It’s easy to argue that a software development effort benefits from a product-oriented framework like Scrum. It’s more difficult to argue that software development can be entirely separate from an implementation project that involves business process re-engineering, data conversion, and other activities that benefit from a critical path approach. While the software product may continue to evolve long after the rest of the implementation “temporary endeavor” has concluded, we still have to deal with the management problem of delivering value from multiple activity streams at a single point in time.
I’ve spent the last three weeks getting up to speed on Workday’s human capital management software as a service (SaaS) offering, and it’s been fascinating. The people behind Workday are mostly PeopleSoft alumni who followed founder Dave Duffield after he managed the sale of the company to Oracle. Dave and his closest advisors decided to round up as many sharp, experienced people as they could, and apply the lessons learned from two decades of evolving an ERP solution based on an n-tier client-server model to a SaaS model. They also embraced object-oriented structures instead of table-oriented data models, open source tools and infrastructure, Java, Scrum, and other Agile methods. Because they wanted to sell a service, rather than software, they focused on configurability rather than customization, and techniques for upgrading all systems more or less at once, “in situ,” rather than supporting multiple versions as customers gradually got around to applying patches. They also made information security a primary competency, core value, and cultural imperative.
Along the way, they created a completely different kind of user experience. There are no hierarchical menus to traverse; you just use the search engine to find the object, business process, report, or tool you’re looking for. Every object has a “Related Action” icon next to it that lets you view or operate on it. Navigating object hierarchies is visual, obvious, and constrained by role and user-based security. Rather than an after-thought, configurable role-based business process workflows are central to implementation. Just about every action and update is a workflow. Although the toolset for integrating data flows with other applications is comprehensive and sophisticated, there are no bolt-ons; even the report writer is core functionality. Performance is astonishing; nearly everything is in memory, so you largely omit the overhead associated with passing SQL queries to an underlying RDBMS. I heard some truly amazing claims for payroll processing times, based on their ability to massively scale as needed.
Of course, the company is less than five years old, so the product is still evolving, but they release a new version every four months. Over a three-week period, every “tenant” (the term they use, rather than “instance”) is upgraded to the new release. The feature set is crowd-sourced – customers get to vote on what features get priority. Workday’s “partner eco-system” gets access to nearly every bit of information that their employees see, apart from development work in progress. Indeed, much of the information posted on their community collaboration sites is developed by partners. Collaboration is a core value, but Workday retains control over the user experience, even in implementation. A comprehensive methodology and supporting tools are mandated, along with delivery quality assurance controls and reviews. As a result, implementation projects are highly structured, transitions from one phase to the next tightly controlled, timelines are relatively short, and results are highly predictable. And once the tenant goes into production, there are well-defined management processes for turning on additional modules in future phases. Consequently, Agile product development methods can continue to deliver additional value, in parallel with a critical path, waterfall delivery model for implementation.
Is this the future of delivering the benefits of enterprise application software? Well, to paraphrase a line from “No Country for Old Men,” if it ain’t, it’ll do until the future gets here.