GE's journey from waterfall to Agile practices

General Electric Co. turned to Agile practices to revamp software development in its Energy division. Now Agile is making its way across the company.

When Paul Rogers said he wanted to replace the traditional waterfall software development processes in General Electric Co.'s Energy division with the Agile practice of two-week iterations, the division's business leaders told him it couldn't be done.

Just one code build within a complex software release for the Energy division could take as long as 24 hours. Rogers, the newly minted executive manager of GE's Software Solutions Group (SSG), wanted new builds for customer-facing Energy software done in 20 minutes.

"With Agile, you choose to do what you can't do, which then makes you have to change," he said during a presentation at Forrester Research Inc.'s recent Application Development & Delivery Forum in Boston. "With two-week iterations, all of a sudden the team started to get very creative with what they had to use, or the equipment they needed, to accomplish this."

After his presentation, Rogers told that Agile has become a "revolution" at GE, so much so that the vice president of GE Engineering asked him, "Why can't we introduce Agile across the entire company?"

That's exactly what he is starting to do, beginning with not only Engineering but also the other GE business lines that became enamored with Agile practices after witnessing SSG's success with the Energy division.

Agile practices by the numbers

SSG made significant investments in "software designed to make software better," said Rogers, who did not disclose a figure for getting his Agile practices off the ground, a transformation that has taken three years so far.

The technical requirements team, the quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC) team, and the developers weren't working together, nor were they working off of the same test requirements for software builds, Rogers said. "When I asked QA and QC, 'Why don't you just get together with the developers?' they said, 'If we give [developers] the tests, they would develop the code to pass them.' I said, 'Well, isn't that sort of the goal?' That's where we were -- in a tough spot, with every team executing software development in a different way."

With Agile, you choose to do what you can't do, which then makes you have to change.

Paul Rogers, executive manager, General Electric Co. Software Solutions Group

To get everyone working from the same specs and with the same Agile methods, Rogers kicked off what would become five "major" reorganizations of SSG's staff. Estimates of 30% attrition were "overestimated in the press, but there were some anticipated departures as the new methodology took hold," he said. Today, SSG has 70 teams of Scrum experts and 800 personnel overall in 113 locations worldwide, all of whom are expected to take internally developed Agile training and become Agile-certified.

The next step was to develop a new infrastructure platform for SSG that combined an internally built collaboration system that kept these global teams in sync, Parasoft Corp.'s code-quality testing software and a continuous integration platform by Electric Cloud Inc.

"The continuous integration initiative was a big game-changer for us," Rogers said. "Our method for checking code was all automated and controlled centrally now. If anything failed, it failed within minutes, versus finding out in hours or days."

SSG tested the new agile practices and automated code verification systems for the demand and management software that large utility companies use. The build time for the software decreased by 97% from 11 hours to 20 minutes, Rogers said. "That saved us 20 days' worth of time finding errors, since it could take a month or so to figure out what code or threads of code was blowing up in a particular integration."

Evangelizing Agile practices

It is well-known that GE doesn't go into a project halfheartedly, as evidenced by its Six Sigma methodology. A marketing team dedicated to SSG shares its Agile accomplishments across the business, and recently 165 Agile -- not energy -- domain experts were hired for SSG. In addition, Six Sigma experts at GE are being trained and certified in GE's own brand of Agile, and will share their knowledge based on a curriculum developed within SSG.

Make it your own: That's Rogers' takeaway for others interested in adopting Agile. One impediment he had to overcome was the argument over what Agile was and was not. "What it usually came down to was that if someone didn't like what was being proposed, they said, 'That's not Agile'; but if they liked what was being proposed, they would say, 'That is agile.'"

To Rogers, Agile focuses on making a business better and its processes more predictive. He is quick to point out other SSG wins, should there be any Agile nonbelievers, and he strongly believes that Agile and lean methods should be combined because "lean is where the money is."

"Combining agile and lean let us exceed productivity [gain] targets by 3,200%," Rogers said. "Fixes that used to take 20 days are done in minutes, and we have surpassed our goal of tens of thousands of hours in productivity, saving 650,000 hours in [lost] productivity since we started this three years ago."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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