Modern investment tools are popping up all over the place. Not only are they shifting the power from large institutions to the consumer, they are applying modern technology to a red-tape laden world.
You can put FiServ technology in one of two categories: older institutions forced to build modern applications to compete, and financial techies using modern applications to solve real world financial problems in a new way.
Acorns, a new mobile investment application, is the latter. Backed by a strong investment group and strategy, they are bringing “elite” investing to everyone.
What They Do
Acorns automates participation in complex fund management by leveraging the round-up model. The app connects to a designated bank account, rounds those transactions up to the nearest whole dollar and then invests that small difference in stocks and mutual funds. Each buy is a fraction of a larger collective buy and is diversified based on the user’s risk tolerance. This is a truly unique way to invest that would take thousands of dollars to buy into otherwise.
Of course, what makes Acorns a slam-dunk is an awesome application front end. Without a great user experience and quality back-end transactions, Acorns would not have a business. Their iOS and Android apps, and soon-to-be-released web application, give a great first impression and establish an ongoing, positive relationship with the user.
In order to make sure the app performs as expected and keeps up with consumer demands, Acorns’ team has adopted the culture of DevOps. One could argue they put as much effort into ensuring top-notch application quality and experience as they do into their investment strategies.
Why I picked them
Acorns’ success is possible because of a culture first, tooling second mentality. Many organizations believe a tool will fix the problem and guide the process. But the team behind Acorns knew better. They were deliberate about building their corporate culture, deciding to focus on collaboration between QA, front end dev, operations and the back end team from day one.
Introducing and embedding DevOps into this particular business was challenging. Because they are in a regulated industry and must maintain a large number of separate applications and a transaction volume that would humble most application developers, they are left with the most complex Dev shop you can imagine.
The demands of FCC data collection and filing alone are intense. Often regulation is a good excuse to maintain the status quo, but not for the team at Acorns. Every transaction, and any and all external communication with users, must satisfy finance law precisely which means the QA team not only has to watch functionality but compliance as well. And they have to do this across the mobile applications, consumer-facing web application, internal trading platform, customer service portal and a scalable back end. Plus, since the business is all about transactions, in addition to a great user interface, they need to execute quickly and accurately making optimum buys for the user with optimum user experience.
Not many organizations can claim such complexity with such a small team, but Acorns executes better than any large financial institution I’ve ever seen.
How They Do It
Tying their corporate culture together is the standard agile principles, build labels, epics, scrums, etc. More importantly, everyone feels open to sharing what is going well and what is not because all departments have the same two goals: great customer experience and quality transactions. This is a simple idea with a big impact—an organizational structure where all departments have equal value. At Acorns, you won’t find one department’s objectives taking precedence over another.
Acorns team also practices continuous integration of their mobile application allowing them to catch and address issues quickly. Using Xamarin Test Cloud for their test runs on physical devices makes it a lot easier.
While continuous delivery is a desire, they are—as all mobile applications are—dependent on application store approvals and launch processes. They also need to validate their front ends with back end trading platforms which they do on a bi-weekly basis. While they may increase that frequency, at this point they’ve made the decision to stick with bi-weekly validations.
When Acorns first launched, and after the big Tech Crunch flood, they saw a tremendous increase in sign-ups that put pressure on both the back and front ends. But because a great communication system was already in place, they were able to respond to performance demands within two days. Infrastructure scaled to meet demands without a huge disruption on development, ops or QA.
With a DevOps culture flourishing, they have ample opportunity to embrace tools to increase productivity like BrowserStack for a functional testing browser grid, Litmus for customer e-mail testing, Atlatsian’s Jira for ticketing and workflow and many more.
What We Can Learn
The first thing we learn from Acorns is that implementing DevOps is possible, no matter how large or complex your operations is. Sometimes DevOps is brushed off as an immature practice that may or may not work, but at Acorns we see it’s not just hype. Their success is an example of DevOps working in a highly regulated and scaled environment.
We also learn that organizational structure is important. You can’t have a successful DevOps culture without having it dialed in top down. Unfortunately, this is how many teams with the best of intentions fall back into bad habits. A new organization like Acorns does have a better chance at success, but no matter how new the organization bad habits are always hard to break. They continue to reinforce the culture and reap the benefits as they grow.
With an unparalleled user experience, Acorns is sticking it to the older financial institutions and showing them what bottom-up software development can do. And they are leveraging the culture and tools of DevOps to make it all happen.