Leo and Tiago are talking to each other. It’s what they do all day. The two young software developers each sit in front of their own huge screen, but the information displayed on them is the same: a code being written, lines of colorful text against a black background. Both are working on the same segment of the code. While one of the two is typing new lines of code and discussing his thoughts about the project, the other is commenting, correcting and adding to his colleague's work. This goes on for several hours, then they switch roles.
Leo Dias and Tiago Mendes are developers at VW’s new software development center (SDC) in Lisbon. The approach applied by Dias, Mendes and their colleagues in the new office located in the center of the city is called “extreme programming.” In the software industry, the procedure is still novel to many. It is based on the concept of pairing: developers, UX designers and product managers work in pairs for a day on the same product. The next day, each of them is paired with a new partner. The objective of this method is to write better, nearly bug-free software.
Better software, fewer bugs
“It makes us faster. Working like this is also a lot of fun,” Tom George says. The native of England is one of the Lisbon SDC’s two managers. “As a result, the quality of the software is so high that we have to spend much less time on the job of fixing bugs,” says Stefan Gotthardt, Tom’s manager partner. Tom previously headed the SDC in Wolfsburg, while Stefan established the Digital:Lab in Berlin. Both sites are also large, innovative IT development centers at Volkswagen. Together they have exported the tried-and-tested software development principles from those sites to the Portuguese capital.
“Extreme programming” is an approach that the Volkswagen Group’s IT department picked up from Silicon Valley. “We examined just what makes the software companies there so successful,” says Martin Hofmann, the CIO of the Volkswagen Group. The use of pairing, for instance, prevents “brain monopolies” from forming, Hofmann says. Such monopolies are created when individual employees gain a trove of knowledge that they do not share with others. Modern software development cannot function like this.
The use of two-member teams is just one of the methods that the Volkswagen Group borrowed from a software company called Pivotal in Palo Alto and then enhanced. Another key aspect of this approach is the independence given to the teams, Stefan Gotthardt says. Each team is composed of two product managers, two designers and four to eight developers. During the morning standup, or joint team meeting, the team decides who will work on which project and which pairs will be responsible for the task of development. “It’s not our job to look over the teams’ shoulders but instead to have their backs,” Gotthardt says, explaining his role as head of the SDC
The new development center in Lisbon is an important aspect of the Group’s digitalization strategy. For one, Volkswagen is currently arranging a number of strategic partnerships with leading technology companies. In addition, the Group is rapidly building up its own software expertise. “We’re adding the knowledge we need locally,” CIO Hofmann says. “To attract the best people, we have to go to the places where the best people are.” Lisbon is the third such SDC, following in the footsteps of Wolfsburg and Berlin. A total of 300 IT specialists are scheduled to soon start working for the Volkswagen Group in Lisbon, 100 of them in a nearby office of MAN Truck & Bus that was also recently opened.
Team has the say in hiring
The Group is also trying new approaches as it expands its software expertise. Hiring decisions are not made by the top managers or the HR department. This responsibility has been given to every individual development team. But the application process is pretty tough, George and Gotthardt say. As a first step, job candidates participate in a Skype interview with both managers and must pass a programming test. They will then spend a day working on a project as a regular team member. The team then decides if the applicant is a fit. “We are looking for the ability to communicate, formulate ideas and ask questions, in addition to being a friendly individual,” Hofmann says
The advantage for candidates is that they can tell as early as the application stage whether this is a working style that appeals to them. The development teams have written some strict rules for themselves: no e-mail and web browsing during work hours, no flexible work schedules and no home office work. However, no distractions also mean that there is no lost time to make up. All teams start work together at 8:30 a.m., eat lunch at the same time and call it a day at 5:30 p.m. This leaves plenty of time for their private lives despite the high demands, Hofmann says.
President at SDC ribbon cutting
As focused as the atmosphere at the SDC may seem, the new office is a far cry from an actual factory. The building, which once housed a training facility for physicians and nursing personnel, has been completely remodeled. The employees, who currently hail from five countries, meet in a large kitchen area for the stand-up meetings and meals. Meetings and evening events are held in an auditorium outfitted with artificial turf. The place feels like a family-type start-up
“Lisbon is a great location,” Stefan Gotthardt says during an interview on the balcony. “The city is fully focused on digitalization. We work very closely and well with city officials as a result. Lisbon also has a very lively technology and start-up community. This makes it easier for us to feel right at home here.” Companies like Amazon and Google have also opened offices in the city. Tom George believes that he and his colleagues will have no problem attracting talented individuals to the Volkswagen SDC. “Great projects, a good working atmosphere, international colleagues – these are three arguments that win over many applicants.”
The enthusiasm of the Volkswagen team for Lisbon is shared by the city, as the guests at the office’s opening showed. Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa used the occasion to personally welcome the employees of Volkswagen and MAN Truck & Bus. Lisbon Mayor Fernando Median and Economics Minister Pedro Siza Vieira were also among the guests
Portuguese President Sousa is well-acquainted with the building. He used to live nearby. “Seeing what has been built here is impressive. We are proud to have you here.” Sousa said he was impressed by all of the young and talented people at the center. In light of today’s political climate, he said it was important to build bridges between countries and to strive for a better future together. He wished the SDC team much success. “It’s the start of a long lasting friendship.”