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Mark Foulsham describes himself as “busy”; it is an apt description. The group CIO of insurance specialist esure is overseeing an IT transformation plan to help future-proof the organisation against the fast-evolving nature of modern business technology.
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The programme involves a range of leading-edge initiatives at various levels of the IT stack, including operating platforms, computing appliances, virtualisation and the cloud. But it is Foulsham’s move towards a completely agile form of development that will be of most interest to many CIOs.
The company is particularly keen to take advantage of DevOps, a much-hyped methodology that focuses on co-operation and collaboration between software developers and other IT operations professionals. The aim is to create continually evolving services that closely match business demands.
By the end of next year, analyst Gartner says DevOps will have moved from a niche approach employed by large cloud providers to a mainstream strategy used by 25% of Global 2000 organisations. So, how can CIOs make the transition and ensure that agility is a core element of technology provision?
Here, Foulsham explains how he is helping to create an agile approach to IT development at esure, and how DevOps can create a more integrated approach to the creation of IT products and services.
1. Supporting a modular mode of development and deployment
Foulsham has deployed a range of change initiatives during his 11 years at esure. From mobility to hackathons, he is always keen to embrace novel approaches and bring more agility to the IT process. He is now using some of those experiences to help shape his firm’s use of DevOps.
“It’s all about speed to market – we’re adopting new processes and want to move beyond the traditional, waterfall approach to IT development,” says Foulsham, explaining the key aims of the initiative.
“Rather than simply transforming an area of IT and moving on, the aim is to manage change in a continual manner. We want to get to a point where we don’t have defined release dates. Instead, we’ll always be delivering.”
"It’s a huge change in terms of how technology specialists work"
Mark Foulsham, CIO, esure
Foulsham says the business is investigating how agile and DevOps can be applied to the complete chain of processes associated to IT project delivery. The firm uses a modular approach to application and infrastructure development and deployment. The method relies on pre-built, modular blocks that can be used and re-used in a variety of systems and platforms.
DevOps, says Foulsham, encourages a consistent approach that allows IT teams to move towards faster delivery of products and services. Such speedy delivery relies on strong connectivity between applications across the entire IT stack. To be able to work in a modular fashion, there must be an exceptionally strong bond between technology and the rest of the organisation, he says.
“We have to align the various elements of IT with how the business works,” says Foulsham. “That alignment must span across service functions. You need to create a feature team that moves beyond traditional IT and that works within the organisation on the development of products.”
2. Building a business within a business
A modular form of development requires a service team with a strong awareness of how to make the most of existing application programming interfaces (APIs). Foulsham says a core set of deployment tools is also crucial, including those relating to coding, automation and testing.
“It’s a huge change in terms of how technology specialists work,” he says. “Rather than having an IT team, the business has a product team that continually delivers results. To successfully deliver change, the people that work on these products must work hand-in-glove with the business at all times.”
Architects and developers must be continually present within the production chain. The agile approach also relies on high-quality engineers and release specialists, who ensure updated products are ready for the business after development and testing, he says.
“It’s as if you’ve created a new business,” says Foulsham, recognising the scale of transformation. “There’s no separation in activities. You must get input from all the component parts of the organisation. The aim is to get everyone aligned, so that products can get to market as quickly as possible.”
3. Focusing on people, processes, tools and architecture
So, how easy is it to move towards DevOps in reality? “Making it happen is tricky,” says Foulsham, who adds that CIOs looking to move towards a more agile form of development need to focus on four key areas simultaneously – people, processes, tools and architecture.
“Look closely at what your business needs to achieve and work backwards,” he says. “Speak to the rest of the organisation and discover pointers that will help you to work out which areas need the most work.”
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Foulsham says the DevOps team work from a constantly changing backlog list, where different projects are pushed up and down the schedule in response to rapidly changing business requirements. The aim, unsurprisingly, is true agility, where developers and users are comfortable with change as a new constant.
Although the firm’s transition remains a work in progress, Foulsham says moves towards DevOps are progressing well. He says esure has already adopted a higher degree of agility, with individual workers across the organisation beginning to work in a modular fashion.
4. Recognising that the implementation of agility takes time
It is important for any CIO thinking of moving towards DevOps to understand that the transformation will not happen overnight. While some new products can be updated in a continuous manner, other long-standing initiatives will remain wedded to a waterfall method of delivery.
Foulsham says the mixed approach to deployment represents a key best practice lesson for other CIOs. “Don’t destroy the delivery chain, as the IT team will still have a range of existing services that it needs to maintain in a traditional way,” he says.
“You have to think about how you will gradually move the business towards a continuous delivery model. And, as new products come up, we push more and more towards an agile approach at esure.”
Foulsham says there is no single date when the organisation is likely to be fully agile. However, there is a wholesale move taking place away from serial IT development and towards DevOps.
“You have to get the right balance between the new and old way of working,” says Foulsham. “Business engagement is crucial and managing stakeholder expectations is key. As a CIO, you won’t be able to change the way that IT works on your own – you have to work as part of the business.”