For some time now I've been wanting to write a blog about the connection between the OEM product development process and IT services. I've been hounding my OEM contacts asking for concrete examples of how IT has enabled them to be more innovative, speed up time to market, and reduce cost. But frankly, I've been hard-pressed to find an example that speaks to a direct connection between IT and product development.
I put the lack of examples down to the cultural gap between the two departments. After all, they live in different worlds, have different priorities, and speak different languages. IT requests from the product development department typically get thrown over the proverbial wall, where they are logged, prioritized, and given a ticket number. Response times to service requests are often maddeningly slow and the solution provided woefully inadequate. So much for improving time to market.
But Matt Wolken, a corporate strategist at Dell, described an interesting project at National Instruments (NI), a global electronics instrumentation company headquartered in Austin, Texas, that captured the connection. Matt put me in touch with Ernest Mueller, a cloud architect at NI, who explained how the company reorganized IT so the IT development process and the product development process were tightly coupled, resulting in the ability of the company to quickly and cheaply launch new Web-based customer applications.
NI makes both hardware and software products for capturing and measuring real-world analog signals and translating the data into usable graphical information for analysis. The company provides products to companies in many sectors, including aerospace, automotive, medical, and energy. Engineers and scientists at these companies use NI's graphical programming language called LabVIEW to display data in a readable format.
A couple of years ago, the company saw the writing on the wall and decided to develop a browser-based version of LabVIEW called Web UI Builder that would provide customers with a software-as-a-service option. But it ran into problems early on because of a disconnect between the product development and IT departments for the usual reasons: siloed organizations, poor communications, uptime problems, and so on.
The solution NI pursued was radical. It broke down that proverbial wall and embedded an IT Web development team in with the product development team. This group of "can do" developers began to cobble together a whole new approach to product development that included adopting a DevOps approach to IT services, using agile software development involving cross-functional teams, and tapping into the cloud to lower the cost of product development work.
An early example of the fruits of the new approach was a browser-based application for collecting wind speed data from sensors mounted on wind turbines that measured blade vibration. Using LabVIEW Web UI Builder, the customer created a graphical app and, via the Internet, embedded the software into each of the NI sensors mounted on the windmills. The app enabled the customer to monitor the operation of all the turbines in real time.
It's a textbook example of an innovative, cheap, and quick software solution that created value for the customer. And it's application-agnostic. LabVIEW Web UI Builder -- together with a few other tools that NI has developed -- can be used to gather data from networks of sensors mounted on aircraft, bridges, buildings, cars, windmills, or whatever to monitor any number of environmental variables.
So why, you ask, is this relevant to your company? There are a couple of reasons. First, NI developed the Web-based LabVIEW app by restructuring the way IT and product development work together. They are now collaborators. Second, they took the philosophy and practices behind DevOps and agile software development and married them to cloud computing to boost innovation and speed development, and to lower cost for both the company's own internal development projects and for the customers' products.
If that's not a powerful combination worth emulating, I don't know what is.