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Software engineering takes on new meaning in the COVID-19 pandemic

May 30, 2020 - 2603 views

Software engineering takes on new meaning in the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic has spurred businesses to develop customer-focused software, resulting in needed changes to software engineering approaches and cultures.

Whether or not your business is a software company, it depends on software. The nature of that software is changing, however, which has big implications for software engineering technology, processes and culture.

For example, not so long ago, most internally developed software was meant for internal use. The users were employees who looked up information or input it on behalf of customers. Today, more companies are using software to engage with customers directly – allowing them to place orders, request service, apply for loans, submit claims, view account status, troubleshoot their WiFi access points and more.

Post-COVID, we see this trend accelerating. For example:

  • Financial institutions are building software products for customers to apply for loans online instead of visiting the branch or calling contact centers overwhelmed during the pandemic. After introducing a self-service software product, one of our clients closed 20% more loans compared with offline channels in the same time period.
  • Insurers have started offering apps for self-service claims submission, enabling policyholders to describe the incident via text, voice or video and upload proof. An insurer we worked with sped up claims processing from five days to three minutes and can now handle 50% more claims.
  • A national cable company built a self-service ad-buying platform for small and medium-size businesses. With a few clicks, SMBs can create a targeted campaign based on their customers’ interests, demographics and Zip codes.
  • Pharmacies offer websites and apps that enable customers to see whether their prescription was called in, when it will be ready and co-pay amounts.
Developing for end customers requires a product mindset

The shift toward customer-focused software is forcing a change to software engineering methodologies, which weren’t designed for developing customer-facing software products. Building software products requires two enhancements to the more traditional Agile methods. The first is changing the team’s mindset. In traditional Agile methodology, the team’s goal is to meet specific requirements and make sure the software “works” from a technical standpoint. In contrast, the goal for teams building software products is to create something that customers want – and like using.

The second enhancement is an outgrowth of the first: putting more emphasis on the market requirements to build a software product that is both useful and competitive in the target market.

Agile’s new cousin: software product engineering

A new software development model – we call it software product engineering – builds on and adapts the Agile methodology for customer-facing and market-oriented software. The chief difference is the expanded role of the product owner, who focuses on market analysis, product visioning and creation of a product roadmap. The product owner works closely with software engineers as they build the first release of the product – the minimum viable product (MVP) – and quickly gets it into customers’ hands.

The product owner relays customer feedback to engineers as it comes in so it can be integrated into the next iteration. Think of the product owner’s role as following the product roadmap while instigating course corrections along the way in response to changing (or better understood) customer expectations and market conditions.

Software product engineering with virtual teams

With teams working from home during the pandemic, embracing a software product engineering approach poses special challenges. For example, a key strength of Agile and software product engineering methods is creating a development rhythm, or cadence – typically just days or weeks between iterations. To maintain that cadence when working from home, teams need the virtual equivalent of leaning across their workspace and bouncing an idea off a colleague – the grist for innovation.

We’re seeing technologies emerge that support virtual teams effectively, including whiteboarding during the ideation phase and video collaboration applications that enable document sharing. Team members working outside of traditional work hours need a “presence” application (e.g., Cisco Webex Teams or Microsoft Teams) when they need to find an expert on a particular topic – say, robotic process automation or machine learning – who is available now, even when “now” might be 11:00 PM local time.

Virtual teams also require new processes and a new mindset. Practices we’ve adopted in our own virtual product engineering pods include:

  • A way for people to signal they want to make a point during virtual meetings in the absence of visual cues like walking over to the whiteboard. Ideas include inviting people to enter their name in the chat window, or giving everyone a turn to weigh in, round-robin style.
  • A daily morning standup call and end-of-day retrospective call for all team members.
  • Open bridge or Webex Teams space to take the place of a physical coffee break area. An outlet for socializing is important for morale – and spontaneous learning.
  • Scheduled “lunch and learn” sessions or coffee breaks.
  • Virtual social and learning events, such as cooking classes or yoga, that give team members a break from intense projects and pandemic-related stress.
  • Information, advice and resources to help team members navigate work-from-home issues like keeping kids entertained and learning when everyone is home together. We let team members know it’s OK, for example, if a wandering toddler or barking dog make an appearance on the virtual channel.
Putting customers front and center; Helping teams adapt

Building software for customers – not just the employees who serve them – requires a new take on Agile methods. The product owner now needs to serve as the customer’s proxy, constantly doing competitive research and soliciting user feedback to guide the next iteration.

Introducing customer-centric software engineering while working from home in the aftermath of the pandemic requires the right technology, a culture that brings team members together from wherever they are – and empathy and support for engineers as they work through professional and personal stress in the wake of pervasive change.

For a deeper dive, read our white paper “Becoming a Software-Centric Business – Best Path Forward in an Uncertain Post-COVID-19 World.” 

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Digital Business & Technology agile , software engineering , digital engineering , software product engineering

Allen Shaheen

Allen Shaheen is Executive Vice-President, Digital Engineering at Cognizant. He is also a board member of the Cognizant U.S....

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