How to Implement Agile Transformations at Large Companies: An Interview with Adam Auerbach

In this interview, Adam Auerbach, the vice president of quality and DevOps engineering at Lincoln Financial Group, explains how major corporations can learn to take advantage of agile and quickly adjust to the speed it demands, as well as the methods he uses to implement enterprise agile.

Jennifer Bonine: All right. We are back with one more interview here for this afternoon, and our last interview of the afternoon, so we saved the best for last. I will tell you, you didn't hear this yet, because you probably weren't watching the virtual, but we were told this morning by Hans that your keynote, as well as the other one, were two of the best that he's seen recently.

Adam Auerbach: Awesome.

Jennifer Bonine: He did not tell us which one was the best. He said they had to watch them and find out.

Adam Auerbach: Well, Tariq [King], he set the bar really high, and I was really upset with Lee that he would put me after such a good keynote. Put me first, let me set the bar low.

Jennifer Bonine: Right. And then we can build from there, right? But I heard everyone, I've heard very good things about it. For the folks out there that maybe saw it or the ones that didn't get to catch it, kind of give us your inspiration for why you decided to talk about that in front of the group, and what it was about a little bit.

Adam Auerbach: For the last four years, I was at Capital One, leading their enterprise testing group and helping drive them—first it was the agile transformation of QA, and then getting to the continuous testing and eventually getting to continuous delivery. So we were able to make a tremendous amount of progress at Capital One, and we've talked about that a couple times.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, I get to sit down with you, and I always talk about Capital One and what they're doing, and I feel so vested in it.

Adam Auerbach: I know, and I've gotten such great feedback on some of these videos from people about how to ... I think we've talked about how to drive change and all of those things.

Jennifer Bonine: Tips on that and ...

Adam Auerbach: Yeah, and it's been really positive, but I don't say that I got bored, but it just became time that hey, let's go try something new ...

Jennifer Bonine: A new challenge.

Adam Auerbach: A new challenge, and so I'm now at Lincoln Financial. I've been there for six, seven months now. It's an insurance company, basically life and annuity products, based in Philadelphia. They are just starting their agile transformation, so it's predominately waterfall, legacy platforms. People have been with the company many, many years, but I'm the person. I'm leading their quality and DevOps practice. I have all of the IT testing groups, as well as I'm in charge of their DevOps transformation. So I've been there for six months, and so I wanted to share with people today part of the story already. I came in and I was like, what did I do to get started, and how can people here or online be able to take some of that information and start making some progress? It's overwhelming.

Jennifer Bonine: It is. And I just know some of the Lincoln folks that are there and some of the managers that probably now work for you, and some of the struggles they've shared with feeling like they can't move the needle, or every time they make a little progress they're pushed back. And it doesn't work. So, it'd be great for folks out there that feel the same pain. I'm sure there's a lot of other companies like Lincoln that want transformation, want change, but it's a double-edged sword. We want it but are we really ready to change, right?

Adam Auerbach: Yeah. What we've done is we started with some value stream analysis, where we got in a room for a day and we went through all of our different processes and identified where there's opportunities for waste. Why are we doing certain things? And that was a really great session because we all kind of got aligned on, "Hey, these are the things we need to start to shoot for. These are some of the trouble areas that we need to lean in for," but then we walked away with a backlog of like ninety or so items of things we needed to improve on. And then from that we then had basically a release planning session where we took those items, we themed them out for process and tooling, test data management, whatnot. People went to the different areas, they sat down, they groomed all those backlog items, and then we broke into agile teams and started sprinting. And so now we have seven agile teams. We're kind of using the SAFe construct with the release train.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, the scaled agile?

Adam Auerbach: Yes. And we're making a tremendous amount of improvements. And then what we're doing is we're using demos, so every two weeks we have demos with about a hundred people from IT and business on the demos.

Jennifer Bonine: So you get to see the progress the team's making.

Adam Auerbach: And if they see something that they want to be a part of, they can be part of the team.

Jennifer Bonine: They can get engaged, which is a big part.

Adam Auerbach: Exactly.

Jennifer Bonine: And involved.

