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CIO interview: Peder Sjölander, Swedish Pensions Agency

The CIO of the Swedish Pensions Agency tells Computer Weekly about the organisation's DevOps journey

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Sweden’s public sector is increasingly focused on digital services, which place new demands of agility and speed on its IT.

For Peder Sjölander, CIO at the Swedish Pensions Agency, which manages the country’s national pensions, the answer is to bring development and operations closer together under the DevOps model. He isn’t turning back.

“Before, it typically took 18 to 24 months to take an idea to actual production, and now it can only take two to three weeks,” says Sjölander.

“We can also now do much more with the same hours because we work in a smarter way.”

Sjölander refers to cross-functional teams, which amalgamate different IT roles and people from the Pensions Agency’s other departments.

The teams work in rapid iterations and are responsible for the entire process – from working on an idea to production. The theory is that errors can be fixed fast and improvements delivered continuously by bridging any gaps and delays between application development and systems operations.

Today, most of the Pensions Agency’s IT projects are done in these agile DevOps teams. But getting this far has been a long process of gradual change for the agency, and only now have some of the challenges started to arise.

Automation pressure

Sjölander joined the Swedish Pensions Agency in 2009, after 21 years in the construction industry. The jump from the private to the public sector was a big one, but it presented him with a unique challenge.

As CIO, he was tasked with preparing IT operations for the agency’s launch in early 2010, following the merger of sections of the Swedish Social Insurance Inspectorate and the Premium Pensions Authority.

“Building up a new government agency was a great challenge,” says Sjölander. “I had never done that or even worked in the government. The premium pensions part was quite highly automated when I took it over. But then there was the other part – the income pensions system – which was not automated at all, and I didn’t get any IT competence from that side.”

Sjölander’s first big project was increasing automation across the new organisation to improve cost-efficiency and introduce new channels through digital self-service. These include the MyPension web portal, created in collaboration with pension providers, which gives Swedes access to all their pension details both private and public.

Today, up to 64% of all the agency’s workflows are automated and IT operations account for a large chunk, about 40%, of the agency’s budget.

Book club kick-off

With the arrival of increased automation, the Pensions Agency’s IT resources were freed up for more customer-centric projects. But despite the new focus, says Sjölander, frustrations still arose through the sluggish delivery process.

Product development took over a year and smaller improvements were often trumped by bigger projects. This was when some of his employees introduced the idea of trying out DevOps.

“We bought a book [The Phoenix Project] about DevOps for everyone and had book circles to discuss it,” says Sjölander. “People wanted to learn more, so we contacted one of the authors who came over and spoke to our teams. We then asked people if they’d like to continue with it and they wanted to do a pilot.”

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The pilot project was a mobile app to demonstrate how rapid delivery could work. The app was presented at a management meeting using a picture of a cat as its main image.

“Of course, our general director said the picture wasn’t okay,” says Sjölander. “So we took a picture of her instead for the managers to see the change roll out to their phones in real time.”

This was the gateway to spreading awareness of what DevOps and continuous delivery meant. After ensuring the agency’s IT infrastructure was able to handle faster release cycles, the next step was introducing the model of cross-functional teams inside IT and web development. The teams got to choose the project change requests they wanted to work with and combine them with relevant maintenance and improvement tasks.

“We can make small mistakes on the website, but we don’t want to make any when it comes to payments and transactions”

Peder Sjölander, Swedish Pensions Agency

Gradually these DevOps teams have been expanded to all areas of IT, but not as a one-size-fits-all model. For example, web services work on a twice-weekly release schedule, automated handling processes release once a week and more sensitive projects in premium pensions once a month. 

“We have different paces depending on the legacy and the type of the project,” says Sjölander. “We can make small mistakes on the website, but we don’t want to make any when it comes to payments and transactions.”

Bottom-up approach

It is now three years since the Pensions Agency’s first DevOps pilot, and its agile teams work across department borders. While there have been some issues with breaking the old traditions of working in separate silos, the bigger challenges have only now started to arise with the demand side for the IT teams.

“Normally, we would call in a consultant or employ more staff for a project, but now we are trying to move away from that and have a fixed staff in IT,” he says. “We struggle getting people to understand they have to prioritise in ways other than they are used to. The projects have to be prioritised against other projects, maintenance tasks and political missions.”

Sjölander is confident this will be solved with time. He stresses DevOps isn’t a model that suits all organisations, but for those considering it, he has clear advice: “Don’t just stay in IT, but involve all departments in DevOps. It is, of course, much harder, but it gives better results in the end.”

He emphasises the use of a bottom-up approach and involving the people who are actually going to do the work from the start, and says forcing a new way of working on people will always backfire. Even today the Pensions Agency’s 205 IT employees get to choose whether they want to work in DevOps teams or not. 

For Sjölander, the only way forward is development models like DevOps, which give more freedom and responsibility to people over their own work. He also believes it has helped to create more of an “us” feeling throughout the organisation.

“People want to feel they are part of the solution and be more involved in the bigger picture. It is fascinating to see that people who only used to code now know about the whole pensions system,” he says. “They come to me with ideas we haven’t discussed before.”

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