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Accelerating Software Delivery to Save a World in Crisis

Written by: Christina Noren

12 min read

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A CloudBees Perspective

As the world reels from the human suffering of just the first few months of a pandemic of a scale not seen in more than a century, every organization is asking itself not just how to take care of the employees and customers that directly depend on its survival, but also how its unique capabilities can be applied to helping humanity minimize and recover from the effects of this crisis and emerge into a better world when it is all over. CloudBees is no different and this post is intended to share how we view our role in this and what we have been doing to fulfill it.

Who we are

CloudBees is in the business of software delivery automation, with the most widely used portfolio of continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) tools. These tools are the backbone of modern Agile software development and DevOps. They enable software organizations to deliver new software capabilities faster and more safely. We are also a 10-year old company of nearly 500 employees distributed across 17 countries that was remote-first from its inception, with the majority of employees working from home far from any of our small offices. We see software delivery automation, our experience in distributed work in general, and distributed software development in particular, as critical capabilities for us to share with all organizations in this time. 

What we see happening now

Our lives are going digital as we stay home

The most immediate experience of this crisis for most has been due to the strict stay-at-home and social distancing orders issued by governments around the world as the only way to keep the invisible spread of the incredibly lethal but stealthy COVID-19 virus from overwhelming health systems while researchers frantically search for a cure and supply chains rush to equip hospitals with equipment and labs with tests.

As almost everyone stays at home, one of the most stunning changes in human behavior has been the move of virtually every kind of physical work, social, educational, government service and leisure interaction to digital platforms. As McKinsey writes in a recent report:

“Over the past few months, there has been a transformation in the way we interact with loved ones, do our work, travel, get medical care, spend leisure time, and conduct many of the routine transactions of life. These changes have accelerated the migration to digital technologies at stunning scale and speed, across every sector. “We are witnessing what will surely be remembered as a historic deployment of remote work and digital access to services across every domain,” remarked one tech CEO. He is right. Through the COVID-19 recovery, too, digital will play a defining role.”

In this first round of lockdowns, the majority of white-collar office work (including software development) has shifted remote. Students have moved from classrooms to distance learning. Blue-collar, service and live entertainment workers have either been laid off or are working as best they can observing distancing and safety procedures. Bans on live events, travel, dine-in restaurants and physical retail and services have shuttered or shrunk many businesses in these sectors directly. The resulting drastically reduced consumer and business spending has critically injured many others. 

The global economy is in dire straits

As a result, unemployment has soared to levels not seen since the 1930s. US GDP has shrunk faster in the first quarter of 2020 than at any time since 2008. Some economists warn of a second quarter with an annualized hit of as much as 40%, the European Central Bank has warned of up to a 12% GDP decline for the year, while China’s economy shrank for the first time in 40 years.

And while it is true some businesses and sectors serving stay-at-home consumers have seen spiking demand, such as telcos, Netflix, Amazon, Peloton and home delivery, supply chain shortages and increased costs and lowered efficiency due to observing social distance protocols in operations have meant profits and cash flow have not necessarily kept pace.

The suffering is continuing

Meanwhile, even as people everywhere absorb the psychological and economic toll of the lockdowns, the virus is still making more and more people get sick or die. Uneven and generally slow imposition of such orders by governments afraid of their political and economic consequences combined with shortages of tests and protective equipment, absence of effective contact tracing, and inability for many of the world’s most vulnerable populations and essential workers to practice social distancing have allowed the virus to spread to over 3.2 million confirmed cases and kill more than 230,000 worldwide as of May 2. Excess deaths data hint at a much higher toll whether through uncounted direct deaths from the virus, or deaths through causes like famine, domestic violence, suicide and substance abuse resulting from the psychological and economic effects of the lockdowns.

There will be 18-24 months of disruption

Early optimism that a few weeks’ to a couple of months’ lockdown in each jurisdiction would suffice to “flatten the curve” have given way to a more sober view that there will be 18-24 months of cycles of loosening and tightening of both official rules and norms until successive waves give us herd immunity and/or effective vaccines or treatments are developed and distributed.

