For the last couple of years I’ve been working to increase the agility of a web-team within the Oracle corporate marketing group—in this post I’ll share a bit about that experience. As context, this is a case that highlights impediments to fully embracing agile when markmarketing relies on IT to manage their platform and infrastructure. That’s the situation that most marketers are in so I hope you’ll find this article useful. It also related to why I’m so excited to be joining Pantheon to lead their marketing team.
Embracing Agile with Centralized IT at Oracle
In 2016 I turned my attention to upgrading Oracle’s content marketing capabilities. My team worked on two related areas including our platform for publishing periodic content (i.e. blogs, articles, magazines, etc) as well as the training and support we offer to upgrade each team’s content marketing practice. It was a classic pairing of platform and practice modernization with the roll out of contemporary publishing technology and training for content creators who leverage that technology to be more effective content marketers.
We took an Agile approach—it might not be immediately obvious how you can apply Agile to a content marketing practice but agile has been the best practice for software development for a long time. Modernizing our platform was largely a software development challenge. I won’t get into how agile revolutionizes content marketing because I cover that in depth in my book The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience Into Your Competitive Advantage. Instead, I want to share a few insights from my experience applying agile to our platform development work.
As background, we were replacing a very outdated platform (Apache Roller) with a recent Oracle acquired technology (Compendium – now called Oracle Content Marketing). Following an agile approach, we worked on developing a minimum viable product (MVP) which we could roll out to a small group of users as the first step on the path to a global roll out to thousands of content creators around the globe—that process is now complete.
As is the case in many organizations, our infrastructure and platform were managed by our centralized IT function. This presented some impediments to operating in an agile fashion because we didn’t officially manage the back-end development resources working on the initiative. Fortunately, I’d developed a strong rapport with engineering management at Oracle so they agreed to follow our lead when it came to adopting Agile—without executive buy-in on the IT side of the house it would not have been feasible to embrace Agile.
Among other things, this meant transitioning all team members into Jira and a code management system developed by the corporate marketing group. This was a challenge for the marketers on the team because they were not accustomed to working in such a highly structured way. We addressed this with ongoing support and training for the team. On the development side, we didn’t have a full DevOps setup. We had development, staging, and production servers but there was little automation in place for testing, integration, or deployment. Any DevOps improvements that we needed required the back-end development team to invest in developing and maintaining such services. When combined with a significant security constraints and business process this meant that we’re able to establish a robust DevOps practice.
To get going with agile the team built out our backlog, set up scrums, demos, and retrospectives—some of the foundational agile practices. Considering that the entire team was not accustomed to working in an agile method, we consciously selected a less prescriptive method to start. The practices we embraced were more consistent with Kanban than Scrum at first though we evolved towards two week sprints for releases. As we advanced quarter after quarter we established a rhythm and the team ultimately became more confident in the process.
Within just a quarter we started to see significant results when it came to regularity of releases, overall productivity, and adoption of the features we were releasing. And, our counterparts in IT recognized that this was not only a better way of working but that it helped them align more effectively with the business. It’s worth noting, that it’s pretty unusual that the business would drive agile into the IT team … usually, it’s the other way around because agile emerged from the software development world.
Agile Alone is Powerful, With DevOps it’s a Super Power
We demonstrated that it’s possible to embrace agile and derive real value without fully owning the technology stack, managing the backend development team, or having true DevOps in place. In fact, despite that context our marketing initiative advanced much more quickly than those being done in the traditional way.. While our sites outperformed waterfall oriented web-teams, it’s important to recognize that we took on a lot of everhead to keep our development environments in sync, to deploy and rollback code, to automate tests, and all the rest.
Owning the technology stack that supports your websites can be a powerful enabler for marketing teams that aspire to operate in an agile fashion. That may seem counterintuitive at first because managing a tech-stack does not imply agility, it’s not in the traditional marketer’s wheelhouse, and it represents potential overhead. In fact, if done poorly it can be a real drag on productivity. When done right, however, it’s a powerful accelerant for the iterative approach, the race to product/market fit, and the ongoing optimization of experiences that contribute to the bottom line.
This is where the web-specific DevOps platform that Pantheon offers comes in—it’s a managed service that decreases the cost and overhead associated with DevOps while structuring how teams embrace agile. This let’s marketers focus where they can provide the most value—developing truly great digital experiences. I can only imagine how much further we’d have been able to advance if we’d had Pantheon at Oracle. That’s why I’m incredibly excited by the prospect of empowering thousands of marketers to compete more effectively on the basis of digital experience.