Agile's Unexpected Benefits
Deere teams did two-week sprints to serve up working code regularly throughout the almost two-year-long development project to build Service Advisor Remote. IT pros would review and test that code with the product teams, and then either revise it or move onto new areas. Deere changed some of the office space at its Moline, Ill., headquarters to accommodate the agile sprints, which can include groups from several departments working alongside one another at times. At times, they even reorganized where people worked so they could have an actual Deere vehicle next to them for testing. To make sure testing covered vehicle operation end to end, teams were set up to make sure someone represented each component.
Testing was critical because of the high stakes that come with working on a customer-facing project. Of course, Deere believes it has high standards for in-house IT systems, but a problem in a customer-facing system would do a lot more damage than a glitch in, say, an internal email system, especially for a proud brand that dates back to 1837, when an Illinois blacksmith first devised a steel plow that could cleave through the thick Midwestern soil. "John Deere is known for the quality of our products, and the IT components had to be right at that level of quality," says Larry Brewer, director of global IT channel, who led the development project.
The new software--available on certain Deere tractors, combines, cotton pickers, and construction equipment--had to be integrated with all of the highly engineered mechanical systems and existing sensors on those vehicles, since at times repairs would involve doing remote updates of software that runs the machines. That integration within the vehicles, to the data center software, and out to the customer and dealer browser created the biggest technical challenge. "This isn't just an app," Webber says.
Besides speeding development and lowering costs, the move to agile boosts employee morale, Webber says, because "you can begin to see the value of what you're trying to deliver sooner. We all like to get the satisfaction of understanding what we're delivering."
And Deere is learning one more thing about agile programming: It's contagious. Some developers who worked on the Service Advisor Remote project are pushing for agile sprints on other projects.
Collaboration was another challenge, since the Service Advisor Remote team was in seven locations around the world. Most of the coding was done by Deere's staff in Pune, India, where the company has about 550 employees. Much of the technical architecture and design work happened in the U.S. Doing iterative development across the globe, and with key suppliers, meant relying on videoconferencing and instant messaging, as well as flexible scheduling to let people work when they needed to connect with colleagues in other time zones.
With the telematics platform built, Deere faces a new problem: "We're still trying to ask ourselves, now that we have this, what else should we do?" Webber says. Service Advisor Remote gives Deere a new connection to its customers--both the dealers who sell its gear and the farmers and construction workers who operate it.
Whatever the company decides, Deere IT fundamentally has changed. It's more prepared to work on the growing number of customer-facing tech projects sure to come.