Applying agile concepts at HomeAway

HomeAway's VP of Engineering Jack Yang comments on how the company embraced agile and made it a core value, the real business advantage of agile thinking, and more.

TechRepublic: What's the greatest challenge to your agile journey? Do you have resisters or traditionalists who oppose migrating from well-known methods and standards like PMI? Jack: Our adoption isn't totally complete. We're a large organization and it's difficult to get this totally rolled out, especially now that people have suddenly become inspired to adopt this new way of doing things. Yes, there were Gantt charts, there was waterfall thinking, and it wasn't until recently that we've been thinking of agile from the steering committee level. We've still been holding old-school type project meetings, so we're not perfect. We just continuously look at it and see how we get better. TechRepublic: So how do you get better? What needs to happen at HomeAway over the next few years to get you to the total agile enterprise? Jack: We're very much a retrospective organization, and that runs top-down from the product side, the business side, all of us. We're all about the kaizen belief in continuous improvement. We've gotten a lot of traction over time but obviously it takes a while. But once the ball starts moving downhill, it gets faster and faster. People start seeing results and say, "Hey, I want that!" Until you get enough people showing results, you don't get enough people creating that demand.

We're at the point where our onboarding of new people includes the primers on how we do things in an agile way. There are still pockets of folks who look at waterfall type methods and, it still works for them. It still works for them to have the Gantt charts, and as long as it's working for them I'm not going to be the one to say, "You've got to do it this way." If it starts failing and you need some help because everyone around isn't struggling in the same way, then let's help each other. That's the mentality we have here.

TechRepublic: If you could step away from your HomeAway role and look out at the broader marketplace, what is the real business advantage of agile thinking? Jack: To fall back on lean concepts, it's about eliminating waste. Rather than everyone shooting emails at each other, if we can just get in a room and figure out the solution to a problem, instead of writing BRDs (business requirement documents), then I think there's a lot saved. The ability to be nimble and competitive is a big part of this. A startup with 10 people yelling across cubes and getting stuff done, that's one thing. When you become large it's even more important to have agile concepts, to be able to respond to change, to respond to customer demands quickly; that's how you avoid becoming an old-line company that's laden with a lot of processes. We're a public company now and so we have some requirements based on that, but we have these lean agile concepts in place that help us mitigate some of that process-heaviness that is inevitable when a company gets large. When you get more than three people in a room, you start having politics. How do you mitigate that? Through people talking to one another, having facetime, and not hiding behind documents. TechRepublic: So when I use the term "Agile Enterprise," what does that mean to you - what picture does it draw for you? Jack: It's a very pragmatic, get-stuff-done mentality. It's about not having this concept of levels. Recently, for example, I was sitting in the call center, got the training that CSRs (customer service representatives) would get, and sat in on calls just to hear the issues that our customers are experiencing. I made a commitment, and I think every agile company should do this, to visit every part of the company and see how things work, and how you could contribute to making things better. TechRepublic: I interviewed Jim Highsmith a number of years ago and he said something that really struck me: Apart from the tangible benefits of an agile approach, it creates an environment where people want to come to work; they feel like they're getting a chance to be creative and work with a team of creative individuals to innovate and achieve. Jack: I agree 100 percent, and there's a refinement I would add. As a manager and director in this company, I feel inspired by the people I work with. Because an agile environment empowers everyone to be successful, you drop this idea of command and control and become a "servant leader." It makes coming to work really cool - you're working with a team of high-powered people and you're enabling them to excel.