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Cultivating a developer-friendly culture with Agile and Lean processes

Find out how one developer at Target convinced the suits to make the place fun and meaningful for developers by using an Agile and Lean process.

Large old-school enterprises are not generally known for inspiring developers in any meaningful way. But it does not have to be that way, argued Elwin Loomis, senior director of the Store of the Future at Target. At the Red Hat Summit in San Francisco, he inspired developers about how he enrolled the suits in making the place fun again. Not only that, but this initiative made money for the company too!

"Imagine what it would take to make you want to go to work every day," said Loomis. In 2013 he noticed that the Target engineering team was under appreciated, de-motivated, and scared. He realized he wanted to create a community of doers, but this was no easy task. One colleague said he did not want to be on any list of special people because this was dangerous. So Loomis started a secret society with challenge coins and special projects that eventually won over the suits.

This started with one skunk-works project that brought Agile processes into the organization. The suits thought it would take a year. But they finished it in only 6-weeks. The project generated $300,000 in incremental revenues the first week. After the project ended, one of the business managers begged Loomis to do more, and soon the whole company took notice. Over a course of a couple of years, the Target hierarchy shrank from 40 levels to 10, and the developers started having fun.

The legacy challenge

Large companies can no longer rest on their laurels. "In the past if you wanted to be big, you needed to build massive physical, digital, and financial infrastructure," said Loomis. This was the barrier of entry to keep competitors out of the market. In retail, the barrier was a massive supply chain, real estate holdings, and relationships with manufacturers. Now these barriers are being broken down. Upstarts don’t need real estate to be an effective retailer.

"If big companies don’t start acting agile, they will fail," said Loomis. The big companies carry the burden of legacy systems, processes, and most importantly culture. These are cultures that are great at the care and feeding of their own legacy machines. They have forgotten how to feed the makers.

Large companies want to thrive in markets that are smarter and faster than they are. "This is not a panic, this is a challenge we can face," said Loomis. "We are at a moment where we as makers and creators can influence corporations and markets and make change."

The road to mediocrity

Loomis was at Target from 1993 to 2005 and got a chance to work for some of the most awesome people around. They were the people that created the brand that disrupted retail. In 1993, Target was one small piece of a much larger company with a test and learn culture that was often at odds with the management of a larger conglomerate.

In 1994, Loomis got called into a boardroom in casual dress. There were no seats for the Target IT team.  One of the suits chuckled, "Don’t worry about them. They are our red and khaki brigade." That was when Loomis decided they would eat their Lunch. Over the next couple of years, Target grew into one of the largest retailers, and Loomis moved on in 2005.

He came back in 2013 to a completely changed culture. The company had lost most of its engineering strength. The thinking was that if they could define a task well enough, it could be commoditized to low-cost coders. Loomis said, "We had forgotten who we were and how we did it. We were averse to risk."

Shortly thereafter, he was called into an acquisition meeting of a startup. The Target people, including Loomis, were sitting around a table in suits. The startup founders were wearing T-shirts. Loomis quipped, "There was a smirk on their face and I look at, myself with a suit on one side with the other suits, and I wonder how I got there. These guys were thinking, ‘I am going to eat your lunch.’"

Planting the seed

That insight got Loomis to wondering how Target could find its way back to its roots and move forward as a company. "I made it my mission that day when sitting around with the suits to create a place where I wanted to come to work and enlist anyone that would help me," he said.

He started asking questions like:

  • What does a healthy culture look like?
  • How can we incorporate what we do to attract the best team?
  • How can we remember we are the ones that create the machine and are not cogs in the machine?

The first thing he realized was that he had to find the doers in the company and join forces and collaborate with them. The doers are often not high in the corporate hierarchy. These are the people like the ones needed to access code repositories. But these people did not want to be on a special list, since it was dangerous.

So he created a challenge coin that he gave out when he recognized someone was a doer. They were for people that could recognize the rules and be willing to break them to get things done. Ultimately no one knew who the rebel alliance members were. "This was a way to show we can appreciate the people that were under appreciated," said Loomis.

Show them what works

Loomis realized he need to show the organization a better way of creating. So he launched small teams and small pods and invited business to come in with ideas to implement. But the suits had to sit around the table with the developers. The teams worked in an open space with Agile and Lean processes. They quickly won over the suits who realized how awful the old process was. One business person said they could not continue to work the way they were doing. The idea was to create a model that infected the organization.

As part of this transformation, Target created a manifesto to define a set of empowering beliefs and culture. It encouraged business people and developers to think about how to enable meaningful work that makes people’s lives better with humility and optimism. Ultimately this meme took over the organization and the Target hierarchy was reduced from 40-layers to 10. The development team moved the entire infrastructure to open source in 18-months.

At the end of his talk, Loomis directed attendees to check under their seats for a Challenge coin they could take back to their own organization. He said, "I need you to go back to your organizations and find the doers. Be the catalyst, make the changes, and let’s change the world together."

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