At C.H. Robinson, open source adoption brings iterative, fast development — almost too fast
In 2014, the company faced a roadblock: How do you remove bottlenecks in the technology development pipeline?
In 2014, C.H. Robinson, a third-party services and logistics firm, faced a roadblock: How do you remove bottlenecks in the technology development pipeline?
Engineering teams with eight to 10 people aligned with a module or product worked to build out a functionality, such as an order management capability, according to Vanessa Adams, director, architecture and application development at C.H. Robinson. But individual teams were often held up by other product groups whose work they relied on.
At one point, 12-15 teams were required to meet most development deliverables and milestones, Adams told CIO Dive. In an effort to minimize the number of development dependencies, C.H. Robinson began exploring the idea of allowing people to work in other product areas rather than making them wait in line in the prioritization loop and hope project timelines synced up.
Natural bureaucracy was slowing the application development process, with teams following a process akin to waterfall rather than an a more modern and agile approach. So C.H. Robinson turned to innersourcing, bringing open source development practices in-house to reshape how the company approached engineering, accelerating development along the way.
Customers — internal and external — have come to demand more of companies, driving corporate technology teams to develop fast and iterate faster. New modes and philosophies of management, such as agile and DevOps, have taken root in the enterprise, often sparking a renovation of the technology companies use.
"There's some amount of code that is considered the secret sauce that they want to continue to hold very physically close to headquarters for infrastructure that they own."
VP of Field Services at GitHub
Open source technology has allowed for more seamless product and software development in the enterprise and more companies are becoming comfortable with its adoption. In 2017, GitHub reported 45% of Fortune 100 companies use GitHub Enterprise to build software, a product C.H. Robinson also adopted.
But just because it's open source, does not mean organizations have to run it in the cloud. The vast majority of customers use a hybrid approach, with a mix of on-premise and cloud solutions, Matthew McCullough, VP of Field Services at GitHub, told CIO Dive. Open source work might take place on GtiHub.com, but organizations rely on GitHub Enterprise for more proprietary code.
"There's some amount of code that is considered the secret sauce that they want to continue to hold very physically close to headquarters for infrastructure that they own," McCullough said.
Being okay with nonproprietary
A "middle man" in transit, C.H. Robinson is closely tied with customers and carriers. "We like to call ourselves the first Uberization of trucks," Adams said. "We're matching up customers with carriers."
C.H. Robinson's 113-year-old worldwide logistics firm has more than 15,000 employees, around 800 of which are in IT, and $14.9 billion in gross revenue in 2017. To keep business running, the company relies on technology to match customers and carriers. Without it, the company's network cannot successfully make those matches and could bring its supply chain to a grinding halt.
Driven by engineering, C.H. Robinson turned to GitHub to support innersource development and share code across development teams. Rather than writing redundant code, open source technology in the enterprise allows teams to draw from other teams' work like building blocks for underlying code.
The move allowed C.H. Robinson to move faster, but cultural disruption was a side effect.
The CIO was very aggressive in the shift from proprietary to open source systems, but "I was a little bit nervous about it, to be honest with you."
Director, architecture and application development at C.H. Robinson
The shift toward open source technologies or development can be a painful process. In the past, finance departments could merely sign a service agreement for a three or four year period, depending on a company's refresh cycle. Open source is not just another vendor agreement or procurement, said McCullough.
With open source, legal departments have to approve contributions to open source projects, procurement departments have to understand there may not be a place to send an invoice and managers have to learn giving back to the open source framework on work time is part of the process. It's a long term shift that can take months, if not years, to execute, McCullough said.
But C.H. Robinson was "fertile ground" for the shift, he said. The engineering practice was already working in small teams of five to 15 people, giving them some sense of autonomy with an open source framework each could adapt to their specific needs.
It was a "big organizational change," Adams said. The CIO was very aggressive in the shift from proprietary to open source systems, but "I was a little bit nervous about it, to be honest with you."
The company shifted people to focus on two areas: product and meeting business division needs. With the teams innersourcing into all their products, it helped push C.H. Robinson to adopt new tools, technology and processes.
Now when we talk about a "single global transportation platform, we're not creating the same functionality in 10 different places," Adams said.
Getting through a 'painful' process
C.H. Robinson was facing its development roadblocks and working to adopt agile practices at the same time it was a member of the SD Learning Consortium, which includes companies like Ericsson and Barclays.
As part of the partnership, C.H. Robinson visited other large engineering organizations, which opened their eyes to innersourcing as a real possibility, even though Ericsson dwarfed them in size and scale, according to Adams.
By structuring internal teams a bit differently, C.H. Robinson could become open to the idea of innersourcing. Giving more autonomy to development teams allowed them to make as many decisions as possible without having to involve levels of leadership.
"I won't lie, it's been a bit painful," Adams said. "But it's definitely nothing that we would go back and change about it."
Many millennials "are looking for a different way of working inside businesses. They don't want top down enforcement," McCullough said. Bringing outside coding experience into the enterprise, "they still understand there is profit to be made and goals to be accomplished, but that there are different ways to get at that."
But getting software engineers to adopt open source development practices is not the problem; the challenge is getting businesses with heavily integrated proprietary systems to move toward open source models.
Engineering teams also need a bit of coaxing, to move past status quo development practices.
For C.H. Robinson, the biggest change has been speed. By changing engineering structure and adopting innersource, the company has seen a huge uptick in the number of deployments in its DevOps pipeline. Since 2016, C.H. Robinson has seen a 162% increase in the number of deployments per week.
But at the end of the day, the number of releases doesn't matter. It's the value getting delivered incrementally vs. the big quarterly releases of the past, said Adams. "The behavior that we want is there: we want incremental value delivered as quickly as possible, which you'll see in the numbers."
The iterative releases have, however, taken their toll, with IT moving almost too quickly. The department can now introduce small product changes weekly, which forces users to adapt to a near-constant state of adjustment. "We're definitely hearing 'slow down,' which is new," Adams said. "There's a bit of a mindset shift that's happening on our business side too about how do they deal with the amount of change that we're putting into our production environment."
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