IT at Sainsbury's was neglected for some time, but the company has undergone a complete IT transformation in recent years in a bid to catch up and become more agile, especially in the face of aggressive new competition.
The supermarket chain did this "for all the usual reasons", according to former agile and DevOps transformation lead Mike Dilworth.
"We had long lead times for new services, projects that were abandoned, projects with large upfront capital costs, a sluggish release cadence when we needed to make changes, a lot of dependency on outsourcing and suppliers, and we needed to compete with new entrants into the market," he said.
The IT team hit on a strategy of being value-driven, outsourcing everything to which value could not be added internally and insourcing those areas where it could. Sainsbury's also decided to move from an ITIL-based top-down structure to one of autonomous teams practising agile and DevOps methodologies.
Dilworth spoke of his experience in pushing these changes to the audience at the Computing DevOps summit last week.
DevOps is a culture, not a role
The transformation did not get off to a flying start, Dilworth said, and Sainsbury's picked up on the DevOps buzzword without understanding the necessary context.
"They rebranded the existing support team as DevOps, but DevOps is a culture, not a role. The whole company needs to be doing DevOps for it to work. There was cultural misalignment," he explained.
Dilworth and his team set about creating autonomous cross-functional teams that could work on a project with minimal dependence on outside help, seeing it through from initiation to support.
"If you code it, you own it," Dilworth said of the philosophy behind the teams.
Attracting enthusiastic talent to such an environment was a problem too, at least initially, as few people associate a supermarket with cutting-edge technology. Concerted and ongoing effort was required to advertise Sainsbury's' credentials as a forward-thinking organisation.
"We put ourselves out there. So we attend and hold meetups, we sponsor and speak at events, we focus on diversity and we've started using the sort of open source tech that developers like to use," Dilworth said.
"It's all about raising awareness that Sainsbury's is doing cutting-edge things with technology and is an exciting place to work."
The hiring pipeline
Sainsbury's sources most of its employees through agencies, and the relationship with these firms has had to be tightened to make sure that the right people apply and that they understand the nature of the jobs on offer.
"Once you've attracted talent, how do you identify it? You have to work closely with your HR partners, manage your preferred supplier list, and improve all your role documents to make it really clear what sort of work people are going to be doing," said Dilworth.
The standard hiring process is an initial phone call followed by a tech test and a face-to-face interview. Like DevOps itself, this process needs to be slick and streamlined, according to Dilworth.
"You have to focus on keeping it fast and lightweight but relevant. You need to make sure you dedicate plenty of people and resources to this process so that people are processed quickly and efficiently," he said.
Short term is not second class
It can be very difficult for a large company to recruit all the talent it needs, Dilworth explained. Skills are often in very short supply locally, meaning that Sainsbury's frequently has to turn to contractors. But to get the most out of temporary staff they need to be invested in the system.
"You have to look at treating contractors equally as permanent employees. They have very good skills, very diverse, but you can't treat them as second-class citizens. You have to get them to contribute as much as permanent people to the processes and bedding in of DevOps," he said.
Contractors are on the market for only a short time between jobs, and Sainsbury's needs to be ready to take them on when they become available.
"You need to improve your velocity of recruitment. You need to be able to process someone in less than a week to make sure you get the best people onboard quickly," said Dilworth.
The exact mixture of permanent and temporary employees that you end up with is highly dependent on location.
"We found that it's more difficult to hire and build teams in certain locations than it is in others," Dilworth said, adding that geographical factors must be taken into account in the strategy.
But it's not just about physical location as staff need to feel psychologically close to home in their new autonomous environments.
"It's important for them to have a home zone, a base where they can always pop back and find other like-minded individuals to talk things over with," he said.
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