Innovative working methods

With agility for better software

03/2016 - In software development, a rapid response to changing needs is becoming increasingly important. Agile action provides the necessary flexibility. The key aspect here is the close collaboration with customers as partners. The "Agile Round Table" promotes agile understanding within the group.

In our world, business models and processes are evolving at breakneck speed and software development must somehow keep pace with this. Otherwise, requirements can very soon be overtaken by reality. That is why an agile approach is increasingly catching on.

DB Systel GmbH

In the conventional approach, also termed the “waterfall” approach, customers specify all their requirements at the outset. Concepts are then created step by step with different degrees of detailing and the complete scope of the software is programmed, tested and delivered.

Only at the end of the project does the customer then receive any value in the form of a functioning product. This may not, however, correspond to their actual needs – perhaps because key aspects have been forgotten or the world has changed in the meantime.

DB Systel GmbH

In the agile approach, complete and executable sections of the software are created in short cycles of one to four weeks each. These can be tried out by users, providing valuable feedback for the prioritisation of requirements – even if these are new – for the next cycle. The scope of the project remains flexible right up to the end and the project risk is soon reduced, due to the experience gained and the profound level of common understanding.

The Agile Manifesto

The “Agile Manifesto” offers a compact framework for orientation in this respect. This formulates four fundamental values as a basis for better software development:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

This does not mean that the other aspects are completely unimportant – just that they are slightly less important. It goes without saying, for example, that software is still documented in the agile approach. But this documentation is as lean as possible at the development stage.

Even in these four basic values, a new culture is clearly discernible: people and their interactions, as well as close collaboration between customers and developers – and indeed on a daily basis in joint teams – are the keys to success.

Many keynote ideas of agility can also be found more or less explicitly in the “Golden Rules for Project Success” that were formulated as part of the DB Group “Zukunft Bahn” programme. This underscores the growing importance of the topic of agility at DB.

Agility as the miracle weapon?

Although an agile approach offers the possibility of achieving usable results in a significantly shorter time, and thus reducing the time-to-market, it is no silver bullet. Even in the agile procedure, every finished piece of software is requested, thought out, programmed, tested, documented and finally shipped. So software has not suddenly become much cheaper. It does, however, consistently avoid the need for efforts that do not subsequently deliver any value – such as the detailed specification of a requirement that is subsequently not implemented.

Nor is agile action trivial. It is easy to understand, but difficult to master. Successful agile teams, for example, do not work in a creative chaos, but are characterised by a high level of discipline.

Management is also presented with challenges: in order that agile teams can really unlock their potential, they must be granted a corresponding amount of freedom. Specifically in the early stages of a project, a lot less is actually agreed on paper than was previously the case. This can lead to a sense of uncertainty, which must be countered by the trust in the team.

Agility should also not be interpreted as dogma. For example, regulatory changes that are clearly outlined at the start of a project and then remain stable can be implemented very efficiently according to the waterfall principle. In each case, the appropriate model for action must be selected. Combinations are also possible. DB Systel can offer sound advice in this respect, on the basis of many years of experience.

“Agile Round Table” promotes cultural change

A year or so ago, DB Systel organised the first “Agile Round Table” (ART). The starting point was the growing interest in the agile approach and the demand for a cross-team exchange. ART is an informal meeting that offers all practitioners and interested parties in the DB Group the opportunity to exchange and share experiences about agility in a relaxed atmosphere. Questions that do not relate to software development are also welcome.

Presentations offer insights into actual projects both within and outside DB. They are supplemented by interactive formats such as “agile games” in which all participants are actively involved. Learning from one another is an essential aspect of this concept. For this reason, networking is also a key component.

Agile Round Table 16 Feb. 2016 / Agile Game “Pencil Factory”

ART goes beyond the boundaries of individual business units and, due to its community philosophy, should also explicitly support the cultural change within the DB Group. “We need to deal with each other on a more value-added basis of mutual trust,” says Dr Marcus Gemeinder, one of the organisers. “‘Doing agile’, in other words, the simple application of agile methods and practices, is not enough. Only by internalising and experiencing agile values, i.e. ‘being agile’, can its potential be developed fully.” All parties need to engage in the cultural change. “There is still a lot to learn for all concerned in following this course,” says Gemeinder. “Teams that share a common motivation and the freedom to work toward a goal will make us more successful together.”

To date, there have been five ART events in Frankfurt, each attended by as many as 80 participants from various parts of the DB Group. Another four ARTs are planned for 2016. These are supplemented with separate “ART Expert Talks”, in which practitioners can discuss selected aspects of the day to day running of their projects in greater detail.

Interested in agility?

Anyone interested is warmly invited to join the ART community. For an invitation to the next Agile Round Table, please contact Dr Marcus Gemeinder.