Working like a startup at IBM

How a small and passionate team used modern techniques to shift a business on a short timeline.

Over the past year, I assisted in creating an application that helped shift a major part of IBM to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. I did this with the help of a small but excellent development team that was inspired by the culture and practices of web startups. To be clear, it wasn’t easy – changing how we worked led to frequent friction and conflict – but in the end it worked, and we made a difference.

In mid-2013, the IBM Service Management business and engineering leaders decided to make a big bet on moving our software to the cloud. Traditionally we have sold “on premises” software products. These are software products that a customer buys, downloads, and installs on their own equipment, in their own data centers and facilities. Although we love the on-premises business, we realized that cloud delivery of software is also a great option, and as our customers evolved to a hybrid on-premises / cloud future, we needed to be there to help them.

We decided that initially we would make three capabilities – Performance Management, Help Desk and Workload Automation – available on the cloud. We also decided that we wanted a uniform and delightful learn-explore-try-and-buy experience for these capabilities. This implied we needed a common Internet-facing web property. This idea eventually became IBM Service Engage.

There was only one problem: our imagined web front-end didn’t exist, and we wanted to announce the offerings at our IBM Pulse 2014 conference in February 2014, just five months away. This is where my team comes into the story.

Creating a positive culture

I was fortunate to join a great team when I was a young developer. In the mid-2000s, IBM reassigned many of the developers who had built the Eclipse platform to build a new platform for team-based tools. This became the IBM Rational Jazz platform and resulted in products like IBM Rational Team Concert. I joined this team in the early days and was able to work alongside a tight-knit and talented set of developers, designers, and architects, all very strong in agile development methods.

In the early 2010s, I left Rational and joined the Tivoli brand, which is responsible for Service Management products. In some ways Rational provides “dev stuff” and Tivoli provides “ops stuff.” This led me to learn about and embrace the DevOps movement.

When I took a lead development role on our private cloud software, I recruited a small team of passionate and smart developers who, like me, worked for IBM in Raleigh, N.C. I spent a lot of energy on this recruitment because, as I had seen from my Jazz experience and by reading about high-performance software development teams like the team that created the Mac, I believed that a small, gelled group of passionate and smart developers could significantly outperform a large, distributed project team. And long-term, these top developers would recruit other top developers, resulting in a virtuous circle.

Our team was passionate about software development; we all embraced the ideas of DevOps culture and supporting practices like continuous deployment. In our work on private cloud, we built a continuous integration and deployment system that could take a new level of the private cloud code and deploy all of its components – including OpenStack -– on a set of hardware and then run automated tests against it. This automation was critical to helping us ship important product releases in early 2013.

An opportunity to work like a startup

In 2013, my wife and I welcomed our third child to the world, but the day of her birth also brought an exciting new project at work. My beeping iPhone indicated it was the CTO of the Service Management division, Dave Lindquist. He had sent me a cryptic but intriguing text message: “We’re starting a new project and we want you to lead it. You just need to build the team.” I was thrilled to hear from Dave since we’d had some great collaborations in the past but hadn’t talked in a while. I replied, “Sounds very interesting. Already have the team. About to have a baby. Will ping you in a few weeks!”

After I returned from paternity leave, Dave was one of the first people I contacted. He told me about our strategic shift to make SaaS a major focus, and told me about the idea of the new web front-end, which became known as Service Engage. He shared his idea that to have the results of a successful SaaS startup, we should structure the team like a SaaS startup.

We hadn’t talked in a while so I explained how I had quietly recruited an A-team for the work on private cloud and about our progress adopting modern practices like continuous deployment. Over the next couple of weeks, Dave and the senior leadership team shuffled things around so that we could transition our private cloud work to new developers and we could begin work on Service Engage. Dave and his boss, Chris O’Connor, the VP of Strategy & Engineering for our division, worked with the IBM real estate team to give us a large shared space in which we could physically work like a web startup.

Building the app with less than five months to go

We moved into the workspace and wrote our first lines of code in mid-September 2013. Interestingly, we spent the first two weeks building a new continuous deployment (CD) system that incorporated all the good stuff from our previous CD system, while chucking the stuff that hadn’t worked.