Adam Auerbach: And then once a month we do road shows with all leadership, and so they're seeing the things that we're changing and the same thing. They're asking how do they get engaged, how do we do lunch and learn so that they can see it? And so I'm not asking permission for change, but what I'm trying to do is socialize what we're doing and get them excited about the opportunities. And sure, some people are still like, "Well, I have project work." So that's great ...

Jennifer Bonine: And we should clarify that, so what you're talking about when you groomed the backlogs, you created these seven agile teams, this is work on top of or in addition to their day-to-day, I'm assuming.

Adam Auerbach: Yes, it is.

Jennifer Bonine: 'Cause that's one of the challenges I think in a lot of organizations is, I've gotta keep the lights on, I've gotta run the business, but I want to make change. And I've heard that at Lincoln before, where they said, "We brought in a person." As if it's one person—and as you know, it's large groups of people that have to do this—that they're responsible for change and strategy or whatever, right? And it's their job. And then inevitably what happens is they get pulled into the day-to-day because that's more important, and then they don't get to focus on strategy. But it sounds like you're able to find a way to get visibility so they can stream both items.

Adam Auerbach: Yeah, so what we've done is, number one, the summer when we first got going it was a little tricky, and I definitely got a lot of feedback that, "Hey, what's my priority here?"

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, "What should I do?"

Adam Auerbach: But what we started to see is that some of our high-performing resources really took to this opportunity to drive change. And then what we did as a leadership team, we said, "Okay, you know what, let's put an objective on everybody's performance plan that one thing that they're going to be evaluated on is their participation in these teams, so that it counts." And then we did a mock end-of-year review, so we talked about how people rate, what'd they rate. And what you found is our high-performing people are the ones participating. And so, participation in this team becomes a differentiator for performance. And so now, as managers, we can talk to our team and relay that, "Hey, if you have desire to get promoted or get a higher rating, well then you need to be an active participant on these teams."

The other thing is that we really worked with our sourcing vendors to help make sure our roles and what we're doing were right-sized so that we do have some time available to be able to do this work. At the end of the day, this work is going to create efficiency, so we should have even more time. It's a dual-headed monster, but at the end of the day, like, you need to do it or our skills are going to be old, as a company we're not going to be innovating, so other insurance companies who are doing this work are going to pass us by. It's so important.

Jennifer Bonine: Absolutely. That's amazing, though, so I think just taking that approach of it can seem overwhelming, but how do you break it down? I mean, your approach is very reasonable, right? A day where you sit down, look at the value streams, figure out where the gaps are, what the things are you could put into prioritized items. Treating it just like you would any other agile project, where you're like, "Okay, let's groom the backlog. Let's figure out who's working on it, logically group the items." Doing that type of stuff, it makes so much sense, but sometimes you look at it and you go, "But this different," or "This isn't my normal work."

Adam Auerbach: Well, but at the end of the day, this is what people will get excited about.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, absolutely.

Adam Auerbach: The other thing, too, is on these teams, they're bigger than normal agile teams, they're working groups. And so the team size is maybe ten to fifteen people.

Jennifer Bonine: So it is larger?

Adam Auerbach: It is. So that if your project is screaming and you need to dedicate that, the team has some bandwidth to say, "Okay, go away for a couple sprints, fix your project, but then come back when you can." So you have that flexibility. The last release, we did over 161 stories.

Jennifer Bonine: Wow.

Adam Auerbach: I'm getting feedback from my peers like, "Hey, slow down."

Jennifer Bonine: Right.

Adam Auerbach: "We're not ready for everything that you're doing."

Jennifer Bonine: Too fast.

Adam Auerbach: It's been a really great construct in order to empower the team to drive change and really start to buy into all these new concepts that they didn't know about six months ago.

Jennifer Bonine: No. And are you seeing improved velocity, like you said ... people shouldn't get discouraged if you try this and there's some pushback, right?

Adam Auerbach: Yes.

Jennifer Bonine: I think of it as, anyone out there that has children, right? Boundaries. People are always testing what is the boundary, and do I really have to do this or is this just another lip service we're doing something different?

