Plutora’s Bob Davis: Work From Home and Value Stream Management

Content By Devops .com

American writer Orison Swett Marden said, “Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” After the year that’s passed, with operations and development teams forced to scatter and work remotely, it’s a sentiment DevOps teams are currently all too familiar with.

This demand to keep DevOps teams productive under the extraordinary circumstance of 2020 has placed an increased emphasis on effective management, including on value stream management tools, so leaders and team members can have greater visibility into delivery pipelines.

To get a sense of the state of the value stream management market, I reached out to Bob Davis, chief marketing officer at value stream management platform provider Plutora. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

George Hulme: Thanks for taking the time today, Bob. Could you tell us a little about Plutora?

Bob Davis: We are a value stream management platform provider. When I first arrived here, we recognized that sales, marketing, financial and human resources teams all have their systems of record. They have Salesforce, ERP (enterprise resource management) systems, and various financial and HR platforms that enable people to practice their profession more easily. IT didn’t have anything like that at the time.

We set out to provide that capability for the software development side of IT. Today, the market is caught up. Everybody is moving into value stream management as a platform to provide that visibility across an entire toolchain, from the idea to production. That’s where we play. We’ve been in this space since it began over two years ago. The market is just exploding with the work-from-home trend, and how the pandemic kicked digital transformation into high gear.

Hulme: It appears that a significant percentage of the work-from-home trend is here to stay. I’m seeing surveys showing about 19% of people previously suspected that they’d be working from home in a year. That figure jumped now to near 50%.

Davis: If you start to parse what work from home means, you’ll find it means many different things to different organizations. Some have a hybrid model with people working from home two to three days a week. I recently read a Gartner survey that said 74% of organizations were going to have some element of work from home. It’s not all or nothing.

Some companies have decided that they are not going back to work until well into this year. All of these companies have to make sure they have governance compliance in place for this new workforce, and that they can successfully manage the complexities of software development. These challenges are at least an order of magnitude, if not more so, more difficult than typical office workers working from home.

Hulme: Is one of the reasons behind those challenges struggling to maintain being on the same page across the organization?

Davis: That’s a great point, George, because when we go out with our teams at many organizations, a lot of the effort helps people fast-track their processes. We are asked,What is the best practice for automating builds? How often should I be automating builds? What KPIs do I establish to make sure that people are striving to accomplish what we need them to accomplish?”

For example, one of the things that Lean and Agile methodologies promote are smaller work items, quicker check-ins, faster processes. They encourage cutting work down into smaller bundles to be done more quickly so that teams can iterate much more rapidly. We’ve seen that managers will often create a KPI for a performance management program to measure how often code gets checked.

That’s horrible because now I can just check in code all the time. Yet, are people making actual progress? Are they actually delivering software, or are they just checking in small iterations of code all day?

Organizations have to be very careful with how they manage people. They have to be cautious with what metrics they set up to keep their eye on delivering value and delivering software more quickly. This is something organizations struggle with. They want to know where to start and what metrics they need to implement. And how to make those metrics visible so people can see and understand them. That’s what provides the ability for product owners, managers, executives and other stakeholders to view the progress and status of what’s going on without disrupting people with calls and endless meetings.

Hulme: That has to be tremendously more challenging with the work-from-home trend than years prior.

Davis: I recently heard a great quote: “As people end up working from home, the need for human contact and human interaction, socialization, is peaking.” People are hungry for that. At the same time, the need for managers to not be in the face of the employees has never been higher. That is, the motivation and the productive nature of employees is proportional to how well they feel trusted. And it’s proportional to how well they understand where they’re headed and understand how to do their job and are left alone to do that job.

It’s a leap of faith to leave people alone and simply trust them. You need systems that provide you the ability to collaborate; watch the progress. You need systems that will help you understand where people might be struggling, all without having to dig in and micromanage your people. Indeed, as we are learning, managers can effectively do this with Zoom, or Slack, or some other tool that provides good communication flow within a work-from-home environment. But in software, the handoffs and dependencies are so complicated that those tools are simply not enough. You need a collaboration tool that provides effective management in software development.

Hulme: Do you believe remote development teams can communicate as collaboratively as they did in person, with modern software collaboration tools?

Davis: Yes, I think they can. Especially when office collaboration tools, such as Zoom and Slack, and software collaboration tools work together. We can leverage Slack to communicate tasks. So we not only layer on top of the individual tools people have and integrate with them, the practitioners working within those tools can make it available to all of those stakeholders involved in that process. And when there are tasks or handoffs, the system can be configured to notify them how they prefer to work: email, Slack, instant messenger, task list on the dashboard. There’s a lot of different ways, depending on how people want to work.

Not only that, but it can automatically alert people to what is happening and what’s needed. Fascinatingly, one of the interesting yet deceptively tricky questions to get an answer to is, “Where’s the status of a feature?” If a team is in the process of building something out, and they have a specific feature, such as check cashing in a banking app, it should be a pretty straightforward question to get answered.

Yet, about seven or eight different teams are working on various aspects of that application. For instance, there’s a product owner who, without the right collaboration system, has to go and essentially track all of those teams down and find out where their status is.

With a software collaboration system, you can make that query without bugging anybody. In some respects, you can collaborate more efficiently and more productively than you can when you’re all sitting in the same room. That’s because before, we would have walked over and interrupted somebody. Now you’re just looking at a dashboard, or you’ve gotten an alert on Slack, and you see what you need. Boom.

Hulme: How important do you think it is to have useful data and that value stream knowing where things stand to keeping the system flowing and individuals knowing where they fit on deliverables?

Davis: I think the ambiguity, unexplained delays and unforced errors are among the things that upset human beings the most. Just ask somebody that’s standing in a line that’s not moving, and it hasn’t moved in a while; how restless the crowd gets. The nature of software development is such that there are tremendous numbers of handoffs, no matter how you do your development.  It doesn’t, whether it’s an old fashioned waterfall or the most advanced development and deployment models in operations at places like Spotify — you have a lot of handoffs. And if you can’t see what you’re doing because you don’t have visibility into those parts, then you’re going to run into an incredibly frustrated team. And you are going to see a lot of finger-pointing when the question comes up, “Why didn’t this release go out?” And then there’ll be five or six different groups pointing to different reasons. You get a lot of anger, a lot of discontent.  And it’s something you have to avoid if you are going to succeed.

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