My Journey with an Agile Project
By Seshadri Sounderrajan
The purpose of this article is to share my experiences with the deployment of Agile methodology based on the project I am currently associated with. Although Agile projects do not have a rigid hierarchy, Project Managers have a significant role to play in the context of managing multiple parties with varying expectations and non-negotiable deadline. This article does not offer a prescriptive approach as methodologies such as Waterfall and Agile are context/environment specific with its own set of pros and cons.
I am handling a project in ABC Bank (for purposes of confidentiality I would refrain from disclosing the name of the bank in Singapore) which involves integration of insurance platforms with one of the largest insurance providers in the insurance space. As is the case with huge projects, region-wide initiative encompassing multiple business entities with myriad technical platforms and the rigid business processes has plethora of challenges. Planning and Vision is of utmost importance to ensure the deliverables are aligned with the expectations of the stakeholders in such massive projects. Since this project involves app-to-app integration on a pilot mode, Agile was touted to be the ideal approach to ensure flexibility and iteration of design with disruptive technology. As per the overall scope, the bank’s online application (part of Wealth Management) is required to have a seamless integration with the native Point of Sale application from business partner.
Application modules are developed and passed on to customer on a quarterly basis in line with Bank’s release management policy. Walkthrough of functional specifications is held in tandem with development, testing in SIT, UAT culminating in production live. As the window for monthly sprints has concurrent activities with Business Analysts, Development Team, Scrum Master working closely, buy-in and understanding from business stakeholders is absolutely critical to avoid post-live agony.
One of the key takeaways with Agile Sprints is to ensure that people with right functional background and articulation skills attend the daily scrum session with Business Analysts and other teams. This aspect is extremely critical to make sure that development effort is synchronised with the requirements/expectations from business. Prior to the first country going live, business team did not assign the right resources during scrum meetings, which resulted in UAT cycles getting prolonged as users had to be educated on the workflow. In addition, technical teams did not have the bandwidth to support the changes requested by business as there was very limited time to review the changes.
Quarterly deployment schedule is preceded by a series of approvals as per banking standards which amounts to tight-rope walk for PM.
Being an online application, clearance from Vulnerability Assessment (VA) team was one of the key challenges to be addressed prior to Go-Live. As per the schedule, VA approval is targeted 10 days prior to Live. Application Defects deemed to be in showstopper category are supposed to be fixed before Production Live. This scenario gets the entire team to go through anxious moments as showstoppers have to be fixed on a mandatory basis before Go Live, as per Security standards. Any delay here jeopardises the entire release with profound implications on the overall timeline. Post Vulnerability Assessment approval, PM has to work with Mobile Architecture Review Team and deployment team to get the app deployed on to the Production app store.
In addition to the processes to be adhered to in the bank, challenges became manifold as we had to accommodate the processes associated with our business partner. Technical teams which are located across Asia and UK had to be managed on daily basis with conference calls. Delay caused by technical issues had to be escalated to the senior management with revised target dates in accordance with the change management procedures mandated in the bank. Code Freeze periods had to be factored in the schedule, in advance. As per governance standards, Steering committee meetings are arranged on a weekly basis to have appropriate oversight on the current status with firm target dates and budget. Resource constraints are to be managed diplomatically with prompt communication to ensure bottomline is not impacted.
After we went production-live for the first country, we realised that the actual budget surpassed the projected numbers by a significant percentage. Budgeting has been the biggest challenge in this project as clarity on end state with features and functionality had to be tweaked constantly in line with the dynamic changes proposed by business. On hindsight, we wondered if Waterfall methodology could have imposed a better control in this context, as budgeting and design phase cannot be re-visited with Waterfall phase. The flexibility of Agile becomes counterproductive in a scenario where technical and functional changes are overwhelming which has a ripple effect on the scope, schedule and cost. We realised that Agile requires a closer monitoring on budget with prompt escalation should actual numbers exceed the projected numbers by a massive scale. Actual numbers were computed with the man-hours clocked-in by resources from respective teams. The key message from senior management was to ensure due-diligence on the clocking front as this forms the basis for actual numbers. PMs with little or no technical expertise would not be in a position to challenge the development teams particularly in the context of complex heterogenous platforms handshaking with appropriate protocols. However, patterns in clocking should be monitored carefully on a monthly basis by PM with spikes to be escalated to the Leads for appropriate justification. This is a key responsibility for PM to ensure efforts are in accordance to what has been committed and signed off with business.
As per Quality standards, PMs are responsible to upload the documents for every phase; Initiation, Planning and Execution on a timely basis, failing which Non Compliance notification gets triggered to the senior management which has serious repercussions for the employee’s appraisal.
True to the philosophy of co-location in Agile, developers were flown in from the respective countries which helped faster turnaround in problem fixing. When teams work with a very tight deadline, it could be extremely annoying to get things moving with team members in different geographical zones. The problem gets compounded with some countries having limitation in internet speeds. Bandwidth issues were overlooked in the planning stage as a result of which senior management had to make mid-course corrections in the overall strategy during the pilot run.
For successful Agile deployment, processes have to be constantly finetuned to ensure alignment with the dynamic changes relevant for customer without compromising the security standards and integrity of data. This is easier said than done with large corporates formulating policies and procedures mandated across geographically dispersed business entities. However, the fact remains that Agile methodology was introduced with the expectation that change is a constant in today’s context. To extend this thought process, Agile needs to be adapted in line with the corporate demands where appropriate concepts from Waterfall may have to be integrated with Agile System to make it relevant and robust in the long run.
Seshadri Sounderrajan, PMP, has 19 years of IT project management expertise in banking, insurance, manufacturing, retail sectors from 1997.