Fernando DeLeon is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Innovare, a software solution seeking to improve the quality of education across the U.S. and Mexico. During a recent Chicago TechDebate, Fernando talked about his technology product and project management experience in a panel discussion on the application of agile development methodology for traditionally nonagile projects. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to speak with Fernando about the topic in a bit more detail.
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Could you provide an overview of Innovare’s solutions and the problems you are tackling for your customers?
FERNANDO: Innovare–Social Innovation Partners was founded in July 2017 with a mission to make a positive impact on America’s education system. Unfortunately, access to a good education is primarily dictated by the zip code you live in, and not every school is able to provide the best education to its students. Statistics show that only about three out of every ten American students can read or perform math problems on their grade level. Innovare’s mission is to change this shocking statistic.
Most education technology focuses on teachers, students, or both teachers and students. Our technology is different because we focus on the leaders of schools and districts by guiding them through a continuous improvement process to reach the goals they have for their schools. The app allows school leaders to execute data-based strategies within their organizations.
School or district administrators have a few common pain points. First, they often have very fragmented data or no data at all. Second, when they do come up with a strategy, they have a hard time implementing it due to the regular fire drills that happen at the school or district level. Finally, school and district administrators generally do not have ways to easily summarize what happened when they do execute their plans—what they learned, what worked, what didn’t work, and the overall outcomes.
Innovare solves all three pain points by allowing users to follow a proven process within the tool. We integrate all their data into one dashboard with their key performance indicators so that every plan is constructed based on designated data points and insights.
Our solution also includes a collaborative planning tool based off the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) process and provides a mechanism to easily summarize the results of a given plan.
What are some of the project and product management lessons you have learned throughout your career?
FERNANDO: When I was a consultant for Accenture, I earned a Lean Six Sigma certification, so I know what effective project management looks like. My time working at Google allowed me to gain expertise in software development, including learning agile development approaches.
The methodologies I have learned over time have been quite helpful. When we first started Innovare, we didn’t know what the product we wanted to build should look like. Although components of our solution do exist on the market, none of our competitors assemble all the functionality like we do. So we decided to use an agile development approach to conduct our market research to learn what the market truly needed and what our end product should be.
We first built a minimum viable product using third-party products to validate our ideas. Through interaction with the market, we were able to capture the requirements from our customers—what they liked, what they didn’t like—then we used our software development resources to build our product based on this feedback. Because customers did not know how to precisely articulate their pain points, we built a product for them to see and experience so they could provide feedback.
Since Innovare is such a young company and our product is new, agile development is the right approach for us, but there are situations where I believe a waterfall approach can be more useful. For example, at Google I was on a team implementing an enterprise tool. Because we were replacing an existing tool with a new one, we knew what the requirements were. In this situation, it was easiest for us to document the requirements, search for the tools needed to do the job, and replace the old tools.
When you know both the problem and the solution, a waterfall approach is a better methodology. When you don’t fully know the problem, and therefore don’t know the solution, agile is a much better choice because it has a feedback mechanism built into the approach.
What are the common misperceptions of agile?
FERNANDO: There is a misconception that agile development is scrappy and unorganized, which is not the case; agile simply uses a different type of organization that designates people and processes as being the keys to success. Everyone has a defined role of what they are responsible for, and the project leader sets expectations for working together, what communication channels to use, and how to complete the documentation.
How can product teams and technology teams best interact with one another?
FERNANDO: There are a few processes have been helpful for us at Innovare. First, we ensure that the voice of the customer is always represented. It has been essential to include people on the team who have held school administrator jobs, to conduct interviews with current school administrators, and to have school administrators work with us in an advisory capacity. We actively engage these experts from the beginning of our process when we build a new product or functionality.
Second, it is important to have a clear process definition of how the team will move from phase to phase or sprint to sprint. You must have a common language describing how you are going to work together.
Our company, Sphere Software (https://sphereinc.com), is the sponsor and organizer of Techdebates.org and also finds great value in these follow-up discussions with industry experts. Sphere is a technology consulting and solutions company. Everything we do is designed to accelerate your business, remove technical constraints and eliminate staffing bottlenecks.