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How to Scale Pilots into a Global IT Organization

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Scaling pilots into a global IT organization is doable, and if done right, it really works and can help to transform entire companies, said Clemens Utschig. At DevOpsCon Munich 2019 he presented how they go from starting with an idea to scaling it up into the global organization.

BI X is the digital lab of Boehringer Ingelheim. In order to shape an idea into something that can be challenged from an early sketch, and decide where and how to prove it - BI X runs central ideation, with a solid deliverable called the Pitch Deck, as Utschig explained:

It will clearly elaborate on the challenge, the opportunity as well as the startup horizon around it. Ideation plays a crucial role in scouting for startups & partners, because we want to ensure we don’t try to re-invent the wheel.

In this stage and the following, the product owner plays a super important role, Utschig said. The product owner moves with his idea to BI X for ~4-6 months, and in return gets a fully staffed product team to do user research, build, and test the MVP and potentially bring it to pilot stage, with real (end) users.

Assuming that the owning business really has an appetite for the product, the stage of handover begins, which can last anywhere between 3-6 months, and involves finding the new team, helping the new folks breathe the vision of the product, and getting them into the BI X spirit.

Utschig mentioned that they faced many challenges along the way, and often there was not one right way to deal with them, since every handover is a little different. He mentioned that having good documentation, from user research, UX design, all the way down to stories, bugs, and lastly code lineage, is really helpful in retaining knowledge.

The same goes for proper onboarding of the new team regarding agile working methods and mindset, he said. Absolutely crucial is also to transfer the product vision to the new team so that they really own it, just like the lab team did. Strict hierarchies and long processes will hinder product development, Utschig said. He suggested focusing on getting the timing right- the more cadency you lose, the less value you generate.

InfoQ interviewed Clemens Utschig, CTO & head of IT technology strategy at Boehringer Ingelheim, and Gerard Castillo, backend engineer en BI X Digital Lab, about scaling pilots into a global IT organization.

InfoQ: Why did Boehringer Ingelheim start BI X?

Clemens Utschig: BI X is the digital lab of Boehringer Ingelheim, a top 20 global researching pharmaceutical company. It was founded in 2017 with the idea to lead Boehringer Ingelheim’s digital transformation, through new means of working, ideating and building cutting edge disruptive digital products.

While most incubators locate themselves in one of the well-known startup hubs such as Berlin, Boston or Tel Aviv, we purposely picked Ingelheim, the global headquarters of Boehringer Ingelheim, in order to stay connected to our mother company. Thus, we are able to leverage the vast amounts of knowledge inside the company and ease the handover of pilots later.

InfoQ: How does BI X use and co-develop core IT services?

Utschig: As mentioned, proximity plays an important role for us. And this proximity is quite literally. IT and BI X work on platform level together every day - be it on the security, the UX stack or the base platform, just to name a few examples. Remember - different products need different IT services (e.g. eCommerce, chatbots, etc. These need to be supported later beyond one specific product). This way we ensure that when handover time starts, technology is not unknown, and risk mitigations - where needed - are available.

Gerard Castillo: If you want to push/shape for digital transformation, you need to get involved with the different departments and existing teams, to get to know each other, to understand how mindsets and workflows are coexisting. One can view this as creating small communities based on different chapter topics such as PaaS, data science, UI, UX, etc, to go over the issues and align on next steps. Therefore, this is not only about digital transformation from a technical point of view, but also about aligning the mindsets to leverage such transformation.

It is crucial to meet regularly and assure everyone has a voice and gets involved in specific actions that are focused on a vision. Once that is happening and you feel the inertia, then you can say you are doing the transformation.

InfoQ: What challenges did you face when scaling up the results of your pilots?

Utschig: There were many issues, for example:

  • Searching for talent way too late
  • Needing to position/brand as an employer for digital job profiles - we had to rethink our recruiting approach and the way we hit the media
  • Outdated documentation - so knowledge got lost
  • Handing over technology and forgetting about product vision
  • Not bringing the new ways of working to the scale-up team, e.g. quick and direct feedback, no hierarchy etc.
  • Understanding that in the scale-up phase, sometimes the real complex work is only starting. Remember, the MVP/Pilot generates a lot of appetite and now it is time to deliver, which sometimes can be very tough.

InfoQ: What have you learned from scaling pilots into a global IT organization?

Utschig: There are learnings that we applied from our first waves of product developments:

  • Ensure we include our IT colleagues early on and with that, increase our mutual learning (new technologies versus operating large scale good practice quality guidelines and regulations)
  • Automation is key, especially in regards to Continuous Delivery and Regression Testing
  • Handling products for internal customers versus external customers is a vast difference, and we are still learning on this one
  • We are able to bring people closer together, reduce silo thinking and strengthen interfaces. We have proven this and it continues to change.

We still have a lot to learn and we know it, but we are up to this challenge on all levels as it is worth it - for our customers, and the speed and quality of all our products to market.

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