Posing with the Cambridge University Press team

It is midday in Manila. Traffic crawls along the streets – Manila is a city where the rush hour never really ends. The sun blazes in a cloudless sky directly overhead and so there is little shade to escape from the intense sunshine. The citizens of the city go about their business, many approaching the time of day when they go to lunch. Our own day is just getting started. We are making our way to the Manila office of Cambridge University Press who we are visiting for the day as part of our Agile Around The World study.

Cambridge University Press, known the world over, is a company that provide high-quality educational and research materials. We meet Paulo, Delivery Manager and Scrum Master, at reception at what is the start of the working day for him and many others in the office. The start time is not an attempt to miss the worst of the traffic; it is to maximise the time that teams, which are distributed between the UK and the Philippines, are online and available to each other. Paulo gives us a tour of the office, walking us through an open-plan space that is already a hive of activity and energy. We pass desks adorned with all of the usual signs of a busy working office; papers and sticky notes, but mostly computer screens with personalised IDEs and lines of code taking the attention of pairs of eyes, sometimes two pairs of eyes. Each desk has a hard hat hanging from it. I thought that these might be linked to an Agile game or technique that I am unaware of. Paulo explains that they are there in case of an emergency. We are, after all, in a part of the world at risk of earthquakes and typhoons. Paulo shows us the meeting rooms, where we later observe some of the teams’ daily stand-ups. The rooms are kitted out with audio and visual equipment, and together with Skype for business, make meetings as close as possible to having colleagues in the UK in the same room. We learn that, when possible, people from the Philippines office are flown to the UK and vice-versa so that team members get to meet their peers face to face.

The Manila office of Cambridge University Press has been growing since 2003 and now employs more than 300 people. Agile adoption began in 2015 in the area of operation tied to the Manila office, one of the three main streams of the business. As well as adopting Agile with distributed teams, their teams were traditionally ‘component’ teams. For example, one team looked after all UX, another was responsible for the core platform, another for content etc. Scrum talks about cross functional ‘feature’ teams to minimise dependencies between teams, but I could see that moving to this kind of model could have been too much change at once for Cambridge University Press and would have introduced too much risk to the delivery of critical core projects at the time. Instead, they adopted an approach more akin to Scrumban.

A single overall Chief Product Owner sets the strategy and prioritises end to end features. Each of the five teams has their own Product Owner and Scrum Master, and these groups work together to work out what is needed and when from each team in order to deliver these features. There is a regular release cadence and end to end functionality is included in a release when all components are completed. Kanban boards give visibility of the status of work, with classes of service used to help the teams think about the priority of work on their own board. There is no separate support team; an ‘expedite’ class of service gives Product Owners flexibility to have critical support issues, or something that may be blocking another team picked up straight away. Teams set aside capacity during planning so there is slack in the system for such expedite items. Combinations of metrics of velocity, cycle time and throughput are used, but kept within the teams and used only to validate if ideas for improvements are successful.

Paulo tells us about how Cambridge University Press have started experimenting with forming a feature team for a small project. The feedback was positive and they plan more experiments with feature teams in the future. The freedom to experiment and the support being given from senior management is striking, and more than following any set of practices, demonstrates a company embracing Agility. They have run a number of FedEx days (now becoming known as ShipIt days). Within the framework of the overall backlog management strategy, teams are given autonomy to work in ways that suit them. We met one team who have a regular backlog refinement and planning meeting once a fortnight and another that have a small refinement session everyday straight after their daily standup. Some teams insist all code is written using TDD, another has cycles of peer review. The test manager, Anthony, showed us a homegrown QA dashboard that had just started being put to use by the teams. With test suites built with Selenium, SerenityJS and NightwatchJS, the dashboard gives all of the teams real time information on which tests are red or green, number of open bugs etc, metrics that the teams can discuss in retrospectives to drive ways to improve. On the non-technical side, we heard from testers who told us that they felt much more part of the end to end process, and that they feel that they now have more of a say on what is being delivered.

During the day of our visit, as well as talking to the Scrum Masters and a number of people from the various teams, we are also invited to take part in the Manila offices’s latest Lean Coffee session. This is open to members from all teams and helps to share experiences between teams who have been practicing Agile for varying lengths of time. The sessions are run once a month (this month’s session has been brought forward, especially for our visit!). This session alone showed us the enthusiasm and engagement that the staff in the Manila office have for what Cambridge University Press are doing.

Our day passes by in a blur, and we leave feeling inspired after speaking to so many enthusiastic people. After so long away, it is also nice to have a connection to home with a day based on the UK time zone! A big thank you to everyone that we spoke to and a special thank you to Paulo for organising our visit and being our guide.

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