Since our team was full of passionate programmers, we had experimented with modern platform-as-a-service (PaaS) systems like Heroku. We heard from people like Dave Lindquist that IBM was investing major resources in our own, at that time unannounced, cloud runtime called Bluemix. Bluemix is a PaaS system based on Cloud Foundry, that accelerates the development of cloud-native apps. We also decided to use a modern database-as-a-service called Cloudant as a backend. To our pleasant surprise, IBM would later acquire Cloudant!

We made a bet that even though Bluemix was early, it would mature quickly enough that we could make it the foundation for the IBM Service Engage front-end. So we built a continuous deployment system that could do fully-automated zero-downtime deploys to Bluemix. We decided on a team goal of 100% automated test coverage, which helped ensure that the app always improved and never regressed.

One other safeguard we put in place was an integrated code review system. We learned about this from our work with OpenStack and having read about continuous deployment at places like Facebook. We saw several benefits to encouraging code reviews before delivering:

  • An extra set of eyes to spot any non-obvious problems that are hard to catch with test automation prior to pushing to production.
  • Positive peer pressure to align to team standards, e.g. our 100% automated unit test coverage goal.
  • Improved situational awareness for code moving to production, in case an unexpected problem occurred.
  • Improved tacit knowledge of the evolving code base.

We also set a goal for the team that everyone should be full-stack developers, i.e. able to make high-quality contributions to any part of the system – back-end web code, front-end web code, model and persistence logic, authentication, etc. We enabled this in a simple way: If you were weak on any one part of the system, you got the next task related to modifying that part of the system. We used supplementary practices like pair programming to quickly diffuse knowledge.

Because we only had five months until our conference, we had to be selective about what we worked on. We used the “minimum viable product” concept that we had learned from a team book club reading of Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup to help define the simplest possible system that would help us meet our business goals for the conference.

I won’t lie, this was easier said than done since our definition of “minimum” was often much less than other peoples’ ideas of “minimum.” But we were resolute that we had to ship something of high quality, so we simply had to carve it down to the basics. This was a frequent source of tension and conflict, but we stuck to our guns.

After five months of work and hundreds of production deploys, we made the site visible on the Internet with three initial SaaS offerings a week before the conference, and announced it on the MGM Grand main stage at the event. We received an enthusiastic reception from both customers and analysts. Many people were frankly stunned by such a seemingly rapid shift in our delivery approach.

Continuous improvement

No software is ever done and no software team should ever stop growing. Since launching Service Engage at Pulse, the team has made a number of improvements.

First, we added web analytics instrumentation to the Service Engage site and the SaaS offerings to help us understand how users responded to the user experiences we designed. Our design decisions were initially driven by intuition. While intuition by experienced and talented people is essential, we now use empirical observations of user behavior to help us understand what we get right and what we need to change.

The second addition was implementation of features not via a staging site, but with techniques that we’ve learned from our friends at Etsy, such as ramp-ups and dark launches. Now, if we’re working on a new version of an experience, we will deliver an early version of that experience to the production site, limit access via various means, and gain confidence in the technical quality of the code and the new user experience via monitoring and instrumentation.

Finally, from a personal perspective, I recently made a tough decision to take on a new mission in the IBM Design group working on Special Projects. Though I will miss the day-to-day interactions with the Service Engage team, I’m happy that I’ll be able to take our lessons learned and apply them on key mobile, cloud, and cognitive computing projects.

A web app that’s not just a web app for us

In many ways the IBM Service Engage web app is just another nice-looking web app in a world that has tens of thousands of other nice-looking web apps. But it was a special project for us. We proved to ourselves that a small team could operate like a SaaS startup inside a huge company, and make a big difference in a short amount of time.

If you’d like to check out Service Engage, it’s here. I hope you like it.

A version of this post was first published on the IBM Impact Blog.

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  • Joe Coder

    Interesting stuff, to be sure, but had to chuckle at “tight-nit”. That would be a drunken louse, perhaps?

    • Bill Higgins

      Good catch; fixed :-)

  • Pauly Will Gamble

    I wish you made a documentary out of this project!

  • Great story. Reminds me of that quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”