Two-speed IT marries agile and waterfall development approaches

At John Deere, two-speed IT enables agile and waterfall development approaches to live side by side.

SAN DIEGO -- John Deere isn't readily thought of as a big data giant. But the company's new agricultural equipment capable of planting the best seed in the best sub-inch of land available -- without a human operator -- is changing that perception.

This isn't, in other words, your father's John Deere; nor is the IT department that's driving the 177 year-old company forward. One noticeable difference? As IT's reach extends beyond the company's walls and embeds in the very products it sells, the organization is leveraging a strategic approach called two-speed IT to meet the demands of internal and external customers alike -- an increasing responsibility for today's CIOs.

"We've got an organization here that's developing products and then the big IT organization that's helping the core business," said Mano Mannoochahr, director of enterprise architecture, information management and computer security at John Deere, at this week's Gartner Catalyst Conference.

The "big IT organization" is moving at one speed by using the waterfall methodology, a sequential development process whereby one step is completed before moving on to the next one. Those helping build digital and data products are moving at another speed, opting for an agile approach, which relies on iteration and incremental development to push a project forward, Mannoochahr explained during the opening keynote. "They don't necessarily have to have the same approach in how they build and support things because of the unique requirements," he said. And, he concluded, they don't necessarily have to move at the same speed in order to be successful.

"Makes sense," Richard Johns, a solutions architect at Computer Sciences Corp., said after the keynote. And it would to Johns, who is familiar with the gravitational pull of agile, having worked on VMware's now defunct Lab Manager, a software development tool that gave way to even more nimble options like the cloud. "Traditional IT underpins the company and has a mission to keep all of the balls in the air," he said. But "the speed at which you have to bring an idea to market" requires a different approach, such as automated provisioning.

Eventually, "this new side of the business is going to be a customer at the table. When you're asking for priorities, they're going to bring to the table that they need agility to self-deploy," said Johns, adding that this is a root cause for hybrid cloud adoption.

For conference attendee Aaron Wilson, Mannoochahr's description of two-speed IT immediately clicked. The agile-versus-waterfall debate has been "a struggle for us," said the quality assurance director for the IT group at Citrix Systems. There, IT is divided much as Mannoochahr described: A group in California's Silicon Valley provides support for company products and is partial to agile; Wilson's group in Florida supports the rest of the business and often deploys waterfall.

"Agile is the cool, new thing, and you almost have to defend why you're not doing it," Wilson said. "But it didn't feel necessarily right and appropriate all of the time." Traditional IT manages projects with longer development cycles where "it's not appropriate to fire out a solution and deliver something every two weeks," he said. But for those working directly with the end customer, "you almost have to do that to stay competitive."

Still, when the Silicon Valley brethren preached agile to its south-Florida counterpart, it was easy to feel like anything less was wrong, Wilson said. "It took us awhile to come to the conclusion that agile isn't best for everything," he said.

Ironing out the kinks

John Deere's Mannoochahr said two-speed IT still has a few kinks to be worked out -- namely, should the two groups operate as a single unit or be considered separate entities? "We've gone through two or three iterations of this," he said. Today, the two IT groups are separate, a decision made last year.

The struggle to find the best model resonated with audience members. "When you have a big corporation or business entity, you have to figure out how to get from today to tomorrow. And it's hard to have that vision," said a conference attendee who works in the public sector. "So there are a lot of reasons why a company would say that part of the organization needs to be separate. There are a lot of arguments for that part of [an] organization to stay connected to current enterprise."

The bigger question, according to Mannoochahr, has to do with a transformation in thinking. As John Deere considered how data and information helped the business make money, "there was a period of confusion: Are we helping the core business, or are we creating a brand new business?" he said.

It's a question Mannoochahr believes all attendees will have to answer as they embark down a path of digitial transformation. As for John Deere, "the jury's not done on what exactly this is going to be like in the long run," he said.

Mannoochahr called it a different model, but it's also a different time, giving rise to new challenges. For the farming community, Mannoochahr ticked off a few during his presentation: The world population is predicted to increase 40% by 2050; farmers have to provide more visibility to oversight committees such as the environmental protection agency; and companies like John Deere have to serve global customers in countries like Russia and Brazil, where farms are measured in square miles rather than in acres.

"We have thought about how to grow new DNA for the big IT organization through this new organization we've created," he said. "So we're revaluating and thinking how to best connect."

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

Next Steps

Read more about agile vs. waterfall development in the enterprise and about GE's trek from waterfall to agile.

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