The Founders Series: Merv Graham
Merv is one of the founders of Zoosh Group and is our CEO of UK & Ireland. In this Q&A blog post between Merv and marketing specialist, Jess, we will discuss topics such as Digitalisation in Z context, sustainability for digital products and lean and agile product development with the Z team/roles.
Q (Jess): Mervyn, welcome to the Z founders' series. People talk a lot about digitalisation; perhaps it's merely a buzzword. What does this word mean to you?
A (MeRv): Thanks for inviting me to this interrogation Jess. Seriously though, the term digitalisation is a bit of a buzzword, and I'm admittedly guilty of using it myself to explain some of the contemporary phenomena I'm witnessing. The term meaning will differ for many, but my interpretation is that it means much more than a tendency to make more use of services like Zoom, Teams, or Google Hangouts Meet in our daily lives. For me, digitalisation is a transformation from one era to another. It refers to a complete shift in our thinking and behaviours.
Historically, organisations and communities used digital products and services to enable efficiency gains and automate routine tasks. However, the COVID19 pandemic has forced organisations and communities to think about a "digital-first" strategy. If COVID19 has demonstrated anything, it's that our world can very unexpectedly narrow or shut down around us. As such, a digital-first approach is the only option available to ensure that while travel and human contact are physically restricted, a business or community can continue to operate fluently.
For example, it's inevitable at this point that remote working will be a real possibility where it wasn't before. This will require new tools for interacting, coordinating, monitoring and so on. It will also offer many new opportunities for organisations to influence their workforce carbon emissions and develop their environmental conscience towards sustainability.
Q (Jess): Can you explain what sustainability means in context?
A (MeRv): I'll certainly try. It's a large and nuanced topic that I mean to address in more detail in the near term, but I'll try to reference some examples to offer colour. I've been working with software and digital solutions for many years now. A decade ago, I cannot say that I noticed much concern for the environment and green factors when digital solutions were being built. In that era, most concern orientated around operational gains and the quickest time to ROI (Return On Investment). Sustainability, fundamentally the energy requirement, carbon emissions output or pollution factor, didn't feature on the priority list. Things are different now.
Emerging companies like myenergi (myenergi.com), EDAC (edac.ie) and OptaHaul (optahaul.com) have sustainability at the core of their priority list and represent a new mindset in the digital innovation space. Let's not fool ourselves; there is a profit motive. However, each of these companies are investing in sustainability rather than sacrificing it for more immediate profit.
myenergi, for example, didn't just create another car charger for the growing electric vehicle (EV) market. They made a smart charger that can divert surplus green energy produced by microgeneration plants - such as solar panels and wind turbines - to the EV. This allows the driver to commute without any carbon emissions impact on the environment. It also maximises the return for the home or business owner, in so far as they can make optimal use of their own produced green energy.
The EDAC founders have a background in environmental services. They have seen the negative implications to the environment, first hand when water, sewage or chemical treatment plants are not serviced at the right frequency and with professional attention. To address this, they have invested in creating a digital platform that intuitively allows companies and public bodies to manage their sensitive assets, appoint verified and qualified professionals to maintain them, and surface insights about the performance and potential areas for concern.
Finally, the OptaHaul innovation surfaced on the back of an engagement with a forward-thinking dairy producer, Bonafarm, in Eastern Europe. They knew they had room for improvement with their milk collection fleet, both in terms of cost and carbon emissions. The OptaHaul offering, now a Zoosh product company, enabled them to optimise all parameters around their milk collection and minimise the impact on the environment in terms of carbon emissions.
Q (Jess): myenergi sounds like an inspiring company and partner. Can you tell me how you help myenergi with their sustainable product agenda?
A (MeRv): Sure, I'd be happy to Jess. I must first state that the myenergi team is a cocktail of brilliant minds, both technically and on the customer engagement front. They have created extraordinary smart green hardware products independently and have looked to Zoosh to design and execute a complementing cloud software ecosystem and intuitive end-user engagement facility via mobile apps. The myenergi team had a treasure trove of ideas related to the type of experience they wanted to deliver to their smart product customers and proactively looked to their online community forums for inspiration too. The Zoosh team took the seed of an idea and brought it to life with user experience (UX) prototypes and ultimately produced the living code for mobile and backend services. We also brought some additional innovation and engagement ideas to the table concerning customer experience and the "cool factor", but that's top-secret for the moment. myenergi will themselves tell the world about this when the time is right. It's exciting stuff, and I'm a huge fan of the myenergi movement and success.
Q (Jess): When you help a company like myenergi, how do you build your product development team and who's typically involved?
A (Merv):That's a good question. I think it's fair to say that there's a baseline formula for the product team structure that is typically present. The level of contribution required from each role varies and depends on the nature of the challenge. Also, the makeup of the team can organically fluctuate over time.
I may sound a bit robotic here, and I'll surely use too many domain-specific terms, but I'll harp on anyway. When we create an agile product team or Team as a Service (TaaS) in Zoosh lingo, we assign a product owner (PO) to manage the product backlog and respective priorities in conjunction with the end client. A scrum master (SM) helps to coordinate the composition of each delivery Sprint in conjunction with the development team. A lead architect (LA) or developer makes decisions around the technology stack and a team of software developers create the code for front and back end applications. Additionally, we tend to have a lead researcher or UX designer involved to ensure that we capture the human factors and needs when it comes to the software form and behaviour. This setup is typical and is not specific to any particular Zoosh client. However, the number of UX designers, scrum masters and developers you have working in tandem tends to be relative to the scope of work and framing around delivery times.
This can sound like a rather hefty team composition, but the PO isn't often allocated 100% to a particular project. Ideally, over time the client can play the role of PO independently and take complete control of backlog content and respective priorities. Researchers and UX designers also tend to be more heavily involved early in a project and then move into a support mode later in the project lifecycle.
Q (Jess): Are customers always familiar with agile and lean product development? How do you help them on this challenging journey?
A (MeRv): Hmmm, well unless some of the team would challenge me on this, I would argue that most of our clients are unfamiliar with agile software development when they approach us. They may have read some blogs or articles online, but the practical experience would be rare. As such, there's a natural learning curve that needs to be considered in our interactions. I'd also say there's an element of scepticism in the mix as agile methodologies force us to be, well, agile. What I mean, is that we humans take comfort in certainties around costs and timelines - which is usually the false reassurance of Waterfall development practices of old with fixed budgets, scope and timelines - but with agile, we need walk in order to then run and while running we then need to complete some laps of the running track (i.e. Sprints) before we can tell how quickly we're actually running.
So, there's an inherent element of learning on the job, and you need to continually reflect on what's done and where you're going next in order to adapt and improve. This learn-and-adapt-as-you-go approach can be a difficult journey for a client. Still, inevitably the benefits of the approach surface over time and clients ultimately appreciate the flexibility that agile offers concerning content, priorities and outcomes.
The ability to adapt the content also reinforces an innovative spirit within the product team, meaning that we can discuss alternative - better - ways to do things mid-project and not hesitate to consider whether a new innovative feature might have a place on the priority list.
It's fair to say that immersive contribution on the client's part helps with this learning curve, alongside transparency on our side -> the good, the bad and the ugly. That's what builds long lasting partnerships.
Stay tuned for our next conversations with our CEO's. Bert Farrell and Balazs Bakos!