Interview with VersionOne CEO Robert Holler on the Winter Product Release
VersionOne have launched their Winter 2014 product release with new capabilities focused at the opposite ends of the work spectrum – Epic Release Planning is aimed at strategic and organization-wide viewpoints and Detail Views is focused on the needs of individual team members.
InfoQ spoke to VersionOne CEO Robert Holler to discuss the capabilities in the new release and the company’s future plans:
InfoQ: Hi Robert, thanks for taking the time to talk to InfoQ today. What’s been happening with VersionOne since we spoke at the Agile 2014 conference?
Things are good, we finished the year strongly and have made a lot of new hires in the last year. We’ve added about 44 people this year across all areas of the business, which is indicative that the agile market is doing very well and that there are people who really want to come and work with us.
InfoQ: What’s happening with the VersionOne product?
The biggest thing on everybody’s radar, especially as we go into large organisations and they move from trying agile to implementing it across the whole business, is the scaling aspect. There are a number of different frameworks out there, like SAFe, and people are looking to tools like ours to help tackle the chaos that occurs across projects, across programs and across portfolios. Wouldn’t it be great to make sense of all this.
InfoQ: What are some of the things that VersionOne is bringing in to support this cross-portfolio/cross-program management?
If I look back one release we brought in a number of metrics, measurements and capabilities around SAFe. Looking at this latest release we have brought in one significant new feature and updated another one. Organisations don’t want to plan just at the story level, that can get very onerous when you’re at certain levels of the organisation, so how do I plan and estimate at a strategy level, how do I plan a release with epics/super-stories/features (whatever you want to call them – we allow you to use whatever terminology you want). In addition to planning releases at a story and story-point level you are able to plan releases at a strategic level, measuring things like SWAG*, so what’s the SWAG estimate of my release as well as eventually what’s the story point estimate of this release.
*[Editor: SWAG = scientific wild-assed guess]
Something that has evolved in this release is the extension of the PlanningRooms we introduced late last year. A PlanningRoom is a dedicated online strategic management war-room, and in that room I’ve got my initiative board, my feature board, my strategic backlog and a whole series of relevant analytics that are tracking against that. At a certain level in the organisation the desire to navigate a product’s story backlog goes away, replaced by the need to see the big picture. Instead of having to log into VersionOne and navigate through the system to get to your PlanningRooms, they can be immediately accessed via a separate link by executives, product managers, product owners, the PMO, etc. As a result, accessibility is simplified, and therefore the adoption amongst this strategic team goes way up.
Just as we provided that capability for development teams with TeamRooms a year earlier, and we have added similar capabilities for another of our strategic personas , the strategy/planner and program managers. In this release we’ve made PlanningRooms much more configurable. They initially had a limited set of panels/components of visibility and we’ve extended this capability vastly. I can have multiple boards, multiple backlogs. You can make it as simple or as complex as you want to – ideally you make it simple. We’ve given the capability to put into that online strategy war-room all the different planning and reporting slices that may be needed to make and prioritize strategic decisions. With every release, we also try to add capabilities aimed at improving the team or user experience. The specific enhancements we delivered in this latest release addressed the detailed view of all the assets flowing through the system. For every asset / artifact that we track in the system there is a view and based on a tremendous amount of user feedback we’ve received over the last couple of years we’ve looked at how to better integrate collaboration, how to make links and attachments more accessible and streamlined, how to give our users a rich text description field that is infinitely more customizable. So one, the detailed view is much more aesthetically pleasing; two, a lot more functional in terms of being able to instantly see what’s happening. So, for example, if I pop open a story, while the view was always very functional, now the view is elegant, functional, and aesthetically pleasing – I can see the story in context of collaboration, in context of all the links and attachments it might have associated with it as well as a rich text field into which I’ve inserted images and tables, and whatever other formatting I want. So we’ve taken one of the highest frequency elements used in our product and taken it to the next level.
InfoQ: So this is a view right down into the detail of the content?
Yes, any asset in the product - stories, epics, defects, tests, tasks, you name it. We use a consistent view across all of our assets and this has added a whole lot of user experience improvements around dealing with them as they flow through the VersionOne system.
We operate on a set of defined “investment themes” within VersionOne including a strategic planning and alignment investment theme, a collaboration investment theme and a team experience investment theme, so we’re always trying to make continuous improvements, especially with a team and/or individual’s experience with the product. It’s an internal commitment to not just adding new features, but to improving the experience around those features, making them more easy to use, simpler and more aesthetically elegant.
InfoQ: So how do you avoid feature bloat?
By continuous investment in user experience. I believe we are one of the few, if not the only, company who ten years into its existence have gone through four different UI’s, and not just functionally different but architecturally different, trying to make sure that as we add features that we’re only putting forward the most essential features. In the background we’ve incorporated a lot of the flexibility, the configuration and the non-essential features, trying to keep just the essential actions in front of people and, even in those essential actions, continuing to evolve them so that we’re making them easier to use.
For instance – we’ve had a release planning metaphor in place for years. We decided that while it’s a very good release planning metaphor, we can make it better, so we changed a few things, we made it easier to use, made it more obvious, made it more powerful with both strategic and story level planning.
The fact that we have a committed investment theme which forces us to constantly pay attention to and evolve the UI, to try to make sure we’re not overwhelming our customers.
To take it even further, as an example, with TeamRoom and PlanningRoom we looked at the personas and worked to provide an environment specifically tailored to their needs, we thought outside the box and instead of incorporating these ideas into our main application, we created dedicated add-on modules that are specifically tailored to both development and strategy teams.
InfoQ: Do you have a clear roadmap with these investment themes?
We have other investment themes as well such as a platform investment theme and a reporting and visualisation investment theme.
When we talk about our roadmap we talk about it in context of our investment themes.
One theme, our strategic planning and alignment theme, is about supporting agile at scale– it’s about visibility at a higher level, planning at a higher level, tracking at a higher level and extending development outside just core development to all the various stakeholders and ensuring business alignment.
The collaboration theme is about enterprise-wide collaboration.Collaboration is fundamental to agile and we want to make sure that we’re not just supporting simple discussions but providing contextual collaboration around all the things flowing through a management system. Collaboration is not an add-on, collaboration is at the forefront and fundamental to the process of agile planning and tracking and reporting. We’re providing clear collaboration capabilities in every process you undertake in the product, all of the decision making, all of the innovation, all of the ideation, all the knowledge capture is all part of that inherent system. So you don’t lose it – wouldn’t it be great if you could look back 3 years and figure out why you made a decision on something. We want to make that as seamless and obvious as humanly possible.
The team experience theme is primarily driven by our current users, where they’re having challenges, online analytics that we run to see where people may be having difficulty and our online IdeaSpace where people can post suggestions. Then we have our own series of ideas about what we’d like to do to help simplify the product for all of our users.
We try to do a good job of interspersing work on all of our themes, making sure we’re dealing with both customer and strategic issues, all in the context of our broader investment theme strategy. Our investment themes have helped us strategically guide the investments we make across our agile lifecycle management platform and articulate that strategy not just internally but externally as well.
InfoQ: Thank you for talking to us about the product and your investment themes.
In the next interview Robert Holler will discuss the latest State of Agile survey results.