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Insurance giant Allianz opens up about how DevOps success is fueling its move to cloud

The German financial services giant reveals details of how a year-long push to embrace DevOps has set the scene for a move to cloud

Allianz has revealed how a trip to Silicon Valley inspired its senior management team to embrace DevOps, and paved the way for the German financial services giant to ramp up its use of cloud.

Speaking at the DevOps Enterprise Summit in London, Andrea Hirzle-Yager, head of the IT department at Allianz Deutschland AG, said – on their return in early 2016 – the management team set a challenge for each of the organisation’s business units to create an app within a year.

“They came back with lots of great ideas about what we had to do inside just a few months to continue to focus more on our customers,” she said.

“It’s not like we hadn’t focused on our customers before, but we realised we needed to get closer to the customer. We understand their needs and we can quickly deliver products to them anytime or anywhere.”

The challenge was initially greeted with a degree of scepticism – particularly from individuals working inside the organisation’s IT security and compliance teams – but Hirzle-Yager said she was determined to support what the company’s senior leaders were hoping to achieve.

“I raised my hand. I’ll take this project on and we will deliver those apps by the end of the year to make this possible,” she said.

One of the reasons why she was so keen to get involved was to protect her operations team from finding themselves in a situation where their views and needs were not factored into a wider discussion about how the project should proceed.

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“I’ve been too many times on the other side of the wall where somebody went to do something [a code deploy], and just before it was nearly done, it was thrown over the wall to the operations people to sort out. I didn’t want to do that again,” she said.

“I also want my team to be there at the very beginning, having discussions as problems come up and decide how we’re going to address them.”

A pivotal moment

One of the firms the Allianz team visited during its Silicon Valley jaunt was digital transformation company Pivotal, which coaches enterprises how to incorporate agile software development processes into their business.

This led to Allianz seconding teams of software engineers to Pivotal’s offices in London to help them get to grips with concepts such as paired programming and working as part of a cross- functional team.

To ensure the working practices the Allianz team in London were being schooled continued to be followed once they returned, the company set about creating some agile training centres of its own in Munich and Stuttgart in June 2016, with the first teams moving in one month later.

“We needed a space they could come back to where they wouldn’t be distracted by all of the everyday phone calls or meetings they were exposed to,” she said.

 Achievement unlocked

The first crop of apps produced as a result of these efforts were ready for testing by August 2016, before making it on to the app store several months ahead of schedule.

“That means my team, together with the help of numerous external and internal experts, had created this platform or at least the test environment for a platform at light speed,” said Hirzle-Yager. “I have to tell you, this was something that had never been done before. It would usually take us several months to get a hardware order – let alone create something that could be used.”

The first application to make it onto the App Store arrived in September 2016, and two further additions joined them in November and December of that year, too.

They included one that lets users keep tabs on their contracts and dealings with the firm from their smartphone, while another lets customers upload pictures from a road traffic accident, for example, and receive a near-instant response on how much it would cost to repair any damage caused.

“That crazy goal, set at the beginning of the year, was made possible by working together,” she said.

The move to the cloud

Having surpassed the app development goal set by the senior management team, Hirzle-Yager has now been asked to draw on her experience of overseeing the DevOps push at Allianz to help the company start moving to the cloud.

“For an insurance company like Allianz, going into the cloud, that’s another crazy project, right, but that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

“We have looked at all the lessons we’ve learned, created a cross-functional team to create, setup and define this new environment to support more app development, for some of our legacy environments to move into and my team has been asked to lead the initiative.”

Top-down management support

The top-down push from management to embrace DevOps allowed the organisation to overcome many of the hurdles enterprises commonly run into when embarking on a digital transformation of this scale, she said.

For instance, with senior management support already assured, this saved its organisation from having to repeatedly make the business case for DevOps, instead of getting on with the job at hand.

“You need your senior leadership and board to understand what you’re trying to do as you embark on this journey or as you continue to report on this journey, because DevOps is not easy. It’s well worth it and it absolutely should be done, but it’s not an easy thing and takes a lot of patience,” she said.

“So, if you have to explain your business case to your senior executives all the way, you’re not going to have enough time to focus on all the other important things. You need to get that out of the way early and get your senior leadership aligned.”

Running into difficulties

That’s not to say the order from on high to adopt DevOps proceeded without a hitch, as the company encountered some difficulties in the early days as its developers and operations staff adjusted to their new working relationship.

“One team would ask the other team to do something, but nobody really knew what exactly needed to be done to move forward. So I called the team together and made them all literally sit at the same table together,” said Hirzle-Yager.

The team she pulled together for this discussion included the individuals responsible for security, infrastructure, operations and application development.

“It was amazing to see, that once they were all sitting there together and actually talking about what needed to be done, so many of the issues disappeared,” she said. “Some of it was just a misunderstanding of what the person actually needed.”

The security and compliance teams had misgivings about the project, which were also worked through in this forum and provided them with an opportunity to raise their “red flags” – and ensure the developers and operations teams addressed these issues during their portion of the work.

Proving the value of DevOps.

In organisations where DevOps has emerged as more of a grassroots initiative, driven by technology teams inside individual business units, for example, Hirzle-Yager said the pressure is on them to prove the value of DevOps to win the backing of senior management.

It is also important to bear in mind that DevOps success also requires organisations to get buy-in from other parts of the business too, including – crucially – the human resources department.

“DevOps is not just an IT thing,” she said. “In many organisations, it starts in IT, but you need to get your HR people on board. I don’t know how many of you have the challenge of trying to find the right talent with the mindset to help you along with this journey, and if you don’t have your entire organisation aligned, it makes it that much more challenge.”

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