Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta Accelerates Product Delivery
92% reduction in the number of open production defect tickets
On time and within budget project delivery
Improved collaboration between software delivery and the business units
Real-time visibility into project status for all stakeholders and team members
One of 12 regional banks in the Federal Home Loan Bank System, FHLBank Atlanta serves members in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It is headquartered in Atlanta, GA and has nearly 400 employees.
The IT organization is responsible for software delivery, infrastructure, operations, support, project management, and risk management for all technical aspects of the business. Software delivery teams are responsible for developing and supporting a wide range of service and business enabling applications, with the primary customer being internal business units. The IT group includes 85 people, all of whom are based in Atlanta.
Before starting down the path to agile in November 2010, FHLBank Atlanta was struggling with software quality and delayed releases. Greg King, Assistant Director of ITSD, attributes these challenges to a waterfall approach. “Our software delivery teams would go for months and months without releasing anything and when they did it often wasn’t what our customers were looking for,” recalls King. “Testing was left until late in the process and there were many errors to fix. We constantly uncovered new issues throughout QA, user acceptance testing (UAT) and, unfortunately, even in production.”
Scope creep was also a challenge, resulting in project delays that could push projects six to eight months behind schedule. “We would try to accommodate changes during all stages of the project, and discover late in the process that we were behind schedule,” continues King. “I don’t think we, or our customers, fully understood the impact of the requested changes. Trying to accommodate those changes caused long-hours and stress to meet unrealistic deadlines. It caused customer frustration with long development cycles and on-going quality issues.”
The way in which the organization was structured further exacerbated these problems. With little transparency into resourcing and prioritization, IT was viewed as a limitless resource. New projects were started and existing projects were increased in scope with little understanding of the impact to the portfolio. As a result, the software delivery group was constantly trying to keep up with demand. With so many projects in progress at any given time, the group was unable to do any of them very well.
Making the Transition to Agile
The organization knew that a new approach to software delivery was needed. The opportunity to try a different way of doing things presented itself in the latter part of 2010. A new IT executive was brought into the organization with previous experience implementing agile. With buy-in from the bank’s CIO, he tasked King with leading the agile transformation.
With the help of an external coach the first steps were to define new processes using an agile framework, educate the organization as to how it would work in practice, and help them understand the benefits. At the outset King had intended a gradual transition to agile, starting with a pilot project and bringing new projects on board one at a time. “In reality we ripped the Band-Aid off and jumped right in,” says King. “There was a lot of enthusiasm and push to make the switch, and with a lot of new projects kicking off in early 2011, it made more sense to start them using agile rather than try and introduce it mid-way.”
Despite the decision to implement agile all at once, it took time and experience for people to get used to it. Getting people to think differently about estimating and how to break work down into 2-3 week cycles rather than estimating the development effort over a time period of months wasn’t easy. Another challenge was changing the mindset of the business units about leaving testing until the end and taking as long as they wanted to complete it. To ease the transition, the organization decided to implement 3 week sprint cycles with new development taking place during the first 2 weeks and setting aside the third week for technical debt and UAT. “It helped our customers understand what we were trying to achieve and adapt to a new rhythm of working – although initially it felt like we were still doing waterfall in shorter iterations!” says King, adding that they have since moved to a rolling cadence where stories are given to the customer for testing as soon as they are done.
As part of the transformation, new controls and processes were put into place to help the business prioritize which projects deliver the most value. A cross functional group called the IT Governance Committee (ITGC) was tasked with the purpose of prioritizing projects at the portfolio level and approving all new business requests. The business now has to justify to itself which projects should get done, in what order, and how many sprint cycles can be spent working on it. This, along with project Work-In-Progress Limits (WIP), helps to keep scope creep in check and ensure that the highest value items are delivered first.
Once a project has been approved by the ITGC, a Product Owner team is formed. As many of the applications span multiple business functions, there are multiple stakeholders involved which makes it difficult to assign a single Product Owner. The Product Owner team is responsible for making sure that the backlog is groomed, stories are written, and acceptance testing is conducted, all the while working closely with the software delivery team to plan sprint schedules, and estimate the work.
FHLBank Atlanta decided to implement VersionOne prior to initiating its first agile project. This was a deliberate decision to facilitate agile success by ensuring that VersionOne was an integral part of the new approach from day one.
