AGL goes ‘extreme SAP’

By: Ry Crazier

No more big quarterly releases.

AGL is transforming the speed to deliver an idea into production on its SAP enterprise resource planning environment under a project it is calling ‘extreme SAP’.

General manager of technology services and risk, John Taylor, told SAP’s Sapphire Now conference that the 18 month old project is about moving more quickly to stay competitive and improve the customer experience.

The extreme SAP project is running in parallel to a core SAP upgrade project worth around $130 million.

AGL – whose core ERP has always been SAP – is in the process of unifying ERP systems across its operations onto a newer S/4HANA instance.

Taylor said that when AGL started to look at speeding up the delivery, it had a quarterly release cycle for SAP changes.

They tended to be “big changes” and “heavy deployments”, and often resulted in “a lot of system outages shortly after … and instability” for the next month.

The company also ran the risk of changes being outdated by the time they made it into production.

“The business requirements were set at the start of a project, and as it was a three-month piece of work, if those business requirements changed it was pretty much bad luck,” Taylor said.

“It could mean we had three months of work with limited value at the backend of it.”

The process for getting new code tested and into production involved a lot of manual, time-consuming steps.

The SAP environment consisted of “five or six parallel landscapes from development to production,” Taylor said.

A landscape in SAP parlance is a server configured for either development, quality or production.

Making changes to the environment “was quite complex and required a lot of manual activity”, Taylor said.

The company didn’t know how long all the handoffs in the process took – since they weren’t being measured, though Taylor said there was a general awareness they were dealing with a number of bottlenecks.

AGL set an overarching goal to be able to move an idea to production in five days.

Taylor indicated the company isn’t there yet. “There’s a continued focus for us on achieving the five days,” he said.

“We’ve got to seven days at the moment. There’s still a bit of the journey to go.”

To get there, Taylor said the initial focus was on shifting to agile and introducing a greater degree of test automation.

“We thought we knew the answer and we looked at these two areas,” he said.

But agile did not produce the results that AGL had sought.

“We thought agile teams were the answer – get everyone in a scrum and get them to collaborate – but actually all it achieved for us was people were actually organised or structured and they were just sitting in different spots talking to different people, but they were just doing things the same way.”

The exercise was not a complete waste.

“What it did was it got people to think there is another way to do something,” Taylor said.

“The old methods and approaches [to SAP changes] could be done differently. In a strange way it created a difference of thinking.”

Attention then turned to test automation, seen internally as “the low hanging fruit”.

“We could reduce regression testing down from five days down to hours,” Taylor said, “But we were starting to think that wasn’t the answer [either].”

Taylor and his team found the answers were varied – and the best way to attack the problem was to divide it into as “small chunks” as possible.

“So we had a series of small problems that they could lean into, and actually start solving those or attacking those problems as they went,” Taylor said.

Where agile methodology adoption had largely failed to result in improvements, AGL found success in moving to test-driven development (TDD) instead.

“It was an approach that kept [us] testing as we went, and the output of that was more robust, more stable and better releases,” Taylor said.

The company also embarked on a significant body of work around cleaning up its processes, again breaking this down into “small delivery tasks”.

Importantly, Taylor said, measurement was added to the processes which meant they “started giving data insights into the problems emerging that we had to resolve.”

“Out of that, the team clearly understood the problems across the delivery chain for pushing code out into production,” Taylor said.

The final piece of the puzzle is automation, a task that has been made easier now that the underlying processes have been cleaned up.

“We broke down the automation bits into small parts, so we could automate a bit, make sure it works and then build on it,” Taylor said.

Automation had already brought improvement to the development and release portions of the end-to-end change process.

Taylor showed a video that noted the regression testing cycle for new code had reduced “from five days to 8 hours via automation”.

He said that 30 percent of code changes across its retail portfolio initiatives was now being performed under test-driven development.

Taylor said that AGL is continuing to focus on its end goals: “delivering speed and agility, driving automation, reducing complexity and unlocking growth.”

He noted there were still “a lot more bottlenecks” to solve to getting ideas into production faster.

One of those bottlenecks is now the business, as AGL looks to source ideas faster in order to deliver on them and the value they can bring to its backend and frontend operations.

“They’re not ready to create the ideas quickly enough for you to deliver on,” Taylor said.

Taylor said that in the long term, AGL is working to build an “SAP autobahn” for changes.

“How do we build a production pipeline so we can develop in a day and get things out there each day?” he said.

Part of this was likely to involve applying the ‘extreme’ philosophy to operations as well as to the underlying IT infrastructure.

Taylor indicated the company is looking to get “extreme platform-as-a-service up and running”, likely to be hosted within Azure.

“Extreme SAP has reduced delivery times for us, it’s created flexibility in the SAP platform and improved system stability overall,” Taylor added.