Boeing and the Three Es of Digital Transformation

March 26, 2018 Jeff Kelly

Learn the strategy used to transform the leading aerospace company for the digital age.

Photo courtesy of Boeing.

Boeing is sitting on a goldmine of data. A single trip by one of the company’s 787 Dreamliner creates up to a terabyte of data. Multiply that by hundreds of planes and tens of thousands of trips per year… well, you get the point. But in order to make use of all that data to improve functions—like product development and value-add services for customers—the 102-year-old company knew it needed to rethink its approach to software.

Niki Allen, a 14-year veteran of the aerospace company, was tapped to lead the effort to transform Boeing’s approach to software development. Speaking at SpringOne Platform in December, Allen noted the many innovations the company developed over its first hundred years in existence, resulting in Boeing’s leadership position in the industry today. Her goal was to harness that expertise and experience and meld it with modern software development technologies and practices.

“The technology combined with our domain expertise and core strengths… that’s the sweet spot,” said Allen, now Executive Director in the Office of the CIO at Boeing, in her keynote address at SpringOne Platform. “That’s how we survive another hundred years.”


The Three E’s

Not that it would be easy. After all, any company that has been around as long as Boeing is bound to have its share of technology debt. “There’s a host of complexity and legacy systems and architecture and point-to-point integration… you name it,” said Allen.

But just as important as the technology transformation was the transformation of the people, process and culture at Boeing. To tackle the challenge, Allen developed a “master plan” that zeroed in on the Three Es: Engagement, Excellence and Enablement. Allen’s approach is instructive to other business and technology executives embarking on digital transformation journey’s at their enterprises.



The first challenge, Allen explained, is getting your workforce — developers, IT, line of business leaders, and the C-suite — engaged and excited (perhaps that’s the fourth E!) about the process and benefits of transformation. Without active engagement, transformation efforts can easily stall. Doing so requires IT to adopt a new mindset. “How do we go from being order-takers to leading the digital conversation?” asked Allen.

Allen identified a few of the tactics she took at Boeing to increase engagement. First, she empowered her team to challenge the status quo, to ask the tough questions, such as: why do we do things this way? She also gave them the power to make decisions that previously came from the top down.

“Whenever you try to lead through a transformation, those complacency antibodies will start to kick in. So bringing the outside in will give you another avenue of support and advocacy.” —Niki Allen

She and her team also worked hard to bring in fresh blood to the organization. This included scaling up the talent pipeline to find new team members from outside the company as well as building strong partnership with outside organizations, such as Pivotal.

“How do we leverage external partnerships to bring best of breed solutions from the outside in? I will tell you guys that this is the antidote for insularity,” Allen said. “Whenever you try to lead through a transformation, those complacency antibodies will start to kick in. So bringing the outside in will give you another avenue of support and advocacy.”



This E is all about executing first-time quality, Allen said.

Achieving excellence in execution requires every member of the team to dedicate themselves to their craft and work collaboratively with colleagues to deliver to the business. Team members are encouraged to listen and learn from each other, and share their knowledge with colleagues.

“The IT department needs to show functional excellence to earn the trust of the company,” Allen said. “We have to be top of the class. We can’t take two years to deliver something that should take two months.”

It’s a collective effort, Allen said, with the team now adopting a service culture and working hard to improve its standards and best practices on a daily basis.

Photo courtesy of Boeing.



Executing on the first two Es, Allen explained, leads to the third E: Enablement.

“If we engage effectively and we demonstrate functional excellence, then ultimately we’ll enable the business to succeed,” Allen said.

But enabling the business also requires the business itself to get on-board with the transformation efforts. Otherwise, these efforts won’t have the desired impact. To do so, Allen took a two pronged approach. First, she invited the business — Boeing’s CTO, Senior Vice President of Engineering, and Senior Vice President of Supply Chain — to visit Pivotal’s office to see what transformation looks like in action and to “to envision the art of the possible.”

“They were going to be my advocates,” Allen said. “If I get this right they are going to be the consumers of this new model.”

But more was needed. “Most importantly we need our own factory, a digital factory,” said Allen.


Digital Transformation Environment

Boeing named its digital factory the Digital Transformation Environment, or DTE. The DTE includes the application development and runtime platform, Pivotal Cloud Foundry, and the underlying hardware on which the platform runs. But it also includes the new processes and workflows Allen and her team developed to get the most from the platform’s cloud-native capabilities.

These include supporting continuous integration and development, which enables Boeing’s application teams to quickly test and deploy new software to production, get feedback from users, and iterate to continuously improve the software.

“[The DTE]’s been a tremendous accelerator for software development and delivery,” Allen said. Today, new software products are delivered in as few three months compared to a lag time of up to three years before the DATE was launched in early 2017. This includes new .NET applications developed and running on Pivotal Cloud Foundry, such as one application that optimizes the company’s supply chain and another that support the company’s chargeback process for use of IT assets.

“We’ve got hundreds of projects and our opportunity pipeline list grows every day. We’ve got a backlog of nearly 80 that we’ve qualified that is getting ready to enter the DTE. We have several that we’ve already pushed to production, one that helped with a significant airplane sale.”

Boeing is now well positioned to build software faster and smarter, which in turn helps customers get more value from the aircrafts purchased from the company. For example, the new approach has resulted in a six times increase in asset utilization among Boeing’s customers thanks to shorter software development times and better use of data.

But it all goes back to the Three E’s and a new culture of innovation and engagement, Allen said.

“As you know culture will eat strategy for lunch, so to actually witness a cultural shift happening has been the most rewarding part of the journey for me,” said Allen. “And so that journey continues.”


About the Author

Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly is a Director of Partner Marketing at Pivotal Software. Prior to joining Pivotal, Jeff was the lead industry analyst covering Big Data analytics at Wikibon. Before that, Jeff covered enterprise software as a reporter and editor at TechTarget. He received his B.A. in American studies from Providence College and his M.A. in journalism from Northeastern University.

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