Agile, strategic systems experts: Meet Hill Labs’ IT & Development team
Hill Laboratories is a complex and technical business, with over five hundred staff working in six labs to process and test over two million samples a year. If the data produced is the lifeblood of Hill Labs, the arteries that carry this content are the networks of IT systems.
The people behind the technology
IT at Hill Labs is an ever-evolving labyrinth of technologies and systems that are developed and maintained by a team of 35 full time specialists. These 35 individuals work within seven specialist teams: Hilltop, Business Analysis, Customer Experience, LIMBUS, LabSys, Informatics and Information and Communications Technology, which includes the Help Desk. Heading the team is Chief Information Officer, Dan Hodgson.
“The Hill Labs IT group is a reasonable size. My job is to set a strategy for IT and then ensure everyone is playing their part in implementing that strategy. That includes selecting and maintaining the right technologies that fit best with our business, and identifying which projects can move forward and when. It’s not easy when new projects and requirements crop up so frequently.
“Since our book of work is already full for the year, we have to give careful consideration to existing tasks before we take any new developments on. That often means dropping work out to fit and re-evaluating priorities, which is crucial as not doing so risks spreading the team too thin. Every week we re-evaluate to ensure we stay on track.”
The business demands more of IT every year, as it seeks to gain greater efficiencies, and while strategic planning sets the scene for the coming year it’s inevitable that new work arises. To keep up with this demand, Dan explains that the portfolio governance group decides what projects move forward and when.
Projects are then passed to development teams, who utilise agile software development methodology. Agile methodology focuses on the quick delivery of smaller pieces of software rather than entire applications. Allowing users and clients to offer feedback on the changes ensures the right product is delivered. Dan explains.
“Using agile methodology, we break our work up into two-week sprints. In any given fortnight, we work to deliver a key piece of development, then we tackle the next two weeks.
“This structure really helps when the commercial team comes to us and says, ‘We’ve just won a contract; we need IT to create a new piece of software.’ Everyone knows our fortnights are planned and can’t be changed, which helps in two ways. It manages their expectations and gives them surety that IT will start working on their new directive in two weeks.
“We still plan our workload three months in advance, but it’s dynamic. If something important crops up that has significant business value then we can adapt our plan.”
Updating Lab System
One long-term project that frequently occupies space in the planning blocks is the replacing of Lab System. The specialists charged with executing this substantial upgrade are the LIMBUS team.
LIMBUS is Hill Labs’ internally developed and trademarked software for managing laboratory samples and workflows. Leading the five-person team is Shane Watts. He outlines the task.
“The current Hill Labs System has a lot of functionality to support our customers, and so replacing it takes a number of years. But keeping the current system is not an option, due to the age of the technology; the older tech doesn’t allow us to provide new opportunities for the business and our customers.
“Thus, we are investing to modernise it, making use of the latest customer-centric technologies and using the opportunity to build in new functionality to support ever-changing client needs.”
The LIMBUS team is not the only crew working on this project. Because the Lab System has a lot of internal facing activities, Matthew Whyte’s team is necessarily involved. Matthew explains.
“My team deals with the customer experience, how it feels for people to engage with the software. It’s not enough for software to function well; it must be intuitively easy to use. It’s not unlike plumbing in the kitchen. Beneath the sink is a complicated system of pipes and pumps, but no one needs to see that network or know how it works. People just want to turn on the tap and get water.
“That’s what my CX team does with software. We provide mobile and web apps, to make it easy for people to use the technology.”
Bridging the gap
Another team heavily involved is Business Analysis. Their work scope is carrying out the investigation and building the requirement brief for the software. Tina Younger heads the BA team. She has a simple way of describing the Business Analysis role.
“Our job is getting to grips with what the business does, how people carry out their work within areas of the business, which includes what their frustrations are, and how they’d prefer things to function. Once we know these things, we then describe what needs to be built.
“In Business Analysis, we figure out the what and why of software so that other IT specialists can work out the how. We’re the bridge between the worlds of the end users and the software developers.”
Fast and furious
There are times when IT agility gets stretched to the limits, when all teams need to work in a very fast and coordinated manner. Setting up the Bay of Plenty lab is a case in point.
Having won the Zespri contract, Hill Labs’ IT team had just 14 weeks to set up a fully functional lab tailored to the bespoke requirements of the kiwifruit industry. Dan regards it as a huge achievement.
“Zespri represents nearly half of the yearly transactions in our system – 1.3 million transactions. We set up and fitted out that lab from scratch, installing modified software into hundreds of dehydrators and a lab full of PCs.”
To handle Zespri’s workload, Hill Labs created a completely new module in the lab, including four different types of instrumentation. Concurrently, the teams also had a major IT task, Tina recalls.
“We also had to develop an internal-facing app and a mobile app to integrate with Zespri’s systems. That was a lot of work at once. We moved two people off the LIMBUS team into the CX team to help, but we got it done in time.
“A key service we’re offering to all of our clients is connecting to us via APIs (Application Programming Interface) that enable their systems to work in partnership with ours. Software integration is very powerful. It streamlines the work from both ends which helps us turn things around more quickly. Everyone wins.”