Enexis Tackles the Changing Demands of the Energy Industry
Enexis Tackles the Changing Demands of the Energy Industry by David Bevans
- Enexis addresses the shifting energy landscape in the Netherlands using low-code development to optimize processes for field engineers.
- Educated 24 internal and external Mendix developers to stand up an Application Factory that produced 100 applications in just two years with low-code and the agile development cycle.
- Continued to deliver energy to over 2.8 million households in the Netherlands.
“Change is hard,” my coworker bemoans as she tries to access our new expense system. With any change to a new system or way of working – no matter how small — difficulties arise, and processes and people get disrupted.
As with my coworker (she figured the new system out with aplomb, by the way), changing the way you work is difficult for any business. But consider the changes Enexis, an energy grid maintenance company that manages one-third of the Netherlands’ energy, made to their application development process that helps them address shifts in the energy market. The livelihood of millions of households and businesses they serve was on the line.
Here’s how Enexis made massive changes to their application development and delivery methods to deliver vital products to the business and their customers.
A conductor of change
The Netherlands’ energy business used to be quite stable and predictable. According to Oscar Berger, Manager of the CIO Office at Enexis, they “used to work in a very stable, predictable business. Energy demand – electricity and gas—it’s one-way, and it’s based on urban development and economic growth. You could plan years ahead.”
But the country recently found itself in the midst of, as Berger puts it, an energy transition. The demand for electricity has grown. Berger cites the growth in electric car sales, and household electricity bills doubling as a result of purchasing such a vehicle. This meant changing installations at homes and businesses to accommodate for the new consumer’s needs.
Consumers are also becoming producers of electricity with technology like solar panels. So what was once a one-way flow of electricity has become bi-directional.
Finally, in response to rising Co2 levels, the Netherlands has decided to stop producing gas by 2050. “That means,” Berger says, “our infrastructure for gas will be obsolete just around 2050. The question is, what are we going to do with it?”
The change from one-way to two-way energy flow and the eventual move away from gas meant that Enexis needed to make changes to how they maintain the infrastructure.
For all of the above changes to happen, Enexis’, field engineers and subcontractors, needed some help from IT to be more effective.
The low-code transformer
Enexis’ IT team found the answer was in how they manage their application portfolio. As a large enterprise with some massive core applications, they needed to manage their mission-critical systems while at the same time moving quickly enough to support the emerging needs of their business counterparts – all while continuing to deliver energy to 2.8 million households. That’s when they turned to the Mendix low-code development platform.
Our infrastructure for gas will be obsolete just around 2050. The question is, what are we going to do with it?
Enexis built a “transitional architecture” with Mendix. They couldn’t wait to replace their entire IT infrastructure to innovate and meet the business’ and customers’ needs. That had to happen right away. The transitional architecture allowed their development teams to design, develop, and deploy apps at a speed they couldn’t achieve with the standard enterprise architecture. Berger recognized the importance of making the transitional architecture officially approved by his office, joking that he gave his team “an excuse to not comply with the defined architecture.”
The results, however, were no joke. Take for instance the Sticker Application. According to Berger, the premise is simple: All 40,000 Enexis stations must have stickers that promote safety awareness, and caution against the specific risks posed by the specific equipment housed at that site. Defining and executing a project to replace those stickers and it is quite a lot of work.
The Sticker Application allows Enexis to approach updating the stickers in an on-demand manner. Sensors in the station will tell nearby field engineers that the station needs a new safety promotion sticker. They can go to the station that’s nearest to them, replace the sticker, and register that directly into the application. By using location services to alert engineers who were already near the station, they were able to save time and resources by assigning them an additional minor task, instead of sending additional dedicated engineers out of their way.
A surge in app delivery
The digital innovation didn’t stop with the success of the Sticker Application. Rather, Enexis continued on to re-evaluating how they built their teams of people. Enexis began what they dubbed an Application Factory. It began with four Mendix developers. Those developers worked with the transitional architecture and learned how best to use Mendix as the primary development tool. Three months later, that team was split into two teams of two, and each team received two more developers who were then trained on Mendix. Three months later, the teams were split again and given more developers. To date, there are 24 internal and external Mendix developers building applications at a speed unimaginable to Enexis prior to low-code.
The result: 100 applications built and deployed over two years.
Important to this is not just the number of people on these dedicated Application Factory teams, but the roles within. Creating standards around UX is very important. A Scrum master keeps the production line moving. The team sizes expand and contract depending on the scale of the application being built. If it’s a smaller application (few dependencies, for instance) then one developer is a suitable number of people. If the application is larger, then sometimes six developers are needed.
Making more low-code apps with more people has allowed Enexis to achieve faster time-to-value. For example, Berger cites an inspection application that the team built within just three months. With this application, when field engineers go into stations and see that they’re in need of painting, they simply open up their application and indicate so. The SAP integration built by the development team creates a work order that is then sent to an Enexis subcontractor who can take the job. Within 3 months, the application was built and time was saved from planning station upkeep.
100 applications can sound daunting. Adopting an Agile methodology and granting product owners the power to actually make decisions was a key component to driving this scale. A product owner helps the developers assess and prioritize the projects for each sprint. With this clear prioritization in place, Berger’s department is able to enhance and maintain their large portfolio of applications.
Enexis’ App Factory may sound like workers droning away on a factory line, but Berger warns against that interpretation of the metaphor. These developers are not factory workers. Far from it. Teams are autonomous and decide for themselves which applications they’ll build or update. According to Berger, “The strength of the metaphor is that it’s organized. And I like agile to be organized… I think that’s important, to know that it works like a factory.”
How far ahead are you really able to look?
Berger mentions that Enexis tries to look ahead for about two years. But new challenges always appear, like IoT. He cites another example of a Smart application that their App Factory was able to produce that helped them install IoT sensors in stations. When a field engineer installs the box in which these IoT sensors are placed, a signal goes to the central station. Enexis is able to pick up this signal from where the box is installed and the field engineer receives confirmation notice back in the application.
With 100 applications in just two years, Enexis has stood up an unprecedented low-code development shop. With their application development process delivering at scale, they’re able to address the changing needs of their customers, address the transitions in the energy market, and always keep an eye on the future.