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Microsoft Flexes its Agile Muscles

Using agile development methodologies, Microsoft’s hardware groups were able to standardize and consolidate on OnePDM in less than a year.

The surface design team has been able to build BOM checks and balances into the OnePDM platform as a result of the agile development approach. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

Robust, dynamic, easily configurable—hardly words most would use to describe traditional PDM (product data management) or PLM (product lifecycle management). But when Microsoft set out to consolidate and standardize its hardware groups on a core product development platform, its alternative approach—building on top of an open, cloud-based PLM platform and leveraging its expertise in agile methodologies—led to a global deployment completed in record time and packed with more functionality than its previous PLM systems.

While agile has gained prominence in software development circles, the discipline is typically not associated with PLM initiatives, which are infamous for lengthy deployment cycles and implementations that don’t adequately reflect current user requirements or are too bloated and complex to be useful. The Microsoft group, having lived through similar experiences in the past, decided to take the chance on an agile approach to PDM/PLM to meet an aggressive timetable for empowering its engineering teams with critical product data.

Microsoft The surface design team has been able to build BOM checks and balances into the OnePDM platform as a result of the agile development approach. Image courtesy of Microsoft.

“We needed it yesterday and we couldn’t afford to wait two years using a traditional [PLM development] model,” explains Boris Cononetz, senior business operations and program management manager at Microsoft, who spearheaded the agile PDM initiative. “We had to figure out how we could do that when everything else—all the consultants, products and people in this space—run massive, monolithic programs that take way too long. We had to think differently.”

Thinking differently was essential because of the task Cononetz and his team set out to accomplish. Fresh off its April 2014 acquisition of the Nokia cellphone business, Microsoft took a hard look at its hardware portfolio and found a variety of units operating as individual startups, using their own product development suites and data management tools and doing their own highly specific customizations. There was little to no collaboration across product development teams, the supply chain was replicated for every product, there was minimal reuse and far too much duplication of effort, he explains.

At the same time, the entire Microsoft company was moving rapidly to the cloud and there was a requirement for all the development platforms to stay in sync with the most current offerings in the Microsoft software stack, including Windows 10. Traditional PLM and PDM platforms, including the disparate smorgasbord already in use throughout all the various hardware divisions, did not support a cloud-based delivery model nor were they upgraded regularly enough to stay in sync with the latest Microsoft technology. “We were using third-party tools that were anywhere from three to 10 years lagging behind what we were rolling out internally at Microsoft,” he explains. “Those kinds of [compatibility] problems were creating substantial issues.”

Deciding to Go Agile

Against that backdrop, the Microsoft device teams saw an opportunity to migrate toward a centralized PDM/PLM solution, but more importantly, a single platform and PDM process that could be used consistently across all of the various hardware lines. Because historically the different Microsoft business groups funded their software initiatives and did not regularly share systems, the move to standardize around a central PDM/PLM platform was a big cultural shift, Cononetz says.

“We wanted to have product data be our strength so we could leverage that as a core foundation,” he explains. “That way, when we were ready to launch another product, there was a strong foundation of data already there that would be easy to find, search and classify correctly.”

The requirement to run in the cloud, coupled with the need for continuous updates and rapid deployment capabilities essentially ruled out traditional PDM/PLM products and processes. Also, all of the disparate PDM/PLM already in place used different data models and were highly customized, which meant things broke down quickly when something needed to be changed. Moreover, the existing PDM/PLM platforms already in house were better suited for heavy industrial equipment or automotive industry processes, Cononetz says, and not nearly as friendly for the fast-paced world of consumer electronics.

“A lot of capabilities we desperately needed weren’t there,” he says. “We also needed to make changes constantly, and with the older tools and methodologies, which are large and highly integrated, if you tweak something, everything else starts to break.”

After months of evaluations and hands-on testing, the team was comfortable making its bold move: Using a third-party, Azure-certified platform (in this case, Aras Innovator) as the base foundation for OnePDM and pursuing an agile development route as opposed to traditional waterfall methods. With waterfall approaches, there are long cycles spent gathering in-depth requirements, developing a solution, testing and moving into production only when the entire project is complete. With the agile approach, the Microsoft team worked in short, iterative three-week sprints on a very specific set of objectives, sometimes releasing functionality to the business owners in 24 hours for initial feedback.

Applying agile methodologies to PDM/PLM deployment is an unusual step, says Doug Macdonald, director of Product Marketing at Aras. Macdonald maintains that many companies are just not that comfortable with agile methodologies, and not every PLM platform lends itself to the approach. Innovator’s model-based architecture, ease of customization, and support for the cloud made it a good fit for Microsoft’s already robust and well-established agile processes, he says.

The upside of agile? “Reducing the risk that you spend a lot of time developing the wrong thing that wasn’t quite what the users wanted,” he says. “Agile takes that risk away almost entirely because the cycles are so short, you can’t be too far away from [what] user want.”

The Birth of OnePDM

The OnePDM team developed a roadmap that documented and prioritized the capabilities needed for a minimally viable product (MVP), along with the iterative path of additional features that would be added over time. Stakeholders, including software developers, product owners and engineers, and process specialists, met daily in scrum meetings to evaluate business processes and OnePDM capabilities to see if they could work across the various hardware business units.

The result was pretty groundbreaking for a PDM/PLM implementation, Cononetz says. Instead of the typical 18 to 24 month implementation cycle, the Microsoft crew was able to get its first OnePDM release out in six months, and within a year it was able to replace its old PDM systems and deliver new functionality. “We built the same capabilities or better in nine months than what it had taken us about seven or eight years to create with the previous systems,” he says.

Aras Aras Innovator serves as the open platform at the heart of Microsoft’s OnePDM implementation. Image courtesy of Aras.

Phil Nixon, senior component engineering manager for the Xbox product group, has lived through two implementations of a PDM system, and says the OnePDM agile approach gave his team members far more input over functionality and business processes. “We had a lot of mistakes with the previous program and when we came down to the end of the timeline, it didn’t work well and the interface was horrible,” he says. “The ability to see how things are going to be in short cycles enables us to immediately say this process isn’t going to work or we need this information. That way, we’re able to correct changes before the end of the line when the system is dumped on us.”

Mike Brittain, operations, PM manager for Microsoft’s Surface group, is also bullish on the benefits. The agility of the sprint teams means the stakeholders could see things in two to three week cycles, enabling them to easily realign or add features instead of going down the wrong path, he says. Because of that, Brittain’s group was able to build bill of materials (BOM) checks and balances into OnePDM that didn’t exist in previous PDM/PLM systems, which has saved his group hours of manual labor. “In our old PDM, we might be able to add things on a quarterly basis and we were lucky if it got into that release,” he says.

Microsoft has anywhere from 300 to 500 concurrent users working in OnePDM, and there have been 6,000 new users on boarded since February—about five or six times the number that ever used the older PDM platform. While PDM functionality was initial objective, the platform has been expanded to include portfolio management requirements and integration with SAP, and the long-term plan is to extend it into other PLM areas, including CAD integration.

The Microsoft team was able to migrate all of the existing hardware products onto the common OnePDM platform, plus they did the full data migration, consolidating two systems. Going forward, the plan is to consolidate a third and add additional PLM functionality. “OnePDM is now finally hitting OnePLM,” says Cononetz.

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Beth Stackpole's avatar
Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected].

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