Adam Auerbach: Yeah so, one thing I do ... well, especially since I'm brand-new at Lincoln, is I'm doing skip levels with everybody that's in my group, so we talk about it on a personal level, like, "How are you doing? How are you handling the workload?" And me reassuring them that if they need to walk away for a little bit they can, but at the same time, this is important. And this is how they're going to improve themselves and how we're going to improve as a company.

Jennifer Bonine: And it is happening.

Adam Auerbach: It is happening. And that's people who have really gravitated to it, they are driving so many changes. We didn't know what service virtualization was a couple months ago. We didn't know what acceptance test-driven development was. We now have hundreds of tests that have been automated. We're working on building out the Jenkins integration right now, being able to stand up more virtualization pilots. We have a test data management team that we didn't have. All these things have organically been created because the team has gotten energized and started making this progress.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah, that's amazing. And that is the good part, if you can get off point. Where a lot of people struggle is where to start, but if you can start and then stick to it instead of, you know, it's going to get a little hard, people are going to get a little edgy about it, but if you can work through that, versus pulling back, and get to that other side, you start to see people going, "Oh, this is actually working."

Adam Auerbach: Yes.

Jennifer Bonine: "I see progress. I see efficiency. I see how this could actually be better than where I am today and why this is important." And then to your point, maybe even see, "Here's how I actually improve my current skills so I'm more relevant."

Adam Auerbach: Yes, and that's the whole purpose of being able to start to socialize with managers around, like, who's differentiating themselves and how they're standing up, so that they has leaders can relay that back to their team and work with them. Even from my peers at the company being able to ... some of them are ready to be innovative and some of them aren't, and that's okay, but we work with the people that are, and then we just get a constant audience with that leadership team to be able to show them who's making progress. And then capacity will start to appear because their peers are making more progress on some of these innovative items and they're having benefits in lead times and quality.

Jennifer Bonine: And the others want that. They're like, "Oh, I need that." It's one of those things where you can gain momentum through ... even if the resistors resist in the beginning, eventually they start to see some momentum, and then they're like, "Ooh, I'm not a part of this."

Adam Auerbach: Yeah, and that's when you and I talked before about, like, to drive change, you need bottom-up and top-down. So right now we're able to get that bottom-up, those change agents, so now it's just finding some of the top people that can get it, and then how do we create some competition between them where all of a sudden now we have both forces acting.

Jennifer Bonine: And then it just starts to snowball, right? 'Cause you're getting it from both angles, it's happening, but I think a good point ... and gosh, we're almost out of time, it always goes so fast when we talk about this. And I know folks out there are probably just like, "Hey, I'm just getting, I need some more information," or "Here's where I'm specifically struggling." Where can they contact you, reach you, to get questions or information?

Adam Auerbach: People can always reach out to me on Twitter @Bugman31 or Linkedin, Adam Auerbach on Linkedin. I'm always happy to help.

Jennifer Bonine: Yeah.

Adam Auerbach: Answer questions.

Jennifer Bonine: 'Cause I think it's hot topics for people, of "How do I continue to drive transformation and change in my organization?" Adam, thanks again ...

Adam Auerbach: Absolutely.

Jennifer Bonine: ... for this, this was awesome.

Adam Auerbach: Thanks, Jennifer.

Jennifer Bonine: Good luck on your new journey.

Adam Auerbach: Thank you.

Jennifer Bonine: I hope it's the same journey next time I see you.

Adam Auerbach: Me too.

Jennifer Bonine: In a little bit, but good luck on the new journey.

Adam Auerbach: Thank you.

Jennifer Bonine: Thanks, guys! You have another session up next.

Adam AVice president of quality and DevOps engineering at Lincoln Financial Group, Adam Auerbach is responsible for leading the implementation of continuous testing and continuous delivery across the organization. Previously Adam was the senior director of technology for advanced testing and release services at Capital One Financial Corporation. Adam led Capital One’s enterprise performance and automated testing departments as well as enterprise release management and test data management. He provided leadership for the agile transformation of Capital One’s quality assurance group and led the enterprise adoption of DevOps and acceptance test-driven development.

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