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Developer-led Digital Transformation: a conversation with Duke Energy

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Duke Energy is an American electric power holding company based in North Carolina, providing electricity to nearly eight million retail customers in six states. Founded in 1904, the company has seen a fair bit of change over the years, but its transition to becoming a software-driven company is the biggest yet, as consumer expectations change, and energy networks respond to the inexorable rise of renewable energy sources that are cheaper than traditional fossil fuels. We’re not in a world of smart grids yet, as the Texas experience shows, but… it’s coming.

Being lovers of both craft beer and renewable energy one story that caught my attention when looking at Duke Energy was this news about Firestone Walker Brewing Company. Working with Duke Energy Sustainable Solutions the brewery now has one of the largest on-site solar arrays in the craft beer industry ­­ ­– a 2.1-megawatt solar array and 281-kilowatt solar carport on 9.7 acres in Paso Robles, California. The arrays will generate the majority of Firestone Walker’s energy – which means brewing and bottling 6 million cases of beer annually with the power of sunshine.

Energy transformation heralds digital transformation for energy companies. I spoke to Duke Energy recently about its investments in software development and software developers, and was pleasantly surprised by its understanding that developers are the key influencers in tech. RedMonk is always interested in enterprises that understand the need for developer velocity, and are investing accordingly, thinking about developer experience from a social perspective, and from a platform perspective.

I recently interviewed Richard Donaldson, VP of digital transformation, and his colleague Eliezer Rodriguez, iOS developer, to get a view of both a business and a developer perspective of Duke Energy’s digital transformation journey for our RedMonk Conversations video series. I am wearing a suit in the videos, which has something to do with Taylor Swift. True story.

So, the digital group at Duke Energy is about 450 people, approximately half of whom are developers. The team also includes data scientists, UX, design thinking, product owners and product managers. The 35-person platform team supports this organization. Donaldson said the platform team is there to make sure that the developers are moving quickly and have everything they need, so that they’re spending less time setting up environments and more time coding. This statement wouldn’t be out of place in a discussion with Netflix about its developer productivity team.

The greater IT organization at Duke Energy is 3,000 people. The digital team is set up to inspire new ways of working across the broader group. One of the biggest changes at Duke Energy is that it now develops its own software rather than simply acquiring commercial off the shelf products.

Donaldson explained how the role of IT had changed, something most enterprises will recognise:

I grew up supporting COTS systems, filling out a form to get some servers racked and stacked, and then filling out another form to get someone to lay down a platform like Microsoft IIS. That needed another form to get the software installed, and then another form to get access, with long, lengthy outages when we had to do an upgrade.

In contrast, developers at Duke Energy today have a modern platform that can be upgraded on the fly, and the right processes to take advantage of it. The development teams have a lot more velocity, quickly rolling out new features, without 30-page requirements documents and multi-year project horizons. Donaldson said one advantage of building their own tools, with standard platforms and standards for how apps should be built, is that people no longer need to be third-party application specialists, dealing with the specifics of apps like PeopleSoft, SAP or Maximo, each each with its own complexities, interfaces and management models. He said in-house development has lowered the total cost of ownership and maintenance.

One aspect of the conversation that really resonated with me was when Donaldson described the degree to which the in-house developers understand the business.

What I saw very early on from our developers was not just that they were technically savvy, but within three months, they would almost appear as if they were a call centre agent, or had 10 years in the field, driving around with our distribution crews servicing outages.

Software developers can understand the business and improve it if they’re given time to be get close to the customer and the business process. Outsourcing and offshoring just can’t achieve the same results.

The digital team has built applications to help customers track outages, and are also focused on outage resolution, for example building augmented reality training applications for service technicians. Sometimes specific investments in new technologies, say Blockchain, don’t make sense, and having in-house expertise helps the organization make those decisions.

One key asset for Duke Energy is their innovation lab. Rodriguez, a Duke Energy software developer, clearly loves the facility, running internal tech conferences and so on (although he noted that the pandemic has restricted opportunities to learn and collaborate at the lab). The innovation lab was inspired by Duke Energy’s digital transformation program, working with Pivotal, now VMware Tanzu Labs.

Rodriguez explained that in his time at Duke Energy, it had gone from traditional waterfall development to agile development, while investing heavily in user experience and design skills. Early on the front end developer was the designer, but now they have specialists collaborating to build more compelling user experiences. Rodriguez’ back-end counterparts are taking advantage of cloud and container technologies.

In closing, it’s worth noting that Duke Energy plans a hybrid cloud strategy, which containers will support, partly based on the fact that energy is a heavily-regulated industry. New workloads will definitely move to the cloud, but regulators, it seems, are not quite ready for that transition. The key to effectiveness though is going to be developer productivity, taking advantage of higher level managed cloud services to keep costs down.

Here is the video content, first a couple of short snippets from the interviews, and then long form. What I really enjoyed was getting the change to talk to both a business stakeholder, and a software development lead. It added a lot to my understanding. Hopefully it will resonate with you too.

 

Here are the longer interviews. Enjoy!

 

disclosure: VMware sponsored the Conversation With RedMonk videos this post is based on.

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