A Journey through Low-Code and Agile Development with AZL
AZL is a pension fund administrator in the Netherlands. Their 500 employees service 50 pension funds for 13,000 employers and 1.5 million participants, representing nearly 10% of the Netherlands’ total population.
Edward Heijkers, CIO of AZL, joined Marc Gelissen, CEO of Bizzomate (a Mendix Trusted Partner and 2020 Top EMEA Cloud Partner of the Year) to discuss AZL’s 8-year customer journey, lessons learned, and how AZL amended their work style to develop a customer portal which helps end-users on one of life’s most important decisions.
Starting a strong partnership
AZL began using the Mendix platform in 2013 after an AZL information manager attended Mendix World and suggested that the platform might be a fit for an ongoing need around pension plan enforcement. AZL required a solution where employees could find employer information around pension administration and worked with Bizzomate to build out a working proof of concept in six weeks. The resulting application made AZL’s CFO “so enthusiastic that he said, ‘We have to do it or I’ll have to pay it myself,’” according to Heijkers. That started a relationship that continues through to today.
AZL has generally treated software development like a traditional organization, using Gartner’s pace layer principles. Their system of record layer is their core applications like ERP and CRM. Those are developed and maintained using the waterfall methodology and utilize Oracle databases.
Systems of differentiation and innovation are where Mendix has come into play. Key releases to date include a customer portal, participant portal, and employee portal. For AZL, Mendix is “a Swiss army knife. It can do a lot of things,” according to an AZL consultant. This flexibility allows AZL to reduce the complexity and effort expected of their customers as they make key decisions about their retirement. As Gelissen described, AZL has “50 funds, but these 50 funds have different arrangements, have different uses. So we have one Mendix application, which is multi-tenant so if you log in from different funds, you get a different look and feel, different kind of communication, but it’s the same Mendix application.”
Embracing an agile mindset
Low-code development has also provided AZL the opportunity to improve the way they work. Traditionally, AZL has used waterfall principles to guide its development. That philosophy is and remains very viable for them in the pension space. As Gelissen explained, “Quality, robustness is important” and waterfall development is a key method to ensure their most critical functions run exactly as expected.
However, after two years of working with Mendix, AZL and Bizzomate came to the mutual realization that, while they were creating great applications, they weren’t seeing the full benefit of low-code. Because they were sticking with waterfall management over agile, they weren’t getting the quick prototyping and iteration that an Agile methodology enables, and low-code enhances.
But was it worth trying out? Agile would be a totally different way of working for AZL, and the transition had the potential to be painful. Agile working is also not for every kind of organization. Gelissen relayed something Derckjan Kruit, one of Mendix’s founders once said: “If they’re going to build nuclear plants in the Netherlands in an Agile way, I’m going to emigrate because that’s not the way to do it.”
However, AZL was very open to a new way of thinking and allowed Bizzomate to bring in some Agile specialists and scrum masters to bring experience and knowledge to AZL employees unfamiliar with this way of working. Developing this way allowed for more frequent testing and iteration. It also helped to close the gap between the business and IT, but, as Heijkers said, “It’s not about the method or the way of working, it’s about the people, the users.” He continued, “It’s not about tooling. It’s about leadership. It’s about people who bring people together and create an environment which will be interesting to work with.”
Making a frictionless customer experience
One output of this new agile way of thinking is a new application focused on one of the most important steps in the AZL customer journey, where participants, six months before retirement, need to decide how their pension plan will be distributed. The end goal of this application was to provide as frictionless a customer experience as possible.
The team at AZL partnered with Bizzomate as well as ING, a pension fund AZL works with, on the project. The first step was to map the customer journey. Heijkers described the traditional journey as: “The feedback we got, it was the paperwork, it was a lot of complex calculations. And most of all, when [the customer] fills in the papers, it’s a really black hole.” The new application aimed to simplify the process and make clear to customers what to expect and when.
Using an agile mindset and a collaborative process, this new portal was released in October 2020.
Previously, AZL users would have to fill out paperwork and make a lot of complex decisions. Customers reported concerns about long processing times and a perceived lack of communication. Questions needed to go through a phone call to an AZL representative. Now, they can use any device to make comparisons between scenarios (such as early and late retirement) and use the app to input their information and avoid complicated paperwork. Further, “we also listened to the feedback at front because we built some notification moments into the customer journey,” said Heijkers. 100 days before retirement, users will get a notification. “In the month you retire,” Heijkers continued, “you get a notification, on that day, the payment will be in your bank account. No worries.”
This new app is a true accomplishment for AZL and has been nominated for several awards, including the Impact Award for Customer Experience at Mendix World 2021.
Learning lessons over time
AZL’s 8+ year journey in low-code has led to fantastic customer-facing applications, which help them to continue to refine and improve their customer’s journey. Heijker provides learned some lessons that are useful for any organization considering working with low-code, as well as an agile methodology.
1. Be aware of what you want to do
What’s the way of working that you want, and what are the capabilities within your organization to do that? Be aware when you start a project, the way you want it to work, it has to suit your organization.
2. Learning takes time
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You learn the most.
3. Be honest and ask for help
What’s your strength? But also, what’s not your capability? Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.
A storybook ending
The relationship between Bizzomate and AZL is a true partnership that has helped AZL to thrive and grow. Gelissen noted that Bizzomate’s partnership with AZL is like “writing a storybook, an adventure book. And every day we write a new page, and every month a new chapter.” Reflecting on AZL’s own storybook, Heijkers suggested that the most important step is to “start a journey, learn, don’t be afraid. When you want to do something new, go ahead.”