Delivering agility to Paychex with XebiaLabs

An interesting case study where a tool can really help change a culture

Woman in desert doing handstand showing agility
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Recently development and DevOps vendor XebiaLabs reached out to me to see if I’d be keen to talk to one of their customers. XebiaLabs wanted to point out that while they are totally amped on their own products and believe they do awesome things for their customers, the best proof of that is to talk to a real life customer and assess the benefits directly from the horse’s mouth as it where.

That sounded like a logical proposition to me, and after a concerted effort by their PR agency to get me to agree to a call (because I’m a little bit busy, and a little bit lazy), I sat down with Paychex's Dave Wilson, director of infrastructure, and Mick Whittemore, vice president of IT, to talk about what XebiaLabs helped them achieve.

Paychex is a huge provider of payroll, HR and benefits outsourcing services. The company has a revenue approaching $3 billion, so this isn’t a story about some small “born in the cloud” shop starting off with an agile culture from the get go. This is about an existing vendor fundamentally changing what it does and becoming agile and innovative. I started off getting some background to Paychex and its drivers for change when embarking on the journey that XebiaLabs was a part of.

The Paychex team explained that the XebiaLabs decision was one made in the broader context of their enterprise DevOps strategy—they wanted to create a high-volume, high-demand software factory. It was about improving velocity and output quality.

Agile transformation

As part of that change, Paychex wanted to leverage technology that closely maps to their journey for growth. Paychex came form a place that will be familiar to many enterprise IT veterans—lots of disparate processes and leveraging traditional waterfall methodologies. The technology team was involved in six- to nine-month projects—kind of the antithesis of the way an agile shop works.

Past forward, and Paychex has 80 teams working within agile methods. Everything is short and sharp and focused on delivery—for a company with a big service arm and with clients relying on their technologies, that is a critical change.

They’re also firmly embracing the heterogeneous future that is likely to be a reality for many large organizations. They have 10,000 or so virtual servers and 20,000 to 30,000 containers. That all sits across a bunch of different platforms—Microsoft Azure, VMware and Red Hat OpenShift. From a tools and technology perspective, they’re using the Microsoft stack as well as Oracle Java.

With all of that complexity, I'd imagine that there is a real desire to wrap a “single pane of glass” across it all and give some overall visibility to what is going on. But how, I wondered, do you balance this with wanting to allow developers to use the tools that suit them best.

This is where team Paychex started to sing the praises over the various XebiaLabs solutions they use. According to Wilson, XebiaLabs gives them consistency across the different environments and approaches they use. While Paychex gives their developers some creative flexibility around how they use tools, critical functions that need to be normalized across the organizations are done so with the help of XebiaLabs. As Wilson put it, “We give out developers a fair amount of rope, but not so much that they can hang themselves.”

I am skeptical about suggestions that tools are the biggest enabler of DevOps, but in Paychex's case, XebiaLabs seems to have enabled them to really change things up. Previously the company used HPE’s automation suite, but it didn’t really extend into being a software delivery tool. Paychex evaluated a bunch of offerings from BMC, some open source tools, and XebiaLabs, According to Wilson, “XebiaLabs was above and beyond the most mature and capable. We performed a bake off, and it wasn’t even close.”

The bottom line

Bullet points and statistics are good way to really assess the impacts of a decision, and in this regard, Paychex seems to have won—specific outcomes post their move to agile and the XebiaLabs suite:

  • Onboarding increased 140 percent since July 2015
  • Average deployment time decreased 53 percent
  • Production deploy success rate improved 23 percent
  • The number of releases ending in abort/rollback reduced 36 percent
  • Number of total software deploys increased 656 percent

My POV

It’s a balance—part culture and part tooling. The best tools in the world won’t deliver agility within a broken organization. But similarly, it is important to find the tools that support the sort of culture shift you’re looking for. In Paychex’s case, XebiaLabs would seem to have done that and more.

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