John Blatchford was working on Agile Business Intelligence before it became trendy in the technology space.
“Back in the early ‘90s, I actually implemented a methodology that was very much Agile; it was like a time box release working very closely with the business,” he said in an interview with WashingtonExec. “It’s funny how over time agile Business Intelligence methodology has evolved into a standard industry practice. I should have written a book about it 20 years ago, but I missed the boat on it.”
Missed literary acclaim aside, Blatchford has had a successful career, including more than 30 years of IT experience in a variety of industries.
“I started out as a developer way back in the COBOL days,” Blatchford said. “A lot of my background has evolved supporting financial systems, payroll, benefit systems, HR systems, operations, Business Intelligence, Data Warehousing infrastructure – you name it, I’ve pretty much covered the gambit of all of the different technology areas.”
Now the Director of Agile Business Intelligence at Salient Federal Solutions, Blatchford prides himself not only on his IT skills, but also on being in touch with the business needs of an organization. In our interview, he made the business case for Agile BI, including how organizations can leverage the methodology to get the most from their technology.
WashingtonExec: How does Agile BI help organizations to get more out of their IT?
John Blatchford: A critical component of Agile BI is an integrated team; a team that is comprised of both technical as well as business stakeholders. Agile is an iterative development process, meaning that we are providing business value early and often throughout the development process. What this does is it helps the IT organization to get the buy-in from the business – whether it is from some initial funding to start up an initiative or continuing it over time where the business sees the value.
An example of this is when I worked at an organization where they put out task orders for two business intelligence projects. One of the goals of these projects was to demonstrate the Agile BI process to the business. These projects were so successful that the word spread across different departments of the organization. As a result, the success on these projects evolved into our developing and supporting over 30 BI solutions.
WashingtonExec: What is the number one thing Salient offers its clients, in terms of Agile BI, that differentiates the company from other contractors?
John Blatchford: One of our distinctions is that we integrate our Centers of Excellence (CoE) at Salient. For example, we have a Data Analytics Center of Excellence (DACoE), which utilizes an agile BI approach and we also have an Agile Center of Excellence (ACoE). We work with the Agile center in tailoring their methodologies to fit into our business intelligence solutions. We take the best of the BI world along with the best of the agile world to provide a successful and proven delivery methodology.
Our ACoE also provides Agile coaches to help both our team and training for the government staff. It provides not just for the successful development of these BI solutions, but also helps establish the Agile practice within the different government organizations. The DACoE has been involved with opportunities that have required partnering with both Salient Cyber Security and Mobility Centers of Excellence. Our CoEs complement each other very well – offering unique value proposition to our clients.
WashingtonExec: What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced with BI during the course of your career, and how did you meet that challenge?
John Blatchford: A lot of organizations approach BI from the standpoint that the IT area is building a technical solution, but they haven’t defined a business problem yet. It’s like the Kevin Costner movie, “Field of Dreams” — If we build it they will come. The business doesn’t like coming if they haven’t been involved in what’s being built.
The biggest challenge is getting the business involved. It’s not about building technology for the sake of building technology; it’s about building technology to solve business problems. The idea is to be able to identify the business problem and to then develop a technical solution that is why we get the business involved early in the BI projects. Getting the business involved as a partner early has contributed to many successes over my long career. Even though I’ve always been on the IT side, I try to get the business to look to me as their liaison between the IT and business. I gain their trust that I understand what their problem is and what we need to do to solve it. That’s been one of the key challenges – trying to overcome the IT’s drive to implement technology before they understand the business problems.
WashingtonExec: Are you experiencing push back with Agile BI adoption with agencies? If so, why do you think they are so hesitant, and if not, why are they so willing to adopt it?
John Blatchford: Any kind of change tends to be met with some degree of residence. Over the past decade, most agencies used to the ‘Waterfall Approach’ – we’ll define the requirements, we’ll design a solution, we’ll build a solution, we’ll test the solution and then we’ll throw it over the wall and find out that the requirements were written ten months back. That’s what they are used to.
We’ve demonstrated in the past with our proof of concepts how quickly we can go about putting together a solution to their business problems. In some cases, our clients push back and say ‘we don’t want to do it the Agile way’ until we show them that it does work and it can work for them. We show them how to successfully deliver BI solutions outside of Waterfall.
WashingtonExec: When there is this push back how do you pitch BI solutions? Why would you recommend agile in the business development process?
John Blatchford: One of the reasons that we push Agile is that in the long run, it is going to lower the risk and ultimately cost to the organization. But the critical point we are going to deliver what the customer wants. In a Waterfall-type approach the business defines the requirements at the beginning, but they might change their mind over the six to seven months of the project, and then what’s delivered isn’t what they want. Salient’s Agile approach embraces change.
In an Agile approach, what we provide a short, two-to three-week time box release, which provides early business value and also helps the customer refine their requirements as they go along. It also starts showing them the technology so that when the final delivery is given, there aren’t any surprises. It may have morphed or mutated from their beginning requirements, but it’s what they want at the end. A successful product doesn’t necessarily mean that it was delivered on time and under cost – yes, those are key factors – but it’s also a key factor that the end product is what the business wants and it provides business value.
WashingtonExec: You recently spoke at the National Press Club. What were some of the highlights of your presentation with Tableau Software?
John Blatchford: We were really excited about it because it gave us the opportunity to not just talk about Salient’s Proof to Mission Impact, from our data analytics group, but also to demonstrate what we’ve done. It provided us with a forum to show our Data Analytics Center of Excellence, its capabilities, and what value it can offer to the government.
In addition, we were able to demonstrate our partnership with Tableau. Our analytics need to be put into a visual form so people can better understand, and Tableau helps us to do that. We’ve developed a very good partnership with Tableau in helping to not just show that data but tell a compelling story about it so that it’s easily followed by managers, directors, and executives. It can tell a story about what they are trying to understand about their mission, as well as about their questions that they are trying to get answered.
We also wanted to showcase some of the self-service reporting that Tableau provides. Business is becoming more and more interested in self-service, whether it is self-service reporting, or in some cases, self-service data integration. The business has always relied on the IT department to provide them with the data and provide reporting. Now there are tools that can provide self-service capabilities to the business themselves. Self-service tools removes IT departments burden as the central gatekeeper of data. The Analysts can pull the data in, do their data profiling, and all of the work that they need to do, and then use Tableau to generate their own visualizations.