What do Groupon, Twitter, Salesforce and Viikii have in common? These companies are part of an impressive client list for a software firm, Pivotal Labs.
Pivotal Labs is synonymous with the term agile development. The product development processes and methodologies used by the company are applied universally to all the client to product good quality products as Liz Gannes from Gigaom notes in a recent article, the company is sort of an enigma.
To demystify this enigma, we went down to their office in Singapore to take a look at what makes Pivotal Labs tick. I first came across Pivotal Labs during the Neoteny camp held last year in Singapore. Since then, they have set up a office in Singapore and have worked on two projects namely, CreationMix and Viikii.
In part one of this interview, Carl Coryell-Martin and JB Steadman from Pivotal labs in Singapore share with us about the pivotal processes, why startups should adopt pair programming, and what they think of the oft-heard sentiment of lack of development talent in Singapore and much more.
Carl: “Largely it’s because of the TIS scheme and Joi Ito, that sort of drove this interest into what it’s now. Joi has a strong relationship with Rob, our CEO and I think he was pretty instrumental in making people aware of the opportunity here. And we like the government investment and commitment to say let’s grow the software engineering community in Singapore, build a ecosystem in Singapore.”
Will you be looking at clients from overseas?
Carl: “We are looking for clients in SE Asia in general. In Pivotal, we find that face to face communication is the most effective way for humans to share information and the greatest odds for success is when everyone sort of gets together and talk over things. And one of the great thing about Singapore is that it’s so easy for people to get here and spend time here. We will definitely be talking to clients from overseas as well.”
How does Pivotal get started with working with a client?
Carl: “Pivotal’s sort of expertise is in software execution. Startup comes to us with an idea. Whether we feel it’s more web or design, we start with a two day inception meeting usually. We usually get a lot of stakeholders from the company and couple of engineers together and we sort of work through all of the forces of the project and we try and build this sort of product backlog which is sort of a list of features we can build. We like to have a design firm to work with or an in-house designer and the designers usually try to stay ahead of the engineering backlog and think through how the little pieces of UX is going to work and work with the product owners so that engineering can catch up to that.”
Do the startups come to you (Pivotal Labs) at an early stage of the product or when they are in trouble?
JB: “Both. When an early stage startup comes to us, our goal is to get them to a public launch as soon as possible. That’s why we gear first few months of effort towards that. And that’s the work we try and plan out and flesh out the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). Identifying an MVP and work towards getting that out of the door as soon as possible so that our clients can validate their business ideas from the public and steer their future development based on reality and not on speculation.”
They also mention here, that the average time frame for them to launch a product is three months.
Pivotal has its own set of standards and frameworks to adhere to and the clients have their own, how do they come together?
JB: “Right, so we agree on the technology upfront. For new web projects, we like rails for a number of reasons and encourage our clients to build on rails. We look at other frameworks on a client to client basis. We do have reasons to think rails is a good platform for the web applications. We also do significant mobile work on Android, iOS and WebOS.”
Carl: “We pair with them. At the beginning of the day, there is a stand up meeting to share about the project. We stand in a circle and sort of review what did we did yesterday, what are we going to do today and what issues came up. And then decide how we are going to pair today and then we break up into pairs and often times we have pivotal engineers and client engineers.”
“The client engineers bring context or their business problems to the existing codebase and the Pivotal engineers bring their strengths in the process and frameworks. There are different aspects of why our process is effective, some of it relates to macro issues like project planning and how to organize your project considerably in a productive manner. And then there are considerably micro tied issues like how to write effective tests and certain scenarios.”
JB: “So, during the course of working with us, our clients get a view on all these aspects. Some of these are from the stand up meetings and some from the iteration meetings we do roughly once a week. And then there are the smaller min-to-min stuff which we do through pair programming.”
Why pair programming and why startups should use this technique
Carl: “The reasons are broad and wide. Why pair? We started pairing because we found it produced a better quality code and better code faster. And there is also the effects of engineers who are pairing get faster. So the product is better, and people get better and faster. Especially startups who don’t have so much source of cash flow, speed is so important and you don’t have as much runway as you have and must start generating revenue. Much of our effort goes into producing artifacts that customers can see and use to see if you can get value from it. So, we put very little energy in preparing sort of requirement docs and scoping out docs that can be very expensive to write up, read and understand.”
Do you think there’s a lack of development talent in Singapore?
JB: “I don’t think there’s a lack of talent. We are pretty pleased with the aptitutde of people we’ve seen. And to some degree, there’s a lack of experienced talent, partly because the career path that engineers take kinda guides them into management after few years. So what you have is some junior guys who are skilled but don’t have experience. We feel that we can provide a career path for these people. A lot of our guys have been engineers for 15-20 years. We feel it’s a viable career long term and its important to have tech experience on projects.”
In part 2 of the interview, we will be sharing about what Carl and JB think of startups they’ve seen here, how things can change and what Pivotal is doing to boost the technology ecosystem in Singapore. Stay tuned!
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