The Ceiba tree is native to tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas. Some Ceiba trees can grow up to 70 metres or more, with a straight, largely branchless trunk that culminates in a huge, spreading canopy, and buttress roots that can be higher than a fully grown person.
Ceiba software, with offices in Bogota and Medellín is built on similarly strong foundations. They are a company of 300 employees that create custom software and apps for clients in Colombia, other parts of Latin America, the US and Canada. We were invited to visit the offices in Medellín where we met with Estefania and Jeison (who joined via remote conference call), two of Ceiba’s Scrum Masters to find out for ourselves what they were doing.
Agile had been adopted following a desire to work more closely with their clients, using the release of working software and customer feedback as their measures of success. They were the first Scrum Alliance REP partner in Colombia and have also reached CMMI maturity level 5. They have about 10 Agile teams running at any one time using a mix of Scrum and Kanban, with teams formed from a pool of resources. This gives them flexibility to allocate team members and start a project quickly. There is a high sense of pride in their technical excellence, their engineering practices such as continuous integration, continuous delivery, pair programming and TDD are mature. They have advanced tools measuring code coverage of automated tests across unit, integration and GUI functional levels. Other metrics measure and monitor code quality such as code complexity and number of bugs. As such they look for, and try to retain the top technical people. This is a challenge when competing with the really big companies in Colombia who can offer better salaries and benefits packages. However Ceiba can offer engaging, interesting work and flexibility – an important aspect to many in Colombian culture. This is reflected by results from the labour research centre CIMCEL that found Ceiba to have “one of the best working environments”, and also the fact that some of those that have left for the big companies have later returned.
They are a company that transitioned to Agile, taking a pragmatic approach by starting with 1 pilot team with the help of external Agile coaches and expanding from there. Cross functional teams have been built with few specialist roles – development teams test their own work without the need for specialist QAs. This works for them since Product Owners come from their clients and, along with other users, are encouraged to regularly review and test ongoing work in dedicated UAT environments. The only exceptions are the teams dedicated to providing cross domain services, and the UX team, who have an overarching role, helping out teams on demand or embedding expertise into teams when needed.
We thought it was great that the Product Owner role came from the client, rather than a Ceiba proxy taking on the role so that the client gets exactly what they want. Estefania and Jeison talked us through the challenges that this brought and how they were working to overcome them. As we have seen all over the world, they see that some of the Product Owners do not always have time available to spend with the team. Sometimes they are confronted by multiple client stakeholders giving differing opinions and no clear single Product Owner voice.
One of the biggest challenges is having an offsite PO. They overcome this with the use of electronic Kanban boards so that the PO has visibility of what is happening. They also use WhatsApps groups so the team and PO have real time communication that is visible to all. There are regular ‘synchronisation’ meetings of 20-30 minutes. The Scrum Masters (each team has a dedicated Scrum Master) acts as a conduit and filter for communication with the PO at times when the team needs to focus. This combination of means of communication with the POs works for them.
As a software service provider, they have had challenges on how to approach contracts with their clients. Ceiba offer different types of contract; one based on setting a fixed date (with flexible scope), one based on fixed scope (with flexible delivery date). This sets expectations from the start of the engagement, aligns with Agile thinking and avoids the perennial problems on waterfall projects when time, scope and resource have been fixed up front. They still do have some contracts that are with fixed scope and fixed cost. Technical people are included in the contract negotiation discussions to give insights and initial gut feels for timescales, which can be refined later when more is known. Interestingly, Estefania and Jeison told us, both types of contract (fixed scope, or fixed delivery date) are roughly equally popular with their clients.
With these roots that Ceiba is built on, we see the company going on to continued successes.
Many thanks to Estefania, Jeison and once again to Luis Mulato for introducing us to the folks at Ceiba.