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Spurred by pandemic, BizDevOps becomes a reality

In diverse industries from healthcare to banking and manufacturing, nontechnical teams are adopting Agile approaches to work alongside digital tools once used primarily by engineers.

Agile and DevOps workflow practices have begun to spread among nontechnical enterprise teams amid digital transformation, cloud migration and post-pandemic workforce changes.

Industry watchers anticipated this trend, termed BizDevOps, over the last decade, but as recently as 2019, it remained more of a buzzword than a real-world practice. Since then, between organic growth in the use of digital tools generally and the massive shift toward cloud and digital transformation prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, BizDevOps predictions have come to fruition.

"I brought Atlassian tools into the team that I run [in 2015] because my background is in software development," said Christian Stovall, director of research and insights at American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, based in Memphis.

"Back then, there was the marketing line about 'software eating the world,'" Stovall said. "But since then, we've really felt the digital transformation effects of COVID -- we floored it last year."

The organization, which reported $1.9 billion in revenue in 2020, quickly expanded its use of tools such as Jira Software and Confluence for collaboration as the pandemic forced it, practically overnight, to accommodate a remote workforce and find new ways to reach charitable donors.

What had been 200 personal Confluence spaces at the beginning of 2020 is now 600; some 200,000 Confluence pages have become 300,000 and growing, Stovall said. (It also helps that as a nonprofit, ALSAC receives much of its Atlassian software free, he acknowledged.)

"The old ways of working were even less functional in a pandemic, when you couldn't work with folks face-to-face and have a lot of status meetings," he said. "When people became socially isolated, they looked at what the alternatives were, and there were [other] models of working within our organization people could take advantage of."

Pandemic poured fuel on BizDevOps fire

Stovall said ALSAC hired him in part for his previous technical experience as a fintech UX designer and helpdesk technician on a brokerage floor in New York. His user research team, which helps the organization more effectively find donors and solicit donations, had already adopted Agile workflows during Stovall's four-year tenure at the company, from daily standup meetings to retrospectives and risk reviews. Stovall also instilled Agile and DevOps concepts in the team, such as measuring lead and cycle time, more quickly delivering smaller units of work and shortening feedback loops.

When the pandemic struck, the rest of the company found itself scrambling to replace in-person donor outreach events with virtual ones, prompting more teams to switch to Agile and DevOps workflows, Stovall said.

Stovall's user research team primarily uses Confluence, but the fact that software development teams at ALSAC can feed data into Confluence from Atlassian Jira proved helpful -- not only to create new digital services quickly, but also to quickly evaluate their cost-effectiveness.

"These unusual market forces were squeezing [fundraising] teams to figure something [new] out very quickly, [but] we don't want to spend too much money and time on something that may not help us get new donors ... and raise money for the hospital," Stovall said. "Historically, [we've] evaluated technical solutions after they were launched, but [now] there's been much more interest among the teams that we work with in getting earlier feedback."

Nontechnical teams are looking for different ways of working and borrowing a lot from software development teams. The processes and tools they had in place just haven't adapted.
Christian StovallDirector of research and insights, St Jude / ALSAC

Enterprise software vendors have expanded product portfolios to take advantage of pandemic shifts like ALSAC's, from Atlassian's April launch of Jira Work Management to ServiceNow's acquisition of LightStep earlier this month. So far, the original version of on-premises Jira Software has been enough for ALSAC's BizDevOps work to get started, Stovall said, though the organization plans to evaluate a move to Atlassian Cloud and other, newer Atlassian products.

"Nontechnical teams are looking for different ways of working and borrowing a lot from software development teams," he said. "The processes and tools they had in place just haven't adapted -- they were over a decade old and closed systems, [with] no interoperability, no visibility into the work, [where it was] incredibly tedious to make changes and reporting was a nightmare."

BizDevOps bubbles up to upper management

Arizona State University (ASU) has also seen Agile and DevOps tools and practices expand beyond its central IT department, where 700 employees use Atlassian Confluence Cloud and Jira Software Cloud. But the bulk of ASU's 1900 Jira and Confluence users come from other departments, as do some 20,000 Atlassian Trello users at the school.

