Accelerate Digitization with a Low-Code Community and Practice

Schwarz Group empowers their people to rapidly deliver new digital solutions across the global enterprise with Mendix.

Enterprise organizations are at a point of technical reckoning. The explosive demand for digital solutions has resulted in overwhelming development backlogs for central IT organizations, and too few resources to address them.

For an organization like Schwarz Group – the parent company of retail brands such as Lidl and Kaufland – supporting the evolving needs of 575,000 employees across corporate offices and retail stores has required reinvention.

In 2021 the Schwarz IT team selected the Mendix low-code development platform in support of their strategic objectives to:

  • Decentralize software development to regional teams.
  • Deploy in a controlled, scalable environment.
  • Improve efficiency across backoffice and retail processes.

To date, their team has enabled a community of nearly 200 Mendix platform users to deliver over 120 applications that are transforming business operations.

Getting Ahead with Low-Code

As an enterprise organization Schwarz has a vast landscape of platforms and solutions. Some are legacy systems developed with high-code languages such as Java, and others are strategic core systems like SAP.

The need for a means of rapid software development has always existed. “Historically we’ve seen several technologies used for more ‘rapid’ development in our organization – things like Lotus Notes, Access, or Excel development – and even SharePoint or Nintex,” said Zdenek Prochazka.

Prochazka oversees rapid application development and automation platforms within the IT organization, having spent his entire career within the Schwarz family of brands.

“With these technologies we were always unhappy with how they operated. It wasn’t about whether they were helping or not – because many applications developed in these technologies are really helping the business.”

“But we had to ask the question of whether we could find something to deliver similar user experiences in an environment that is professionally operated, governed, and secured by comparison,” he stated.

Schwarz IT is the epicenter of technology operations for the organization and supports local IT teams across 32 countries. With such a broad range of needs to fulfill, global IT was facing a supply and demand challenge.

“Our local IT teams couldn’t develop solutions that were aligned with global standards – so we started to see a lot of shadow IT,” said Annika Schatz, Head of the Mendix Center of Excellence within Schwarz IT.

In 2019, Schwarz IT conducted an evaluation of several low-code platforms and selected OutSystems to begin their low-code journey.

Strategic Focus on Scalability

Schwarz moved away from their on-premise cloud to Azure in conjunction with OutSystems, but still felt that there were bandwidth and performance issues that would prevent them from scaling as needed over time.

“We started to search for what exactly it means to have a good cloud operations model and cloud-native architecture,” said Prochazka.

A cultural emphasis on self-sufficiency within the Schwarz Group led the IT team to investigate building their own cloud, which would afford them maximum flexibility and control. From here, the STACKIT cloud was born.

“We wanted to get to a containerized way of running our applications and we saw that Mendix was really ahead here. They also could support us running on our own STACKIT cloud,” said Schatz.

After an evaluation in 2021, the Schwarz IT team embarked on a strategic adoption and re-platforming journey with Mendix to meet their long-term ambitions.

Structuring a Low-Code Practice

To deliver value quickly and consistently with Mendix, the Schwarz team established a low-code Center of Excellence (CoE) to disburse knowledge and best practices across the organization.

The Mendix CoE within Schwarz is responsible for:

  • Managing platform infrastructure, such as standards for deployment or libraries of reusable modules and components.
  • Training and enablement for members of the Mendix community within Schwarz.
  • Maintaining oversight into the full portfolio of Mendix applications developed across the organization.

A Strong Platform Foundation

“The greatest value of Mendix within the Schwarz Group is to give our countries the possibility to build high-code applications with low-code effort,” said DevOps & Cloud Architect, Björn Sammet.

That flexibility – not just to run on their own cloud, but to customize the platform to the needs of Schwarz as an organization – has been critical to their ability to maintain application quality and consistency at scale.

“At the beginning we tried to implement as much automation as possible into our deployment process. Our aim is to carry out tasks such as creating a database or a container without human intervention so that we don’t block the local IT teams from quickly creating new applications,” said Sammet.

