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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Ed Cortis on Activity Based Working

Ed Cortis on Activity Based Working


1. Hi, my name is Craig Smith, I’m an Agile editor with InfoQ, we are here at Agile Australia 2013 in Sydney. It’s my pleasure to have Ed Cortis with me, how are you doing Ed? Ed, you are currently the head of Solution Delivery at Bankwest in Perth, so tell us just a little bit about Bankwest, what’s there?

I’m very well, thank you, pleased to meet you.We are a regional bank, we are about four and a half thousand people based in Perth, which is not as people claim the most remote city in the world, it’s the second most remote behind Honolulu. We are an entirely in-sourced IT Shop, which I think is quite unusual in this day and age, and we own our own core banking platform as well, which again I think is very unusual. So those two things give us a number of competitive advantages as we see along with our desire to be Agile and our desire to be continuously delivering and properly recognizing value, all those kind of things.


2. Excellent, and I think Bankwest is probably one of the top organizations in Australia that is recognized for its Agile .deployment.

I’m delighted to hear you say that, I’m not sure that is necessarily the case but if you say so it must be true. IT within Bankwest is about 700 people, my organization is about 280, something like that, 140 developers, 70 testers, 70 BA’s and an Agile practice then with a project management customer delivery as we call them team with about 70 that is a peer of mine and an infrastructure team of about 300 as well, something like that, so we’re a decent size shop in WA.


3. So rewinding just a little bit, we are at an Agile Conference and I certainly know you from around in the Agile Community for the last few years. Where did your Agile journey actually begin? What got you started to think actually this is….

That’s a great question. So I joined Bankwest in August of last year, so I’ve only been in Perth for about ten months. Prior to that I was based in Melbourne for the last twelve years or so, and for the last five years of that I was at Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet I think has a reputation as being an Agile incubator. I worked for and then alongside Nigel Dalton who is obviously now CIO at and a number of other people who presenting either today or last year or the year before. When I started at Lonely Planet I was the Director of Operations and we used to see these crazy Agile guys doing their software delivery and a classic operations responsive of “No, no, we are not interested in that thanks!”

But then as time went on and you saw the value and the pleasure that people had in working and how successful it was and of course we would put people into those teams and they’d come back out of the team and want to carry on working like that, it just become natural that we would look at working in Agile ways. So we were probably one of the first organizations in Australia to do Agile in operations, so my talk at Agile Australia last year was around Agile in SAP and from there we took it into the service desk and into infrastructure teams and we moved datacenters and so on. It’s not necessarily about doing the whole kit and kaboodle of Agile, it’s about picking up the ceremonies that make sense, it’s common sense, so our service desk would have a daily standup that makes sense, we’d use Visual Management in order to make sure people understood what was going on, that makes sense.

We’d have retro’s so that we were all continuously improving, that makes sense. Is that Agile or is that just common sense? I don’t know. It seems to me that’s just common sense, so yes, it started at Lonely Planet with the website relaunch after a big failed waterfall project in 2007 that they relaunched in 2009, and we sat on the side for a long time and then we couldn’t resist but join in and then from there it just grew until the whole organization was pretty well just doing things that made sense, call it Agile, call it whatever you like.


4. Was it one of those things in the operations area that it was infectious or did it rely on the people actually. I find that operations people sometimes haven’t yet struggled with the change because they’ve been successful doing what they do for a number of years, I guess you were a very early DevOps shop in that respect.

I think we were a very early DevOps shop as well and when I became the director of IT I think I was one of the first people to actually create a role, I had a DevOps manager, a guy called called Jay Hyett who is now at PlayUp and I mean there is a debate about whether DevOps is a job title or not that goes on and I sit there and I watched these people who are heroes of mine say no it’s not and I think actually it kind of was for us, it worked creating a job title. But to answer your question, we sat on the side and we watched it and we put people into those teams in that kind of blended Dev-Opsy way and they came out and they said: “No, there are better ways to do this”.

