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John Deere plows into agile

Tractor manufacturer adopts agile development process in what one analyst calls a 'big bang' approach

John Deere & Co., has moved about 800 software developers into an agile development process, and did so in just over a year.

This effort involved recreating the farm equipment maker's software development effort around new teams that included developers, systems engineers, customer support and marketing personnel, testers, all working in lose proximity .

This company, which reported $32 billion in revenue last year, replaced its cubicles with U-shaped pods that removed barriers to team interaction.

The move to agile came "after some serious introspection in our development organization," said Tony Thelen, the director of the Intelligent Solutions Group, part of the company's enterprise IT operation.

There are a lot of companies that are moving to agile -- Forrester Research conservatively estimates that 38% of businesses, from small to large, now use the development methodology.

Many large firms move to agile incrementally, said Forrester analyst Tom Grant. John Deere's approach, the "big bang" rollout, is less common, he said.

In many ways, Thelen said the company's software development had been "mirrored to the way we develop tractors and combines and construction equipment."

John Deere was using waterfall-type development processes, where the requirements are set and then the coders get to work to produce a deliverable. Agile processes emphasize close collaboration and iterative development.

Thelen said the demands of the business required a faster development pace.

Deere's goal was to improve the most important aspects of its development efforts -- speed, innovation, quality, customer focus and teamwork. Agile met each of those needs, Thelen said.

The company moved to agile development in Sept. 2010, and by last year had it fully deployed among developers.

"Breaking work down into smaller increments helped us with some of the quality aspects," said Thelen. "The incremental reviews of the work allowed us to put more eyes on the software code more often."

Assembling teams based on the project to be delivered and sitting everyone together "was extremely beneficial for teamwork and also for collaboration around what it really means to focus in on what a customer wants and needs," said Thelen.

Thelen's software development organization produces everything from Web site updates to systems that run on tractors.

Some of the work involves building systems that keep tractor's traveling straight, within one inch of a set path, without the customer having to the touch the wheel.

Deployment of software developed using the agile process may take as quickly as a day for a Web site. New software for a tractor display, for instance, is being produced about twice a year but the goal is to get that to eight times a year.

"We want to be able to deploy at any time that's required - we are trying to have successful builds every day," said Chad Holdorf, the group's agile coach.

Deere is also deploying new software, a project management platform made by Rally Software, to help align its development effort. It will help "give us more visibility to the bigger things that are happening" and track multiple projects, said Holdorf.

Forrester's Grant said agile adoption is happening across the board in all industries, even in highly regulated ones.

Many of these organizations will have numerous agile experiments going on simultaneously, but at John Deere, "it's more of a determined investment," said Grant, who is familiar with the company's effort.

The approach taken by John Deere is valid, says Grant, and the large deployment helps to meet resistance that may arise during an incremental rollout as well as improve coordination, said Grant. "If there is any institutional inertia there is a much better chance of overcoming it," he said.

The case for agile development has been made, and it came at the worst possible time, in 2009 during the recession, said Grant. The economy force people to think about the way they were innovating, he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

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