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British Medical Journal revamps software development to support business transformation

British Medical Journal has reorganised its software development teams to enable them to meet the needs of the business better

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has moved from product-focused software specialists to a generic team, who are using agile methodologies to develop integrated products that better meet the needs of GPs.

Speaking to Computer Weekly at the Forrester Forum in Lisbon, Sharon Cooper, chief technology officer at BMJ, said: “Academic publishing is not a fast-paced industry, but there is potentially a lot of change on the horizon.”

The organisation is moving from being a publisher to providing doctors with what Cooper describes as “clinical guidance at the point of care”. At the same time she said the BMJ needs to meet the needs of GPs who are now much more technology-savvy. 

“A lot of NHS hospitals are still running Microsoft Windows XP, and are very locked down. My team needs to support everything from Internet Explorer 6 to iPhone 5, and we have to make our products work on all platforms,” said Cooper.

The challenge faced was that to move forward, IT needed to work in an entirely different way. 

“All our products used to be created in isolation, but we recognised a doctor may be using all our products at the same time,” she said.

To convince the team they needed to take a different approach, Cooper created a list of 276 IT projects that needed to be completed, ranging from changing the email system to re-building a product. She told the team of 20 it would be impossible to complete everything if they carried on working the way they were used to.

While her predecessor ran IT to support the needs of the business, Cooper said she and her team are now focused on product development. To support this, Cooper introduced an agile development methodology to enable the BMJ to launch products in months rather than years.

From a software development perspective Cooper said: “I turned the whole thing on its head. I went from teams of people who were specialised in a particular product, to a team where everyone has to be able to work on every product.”

This not only removed points of failure across the various software products at BMJ, but also enabled her teams to re-use code, share ideas across products and integrate them better to make it easier for doctors to use.

Change management

From a change management perspective, Cooper told the team they would receive higher salaries and they would be far more employable. She believed they would actually enjoy work far more because it would be less frustrating than purely working on an individual product.

“I used an external consultant who advised us that our bills would grow exponentially as the business grew,” she said.

Armed with this, Cooper told the executive team at BMJ that the existing organisation of IT would not be able support the strategic direction the company wanted to take.

“We gave the teams six weeks’ notice to change to an agile way of working, and we brought in a couple of agile coaches and told the team they had to be able to release working code in two weeks, every two weeks, and it has to be tested with a 60% pass rate in automated testing,” she said.

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Cooper also hired a temporary deputy chief technology officer to manage all the changes, who came from a software development background and so could empathise with the team. His remit was to drive the transformation. 

“He was to be the man everybody hated,” added Cooper.

Some of the old team were also made redundant through the transformation of software development, but while the transformation was painful, Cooper said she was left with an incredible team. 

She admits the transformation has been so successful that in the past few months four staff have found different jobs. 

“I have lost four members of a 20-strong team because I have qualified them in a way that means I can no longer keep them, which was always going to be one of the risks [of the transformation],” she said.

While this situation is frustrating, Cooper said people leaving the company has given her the opportunity to hire staff and bring them onto the team.

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