The famous challenge in IT is around the introversion and the failure to communicate and that is within an IT team, the two people can be sitting next to each other but they still won’t, they’ll email each other but they wouldn’t turn and talk, and that can be a DBA and a Linux Engineer on the same project, and that is not because they don’t want to I don’t think, I think it’s in part become tradition and it’s in part introversion and if you go to having a daily standup you just give them an ability to talk: “What did you do yesterday, what are you doing today” just help that surface and help that shared understandings. So one of the first things that we did was we came out of a Fujitsu Data Center into our own data center and into an Interactive Data Center, and we did that in a waterfall way because we had hard things to hit and the scope wasn’t changing but we through it up on a wall and every day we’d have the teams standup in front of the wall and talk about what they were doing, so there were no surprises, just makes sense right, why wouldn’t you do that?


5. So do you think, was it one of those things that evolved? Sometimes what I hear people say is: “We can’t do Agile in Infrastructure, no one has written the book on that yet”. Is it one of those things that you just kind of saw the development guys doing, there was this core set of practices, there was this Manifesto, there were all these kind of things that were just lying out there, did you just kind of pick that up and go, let’s just see what works for us and run with it?

Maybe the guys who are into the, who were across on the Software Development side had an exposure to that and when they came back to us of course we rate things as I was expect any professional to do, but I don’t think we got fixated on it. I mean towards the end of my time at Lonely Planet we were doing a big recruitment for roles in the UK and every day the manager of Digital who was due to move over and I had to stand the team up for him to get to manage, would come past and say: “Hey, Ed how is the recruiting going, I’m worried I’m man, I’m not seeing anything.”- “I’m sending you the spreadsheet everyday Don, there’s been hundreds of people that we’ve seen.” – “I don’t have time for that” and I said: “Hang on a second, we should just put this on a board”, so we put it on a board, we put columns down the board of the status of interview, tech test, culture test, blah blah, yes no, put it up by his office, solved the problem! He walked past it every day, so it’s that serendipity of the visual management, he walked past it, he never asked a question again because he could see there were a hundred cards in the no column and there were 3 in the yes column and there were 20 at various different stages across the process. Is that Agile? I don’t know, is it Visual Management? Yes, it just makes sense.


6. So at Lonely Planet you obviously then made the trek cross to the other side of the country to where you are now at the Bankwest, so as I said before there is some interesting things happening over there. My first question is, is there an isolation in a city like Perth, as you said it is either the first or the second most isolated community and if you guys are the biggest Agile Shop in town, the biggest IT Shop in town how do you then make sure that you play well with others, I mean you’re here at the conference obviously, but how you learn from people when you are so isolated?

That is an excellent question and that is a challenge and we address it in a number of ways, I’m very keen on people attending conferences and we are very lucky that we can afford to send people to things. We just sent probably the largest contingent in Australia to Velocity in Santa Clara, which unfortunately coincides with this, otherwise I would kill to be there. We’ve got people talking here, now, I talk at conferences and I encourage people to get out and talk, that is one thing. I also then have the luxury of being able to afford to fly people to Perth, I also have kind of a network of friends that I don’t mind inviting over to Perth as well.

So we’ve had people like Nigel Dalton and Evan Bottcher who is a ThoughtWorks continuous delivery guy and we were very lucky to convince Tom and Mary Poppendieck to kind of divert from Hong Kong I think they came down through and spend 4 or 5 days with us in Perth which is incredible, amazing, and the same with Bjarte Bogsnes as well! So we are starting to understand that we have a capability and ambition to bring people in, I feel we have to and the interesting thing is that when they come to Perth I kind of make a condition that yes of course they come on usually my dime or kind of I’m paying expenses or I’m paying expenses plus, but I need them to speak to the community.

So they will host a meet-up, they will attend a meet-up and of course they are keen to do that, but it is not in my interest just to raise the ability in Bankwest at the expense of everybody else in Perth, that would be counterintuitive, because I’d just be losing staff to all of our competitors all the time. So we are very keen, and if you look at the growth of the Agile Perth Meet Up that is run by Richard McAllister it’s been staggering and we’ve have amazing speakers and we will have more amazing speakers and whether it’s that or DevOps or the .NET stuff or SAS, we starting to really deliberately contribute to the community in order to make sure that Perth gets helped over its isolation I think.


7. I think some people get cocooned and you hear the “yeah, we can’t possibly go out and talk to people” but I think it’s a great example of, I mean a cityand a large organization in the city that is isolated.

