Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has achieved spectacular economic growth and is known as having one of the highest standards of living in all of Asia. The policies of the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP) are credited for much of this success, which include a social engineering system that steers the population to study and train in particular industries. In the past there have been pushes toward manufacturing, design, biomedical science as well as IT. However, as Sydney Brenner, the Nobel prize winning biologist, eluded to when he met Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Singapore’s success would not be sustainable in the future. To paraphrase Brenner, he said that It would be important to transit from a “nation of technicians” to a knowledge based economy. This was back in 1985.
As we have discovered as part of our Agile Around The World study, Singapore’s IT industry and others have yet to make the shift in thinking as described by Brenner. IT engineering roles have not been seen as glamorous, they have been seen as a type of low skilled manufacturing or construction work, with people wanting to get into management roles and the higher salaries this brings as quickly as possible. Engineering practices that are being taught in universities lags behind what is going on in the industry, due in part to how quickly technology moves. The Agile mindset and practices are not on university courses at all. Companies continue to operate with top down hierarchical structures.
We heard about Titansoft, a software development company that is bucking the trend. I was invited to spend a morning with them by Chandra, Titansoft’s development manager. Formed in 2005, they started their Agile transformation in 2014, beginning with a pilot project and with the help of an external agile coach from Odd-E.
Titansoft pride themselves on their flat management structure and a desire to “never stop improving”. Chandra told me about the emphasis on continual learning. Developers are sent on courses to go beyond the programming languages and syntax that they learned at university, to have a deep understanding of design patterns, good object orientated practices and the SOLID principles . Developers have PluralSight licenses so they have access to a ton of online materials. Titansoft’s focus on technical excellence is demonstrating that software development is a highly skilled profession and can be a long term career. People, and especially the millennial generation, are becoming more motivated by working with the latest technical stack, having learning opportunities, flexibility and working in a flat company structure as epitomised by Titansoft (for example people and teams set their own working hours). Money is still the main motivator in Singapore but developer salaries are becoming competitive with that of management positions.
Titansoft adopted Agile because they recognised that their traditional process had bottlenecks. Their technical leads were acting as business liaisons as well as leading on the technical side. It was their responsibility to understand requirements, come up with technical solutions and manage their team of developers. The tech leads were getting burnt out with so much on their shoulders and the process was slowing delivery. QA was another bottleneck. Like any Agile transformation, the transition was not easy, but Titansoft had the courage to do the difficult things. Developers were expected to do more than writing code. The QA department was dissolved and members of that team were moved into Scrum teams. QA team members were given one year to make the transition and pick up coding skills. Some couldn’t adapt to the new environment and left. Chandra told me that people were asked not “how are you going to do testing?” but how are you going to bring value?”, a demonstration of what Chandra later meant when he said, “we are interested in the Agile mindset. Scrum is just a framework.” At the time of my visit, Titansoft had two people from the original QA team who now do coding alongside their peers as well as bringing their testing expertise to the table. They are now in a place with a level of automation and quality built in from the start that every check in is considered as potentially shippable, not just what is delivered at the end of a sprint. As such, they can, and do ship to production continuously, their processes a mixture of the best of Scrum and Kanban.
Because of the lack of exposure, people are required to learn Agile ways of working on the job. I was privileged to observe one of the Titansoft’s team’s sprint planning meetings. This was a mature team that had been together for three years. Discussions were calm and ordered, people engaged, with respect shown. Only one person was talking at a time, engrained Asian politeness helping the meeting to flow smoothly. Focus was on the Product Owner explaining the requirements and they used physical index cards; there was no reliance in electronic tools, no reference to technical specification documents and no trace of the previous system’s reliance on a single technical lead.
Maryanto, one of the Titansoft’s Product Owners, told me that the POs manage the relationship with clients. Part of the PO role is to discuss requirements with the client, and get them to express them with examples so that the PO can write them as acceptance criteria for the team. The Product Backlog is made visible to the client and prioritisation agreed with them. The clients are coming to understand and enjoy the benefits of adapting plans and agreeing what to work on next ‘just in time’. As anywhere else, there is always more work then can be done and there are occasional extra hours needed from the teams. However, this is the exception, the Agile principle of sustainable pace is a core Titansoft value. The direct relationship between the PO and the client means feedback is fast. Use of A/B testing and feedback direct from the voice of the customer, in addition to the POs hearing from operations teams gives them a clear view of progress.
The Agile adoption at Titansoft is still an exception in Singapore, but perhaps Titansoft and other companies like it are just the start of the Agile movement and the start of the sort of changes that Brenner advised more than 30 years ago.
Many thanks to Chandra, Maryanto and all of those that I met for being part of our Scrum Around The World study.