Gilbane Conference: HBR's IT team uses Agile and wins a seat at the table

At the Gilbane Conference, Harvard Business Review shared how its IT team became a partner to the business. Also in SearchLight: Yahoo's board might sell core business; NSA shuts down surveillance.

Think your website doesn't need a makeover every few years? The technology team at the Harvard Business Review (HBR) begs to differ. As Kevin Newman, HBR's director of technology, explained to attendees at this week's Gilbane Conference in Boston, a redesign of the publishing group's website completed in 2009 was already stale by 2013. The consumption habits of HBR readers had changed -- the magazine's mobile audience was growing -- as had the needs of the website's digital advertisers.

"We needed to have a platform, a framework in place where we could adapt and experiment a lot more quickly," Newman said.

Newman was one of the featured speakers at the three-day Gilbane Conference, where content and collaboration experts shared experiences and insight with attendees -- mostly made up of IT and business managers. The major theme this year was how enterprises can build agile content and marketing strategies that can meet the rapidly evolving needs of today's digital customers.

This was exactly the problem the technology team at HBR was grappling with in 2013. Trying to balance the needs of its readers with those of its e-commerce and advertising business proved to be too much for the eight people that made up the technology group at HBR.

"We didn't have a clear process for getting these things done," Newman said. His team tried out different ways of prioritizing projects, mainly using the Waterfall approach. "Some succeeded, some not, but we weren't very consistent."

The result? "We ended up being ticket takers ... very much driven by the urgent. Not always the important," Newman said.

Waterfall to Agile

The overhaul of the publishing group's website -- made necessary by the changing needs of readers and advertisers -- pushed HBR to transition from a Waterfall to an Agile approach to product development. The transition to a different way of working had another happy result: The technology team at HBR went from order takers to having a seat at the business table.

"This redesign was going to be a very big deal, and we knew it; we all had to work together," Newman said.

Not that any of this -- the project or the togetherness -- came easy.

The massive project called for moving from an adaptive to responsive platform; migrating from Apache Subversion to another open source version control system, Git; taking a modular as opposed to a page-based approach to site building; and most significantly, moving from a Waterfall to an Agile approach.

The new methodology required close collaboration -- not just within the team, but across the entire organization. To wit:

"Using GitHub, over the course of a week, certain features, bug fixes, hotfixes, etc., would get deployed to the branch. Then, they're tested out by stakeholders and other people in the organization. Once approved, on Thursday, we pushed it out to production," said Fred Lalande, technical production manager at HBR.

Using two-week sprints helped everyone involved stay focused over the course of the redesign project, but the key was that the business was a willing partner.

"Folks out in the business were willing to partner with us and support us in this experimentation, [and] came to initial Scrum trainings with us, including marketing, sales, editorial," Matt Wagner, one of the site developers, said at the Gilbane Conference.

Moving past Scrum

Interestingly, HBR has now moved away from Scrum. The extremely prescriptive approach collapsed under its own weight after the redesign went live, according to Lalande.

"When a project ends, what happens? Everyone now had different priorities, different tasks [and] different goals. The cohesiveness started to deteriorate and become more fragmented with Scrum," Lalande said.

Consequently, the group started to experiment with variations of Agile. Luckily, Newman said, they had an Agile consultant on staff.

"Anytime we were curious, we can tap him on shoulder and ask if we're doing it right," he said.

Soon, they were veering far from the rules of Scrum. Now, they use their own methodology, but it still owes a lot to the Agile framework.

"The big thing we got out of Scrum was the required step of self-awareness and reflection: Are we doing this right? Are we getting what we want out of it?" Newman said.

CIO news roundup for week of Nov. 30

More technology headlines from the week:

  • CEO Marissa Mayer's troubled tenure and the recent departure of top execs are taking a toll on Yahoo Inc. The company's board of directors met for three days this week to consider whether to sell its floundering Internet business and $30 billion Alibaba investment. Among those eyeing Yahoo's core business: private equity firms.
  • Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg became a dad this week to a baby girl, and he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are celebrating the big day by announcing plans to put 99% of his Facebook shares, which are worth about $45 billion, into a philanthropy initiative that will promote human potential and equality. Now that's the holiday spirit.
  • The National Security Agency shut down its controversial surveillance program Sunday, after 14 years of daily monitoring millions of Americans' phone records. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals declared the program illegal under the USA Freedom Act. Now, law enforcement agencies will have to get a court order to ask telecom companies to enable phone call monitoring for specific individuals.
  • These days, even the pope is vulnerable to becoming a meme. Pope Francis' tendency to strike a pose that resembles him about to drop a sick beat has taken Twitter by storm, with the likes of Kerry Washington and Ta-Nehisi Coates getting in on the action via the hashtag #PopeBars. ("I blast on Judas Iscariot, and peel off in the chariot.")

Check out our previous SearchLight roundups Google's app-streaming service and Gartner's IoT predictions for 2016.

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