Andy Weir, my boss the CIO firmly believes in developing and supporting the community, as do I, our bank firmly believes in supporting the community and I think we have a responsibility as the biggest IT Shop in Perth to do that. We work with Curtain and other universities and we sponsor a lot of other bits and pieces, but the thing that I’m most proud of it is we get people like Tom and Mary Poppendieck to come to Perth, that’s amazing.


8. You guys you’ve been on your Agile Journey now for a number of years and I think at last year’s conference there was a talk about the stop-start and nature of how Agile came to be over there. Why do you think Agile has taken off. I mean banking is one of those areas that we do have some success stories here in Australia, particularly Suncorp as another example as a bank that’s had success, but what do you think was the success behind Bankwest and its adoption of Agile?

I think we turn it around and say, I mean Agile is just one of a number of tools and techniques that we are keen to leverage because we’re desperately trying to make sure we deliver what matters to the customer as quickly as we can, so whether that is Agile software methodologies give us fast feedback and fast deployable code, whether that is Continuous Delivery which allows us to punch stuff out to the website quickly, whether that is DevOps which means we have less problems in production, you know all those things whether it’s a proper understanding of customer value or a proper understanding of flow, we had Bjarte over talking about Beyond Budgeting, all those things are just tools and techniques in our absolutely focused desire and journey to get far better at delivering what our customers want.

Lean Startup, validated learning, all that kind of stuff is absolutely where we are going so I jokingly say to my colleagues that I want us to be like the Facebook of banking, I want us to be deploying code multiple times a day, measuring it, taking feedback, iterating, learning, pushing forward, that is what we have to do. Ev was recently over speaking about the competitors of the banking industry and you know, they are Visa, Samsung, Mastercard, PayPal and Amazon and we know they’re all are coming and if we don’t become more able to respond to them, then if we are not careful we will be in some trouble.


10. So a lot of interesting things happening there, I mean at the conference this year you are talking about Activity Based Working (ABW), and your talk was “100 Card Walls and Back Again: Lessons Learned in ABW”. Tell us firstly for those who don’t know what Activity Based Working is, give us an overview of what that’s all about.

I should tell you that I lied, it was never 100 card walls it was 90 and it never went down to none, it only went down to about 16 but now we are way up over 100. So Activity Based Working is essentially a better way to use your office space, in a nutshell. The underlining truth is that in the vast majority of any office around the world, 30% of your desks are not used at all. If you look around your office now, there is a pretty good chance that 30% of them are empty and they will be empty all day. There are probably another roughly 30% which show what we would call a sign of life – there is nobody sitting there because they’ve gone to a meeting but there is a coffee cup or a laptop or a coat or something there.

So Activity Based Working is about unlocking that potentially unused space. The interesting question then becomes: “What you do with it? Do you build a less of a building, do you return some floors to the rental market, do you build some collaboration spaces, what do you do with it?” Typically people strike a balance, do a bit of both, so it’s all supported by a quite significant technology, you have to enable frictionless moving. Basically you go where you need to go on a weekly, hourly, daily basis - Activity Based Working. If I want to work with my management team, we’ll all get together for a day and sit around a big project desk, if I want to go sit in a delivery team and see what are they doing, I’ll grab my laptop and go sit down and work with them for a day, if I want to sit with my boss’s management team I’ll go and sit with them for a day.

So, in order to support that, we have standard laptops, we have wireless, we have follow me printing, we have follow me telephony, all those things basically allow you to pick up your laptop and go wherever you like, there is no assigned desks, so it’s almost paperless, which again means you don’t own a particular space, so that’s really, I guess, in a nutshell what ABW is.


11. So is there a cultural barrier to get over in doing that because I assume some people love their desks right, I mean “Where am I going to put the picture of my dog?”

Absolutely, spot on, so there are probably three challenges, kind of headline challenges, and one of them is absolutely the people and the cultural change, yes the status symbol of the office that you lose, we have one office in our building now. The desire to show your trophies and your awards and your certificates and your books – “Look how many books I’ve read, I must be terribly clever!”, and pictures of family and so on. Yes you lose that and that can be a big issue for people, so actually in the transition from the old building to the new building, we spent a quarter of our budget on implementing Activity Based Working, so there was a cost to move into the new building, there was an incremental cost to go ABW and a quarter of the incremental cost was on Organizational Change Management.