Followed by permanent big changes

Furthermore, most observers expect that after this pandemic has come under control, the experience of this period will lead to permanent changes in behaviors. This will be both because we have learned that many of the things we have changed overnight have very positive side effects for individuals, communities, organizations and the planet and because we perceive others are necessary to keep the threat of future new pandemics at bay. In many ways, this will be like how the experience of the horrors of World War II led to a new era of global cooperation and peace. 

In the wake of this crisis, most observers expect many companies to continue to rapidly implement remote working, enabling their employees to avoid taxing commutes and allowing them to live in more affordable communities while saving on office rent. Habits of ordering in and spending less will likely persist to a degree while continued social distancing impacts the viability of restaurants and physical retail. Entertainment, sporting and cultural events will take on new forms to keep people safer. Global supply chain failures and increased competition amongst superpowers is expected to reduce global trade as much as 32%. Both business and leisure travel is expected to rebound from its 90%+ dropoff to a degree, but will likely settle far from pre-pandemic levels. Oil demand has already plummeted and will likely stay much lower than pre-pandemic levels as well, with industries rebuilding on cleaner energy and less travel and commuting.

That will require systemic adaptation

These changes are generally expected to make people happier, keep the environment cleaner, strengthen communities and increase both business efficiency and resiliency. However, the adjustment process won’t be easy for individuals, communities, countries or organizations. So the job before us as a society is to do what we can to end this pandemic as fast as possible to minimize the resulting suffering, while making life for the duration of this crisis and into the next era as enjoyable, sustainable and safe as possible.

Some of the most obvious first things to do are to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments, equip the healthcare system to take care of the sick, enable health authorities to track and control the spread, keep output and employment as high as possible during the crisis, and take care of vulnerable populations unable to provide for themselves or socially distance in crowded or unsanitary living conditions. What is also becoming clear is the need to develop new techniques for performing physical work that is currently hard or inefficient to do with social distancing such as construction, meatpacking, shipping, delivery and low tech manufacturing. This is where software comes in.

Software delivery is central to this adaptation

Software delivery, and the automation of software delivery, have major roles to play in fulfilling all of these imperatives. “Software is eating the world” has become “software is saving the world.” (OK, at least helping save it.) Let’s take a look at the different ways in which this is becoming true.

Software is enabling our lives to move online

Clearly, our overnight global move to a digital first lifestyle has depended on existing digital platforms and infrastructure rapidly scaling to meet soaring demand and adapting to address new needs. It is only our ability to meet these challenges today that has salvaged as much of the economy and quality of life as we have. Major retailers’ e-commerce platforms had to take on new loads and implement support for new practices like curbside pickup. Delivery apps had to implement features for contactless delivery while straining under exponential overnight growth. Communications platforms meant for business had to adapt their features to social and educational activities.

Software teams that automate fully have responded faster

What most people don’t see, however, is what goes on behind the scenes to facilitate software teams’ response to these new demands. Software teams have had to step up as they get used to working remote like everyone else. This has been more of a shock for some than others.

Software teams in every industry that already were remote work agnostic haven’t had their own ability to maintain and adapt their services negatively impacted to the degree of those who depended on people being in the office. Those that had already fully implemented continuous integration (CI), continuous delivery (CD) and other software delivery automation (SDA) technologies like feature flagging (FF) had further advantages. These advanced organizations’ practices require less synchronous coordination, are resilient in the face of individual key team member distractions, and ultimately enable them to rapidly and safely deliver new and changed functionality and expand capacity much faster with better outcomes. 

In the face of the current crisis, nearly every software team that is working fully remote for the first time, with team members under new stresses at home, must fill any gaps in their software delivery automation to stay productive and happy.

Software is also tackling the crisis directly

From AI companies volunteering to crunch clinical data on existing drugs to identify possible treatments to big data contact tracing, and from intelligent systems to optimize logistics such as PPE distribution and supply chain optimization to healthcare systems that speed up patient care and telemedicine that enables providers to treat patients at a distance safely, new software driven projects and platforms are being deployed to be more effective in the direct fight against the different aspects of the crisis. Behind each of these examples is a software team that needs to be as innovative and fast as possible while working fully remote under stressful, crisis conditions. These are our software first responders.

