How agile principles shape culture at 5 Chicago companies

by Andreas Rekdal
May 24, 2018

Since their introduction around the turn of the century, agile principles have fundamentally changed how many companies design and build software. But the agile approach has had impact outside of dev teams as well. We spoke with five Chicago tech companies about how agile mindsets help shape their broader company cultures.

 

hs2 solutions chicago tech company
image via Bounteous

A design and development consultancy with a specialty in e-commerce, Bounteous has worked with brands like Domino’s Pizza, Zipcar and Wilson Sporting Goods. Its development team implements agile in its day-to-day work, but project directors Jamie Vonk and Kylie Hoza said the Bounteous team puts agile concepts to use for everything from process improvements to tracking skills across the company.

 

We take the principles from agile and make them our own in all areas of the organization.”

A lot of companies implement agile for their tech teams. But how does that mindset shape the rest of your organization?

Jamie Vonk, project director: The agile mindset is one that becomes ingrained in all of our team members. We utilize agile principles to look for ways to continually improve our processes, increase efficiencies and incorporate feedback. We take the principles from agile and make them our own in all areas of the organization. For example: Agile boards allow us to keep track of status of different types of initiatives at Bounteous beyond development. Among other things, we’ve used them to track trainings and certifications.

 

Have agile principles led to any big wins for your team?

Kylie Hoza, project director: We have recently begun to incorporate retrospectives into our business development opportunities. The retrospective feedback has been incredibly helpful in getting alignment across our business development practice.

We are more structured around roles, responsibilities and process, which helps us to give more focus to providing the best service possible to our clients. As a company, we consistently strive to better ourselves, and using retrospectives in this way helps us grow and refine ourselves and our practices.

 

networked insights chicago tech company
image via networked insights

Networked Insights uses artificial intelligence to help companies understand their potential customers and deliver marketing messages targeted at their interests and opinions. To General Manager Paul McIntyre, the average age of the world’s most successful companies illustrates the importance of implementing an agile mindset.

 

Older companies who are not willing or able to change will not be able to keep up.”

A lot of companies implement agile for their tech teams. But how does that mindset shape the rest of your organization?

The agile framework is centered around dealing with and responding to change, which determines the success or failure of organizations. In the 1950s, the average age of a company on the S&P 500 was 60 years. Today, this average has plummeted to under 20. Older companies who are not willing or able to change will not be able to keep up with the rising demands of technology.

We must be nimble enough in all areas of our organization to adapt. Google did a study not too long ago where they measured the success of teams across their organization. They found the most successful teams were the ones that gave employees the security to share new ideas, make mistakes and learn. Change doesn’t happen if you don’t test new ideas or give employees the freedom to feel comfortable sharing new ideas. Not all ideas will be successful, so it’s important to create an environment that allows people to feel comfortable to do so. This is a core belief across our organization.

 

Have agile principles led to any big wins for your team?

Every quarter, our company gets together and has a brainstorming session to test new ideas. Everyone is encouraged to take part, ideas are shared on our pitch days and each idea owner can recruit people to help create an MVP modeled after the agile principles. The goal is to share ideas and build an initial product that can be tested in the market in a short amount of time. If you want to get from A to B quickly, you don’t need to build a Lamborghini — sometimes a skateboard will get the job done.

One of our flagship products stemmed from a hackathon session. A business owner listened to our clients, identified a need or a gap in our product, and we crafted a solution in a short amount of time.

 

nowsecure chicago tech company
image via nowsecure

Operating in the space of mobile app security, NowSecure relies on agile principles to keep up with new product releases and security vulnerabilities. The startup also implements agile principles, like daily standups, across the entire organization so distributed team members can coordinate their efforts.

 

A bit of face time and a brief touchpoint really helps identify dependencies and blockers to progress.”

A lot of companies implement agile for their tech teams. But how does that mindset shape the rest of your organization?

