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Eureka – How agile helped me to sell crazy ideas to the business

About this Publication

This is a story about my evolution from an ordinary do-as-your-told developer to an active impactful team member.  In this report I will explain how agile helped me in this transformation.

1.     INTRODUCTION

Have you ever faced an issue as a customer of a company, and then got an opportunity to resolve the issue as an employee of that company?

I was fortunate enough to have had this opportunity.  But things did not fall in place automatically, and I was not able to contribute the way that I wanted. But help came in the form of “Agile transformation”, I was able to capitalize on the agile transformation to aid in my personal growth and also help my org along the way.

In this report I will take you into my agile journey. I will share my experience about how agile helped me to transform into a better employee, a better teammate and a better person.

2.     BACKGROUND

Four years ago, Alaska Airlines e-commerce division chose Agile methodology as our software development process. To be honest, like many other people, I hated it in the beginning. People say agile is a mindset. As I was going through the agile mindset transformation I slowly realized the empowerment it brings to me and to my team. I became vocal in the agile sessions, I actually transformed from an introvert to an extrovert.

Agile gave me a safe environment to share my ideas to my team and then as a team sell those ideas to business. Agile processes encouraged me to do small experiments with my ideas. It gave me and my team a seat at the table, we had a say in what we want to do and how we want to do it. With the Agile team structure and mobbing development process we adopted, suddenly the onus of success or failure fell on the entire team, this gave me enormous confidence and also a safety net. I witnessed a personal growth in me and in my teammates.

3.     MY STORY

3.1        As a customer of Alaska Airlines

Twelve years ago I was a frequent traveler with Alaska Airlines. I was happy to have earned my elite status with their loyalty program, and was looking forward to use the benefits immediately. However, I was left disappointed, as there was an issue with the Loyalty system, which meant I had to wait to use my elite member benefits. As a high value customer I was upset, and called Alaska Airlines customer care to let them know about my frustration. The screenshot below shows my frustration as recorded by Alaska Airlines customer care representative.

Figure 1: My complaint as documented in the system by a customer care agent.

3.2        As an employee of Alaska Airlines

Fast forward six years, I joined Alaska Airlines as an employee. Guess what? The team I joined and am currently working in is the “Loyalty team” which manages Alaska Airlines mileage plan program. But things were the same, with how the loyalty system worked. Could I act on the issue I faced as a customer? NO. Could I work on a crazy process improvement idea or customer experience improvement ideas I had? NO. As a member of the development team (last in the chain of command) I had no power to take my ideas or solutions forward. Work life with Alaska Airlines moved on in a normal pace, without my ability to address the customer and business process issues I was passionate about.

3.3        Waterfall, big projects, knowledge silos

When I joined with Alaska Airline’s e-commerce division it was like any other Software development/service company. We were using waterfall development methodology. There was a major initiative underway to upgrade the technology stack. This project was in full swing, but also had been in development mode for the past 15+ months.

Right after that major upgrade project, we worked on bug fixes, enhancement initiatives from our business and system maintenance. I was part of the team which took work orders (Enhancements, bugs) from business and worked on them. Each of the team members would take a bug or enhancement and work on it individually, working down the list ordered by date, starting with the oldest item in the bug tracking tool.

Team members were assigned the work item that they were familiar with. The expertise in a certain area always stayed with that person, and there was less opportunity to explore new areas.

Some of the common issues we faced in our team because of the way we worked were, lack of innovation, fear of exploring new ideas, fear of failures, frustration at being mere order takers from business, knowledge silos and lack of motivation.

But big changes were in store for us.

3.4        The Agile transformation

Fortunately, our division leaders brought in the agile methodology to improve efficiencies in our division. Four years ago agile process was mandated and we formed scrum teams. My team got the Agile Basics training from a scrum master.

But, the transformation did not happen overnight. Over a period of 12 months I religiously participated in all agile ceremonies along with my scrum team, not knowing what value it would bring. It took me a while to realize how I had grown along with my team.

I learned how to write user stories, and to have a clear understanding of why a piece of work was being done. I learned how to be concise in standups.  I liked how feature and story refinement sessions with our product owners became lively and interactive. I enjoyed having productive sprint retrospective sessions, which helped us improve as a scrum team. I committed to measurement and success criteria, that was defined by me and my team. I liked mobbing for stories in the sprint, to realize the benefits it brings to the table. I utilized the sprint demos to improve my presentations skills.

During this transformation I have learned and grown a lot. I have gained confidence to speak and express my ideas. I have built a better relationship with my team mates.  I have gained confidence from the trust the product owner and business stake holders have in me and my team.

This new way of working presented multiple opportunities for me and to my teammates to come up with creative solutions. I felt empowered to suggest big changes.

An example of one of the big opportunities is described below.

3.5        The opportunity: Add a new earn partner

A request came from our business to setup a new partner so that Alaska’s loyalty members who shop with them will earn loyalty points. The work involved was collecting all the member transactions data from the partner system and inserting it in to Alaska’s loyalty system.