So it’s an enormously important part of the move, I mean there are other issues around if you are used to management by walking around, the bloke who sat there today is not the same guy tomorrow and that makes that for me as new into the organization, that is very confusing. I knew him by where he sat or his context and now he’s moved, so we’ve written our own locator software which helps you find people and tells you who is sitting around you. It’s funny, I reflected, I was sitting at home writing this presentation, I reflected on all the detritus I used to have around my desk at Lonely Planet, which I had to box up and I couldn’t take it to work at Bankwest, and I was “That’s funny I’m not really missing it anymore and I feel proud about that and that, and that says I’m a nerd, all this stuff, I’m not missing it, in fact it’s untidy.”

And I came to the realization that I didn’t need to be proud about my desk because I’m so proud of the building, that it doesn’t bother me that I can’t claim an area because I can claim the whole building as my own, and I have had that conversation with a number of people at work, and that’s a general feeling, that’s absolutely, we don’t feel we need a desk anymore, we have a building, it’s not just that little area now, it’s the whole thing.


12. So do you think it was one of the reasons, was it derived by the fact that you had to change buildings, would it have been as successful, do you think you would gone down the path if you weren’t relocating for some reason, could you have done it in the existing space to the same success?

The business case had 5 things called out in it, which I‘m happy to talk about, we chose to move into a different building because I understand it was cheaper to do that than refurbish the existing one. We were in Bankwest tower which is a 40 something-odd floor building with a single lot of lifts so you can imagine the time and money you’d go to to refurbish that building. So I think it was cheaper to rebuild, and we consolidated then 5 offices into a single office so of course we picked up some collaboration benefits around that, but the business case, the primary reasons in business case for doing it were for the wow factor, for staff attraction and staff retention, they were the first two cabs off the rank in the business case, and it’s true, I only have to bring a potential candidate into the building and say: “Hey, look at this” and they go: “Wow, this is incredible, you guys work here? This is like a business lounge.” – “Yes, this is our daily work”, and then the number of conversations that I’ve had with colleagues who say: “I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else”, yes, that is kind of the point, when you are competing against the mining sector in Perth, we need as many tricks as we can to keep people happy and working for us. So those are the first two, the third one is around collaboration and productivity and that is really where the beautiful overlap with Agile really starts to come off, the fact that you can sit where you need to sit.

Again I remember being at Lonely Planet and the amount of time and effort we used to spend in moving people into teams and moving people out of the teams, to unplug desktops and re-plug them, and move telephones, that’s just gone, there is no longer a reason for you not to go sit with that team, because you can just take your laptop and go sit there. So the removal of offices, and partitions, and cubes and pods has really flattened the hierarchy. Rob De Luca the CEO sits out on the floor, that is perfectly normal. Completely flattened the hierarchy, really drives this collaboration, when you then also wrap in the fact that we now have an enormous number of kind of ad-hoc collaboration spaces, it looks like a business lounge on every floor in our building, that’s got to be brilliant for Agile software delivery, because you can just get the business guy and the ops guy and the dev guy and the tester and whoever else you want and just go sit somewhere.

It’s not a challenge to find somewhere to sit together anymore to just have a conversation. Again I remember in other places that I’ve worked, getting a meeting room is just like a ridiculous quest, you have got to get the PA to book you that, no, just grab the people and go sit where you want, we’ve got hundreds of these spaces across the whole building where you can just go and have a conversation – magic!

And then I think the fourth benefit that was listed on the business case was about sustainability, clearly we don’t use as much paper, so we don’t use as much ink, so it’s cheaper to run it like that. We could have built a smaller building, which should have meant less cost in terms of building, the building in the first place, and then as we go forward we don’t have to clean as many floors and heat as many floors and so on, so it’s a cheaper building to run and then finally of course there is the occupancy cost which is the one that most people go to, it must be cheaper, yes it is cheaper, but it was actually listed fifth of the five points on the business case.