Alex Wishkoski, VP of product: There are a few core agile concepts that seem to have really resonated with teams even outside of tech. First among them has to be the concept of a daily standup — a brief status conversation. This is particularly important for NowSecure as we’re a distributed company, and we’ve got folks all over the country. A bit of face time and a brief touchpoint really helps identify dependencies and blockers to progress.

Brian Lawrence, sales engineer: The agile mindset is pervasive at NowSecure and we continue to improve and build more agile structures for ourselves. Our clients reap the benefits too, as we are able to pivot quickly to satisfy their needs.

 

Have agile principles led to any big wins for your team?

Wishkoski: I think the agile process is actually all about small wins. We use agile to shape many disparate team activities into one coherent release cycle. Our research team is constantly churning out new tests and finding new vulnerabilities. Those can be tested iteratively through our services team, QA and engineering, then rolled out in an incremental fashion given our two-week cadence. Lumping them into monolithic releases would slow critical vulnerability data getting out to our customers.

Chris Cimaglia, sales development representative: We focus on mobile app security and, of course, mobile app development is extremely agile. We enable customers to automate and integrate security directly into their SDLC, so they can protect end users from vulnerable mobile apps, without slowing down development schedules.

 

cars.com chicago tech company
image via cars.com

Cars.com is a two-sided online marketplace connecting people looking for vehicles with local dealerships. Chief People Officer Cynthia Hiskes said the company is in the middle of a transformation intended to promote nimbleness and collaboration.

 

We have encouraged more testing to learn, fail fast and test again.”

A lot of companies implement agile for their tech teams. But how does that mindset shape the rest of your organization?

Exceeding expectations in our fast-changing market has required Cars.com as an organization to become more nimble, better at collaborating and more efficient. We’ve done so, in large part, by integrating lean-agile concepts into our culture. We started a pilot program in marketing, which had become a bottleneck as we were increasing volume in product. We have encouraged more testing to learn, fail fast and test again. 

Marketing is a team sport that depends on big, bold ideas. The pilot has really pushed our teams to challenge existing practices and better collaborate on fresh solutions to recurring challenges. We’re still at the beginning of our transformation, but already the shifts in thinking and how we approach our work have been hugely impactful on the whole organization.

 

Have agile principles led to any big wins for your team?

Adopting a lean-agile mindset has allowed us to quicken our pace of innovation. Over the past few years, we’ve gone from 30 product releases a year to averaging 300 a month. Adopting that mindset has helped our marketing team keep pace with the rapid deployment operation and bring ideas to life faster to raise awareness about all the great innovation happening at Cars.

 

tastyworks chicago tech company
image via tastyworks

The team behind tastyworks, an options trading platform for active investors, takes an agile approach to everything — including agile adoption. To CTO Linwood Ma, close, iterative collaboration between devs and business teams makes it possible for employees on both sides to understand each other better.

 

The way that we approach agile is that where it adds value, it stays. If it doesn’t, we throw it out.”

A lot of companies implement agile for their tech teams. But how does that mindset shape the rest of your organization?

It definitely works best if the rest of the business is up for embracing the specific tradeoffs of agile. The way that we approach agile is that where it adds value, it stays. If it doesn’t, we throw it out. I think it is fair for the business to treat agile as a process the same way.

We’re perpetually in an entrepreneurial mindset across our company. An organization that can’t make tradeoffs in uncertainty may not fare well with agile, so making the case with eyes wide open is an important part of getting there.

 

Have agile principles led to any big wins for your team?

We’re always in agile mode, so there is nothing but agile examples in our experiences. Almost entirely, our brokerage stack, front to back, was built by a very small team, handles an amazing volume of activity and is exceptionally stable — especially considering its age. These aspects are a result of the team being able to balance the “what” and the “when” of requests from the business.

Also, the ability to have somewhat flexible requirements requires the dev and business teams to learn nuances of each other’s domains. Iterating at the “best” speed, incrementally, is an excellent way to learn at depth about a problem and solution. That pays dividends on the long-term abilities, experience and nuance of the development team which makes future feature development much clearer.

 

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