Agile software development underpins Standard Life IT strategy

Software development managers could reduce the risk of project failure by using an agile methodology to build applications, such as the one being used by Standard Life.

Software development managers could reduce the risk of project failure by using an agile methodology to build applications, such as the one being used by Standard Life.

The insurer is using an agile approach to build new applications, which will replace software it inherited from company buy-outs involving Prime Health and First Assist.

Keith Young, IT director at Standard Life, oversees approximately 500 programmers, and said the agile approach minimises the risk of an application not meeting business requirements.

"We use agile in an increasing number of development projects and have found it to be useful for developing new applications," said Young.

Young said the agile approach focused on iterative design and feedback, which differed from the waterfall method, where software requirements are captured once early on and where changes in requirements were difficult to adapt.

Standard Life had used the waterfall method but Young said business users felt they had only one opportunity to tell developers what their requirements were, giving developers more requirements than they needed, which increased development time.

Standard Life conducted an audit of its own applications and found that 60% of features were not used by staff.

"Agile allows you to develop applications in phases the first phase focusing on building applications with minimum market features. You then review if it is worth building the extra features or moving resources to the next project."

The length of time left between research and prototyping also caused problems when using the waterfall method.

"We would go away and design a system and after nine months unwrap something that was not what the business wanted or that was out of date because of changes in the market," said Young.

Young said the agile approach solved these problems by breaking a large project into smaller stages of development. These stages last approximately four weeks and at the end of each iteration both business users and programmers re-evaluate the software.

Standard Life uses agile project management techniques called "Scrum" and "Show and Tell" to review progress.

Under Scrum, developers discuss what they accomplished yesterday, what they intend to accomplish today, and whether there is anything stopping them.

With show and tell, business sponsors meet with the development team once a fortnight and will be shown what has been developed so far.

"On an ongoing basis, business users can see the system in development and adjust and change it as it goes. They do not get just chance at getting the system they want."

The agile approach advocates business users and programmers are located in the same office to share knowledge better, something that Standard Life does.

"We collocate our systems developers and business people working side by side to develop interfaces and systems. Using this approach we can deliver functionality to the business much quicker."

According to Gartner, software development managers with a good understanding of agile methods will increase their likelihood of success, but organisations that are siloed or have strong functional boundaries may find agile techniques difficult to implement because of political infighting or poor consensus.

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