Radical Agility 101: Study Notes

by Eric Bowman - 17 Aug 2016

When Zalando started in 2008, we moved fast with a small team, using existing tools and techniques to bootstrap everything as quickly as possible. As we grew, faster than any company in European history, we threw away industry-standard solutions and built our own. This is exactly how we approached the challenge of scaling our tech organization: Enter stage left, Radical Agility.

Radical Agility is a software development methodology that allows engineers to get work done while management gets out of the way. It’s based on three pillars: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, all held together and bound by organizational trust. It also highlights the architectural principles that Zalando Tech follows to create great quality products and code.

Autonomy

Zalando Tech gives their teams Autonomy to leverage intrinsic motivation and work hard, to build great software that they can be proud of. Teams move in parallel making the big decisions needed to create great products, without having to ask permission for everything. This trust-based system depends on the peer review that happens within a team and allows for the exploration and use of whatever technologies and frameworks deemed necessary. This is the basis for the what behind our department.

Mastery

By outlining Mastery as a foundational pillar, we want to give our developers the best support we can to help them grow, and to provide a place where they’re able to achieve greatness. By allowing dedicated work hours to plan and curate their own Tour of Mastery, we believe Zalando engineers will be inspired every day to do what they do best, both for the business and their future careers. This is the basis for the how behind what we’re doing.

Purpose

Having a defined, clear Purpose gives our teams, as well as the entire organization, a point of focus. It allows us to be disciplined in how we think, to communicate broadly and concisely, to make the indicators for progress visible, and to focus as a group on the hard challenges ahead. Purpose inspires our engineers to understand the why behind the products that we’re building for Zalando, on top of measuring its success.

An Architecture for Innovation

We’re constantly pushing nonstop innovation, creativity, and hard work. To enable the above three pillars to work concisely, we’ve made a pledge regarding how we build the systems of our future based on five key principles: API First, REST, SaaS, Cloud, and Microservices.

We’re creating APIs first before we code them, using the REST architectural style to ensure we’re able to scale as our department and business grows in scope, evolving our systems in parallel. Building for SaaS makes our applications ready to live on the Internet, where embracing the cloud ensures that as a modern architecture, we’re fostering innovation. Finally, our adoption of Microservices ties all these principles together in a powerful architectural style that lets us move fast while we keep our complexity low.

Reporting roles

The leadership at Zalando Technology focuses on people or delivery, but not both. This means developers will have a Practice Lead, whose responsibility is to coach and define what you want to achieve, and then helps you achieve it. This is an individual reporting line that connects to the Mastery pillar.

Each team has a Delivery Lead, who leads several teams to deliver great products. Their job is to help their teams be autonomous, giving you the tools and techniques each team needs to works together to solve problems in creative ways. This is a team reporting line that connects to the Autonomy pillar.

A Product Owner is connected to the business, the market, the industry, as well as our customers, and are the link for our engineering teams who build and write good quality code every day. By working with a Product Owner, teams can understand how products are linked to the business’ overall purpose, what the product will mean for Zalando, and why it’s important to build.

Concluding notes

Providing teams with true autonomy allows them to open up their creativity and solve hard problems in original ways. To lay the groundwork for autonomy we need a solid foundation, supported by management, and supported by architecture. To be autonomous we must be armed with purpose. And to be truly great requires passion and the scope to achieve mastery. All these together, we call Radical Agility, bound by the trust of our entire organization.

Our toolkit for the way we work is growing every day. We’re readily embracing Open Source and InnerSource technologies and methodologies, working towards actively contributing to our technology community. We’ve also built a set of clear principles in a simple Constitution, which defines rights and responsibilities for the people, teams, and management of the Tech department.

Our aim is not to control, but to guide, and by utilising Radical Agility and the various tools used in support of this framework, we aim to make Zalando Tech one of the greatest tech organizations on Earth.

Want to see some examples and use cases? Check out RadicalAgility.org for more insights into the framework.

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