What to do when over 300,000 people rely on your old code for retirement
It is now clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most important catalysts of digital transformation of this decade. Recent studies show that 97% of business decision-makers believe that the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of their organization.
But what about those organizations that were already transforming? What was the impact of COVID-19 on these projects?
This is precisely what happened with one of the largest pension funds in Canada, responsible for the pensions of thousands of active and retired teachers. When the technology fueling the fund finally reached its limits, the organization faced a complete rebuild of both the front portal and the complex financial calculations that fueled it. So began a five-year digital transformation project in a complex, highly regulated and security-focused environment where errors were not an option.
BetaKit spoke with Jonah Group, the enterprise software developer chosen to lead the management transformation of this process and what was needed to complete the project during a global pandemic.
Reconstruction of Union Station adjacent to Union Station
The retirement platform had specific requirements from a variety of stakeholders. For retired teachers, it had to display pension totals and manage disbursements. For the thousands of active teachers it represents, the dashboard had to calculate complex retirement equations, taking into account years of work, tenure, education, and other factors. On the backend, the database had to be easily auditable and maintain a constant connection with the front-end system.
Transforming the retirement platform was to “build a new station while ensuring that the old one was still operating at full capacity”.
A project of this magnitude created additional considerations. The digital transformation was brought about by a legacy technology platform that had almost reached “the end of its useful life,” as Jeremy Chan, co-founder of Jonah Group said. But with over $ 200 billion in net assets representing the retirement savings of more than 300,000 people and their families, the pension fund could not afford to simply take the system offline while building a new. Additionally, the legacy code base contained millions of lines of code, leaving no easy way to update the system – it would have to be rebuilt piece by piece.
Chan likened the project to “building a new station while ensuring that the old one was still operating at full capacity.” The team not only had to make sure that the new turnouts, systems and tracks were functioning like the old ones, but also had to connect the two “stations” at the end, ensuring the slow transition of customers to the new platform without problems.
Transformation on a spectrum
Even with a working model to guide its efforts, Jonah Group could not start the project without first establishing not only what, but How? ‘Or’ What the company would build. “Just like the old version, only better” is not enough.
However, most organizations are likely to ask for this exact thing. While this intention is generally true, it belies the true nature of quality. “Quality works on a spectrum, not a binary,” Chain said. While it’s easy to think of work as good or bad, the reality is much smoother, with each decision balancing need, cost, and time.
“The question is ‘what is the impact’? Chan said. “First of all, you advise the client and make sure they understand the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect system. “
For large-scale projects where the results of your decisions will not be known for years, it is helpful to set requirements. For this particular transformation project, one area he couldn’t compromise on was the feature set. The organization’s platform managed information critical to the financial lives of hundreds of thousands of people, so feature parity was essential. Balancing the spectrum then came back to the question of system automation: How much human oversight was needed to make the systems work, and what issues might require human remediation?
To lock in the customer’s priorities and create a development roadmap, Jonah Group implemented a priority system to analyze new features. If this is a feature that can never go wrong, it’s a level one. If this is a feature that needs to be added or fixed based on feedback loops and customer requests, assign it to level two. If the feature is a non-critical “nice to have”, it is in the backlog at level three.
“In a resource-constrained environment,” Chan said, “if an end user doesn’t care about a problem, you shouldn’t be spending money to fix it.” In other words, don’t cover the station with gold if passengers only care about trains running on time.
Fueled by trust
All the prioritization workflows and scope of functionality around the world will not save a multi-year project without trust. Matthew Solo, senior project manager at Jonah Group, said the team would not have been able to work if they had not first focused on “building knowledge and processes” at the both on the functioning of the old pension system, but also on How? ‘Or’ What the retreat team worked.
To build trust early on, Jonah Group and the pension fund co-located their teams and focused on team building activities.
“Developers sitting next to testers,” Solo said. “Our team sits next to their team. Learning everything, understanding the requirements, making choices – all as you go.
As the team eventually went from a full-time roommate to weekly check-ins, the trust established at the start proved critical. Chan noted that one thing many people don’t understand about digital transformation projects is the invisible costs. Teams, he said, spend only about 25-30% of their time coding or building software; the rest is spent brainstorming, customer management, analysis, design, meetings, etc. A common result is that projects can run over budget early on, as teams get used to working with each other. This is exactly what happened with the pension project.
Knowing that a budget overrun was quite common early on, Jonah Group leveraged the initial trust he had established with the client to identify the root causes of the overrun and adjust the team structure for the future. Setting up “work packages” with post-implementation reviews allowed for regular cost monitoring analysis. Much like a pilot coordinating with communications towers to make up for lost time after a late take-off, Jonah Group and the pension fund identified team efficiency gains that led to a 200% reduction in overhead costs. later in the project, more than offsetting the initial overrun. .
“Because it was the first project, we weren’t expecting everything to be perfect,” Solo said. “But we showed them how we would use our processes and our team to resolve the issue and move forward.”
Trust between supplier and customer also plays a key role in the success of the project, as it allows both parties to be flexible when unforeseen situations arise. The real challenges appeared towards the end of the project. A project of this scope required the development of systems separated into components, these components often being developed by different teams.
As technical architect Abdul Basit described it, the process involved “integration with a lot of services and codes created by us, the customer and another vendor. And we had to transfer the information from the old system. So when you connect all the dots things don’t always line up with each other. “
Anytime the dots didn’t line up, the process would kick in. The two teams assessed who was in the best position to adjust the codebase, and that team took the reins of the fix. This is where the previously established trust came into play, as Jonah Group regularly worked on code built by the internal pension fund team, and vice versa. Even with established processes in place to decide who would lead and who would support, trust between the parties kept the project going. Allan Wong, vice president of Jonah Group, called it “managing according to project objectives rather than being limited to the contract”.
The difficulty of connecting the dots between multiple teams and technologies has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. After years of ingrained process and culture, teams were suddenly forced to collaborate in a Zoom-only environment. However, the project was able to continue with minimal disruption; the team again attributes the trust foundation they built at the start.
“We were lucky to have built this cultural foundation before COVID,” Solo said.
More importantly for Jonah Group and the pension fund, the investments they made in team culture at the start paid off in real dollar terms by the end. The team’s baseline productivity measure (“cost per story point”) was not affected by the pandemic, due to the teams’ commitment to each other and to the project. Despite the remote working environment, the 5 year project was successfully completed on time and on budget.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.