John Wilson, ASUJohn Wilson

"We first started with Jira only for central IT and developers, but until 2017 we were using Planview for project managers," said John Wilson, a systems analyst at ASU. "Planview was too expensive and had too many features we weren't using. Because our developers were already using Jira, we decided to migrate to that."

That decision was cost-driven but brought collaboration benefits, too, Wilson said.

"Having everyone on the same tool is very important," he said. "It gives the project managers a lot more insight into what developers are doing and how they're progressing, which is valuable to them reporting up the chain."

Atlassian add-ons, such as the Tempo time-tracking tool for Jira, also help keep track of the hours spent working on different projects across teams.

At ASU, BizDevOps has been a more organic growth process so far than a wholesale strategic shift, Wilson said. For example, the school's disability resource center fields requests for alternate media devices from visually and hearing-impaired students through Jira. A student group newsletter uses Confluence to track content as its staff of student editors turns over every four years.

As with ALSAC, Wilson said non-tech users had begun looking for tools to replace traditional approaches, namely spreadsheets, that weren't keeping up with changing digital workflows, and caught on to the fact that others with the same problem used software such as Jira and Confluence.

"Jira has features spreadsheets don't have, or require complex macros and email integration to do, like alerts, status changes and ordered [workflow] steps," Wilson said.

At other organizations, such as de Volksbank, a bank in the Netherlands, Atlassian Jira Software Cloud and its Advanced Roadmaps have led to more drastic changes in direction and infiltrated the c-suite.

"The Agile way of working, like many IT projects, started from the bottom, then finally was presented to the board [of directors]," said Erik van der Meijde, platform delivery manager at de Volksbank. "But it should be the board leading all [the other] teams."

Erik van der Meijde, de VolksbankErik van der Meijde

The bank completed its migration from on-premises Jira Server to Jira Software Cloud in early April, where the board of directors plans to use the cloud service's Advanced Roadmaps to lead both business and technical projects at the company using Agile terms such as epics and features.

"Those will trickle down to the different teams," van der Meijde said. "And those teams can trace their work to particular value streams."

Jira Software Cloud will also give upper management at the bank visibility into how time is being spent and advanced warning about project delays, van der Meijde said.

Manufacturing company refocuses on internal UX

Not every company has a large software development team from whom business teams take cues. But the Agile concept of focusing on customer and end-user experience (UX) and prioritizing business outcomes over work output still translates well for business managers.

"We do some software development for embedded software, but that is only one small part of our company," said Nick Traenkle, head of processes and digital transformation at Elobau, a German manufacturer of sensors and operational controls for industrial equipment. "IT and HR also use Jira Service Management, but that is another small part."

In 2019 and 2020, Traenkle led an effort to convert Elobau's front office teams, representing about half of the company's 1,000 employees, to workflows in Atlassian Jira Software Data Center, Confluence and Jira Service Management.

Nick Traenkle, ElobauNick Traenkle

"We had many siloed teams ... and old standard software solutions" such as ERP systems, he said. "We wanted to be more flexible, dynamic, everything [associated] with Agile."

Agile concepts were well suited to a manufacturing company with delivery deadlines, where shortening lead time and cycle times would have obvious benefits for its bottom line. The company also aspired to track work in a more structured way than in-person meetings or informal discussions around its offices, especially as the pandemic forced remote work, Traenkle said.

This move to Agile and DevOps tools and a BizDevOps workflow has helped improve the user experience for the company's own employees, along with outcomes for external customers, Traenkle said. Jira Service Management software is easier to use than the company's legacy CRM system, a 20-year old product that came with persistent bugs and an unintuitive UI. And Confluence pages centrally store online training resources for the new tools, including Atlassian Jira, that help get employees started with new workflows.

"We switched all our project communications, content and decisions from many different sources to one location with a more structured approach [to working]," Traenkle said. "It's less stress, in the end, and more predictable."

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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