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Agile, DevOps deliver four-fold productivity improvement at TIAA-CREF

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Paul Korzeniowski Blogger, Independent
Scott Blandford, executive vice president, chief technology officer, Retirement & Individual Financial Services at TIAA-CREF

A few years ago, before moving to DevOps, TIAA-CREF reviewed its application development systems and didn't like what it found. The financial firm, which services employees of nonprofit organizations, was spending millions of dollars on a variety of applications but delivering poorly designed, late software. "We constantly scored low in surveys for items like website design," said Scott Blandford (pictured above), executive vice president and chief technology officer (CTO) of Retirement & Individual Financial Services at TIAA-CREF. In response, the business moved from traditional waterfall-development methodologies to an agile-based DevOps approach that lead to dramatic improvements in both employee productivity and system usability.

Founded in 1918 and based in New York, TIAA-CREF has 10,400 employees in 100 offices. The firm manages $851 billion in assets from five million individuals by offering retirement plans, education savings planning, mutual funds, and brokerage services. Competition is fierce, and success or failure increasingly depends on the ability to use information services effectively.

TIAA-CREF was losing that battle. "If you spend $10 million on a project and users cannot find the start button, development has failed," said Blandford.

Climbing Mt. Everest

To address design shortcomings, the company loosened the IT organization's tightly held purse strings and overhauled the entire operation. The 3,000 employee IT department embraced DevOps as part of a massive reorganization project appropriately dubbed Mt. Everest.

The business's internal computer systems weren't easy to deploy or manage, so the company moved from traditional on-premises systems to a cloud strategy that includes private, public, and hybrid elements. Its Carnegie Compute Cloud (named after its founder, Andrew Carnegie) is now the central portal for all applications, and all systems are designed to be endpoint neutral, flexible, scalable, and responsive.

The company gradually moved from traditional waterfall development to agile methods, which required revamping development processes, policies, and procedures. Under the waterfall method, application design at TIAA-CREF followed a controlled, structured, linear model. Deployments took at least six to eight weeks and often dragged on for several months.

The system's rigidity also made change difficult. Because the development process lacked flexibility and took too long, the IT staff couldn't keep pace with users' rapidly changing design requests. As a result, TIAA-CREF regularly garnered average or below average rankings in system design and effectiveness from Dalbar, Inc., a financial services market research firm.

As part of its move to agile, TIAA-CREF adopted DevOps, merging development and operations in order to make the deployment of testing resources simpler. These alterations meant system design became more free-form, requirements changed more frequently, new releases spun up more rapidly, and the teams spent less time setting up and breaking down system resources. The goal: focus more on designing applications and less on putting the infrastructure in place to test, deploy, and run the systems.

With the move to DevOps, the management of team projects changed. Instead of a server-by-server and application-by-application approach to capacity management, IT teams evaluate requirements at the departmental level and empower the business units to provision needed resources. Rather than days or weeks, system resources are now allocated in a few hours.

TIAA-CREF also revamped the way it structured its application-development teams. Employees come from the business unit, development, quality assurance, data center infrastructure, and user interface areas. "We look at each project," said Blandford."If the emphasis is the user interface, then that person becomes the project leader."

Another switch was putting IT developers on one project at a time, rather than a handful of them. In doing so, Blandford says that developers are better able to monitor the progress, identify problems, and make changes if necessary.

Finally, the team developed standard procedures and tools to ensure more consistency from one department project to another. Agile orchestration and automation tools have been particularly helpful, for example, and the company cut down on lengthy documents, so entering information has become a menu driven rather than text-driven process.

Agile hits the tipping point

TIAA-CREF now uses agile for about 60 percent of its system development, and the initial results have been promising in several areas. Communication has improved. Before agile, organizational walls slowed the exchange of ideas. Those have been torn down. Before, IT staff lacked intimate business knowledge, but now a good portion of the staff understand in detail their users' business needs.

New releases also take less time. Upgrades deploy in as little as a few weeks, and IT has regained the trust that had eroded over the years as it began meeting user expectations. Not only did the development organization prove that it can meet deadlines, but in a growing number of case the business unit, rather than IT, is now the bottleneck. "We had to put new processes in place to manage development flow when we are ahead of the business unit," says Blandford.

Since moving to agile and DevOps, TIAA-CREF has seen a four-fold increase in development productivity. The group is not only able to push out more releases but also has seen an improvement in the quality of the systems. More rapid, regular testing provides users with more input into system design, creating fewer problems once systems are up and running.

The improvements have also been recognized publicly. Rather than the mediocre rankings it received in the past, the company has moved up the Dalbar chart from the mid-teens to the top of the list. "Many times, IT has difficulty illustrating to management the benefits from new initiatives," concluded Blandford. "In this case, the numbers speak for themselves."

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