Software will facilitate deep operational transformations

Beyond software delivery itself, different classes of work and different companies’ operational approaches have had differing degrees of difficulty in transitioning to remote work and social distancing. A first phase of very tactical, and often risky adaptation is quickly giving way to embarkation on longer term, sustainable changes to allow work and operations to continue efficiently and safely. 

Warehouses and meatpacking plants that are taking emergency measures to have employees space themselves further apart but still experiencing outbreaks will increase their use of robotics, powered by software. Low tech dirty fuel burning manufacturing plants in low labor cost locations feeding vast global supply chains will be replaced by more robotics in clean new factories closer to final assembly and distribution. Financial services companies that designed their client service and trading systems assuming work from within a company office are going to change the design of these systems and the supporting network and security infrastructure to enable their customer service reps, wealth managers and traders to securely work from home. Even construction firms will look at onsite physical procedures and creatively even find digital solutions to reduce side by side collaboration on the jobsite. Behind each of these examples are more software teams that need to be supported with the right software automation and collaboration tools to work fast under distributed, remote conditions.

Software can help save our cultures and communities, too

The biggest fear most people have right now, beyond their immediate health and well being, is the loss of community level daily social interaction in restaurants, bars and public spaces and community cultural rituals like sporting events, live concerts and theater and art exhibitions - the things that make life more than just working to eat and eating to work. 

The good news is that hosts, civic planners, artists and entertainers have a history through the ages of adapting the forms of entertainment and culture to new times and new technologies. We’re seeing existing digital platforms and tools from Instagram to Zoom being creatively adapted already by artists, celebrities, sports and arts organizations to bring culture and communal experiences into our living rooms in new forms. We’re seeing new platforms pop up to do things like support artists and creatives by letting them offer classes to the masses in their media or bring their art to boarded up empty streets. Even before this crisis, artists and creatives were increasingly incorporating software and technology into their work. As the new normal comes into focus, expect that digital platforms will keep sports teams playing and opera houses performing in some form for their fans, and those fans continuing to share the experience. And yes, that means more software with more software teams that need automation and collaboration to delight us.

The clock is ticking and resources are tight

Now let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Software teams already under pressure to deliver more, faster before this crisis suddenly have an explosion in demand and need to change the way existing teams work or spin up new teams overnight. Teams that were behind in automation to begin with need to accelerate their planned transformations 10x or even 100x and implement and learn new technologies, practices and habits overnight. All at the same time as many face constrained budgets as CFOs implement austerity programs to survive the sudden economic uncertainty. While for most organizations where adaptation is possible, building the software to enable it is a top priority, on the ground teams need to get started while budgets and contracts happen in the background.

Our existing mission just became mission-critical

So back to CloudBees. Our motto was “Build Stuff that Matters”  - before all hell broke loose and software became obviously central to saving the world. 

Our vision already was that “in the future, every company is a software company, anyone is a developer, and a million parallel threads of creativity all safely and successfully make their way from idea to value.” That future is certainly looking like it’s going to arrive 10 years sooner, one way or another! And our own corporate mission in bringing about that future just became more mission critical: “To deliver the software backbone that enables developers to have great powers and organizations to innovate whilst satisfying their great responsibilities.” 

The question now is how to get that software backbone into the hands of many more software teams and help them learn how to use it fast enough to save the world.

What we’re doing now

We’ve spent the last month-plus asking ourselves that question and spinning up and launching ideas to help. As the crisis has developed and the broader picture we share here has emerged, we’ve been brainstorming bigger and bigger ways to help. As of this writing, what we are doing includes:

  • Our CloudBees Cares program

  • Offering free access to anyone

  • Promoting on-the-ground stories of software delivery teams helping the world respond to the crisis and prepare for the world beyond to increase public awareness and positive perception of software developers and organizations as forces for good.

  • Sharing and building on our own decade-long experience with fully remote software development across timezones through multiple media and interactions with our customers and others seeking the benefit of this experience.

  • As always, working with existing customers and would-be customers to understand their current situations and ensure they can access the capabilities they need from us and weather their own situations through this and other shocks.

We’re not stopping here. We’re internally brainstorming more ways in which we can help teams jumpstart software delivery automation and bootstrap new projects. Do you have ideas too? Share them with us and the whole industry via social with the tag #softwaresavingtheworld!

As Sacha says, Onward!

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