able to add additional sprints to deliver them as needed.
Overall software quality improved dramatically, with the number of required regressions dropping dramatically over time. Furthermore, an emboldened developer team was able to try new development techniques such as a week-long ‘hackathon’ during which developers were encouraged to build anything they wanted; the hackthon produced several innovations that were added to the product within weeks.
“It produced remarkable results,” says Jasper. “When you have daily stand-ups, there’s accountability within the team and the business as to what they’re doing. Development had been a black box for us, but I can now go stand up with the team in the Scrum and see what they’re working on.”
The company’s developers have gotten so efficient that they have now turned the tables on the sales team: developers are adding features so quickly that sales staff are begging them to slow down.
“Two years ago, when we brought in Agile, the bottleneck in our business was our engineering and deployment teams,” says Jasper.
“The sales team was saying ‘you’re not delivering things fast enough; give us more product’. Now, we’re at the point where our sales and marketing teams are saying ‘slow down; we can’t roll this out to our client base as fast as you’re delivering it’. It’s a great problem to have.”