So in my talk I say this is, it defines the laws of physics: for every action there should be an equal and opposite reaction, so for every good there should be a bad, there is no bad in this, it’s more collaborative, it’s more engaging, our colleagues love it, it’s easier to attract and retain staff, it’s more sustainable and it’s cheaper. Why wouldn’t you do it?


13. So you mentioned, you had the business lounge analogy for those who haven’t seen any of your pictures or things about that, that hopefully gives them a bit of a sense of what it might look like, so you mentioned obviously as an Agile Shop, if teams potentially are moving around and being nomadic, then where do the card walls go, where is that sense of projects X is here?

So we talked about people as being one of the challenges and another one is around Activity Based Working zealotry. So there is Activity Based Working zealotry which is one of the three challenges that we faced, the idea that you have to move every day, the idea that you couldn’t reserve a seat, the idea that teams couldn’t reserve spaces and that you couldn’t mark an area as being your area because that would claim ownership of it and then other people may not feel like that they could sit in the area. So at the start, we had a number of mobile card walls and we wheeled them around and then the guys came up with these shower curtains, which are these plastic shower curtains that they would stick on the walls and they would have the cards in the shower curtains, and at the end of the standup they’d roll the thing up and hide it away, it’s just absurd.

So in my first week of being at Bankwest I said “So where are all the card walls - Well we have these shower curtains that we roll and unroll and we’re not allowed to leave them up” and I said that is ridiculous. We ordered some card walls from OfficeWorks and the rest is history, the whole building now is covered in card walls and covered in visual management stations and so on. But there was a “shiny new building” syndrome as well as the other thing I think people took ABW to be far to rigid, gradually over time it kind of unwound until we found this happy compromise where, that is where the teams sits but you don’t sit in the same place everyday because you may not get the same desk, but roughly that is the area and the card wall signifies that is roughly the area where they sit. But it’s not hard and if somebody else wanted to go sit in there like I do on occasions then that is perfectly acceptable and it’s also acceptable for you tap me on the shoulder and say: “Hey Ed, would you mind? This is a team area, we need your seat” and we are growing into a culture now where that’s acceptable, it’s been a harder part to learn, but we’re getting there.


15. Do you think that environment has made an Agile even more pervasive?

It has now that we got the card walls back, there was obviously a moment in time when were no card walls and people can talk about electronic card walls and online card walls, but to me in the middle of an Agile transformation they are almost the banner, they’re the indication of that what’s you are doing, and to lose them all I think had an impact on us for a while, but now that we’ve got them back you start to gather the momentum again everybody can see that there are card walls everywhere, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind, this is where we are going. So yes, it’s supporting, absolutely supporting our transformation now.


16. So what next on the radar for Bankwest on your Agile journey, so you are kind of there, you’ve got this awesome working area, you’ve got your hundred card walls give or minus ten, what now, what are the next big challenges for the organization?

I think the observation, we’ve come to realize that I think we’ve made the classic mistake: we’ve done Agile adoption not Agile transformation so we are very good now at delivering software, within our software delivery engine. What we haven’t done is we haven’t taken the business along for the ride and we haven’t taken finance along for the ride and we haven’t taken the PMO along for the ride, so we’ve got the bit in the middle going very well, but the bits at the bookends or the bits outside of that not so much. And that is something I think we came to probably in February – March of this year and we are now starting do a lot of work with our finance customers , totally up for it which is just a delight to see, they’re up for Beyond Budgeting and also for our PMO and we are starting to spend a lot of time educating the business on what this means and the fact that this will mean that we will be delivering more value to you faster and therefore you need to start thinking about what impact that might have on you as well.


17. So if people want to know more about ABW or what Bankwest is up to is there anywhere that you suggest that they go and like ABW find out more for about it?

The talk that I gave here at Agile Australia will be up on the website somewhere, just Google me or hit me up on LinkedIn or Twitter, I mean there is various case studies that I’ve contributed to and there is other people, Trevor Clarke has done a lot of work around ABW in Asia Pacific. There is a lot of people around that are starting to kind of understand the importance of this and starting to kind of try and educate people about it.


18. If they want to find you on Twitter, how do they do that?

I’m EvilEd but it’s a because I couldn’t get the e’s in for whatever reasons, so just Google me, it’s easier, Ed Cortis.

Sep 13, 2013