“While our teams weren’t distributed, when we first implemented agile everyone had their own office – so in that sense we didn’t have co-located teams,” says King. “Finding a way to foster better communication was critical to making agile work. We also knew upfront that it was important for us to gather metrics so that we could gauge how well the teams were working and track if the changes we were putting in place were effective.”
Rather than try to achieve these objectives manually, it made more sense to find a tool that could help. On the recommendation of the agile coach, FHLBank Atlanta selected VersionOne with broad internal consensus that it would provide value in supporting the organization’s agile transition.
Initially teams used a physical white board in tandem with VersionOne, but it soon became a hindrance as team members had to do dual work to keep both updated. Overhead screens were installed in conference rooms to make VersionOne readily available to everyone during meetings. This ensured that delivery team members and stakeholders alike had full visibility into the most up-to-date project information at any time.
Now, once a new project is approved, it is assigned to an available team within VersionOne. Epics are used to represent the high-level features that are agreed upon and prioritized by the committee. The Product Owner Team then works with the delivery team using VersionOne to plan the project. Stories are created using MoSCoW ratings to prioritize work items and the team collaborates on estimating and breaking down the work. As work gets underway, the interactive Storyboards, Taskboards and Testboards are heavily used to track and understand how work is progressing and as a reference for daily standup meetings.
The organization also takes advantage of VersionOne’s reporting capabilities including project and sprint burndowns as well as tracking various metrics including: ‘In Team’ vs. ‘Out of Team’ work, UAT defects, First Pass Quality, Use of Tests (stories without tests), the point at which testing begins within sprints, cycle time and story/task WIP limits. This data is used to monitor how well teams are doing and identify areas for process improvement.
“VersionOne helps us identify the work that needs to be done, prioritize what’s important, and keep track of projects once they’re in progress. It’s so easy to understand, it’s always up to date and it’s available to everyone no matter where they are.”
Assistant Director of Information Technology Software Delivery (ITSD)
Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta
The combination of implementing agile in conjunction with VersionOne has resulted in a “night-and-day difference compared with where we were two years ago,” states King, noting that today the teams are “humming along.” The business units see the value of the new approach knowing that, while they may have to wait their turn, priority work will be delivered faster and with much higher quality.
Software quality has improved considerably, demonstrated by the reduction in production tickets. “We used to have approximately 250 open production tickets open at any one time across all of our applications. This has been reduced to just 15-20 – a vast improvement that has been realized both through utilizing agile methodologies to groom the backlog of tickets, and overall better software quality being delivered to production.”
In addition, by significantly scaling back the number of projects in process at any one time, teams are able to focus on getting each project done well before moving on to the next one. “A of couple years ago when we met with the ITGC to report on the status of our projects the majority of them would be either yellow or red – meaning that they were either over budget or over time. Over the last 8 months all of our projects have stayed green,” says King.
King attributes this success to both agile and VersionOne. “VersionOne helps us identify the work that needs to be done, prioritize what’s important, and keep track of projects once they’re in progress.” Looking back to how he used to manage projects before switching to agile King recalls, “We used to have stale Gantt charts that people moved around from meeting to meeting. They were often out of date, hard to read, and very confusing. Being able to use VersionOne as our project planning tool is the exact opposite. It’s so easy to understand, it’s always up to date and it’s available to everyone no matter where they are. Our customers like having more transparency into project progress and seeing the value that is being delivered sooner.”
VersionOne has also improved the accuracy and reliability of project reporting for FHLBank Atlanta. Now, according to King, “at the push of a button, the bank can get the up-to-date information it needs to determine if projects are progressing on track”. In one instance, the metrics revealed that a particular team was spending an inordinate amount of time on production tickets, which was impacting their primary project. “The metrics from VersionOne gave us an early indicator that the project was falling behind. We were able to intervene early and remove product support work from the team to get the project back on track.”
VersionOne has also been instrumental in improving collaboration, breaking down organizational silos and getting people to work together more effectively. Everyone is benefiting from greater transparency and information sharing. With VersionOne, the business units can easily see what’s in the backlog and how projects are progressing. For the delivery teams, now that every story is classified with a MoSCoW rating and captured in VersionOne, there is a common understanding around the importance of each requirement.
The Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta upgraded to VersionOne’s Ultimate Edition to make better use of strategic planning capabilities including visual epic management and road mapping as well as more extensive reporting and analytics.