I wanted to use the opportunity make a significant improvement to the existing mileage accrual process, which is an old clunky batch based process which collected all member transactions data in a flat file and inserted it into the loyalty system. It would take two days to five days for the members to see the earned miles in their account.

The process was built years ago and no one in the team had full knowledge about it. It was a black box to us.  No one was ready to make changes or improve this old process because it was so complex and would take years to replace. Most of the team members were frustrated with the way the old process worked, and we were frustrated about the issues and limitations it had. We also felt we hadn’t upgraded our technology for a very long time.

Business was happy to live with it because they know the cost involved of replacing this process was very high, and it worked in the way it was designed.

Before agile, there was no opportunity or forum for me to talk about any improvement to this process, since new feature requests always originated from business without our teams input. I also feared failure and had a feeling that I was in it alone, that too much was at stake.

Before agile, the idea of replacing this big clunky process was viewed as a big project, and shot down for the investment it would take. It was not worth the try.

I wanted to use this partner addition work opportunity to achieve the bigger goal of replacing old clunky batch loyalty mileage accrual process with a modern real time mileage accrual process, which would positively improve customer experience.

I discussed this idea with my team members about doing this work in a new way, ignoring the existing batch process and creating new real time APIs for this partner, iteratively expanding it to existing partners, and finally sun setting the old process. I got the team buy in, because many of us were of the same mindset. Most of all, our team felt we were empowered to make our system better, even if the request did not originate from the business. I also had a personal attachment to this feature, as it was the very same request I had made when I was an elite Alaska customer 12 years ago.

During story writing and refinement sessions my team and I were able to successfully express our plan to our product manager. With his approval and stake holder buy in, we were able to estimate the stories appropriately.

An important thing to note here is that it was easier to get the buy in from product manager and stake holders because of the following:

  • Small impact: The change would only affect the new partner.
  • Fail Fast: We could move back to old system if it failed, without much effort.
  • Low Risk: Risk of affecting the existing complex process was extremely low.
  • Low Effort: The stories were small enough to complete in a sprint.
  • Planned: We had well defined phased release plan.
  • Reusable: The API could be reused for any new partner addition thus cutting down future development effort.
  • Tech Revamp: A chance to explore modern technology.
  • Added Benefit: Unfixable bugs in the existing complex process would be fixed.

3.6        Results

18 months later, the results were self-evident.

Today a majority of Alaska loyalty members earn miles in real time, meaning they would see their mileage balance updated as soon as they complete the trip, instead of waiting for three days.  This has been the biggest boost to our loyalty program, enabling instant gratification for our loyalty members.

With a phased migration approach we are on track to migrate the core Alaska Airline’s miles accrual process.  With this, 90% of the total accruals we hold in our loyalty system will move to the new real time API platform within three months.

We have reduced the call volumes to our call centers significantly because we have added new features to our API suites and addressed the gaps which existed in the older process, a significant cost saving to the company.

We have made it effortless for our loyalty members to add their frequent flyer number to the trip by adding it automatically.

We have successfully on boarded multiple new partners to our loyalty system using the real time API, with less time and effort.

We have added more functionalities such as redemption and cancellations to this API suite.

We have iteratively recreated all the business functionalities which are key to any mileage accruals in the API suite.

The issue I had faced as a customer is no longer going to be an issue for any of Alaska’s loyalty members.

We have started receiving lots of positive customer feedback. Below is one of the customer feedback email giving us kudos for improving the mileage accrual process.

Figure 2: Positive customer feedback.

In all of this, we never treated this as a separate big initiative, we were able to align this with business requests, and use the iterative approach to add value over time.

Without agile we would have still lived with old clunky process, never had the guts propose a change, or worse yet, we would have started this as a big project, and would have been stuck half way through after wasting a ton of money and effort.

I am glad the way it worked out and I am happy that my team and I were able to capitalize our agile transformation.

4.     WHAT I LEARNED

I realized that the agile process actually empowers teams and gives people a seat at the table.

Working as one team opened up doors for experiments and provided a needed safety net for me and my team.

With iterative small deliveries we were able to get faster feedback and reduce risks

We learned as team mob programming produces better and effective results.

I experienced that self-organizing teams thrive in an agile environment

Gaining product owner/stakeholder confidence prior to making/proposing big changes always helps the cause.

5.     ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:

I am grateful to the following people. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help from them.

My Team: Who were thick and thin in my journey and instrumental in my success.

Steve Brown: My very first scrum master and Agile coach.

Troy Kaser & Bryan Rowe: My division leaders who introduced Agile in a truly empowering way.

Matt Hahnfeld: My manager, mentor and supporter who cheer leads all my steps.

Margaret Fogel: My Shepherd for the valuable feedback and guidance on how to express my thoughts.

About the Author

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