They say two heads are better than one. Perhaps no team understands this better than the engineers at SPINS.
Processing trillions of cells of data — like SPINS’ engineering team does for the natural products and health foods industry — can be a daunting task for any person or team to attack alone. So they adopted extreme programming, an Agile methodology that prizes working side-by-side in pairs and building at velocity.
We spoke with three leaders on the engineering team about how they're putting their heads together to find the best solutions for their clients.
EMPLOYEES: 260 (190 local)
WHAT THEY DO: SPINS provides retail consumer insights, analytics reporting and consulting for the natural, organic and specialty products industry, helping retailers find the right brands for their consumers.
WHERE THEY DO IT: Chicago
MIND AND BODY: A healthy body means a sharper mind, so SPINS provides employees with weekly massages and fresh, organic fruit and vegetables.
HOW MANY ZEROS?: SPINS’ engineers process trillions of cells of data each week to provide real-time consumer analytics and consulting for their customers.
PRODUCT PROS: If data forms the lifeblood of SPINS, then its core product library team is its beating heart. Learn more about how SPINS' product researchers keep information flowing.
Troy Anderson, Chief Product and Technology Officer
Troy oversees the product and technology teams at SPINS, including design, quality assurance, data science AI, content and data. On a weekly basis, those teams are processing trillions of cells of data, which fuel SPINS’ delivery of real-time consumer data results for customers.
BEYOND WORK: Troy applies his linguistic skills to help translate the Coosan language of Miluk.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My job as a manager is to understand what the company needs solved and what the employee needs — whether that’s for their career, their progression or simply to do their jobs. Then I match the two.
Day-to-day that means I protect my employees from too many meetings, processes and dumb decisions. If you’re claiming to do Agile development and your standups are taking an hour, something is wrong. If you’re not measuring how your business will benefit from your product or technology decisions, you’re operating in the blind. If you’re not finding what project to put someone on and are making worse decisions to fit someone, that person doesn’t belong in that role.
Your teams recently adopted extreme programming, also known as XP. How did your team approach that transition?
We partnered with Pivotal Labs to help transition the team to extreme programming. Pivotal’s immersion program is the best way I know to create the best cultural practices in design, product and engineering teams.
What advantages does that provide?
Done correctly, extreme programming can be a great practice that empowers teams, solves for alignment with customers, and gives predictability and quality at velocity. It doesn’t change what needs to be solved or why, but it does change how.
Our impact comes in knowing why a problem is worth solving through an understanding of what is wrong and what should be built, then knowing how to build it in a way that’s pivotable and at velocity.”
What project is your team currently working on that excites you the most?
The hardest and most impactful project our team has is to listen to our customers and solve for their problems. Our mission in training our teams and gearing them up for success is to empower them to hear our customers clearly, determine if the problem is aligned with our company, and then identify solutions to that problem.
Our industry is full of people who think they know better than the customer, know better than their colleagues, and have solutions looking for problems. Our industry is product development, and our impact comes in knowing why a problem is worth solving through an understanding of what is wrong and what should be built, then knowing how to build it in a way that’s pivotable and at velocity. Doing so allows us to fulfill the spirit of the Agile Manifesto.
Andrea Ganier, Senior Product Owner
Like a technical detective, Andrea uses a combination of lean and extreme programming to uncover software solutions for customers. This requires her to wear multiple hats — from social scientist to logical technologist to journalist — to find and solve those areas of need.
BEYOND WORK: Andrea finds relief from the screen fatigue making prints, sewing and pursuing other crafts.
How does SPINS’ XP process play out day-to-day?
My favorite quote is from the book, “Extreme Programming Explained,” is: “Silence is the sound of risk piling up.” Our process isn’t a set of steps but rather the expectation of constant communication.
Engineering pairs focus on a thinly-sliced story picked from the top of the queue, while my coworker and I shape what’s next. We listen to each other and politely interject with questions or comments. We don’t wait for a meeting to happen. Questions are answered, future features are shaped, and refactoring is prioritized on the fly.
How has the new form of collaboration shaped the product or products you own?
Late one Friday afternoon, we exposed our application for the first time to two clients. It was clear that our app’s keyword matches were too broad. On Monday, we held an impromptu team discussion exploring potential solutions, and I prioritized a new story to augment search. Two days later, a different client was able to test that solution in production.
We didn’t shrug and evade the question — we accept and give help freely because that is how problems get solved quickly.”
How has your team solved a problem in a way that’s reflective of your culture?
A few weeks ago, a team from down the hall asked us about our “assumptions to track” checklist. A conversation emerged where three product owners were sharing different techniques for uncovering and testing assumptions.
The experience underscored how the Agile culture of respect, transparency and courage breaks down silos and allows everyone to grow. We didn’t shrug and evade the question — we accept and give help freely because that is how problems get solved quickly.
Carlo Marcelino, Head of Engineering
Carlo started at SPINS five years ago as a manager before rising through the ranks to become head of engineering. He creates a vision and provides support to enable his team of engineers to succeed.
BEYOND WORK: When Carlo’s mind is spinning, he finds his center running. He started long-distance running last year and recently completed his first half marathon.
How have you grown since joining SPINS five years ago?
I started at SPINS as a manager, was promoted to director in a year, then rose from senior director to vice president of IT to my current position. I had a mentality going into the workforce 17 years ago that if you roll up your sleeves, show up whenever they need you and are always a team player, the company would take care of you.
After a few years into my career, I began to doubt that perspective, but SPINS has helped me regain my faith. They’ve provided an environment where my commitment, innovation and effort have never felt in vain.
If you look at what this team has achieved so far, what makes you proudest?
I’m proudest of our culture. SPINS solves for an array of complex, interesting technical challenges at scale, but as we continue to grow and build out our team, we’ve stayed true to why I love working here. The team is tenacious and driven, yet we make every effort to be sociable, amicable and respectful in how we treat each other.
What challenge excites you the most?
We’re exploring how to redesign our data platform in a way that can ingest and transform data to produce data sets of trillions of cells that can then be queried quickly to provide our clients with insights.
The team is starting to use XP, which has already paid huge dividends in other efforts. We’re also working with Google and their product managers and solution architects, as well as our chief architect, to ensure we are attacking the problem from all angles.
SPINS solves for an array of complex, interesting technical challenges at scale, but as we continue to grow and build out our team, we’ve stayed true to why I love working here.”
How do you think adopting XP will shape the way your team works down the line?
It will lead to concise stories written by product owners not developers, allow for real-time code review, give faster feedback loops to avoid misalignment of deliverables, and a provide a better work-life balance by not working after core hours. It will also allow us to be adaptable to changing priorities while minimizing sunk costs. I expect this workflow to define how SPINS develops for years to come.