Tanzu Application Service at Discover: Transformation in Progress

October 1, 2019 Anthony Cox

The evolution and maturation of Pivotal Platform for running cloud applications at Discover closely mirrors the evolution and maturation of the agile DevOps team that manages it today. I’m the proud manager of that team. This is the story of how our team leveraged the platform and improved how we support application platforms in a large, dynamic enterprise. My hope is that I capture some of our lessons learned, and save others some of the groaning, face-palming moments we faced in our journey.

The Discover Cloud Solutions department was chartered in November 2016. We were charged with bringing an agile DevOps mindset to the infrastructure group at Discover. We were to challenge all processes, attitudes, hierarchies, and culture in the spirit of bringing a new mindset regarding infrastructure lifecycle management. In December 2016, the group met in a series of all-day meetings to create our charter, define the principles on which we would work and to flesh out how we would get work done every day. 

The ideas seemed great. In practice, they did not go as planned. 

Like many other teams first starting out their journeys with agile, our struggling, self-taught brand was certainly not what we hoped for. We tried different sprint cadences, ceremonies, and tracking tools, all with little success. Sprints ended with zero points completed; work wasn’t getting broken down and done; progress wasn’t being made; and frustration continued to simmer.  We needed some help. 

As these efforts were happening, my team took over engineering and operations support for the Pivotal environment at Discover. The platform had recently emerged from an initial pilot phase, and our first step was to assess the health of the environment. We identified single points of failure within the platform, single availability zones, and other details regarding the construction of the foundations that were no longer considered best practices. Upgrades were still done manually, leading to significant inconsistencies between foundations and their supporting tiles and services. 

After some research into the updated reference architectures, we decided to start over and build new from the ground up. That rebuild started with our investment in a six-week “Day 2 Ops” dojo with Pivotal. 

Our dojo began in March 2017, and it was an eye-opening experience for the whole team. We enthusiastically executed the rituals of agile. It was awkward, it was foreign, it was weird … and things got done! We saw a tremendous rate of accomplishment and change. We thoroughly broke down work, got introduced to pair programming, and started to learn how to leverage Concourse as a CI / CD automation solution for the platform. We evolved manual platform installations and transformed them into fully automated deployments. Before long, we had new, mostly automated, wildly consistent Pivotal Platform foundations for our application developers to utilize. But we weren’t fully there yet.

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At the start of 2018, we had our migration to the new foundations complete. We were fully automated, ready to iterate, and well on our way toward an agile infrastructure framework. As 2018 progressed, we continued to refine the way we work. At the end of 2018, we found that we had successfully executed our foundation upgrades in cadence with the release cycle of Pivotal—four major upgrades within the year.  While we still had a bit of catching up to do, we proved to ourselves that we could get there, and were confident we would. 

In 2019, we’ve set our sights even higher. To improve collaboration and problem solving, we’re going to publish a shared responsibility model that clearly outlines our contract with our application development community and our IaaS partners. As a product team, we’ll be more focused on soliciting feedback, because prioritizing and then iterating on feature requests makes our work more impactful. We’re going to build on our success with feedback loops, partnerships and product practitioner teams dedicated to ensuring our consumer’s success. 

Here’s a few things to keep in mind on your journey:

1. It’s never over; the transformation doesn’t end. If you stop finding innovative ways to constantly improve yourself and delight your customers, then you’re doing it wrong.

2. Listen to the team and let them self-organize around the principles. Implement short sprints; backlogs that are curated, tracked and updated; daily progress updates; and active planning meetings with the whole team including customers. Size stories into chunks that you can accomplish in a discreet and reasonably short timeframe. Try it, evaluate it, agree on what’s not working, and change it. Then do it all again. At some point, you’ll be crushing it… and still looking for ways to do it better!

3. Listen to the team on tools. I’m almost certain you have an application that you work with… as little as you possibly can. Remember: The tool you use to manage your stories, or your version control system, is going to get used by the team every day. If it’s not up to par, your team will let you know. Listen to them. 

4. Read up on product management and then focus on and document the outcomes you want—not features, not capabilities, just outcomes. Put together a rough framework and then plan with the team. Try it, evaluate it, fix the “most” broken, and do it again. 

5. Hyper focus on delighting your customers. If you can’t delight them, then improve what they experience a little at a time, sprint over sprint, and you’ll get there. Partner with them on their journeys toward success and you’ll find that transforming what you deliver, and how you deliver it, happens on its own. Keep this in mind over all else: If you are thinking of your customers every day and acknowledging where you could do better, then you’re doing it right.

As part of Discover’s continued leadership strategy in fintech, we’re applying the valuable lessons we’ve learned on our journey with agile and Pivotal Platform against a much broader spectrum of infrastructure, platforms, and applications to drive more value and better service for our customers. It’s been a great ride so far, and we’re looking forward to more great times ahead!

If you want to learn more about the relationship between Discover and Pivotal, you can also check out these recent blog posts by my colleagues Victor Hansen and Ying Zhe:

Also, Discover is hiring! Check out all the great opportunities in tech here: https://jobs.discover.com/technology/.


About the Author

Anthony Cox

Anthony Cox is a senior technology manager at Discover with 15 years of application runtime automation and engineering experience. Tony currently manages the Pivotal Platform and GemFire caching solutions for Discover. When he's not obsessing about automation, engineering or digital transformation, Tony enjoys fishing, Metallica and time with his wife and two children.

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