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Agile in the world of gambling

| By iGB Editorial Team | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Agile came to life in 2001 with a clear anti-corporate slant but has grown strongly in the 15 years since,Scott Longley looks at how it is being used in igaming and where the pressure points occur.

Agile technology and the manifesto that came with it back in 2001 came to life with a clear anti-corporate slant. However the concept has grown strongly in the 15 years since and is being increasingly adopted across the business world, its aim to enable developers and tech execs to focus on interactions, processes and tools. Scott Longley looks at how agile is being used in the igaming sector and where the pressure points occur. 

In a recent article written by global consulting firm McKinsey on the digital transformation undertaken by the global bank ING, Bart Schlatmann, until recently chief operating officer for the company in the Netherlands, talked about the company’s shift in 2015 to an agile way of thinking.

It was, Schlatmann suggested, a move driven by the company’s desire to continue a technology transformation that had been underway for 10 years. But it wasn’t a financial imperative that drove the move – the company had been performing well and interest rates were still at a decent level.

“Customer behaviour, however, was rapidly changing in response to new digital distribution channels, and customer expectations were being shaped by digital leaders in other industries, not just banking,” he told McKinsey’s quarterly magazine.

“We needed to stop thinking traditionally about product marketing and start understanding customer journeys in this new omni-channel environment.”

The same changing environment exists for the online gambling industry, so it isn’t surprising it is also exploring the potential of adopting agile technology and techniques.

“From our perspective, there are a few pillars which underpin all our technology work, and agile is one of them,” says Rob Tuley, head of engineering for the gaming tribe at Sky Betting and Gaming.

“Planning is a continual process, and because of that we are flexible. There is a feedback loop.”

A manifesto for change
So what is agile? It has a history stretching back to 2001 and a meeting of 17 software developers held in a resort in Snowbird, Utah.

They subsequently came up with a manifesto; principles by which they believed developers should follow to optimise their work.

The signatories spoke about a “freedom from the inanities of corporate life” and the overarching themes are that individuals and interactions should be favoured over processes and tools. 

That working software matters more than the documentation, that customer collaboration is better than contract negotiations and finally, and, importantly, that responding to change matters more than whether you are following a set out plan.

Agile theory take-up is certainly on the increase in the wider business world. A survey undertaken each year by agile solution provider Version One found that in 2015 the number of organisations now practicing agile theory had risen in Europe from 21% to 26% within the previous 12 months.

Yet, as always with technology there is a ‘but’ and this one is to do with the actual practicalities of implementing agile in situations where the structures of the business are long-established.

“Agile is fragile,” says Andy Daniels, managing director at app and website development agency Degree 53, which has worked with many gaming and betting companies.

“When done properly it’s great,” he adds. “But agile can be the killer of productivity. With some clients it can work very well, not so much with others. It’s all about the engagement of the business.

“You can’t do it half-heartedly. If you do, it causes problems. I know people that have gone agile and delivery times have doubled. There still has to be a drive there to deliver products.”

Helen Walton, co-founder and marketing director at games producer Gamevy, says the company was founded wholly on agile principles partly as a reaction to the “essential disconnect” between what agile concepts offer and how many businesses are currently run.

“While people said they wanted to be ‘agile’ what they meant was that they wanted software delivered cheaper and faster,” she says.

“Now we’d argue that agile certainly sometimes makes that possible, but it does so by requiring the business to give something up – control. In essence, getting people to collaborate, to take responsibility for profit and loss, to have the power to make decisions and spend money without wasting time asking for permission was simply unachievable given how most businesses were set up.”

For an agency it can be a “leap of faith” to persuade a client to sign up to a process that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a delivery, says Daniels from Degree 53.

“We’ve been in a number of pitches where people are very anti-agile so what we do is use agile techniques,” he explains.

“So we might build an app on a fixed price, with complete change control, and we would manage that, but the developers get user stories, we run things in sprints, we do burn downs, demos, retrospectives, all those types of things, but with a start date and an end date. It’s a hybrid.”

Adaptation and evolution
It’s a process that, in the words of Walton, might be described as “agile-lite” and it means that developers can adopt the tools that might fit their work environment.

Though Walton warns against attempting to match up an agile-based IT department within a traditional organisation, she says there is nothing wrong with adopting specific tools.

“The tricky principles are about ensuring agile teams are cross-functional and have true autonomy – including the ability to spend resources, take decisions without waiting for permission and prioritise effectively because they have access to information.”

It sounds similar to the process Tuley describes at Sky Betting and Gaming. “We try not to split our technology teams into functional silos,” he says.

“All of our teams run the whole of the process for the project they are working on. It is a continual planning process pulling in all disciplines. A team will be responsible for the whole end-to-end process, everything through to integration.”

For the agile approach to have any meaning a company needs to understand its precepts even if it doesn’t go the whole nine yards and embrace the philosophy.

“You can’t be agile with a third-party unless they are bought into the process,” says Daniels from Degree 53.

“If you do an integration with a business which isn’t built for it, then you are not going to be agile. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly with agile,” he warns.

“If I had a really good internal team, good product owners, and the business believed in that and in iterative processes and delivering things when they were ready as opposed to arbitrary dates, then I would be agile as much as my third parties allowed me.”

Deciding what agile is and isn’t is an argument best left with the software philosopher kings of Snowbird in Utah.

But given the questions that seem to endlessly occur within gaming about legacy tech, it seems likely more organisations will be looking at the principles as defined by the manifesto and seeing whether they fit their organisations.

As Walton says, “it's not the big ball of code that gets in the way, it's the big ball of business process.”

In other words, it’s about changing the thinking as much as it’s about the tech. And that can be a hard task.

Given the size of some of the biggest businesses in the sector today, that is clearly a big – and getting bigger – challenge.

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