“Don’t boil the ocean” and other advice from the leaders whose teams develop business apps by the hundreds using low-code rapid application development.
At last week’s EMPOWER 2016 conference, we heard from a panel of executives regarding lessons learned from their rapid application development implementations.
The panel was moderated by Ankit Shah, senior manager of platform and product marketing and strategy at QuickBase, Inc. and participants included Rich Buckley, vice president of global ops engineering and order management at Metso; Joe Lichtefeld, vice president of application services at ResCare; Nathan Mascenic, vice president of business systems at Freedom Financial; and Bruce Squibb, senior director of program development at Sodexo. Here’s a recap of the Q&A.
What have been the core challenges within your organization?
Bruce: Sodexo provides contract food services. In the U.S. prior to 2008, we were operating a lot of standalone businesses. Then, we grew our global business and were suddenly opening 20 locations for a single client. We were a very large organization but needed to become more nimble. Rapid application development was the answer, but we had to create a value stream from it so senior leadership could understand the path forward.
Nathan: Freedom Financial offers loans and debt negotiation for individuals; we settled $1 billion in debt for our customers last year. It wasn’t long ago that my team had to fight about who got to keep the spreadsheet open. Eventually, a few Excel-savvy people decided to transition everything to QuickBase. Today, we have about 100 applications serving 1000 users.
Joe: ResCare has four main operating units that provide home healthcare. I’m in the IT department but my background is in accounting, so I understood the value of QuickBase when my company acquired a firm that was using it. I’ll never forget when our CEO asked our compliance officer for information. After a fast response, the CEO said: “Normally, when I ask for something like this, it’s six months. How did you do it in six weeks?” We’ve since grown to 2000 users.
Rich: Metso is a Finnish industrial equipment manufacturer with 16,000 employees in 50 countries. There is so much data, it’s unbelievable. People don’t have tools to stay on top of data from 300,000 order lines. We used Microsoft Access and Excel spreadsheets, and people were actually taking reports, making copies of them, highlighting their portions, and passing them down. We needed a much better way to tie our operations together.
What are some of your RAD use cases?
Rich: We have a global inventory app as well as a global engineering app that tracks fluctuations in business so we can allocate resources in real time, and an order management app. Because global similarity is so important to us, our process is heavily controlled. Only two people in the company are authorized to build apps.
Joe: We have the CRM app we started with, and also now have a residential app that helps with site reviews in 42 states. It ensures everything is working properly and looks nice onsite, and that information can be centrally reviewed and managed from the corporate office. We have departmental, one-off apps. Each line of business has different needs but they use the same platform.
Nathan: We have a sales CRM for client onboarding and a ticketing system for IT operations.
Bruce: We built a cluster of operational apps that all sites use across the country. These apps perform various reporting and administrative functions. What’s funny is that many of our clients use our platform to measure our performance! We find that client-facing solutions are great at solidifying partnerships.
How do you collaborate with business?
Bruce: Our requests to build apps come from the field and we have established processes for executing them. We require a subject matter expert (SME) to join each development team. That person helps us storyboard the current process and map how we’ll use the new app to improve upon it.
Nathan: The most successful projects are those in which we are joined at the hip with the business. There’s lots of real-time coding and many whiteboard sessions. When a business leader just tells us: “Build an Intranet” and walks away, that doesn’t cut it. Both parties have to be willing to invest in the process.
Joe: Requests tend to come in through hallway conversations and emails. We can show our business team members what the platform can do in a few hours. We make a point of operating on agile business terms instead of our traditional IT terms and go out of our way to meet partner and contract needs as well.
Rich: We work with a business leader to define the problem, then we pull that person into a management meeting, and finally we get feedback from end-users on the skeleton and core functionality. This way, once we launch and do training on the app, we already have pockets of people who will promote it. We’ll leave the app for a month, get some additional feedback, and make changes. It’s an extremely controlled, standardized process.
What’s the right balance between governance and productivity?
Rich: Speed and velocity is important; we can build a lot of apps in 2-4 weeks. We have a global administrator so service is responsive and features are consistent. We can’t let end-users have too much control or feature creep occurs.
Joe: We treat our RAD platform differently than other types of IT development. Every app is created centrally in IT, but business units can take control and have full admin access if they want it. We govern apps on a case-by-case basis.
What’s the maintenance process?
Nathan: We try to manage changes centrally. End-users will sometimes want to handle them, but they recognize that you can get burned if one person makes a tweak that affects hundreds. If you’re doing IT right, you’re moving at the pace of business anyway, so it’s not a problem.
Bruce: Building the app is the easy part. Managing users, rules, and changes – that’s the hard part. We’ve found that if you build the app correctly from the beginning, there’s less maintenance after the fact. We ask people to kick the tires during the testing phase and then we do periodic new releases.
What are your RAD lessons learned/key takeaways?
Rich: Management has to be on board from the start. People must view a RAD platform not as a stick, but as a way to do your job better. Getting users involved in the upfront development is essential because they can then assist with training and promotion. In global and multi-site companies, you have to limit end-user ability to modify the apps to ensure consistency. And finally, you have to get IT involved upfront for security purposes, but after that, business units can work on their own.
Joe: I agree with requiring management buy-in. IT has to proactively learn what the business needs and follow their protocols behind the scenes. It must be a true partnership.
Nathan: Blurring the lines between where business ends and IT begins actually works very well, but you have to know who’s going to own the app on the business side. I’ve also learned not to boil the ocean. It’s often more efficient to launch with a smaller MVP (minimum viable product) at first.
Bruce: One major lesson is to always have a SME tied to the project. Citizen developers have an operational understanding but aren’t always intimately involved in the process the new app will address. Developers should also be invested in the project, communicating profusely so they aren’t working in a vacuum. And keep apps agile and don’t be shy about asking for user feedback early and often!