Why This Cat Digital Manager Swears by Agile

by Janey Zitomer
March 17, 2020

If “think big, act small and fail fast” isn’t the first phrase you think of when someone says, “construction machinery,” you clearly haven’t met Rakshan Syed.

Over the last 20 years, Syed has held almost a dozen different titles at construction and mining equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. Most recently, those titles have included senior digital program manager and commercial manager. Just this month, Syed took on a significant new responsibility: commercializing, supporting and broadening integration services for the company’s global dealer channel, which serves 165 dealers in 191 countries.

As a dealer digital integration services manager, Syed supports Caterpillar’s dealer network, which is made up of companies that buy, sell and rent goods like industrial and rail engines and trucks so they can best reach their customers. Her team provides the network with technology system applications and fully integrates the dealer’s platform with Cat Digital products.

To help her direct reports meet their goals, Syed relies on Agile processes, including team retrospectives and top-down process organization. The methodology is widely championed, with training courses across the nation, but that wasn’t always the case at Caterpillar. During her career with the company, Syed has played a key role in rewriting its legacy software. The project was one of the first to fully embrace and execute true Agile methodology.

“It was easy to convince the digital side, but harder to convince the business side,” Syed said. “So I tried to make the progress we saw as a team very transparent to stakeholders.” 

As an active member of the Scrum Alliance and an avid reader of books like “Accelerate and Succeeding With Agile,” Syed has become an Agile expert in the local tech community. Below, she shared how she’s applied her skills to her work at Caterpillar, and gave us a glimpse into where the company is headed next.  

 

Caterpillar
Caterpillar

What has your career path at Caterpillar looked like since you joined? 

I’ve been with Caterpillar for 20 years now. I started at Caterpillar after completing a master’s program in management information systems. Before that, I received a law degree in India. 

I’ve been lucky to work on teams that have different focuses. I’ve worked on everything from engineering applications to the latest and greatest digital technology applications. I started as an entry-level programmer. I was sure within the first couple of years that eventually I wanted to become a technical leader and expert so I could work with people, rather than just sit behind a desk. 

I started in support development. After that, I did a lot of vendor contract management work and project leadership. Now, Agile coaching has become my key accomplishment. I was one of the first team members to start using Agile at Caterpillar. I recently took over a team focused on supporting the integration services for our dealers. 

 

The Caterpillar Dealer Network

The company has a portfolio of about 20 brands that offer machines, engines, components, services and solutions for construction, energy and transportation industries and customers around the world.

 

Tell us about your experience introducing and integrating Agile into current operations. Why did you decide to make the switch?

I strongly believe in lean thinking. Deliver something by thinking big, but start small. You also learn fast by failing fast. Focus on how you can drive value to the customer. 

Around 2009, I started reading about the Agile method and Lean development. At the time, I had just moved into the e-commerce area of the Caterpillar business where I was hired as a team leader. My supervisor was also interested in running the team with Agile, but he wasn’t sure whether it would be successful because no one had done it before. I had a lot of theoretical experience without much practice, but I still brought my idea to the team. They wanted to go for it. Our first project development was for parts application. We had 21 developers working on it and that was the first time I ever got to do a full, hands-on implementation of Agile at Caterpillar.

I have a passion for business agility. I believe in Agile values: being transparent, working with the customers to find value, and mentoring the developers to be innovative. I think through how I can give the best value to the business in the shortest possible cycle. That mindset is what drove me to want to work in the Agile space.

 

 

How has your team traditionally operated? 

The mindset has been a Waterfall operation. You do one-time planning, figure out your end date and expect the resources to already be in place. Most of the time, you repurpose people you’ve already hired without thinking if they really have the right skill sets or the right attitude for the project.

Following Agile as a methodology is one thing. Having support is another. Everything you’re doing has to be focused on that nimble, quick-to-respond mindset. 

There are two kinds of people: ones who are not comfortable with change and those who can adapt to changing environments. Tell your team you are looking for people with the second mindset. If that’s not them, there might be other things they can do within the company.

 

How did you overcome initial resistance?

Three and a half years ago, when we were launching a major project, I asked management for three months’ time. I said, “In three months, if we do not deliver the project using Agile, let’s go back to the old ways.” That boldness helped me. 

So, we literally built the whole team from the ground up, trying to find the right people for the job, rather than using anyone who was available. People don’t talk about purposeful team formation a lot. They talk about being Agile. But to be Agile you have to think Agile in every possible way. And to me, that starts with people first. 

 

A day in the life

Syed is responsible for developing a framework to support awareness, implementation, cost-tracking and value generation for Caterpillar's global dealers.

 

Describe your management style.

My real passion is influencing people. If you can make people successful, then everything falls into place. You have to trust people. To get great results, you need to make your team feel respected, appreciated and enabled to do the best job they can. I strongly believe that trust is the No. 1 factor in building a positive relationship. Agile is all about the whole team working together as one.

I also believe in being hands-off as much as you can, especially if you want people to be innovative. Support them when needed. People, not processes, have to be the center of attention. 
 

I think through how I can give the best value to the business in the shortest possible cycle.’’


Share an example of how your team feels respected so that you have the buy-in you need for Agile to work.

When we launched one of our initial scrum projects, people were hesitant to open up in the beginning. But I think that’s normal. They weren’t used to that culture or environment. 

I had to do a lot of weekly team-building events, where we would meet and talk about what was going well and what was not. I said we needed to trust each other without feeling hesitant. I opened up my own work and the work of a few longtime colleagues to criticism and we had a dialogue. 

Around this same time, we also emphasized taking advantage of retrospectives. In those meetings, I had the team talk through processes and identify issues. Before we launched any project, I outlined a clear purpose and mission with the stakeholders, especially on the product side. Within digital, IT and business, a hierarchy exists. We had to work with both sides to convince them that Agile was the right strategy.

The progress we saw as a team was what the stakeholders saw. And I think that’s how I built trust with the team. I was consistent and transparent across the board. 

 

What upcoming projects are you particularly excited about at Caterpillar?

I’m looking forward to my new role as digital integration services manager because it gives me a lot of opportunities to work directly with the dealers on a more day-to-day basis providing value add services. It’s important to see that part of the business from the other side of the office. I’ll get to see the real value enterprise is providing the dealers.

 

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