How an Agile Evangelist Helped Transform Scottrade's Culture

Scottrade's journey to agile wasn't flawless—is it ever?—but the firm finally got it right thanks to Vicki Schumacher.

When Scottrade first tried to go agile eight years ago, it didn't work out exactly as planned. The online brokerage was three decades old, and it stumbled as it tried to shift the firm's longstanding corporate culture. Vicki Schumacher, Scottrade's VP of process governance (and "agile evangelist"), helped to steer the project—and she's unequivocal: “We failed miserably."

These missteps may sound familiar to project managers who have overseen similar transitions. Instead of flattening the company's hierarchy in product development, Scottrade tried to shoehorn agile into its top-down organization. Firm leaders kept telling IT and development teams how to perform, rather than eliciting their feedback and adjusting course accordingly.

This contradicted a core lesson that Schumacher has absorbed in her 11 years at Scottrade: Nobody knows everything.

"I've learned that there is always something to learn from everyone you meet," says Schumacher, whose background includes project management, with a degree in computer information systems and marketing. In an agile company, a willingness to consider ideas from a wide variety of sources is critical.

But with a few adjustments, success followed success for Schumacher. Scottrade began slashing its products' time to market by months. For example, instead of a cycle of six to eighteen months before the release of the company's mobile app, Schumacher saw iterations of working products in two to three months. Details of new products, meanwhile, were treated accordingly—like details. With teams freed from waterfall's rigid constraints, they could focus on what they saw needed to be done, rather than what management ordained from afar.

As a marker of her success, Schumacher says, “I have business sponsors coming to me asking me to get an agile team set up for them." She adds that 80 percent of Scottrade is now agile.

Regrouping from early missteps, Schumacher helped Scottrade overcome what agile consultant Matt LeMay refers to as “the frameworks trap," a condition in which companies ostensibly “go agile" without changing their fundamental operational culture. Avoiding the trap means changing how teams think about the work they do—and in Schumacher's case, how she saw her own role.

Schumacher had to shift from overseeing the coordination of each project—which “took a considerable amount of time," she says—to facilitating each team's internal coordination. “It's now about allowing the business to prioritize its strategy," she says. “That has simplified and freed up my time to focus more on my own strategic work."

Schumacher's role now entails finding new ways to integrate agile into the company's ever-evolving business: “Understanding what the trends are in agile, and working with business leads to help them understand the value of agile, are just a few other areas I'm able to focus on more by not spending as much time in the project startup space."

At Scottrade, that means adapting agile to the particular needs of a financial services company. Who should do what on a given project? That's for the teams to decide. How should Scottrade reconcile agile's rejection of hefty documentation with the legal requirements of financial service companies to produce reams of paperwork? That's for Schumacher to tackle.

Schumacher also created and internally developed Scottrade's in-house agile coach, a role that became necessary as agile started spreading throughout the company and the use of third-party training coaches became impractical. As the company's approach evolved, the coach took over training duties for Scottrade's agile teams, creating her own training materials and training on-demand rather than at the start of every product cycle.

Schumacher also partnered with the coach to create a course, “Communicating on an Agile Team," that's given to teams shortly after beginning a project or when they need a refresher. And in the agile spirit, Schumacher doesn't micromanage the coach.

“I give autonomy and support to our coach, so she knows she can adapt the training as she goes and as she gets feedback," Schumacher says. “She keeps me in the loop, but there isn't a formal 'approval' process to go through."

That's both a product and reflection of the change that has taken place in the most important part of Schumacher's role: her mindset.

“I learned to shift from telling teams expectations and recommendations to asking the teams what they think and would recommend," she says. “I focus on being a leader of people instead of a manager of things."

Andrew Thompson
By Andrew Thompson | November 01, 2017