Early in their adoption, the Schwarz team identified some custom needs that were not readily available in Mendix and were able to partner on their development.

“There are instances where we can bring ideas to Mendix R&D – for example, we wanted to have our own Identity broker available as an IDP in Mendix – and we can be the pilot for something that may be useful for other customers,” said Schatz.

The Schwarz team is also leveraging their own “Starter app” template, with pre-configured branding, and promoting the availability of reusable components to ensure speed and consistency at scale.

“The starter app has our standard modules included and pre-configured, so if you start with that application and you follow the checklist for configuring in Azure DevOps, then you can directly deploy a new application to the STACKIT Cloud. That pre-configuration only takes maybe 15 or 20 minutes,” said Sammet.

Regional developers, like Marcian Petrut Bondoc-Popescu from Schwarz Romania, have realized the benefit of this structure firsthand. “Having components be resusable greatly accelerates my development,” he said.

“In my past experience with full-stack development I had to start with lower-level tasks and never really went from beginning to end,” he said. “Because we abstract the details of implementing a widget, we get to see everything. With Mendix I am able to experience the full range of steps on the software development process.” 

Prioritizing People and Enablement

The Schwarz CoE team is nimble – just 8 people responsible for managing a robust global development operation.

“My team is small and we don’t have the ability to answer questions 24/7, so good documentation is incredibly important so that people can find answers on their own. We do this through video tutorials where we explain things that are not covered by the Mendix Academy or are just part of our platform setup,” said Schatz.

With enablement handled by a central group, the CoE can identify common questions and better curate their training in a way that meets the organization’s needs. For instance, Schatz’s team has identified the need for enablement that goes beyond the bounds of technical platform knowledge.

“These are topics we’ve been teaching more about in the past year,” she added.

The typical training program for a new Mendix developer in Schwarz will last about two months. The Mendix Rapid Application Development (RAD) certification is the entry point for new developers in Schwarz to get familiar with the IDE.

Over the course of the following weeks they will work alongside experienced Mendix developers and get hands-on project experience.

“At the end of this wave people have the option to complete their Mendix Intermediate Certification which most people are able to do because they have about 8 weeks of real-life project experience,” said Schatz.

Solving Business Problems with Low-Code

The Schwarz Group maintains a large arsenal of technology solutions to meet the breadth of business challenges they may encounter. The team has been strategic in carving out the sweet spot for leveraging an enterprise-grade low-code platform like Mendix.

“Typically our borders are driven by what a citizen developer is able and allowed to do,” said Prochazka. Schwarz defines small, citizen-developer created applications as having less than 50 users and managing no more than 200 actions per day.

We have borders created so that citizen developers will not build anything too critical or complex. Once they reach those borders we say that there should be a conversation with IT, and that means maybe building something with Mendix,” he stated.

To date, the Schwarz central and local IT teams have delivered over 120 Mendix applications, some of which are to support the CoE’s core responsibilities.

A favorite across teams is the Portfolio Application, which serves as central hub or catalog for all Mendix applications delivered across the organization.

The Portfolio App tracks any Mendix application from ideation all the way to value creation. The catalog shows the application’s purpose, interface, and documents it’s technical setup, such as integrations.

The use-cases for Mendix extend far beyond the use of IT, and have digitized processes for:

  • Product recalls
  • Vehicle leasing
  • Routine store cleanings
  • HR Management
  • Order quality assurance
  • Warehouse management

“The starting point for Mendix is not dissimilar to high-code development languages like Java. You start with the easy stuff, like ‘Hello, World!’ and then you begin to create things that are more complex,” said Schatz.

“The same is true for Mendix, but that evolution to developing things that are bigger and more complex comes much quicker.”

Community Fosters Innovation

Schwarz credits much of their success delivering value-add applications to their people – the members of their internal Mendix community – who span 27 local IT teams.

The Schwarz community has several regular forums for knowledge sharing, such as:

  • Bi-weekly community meetings where progress updates and successes are shared.
  • Monthly tech calls, where experts will provide a deep-dive on topics requested by the community, such as new versions or features of the Mendix platform.
  • A Mendix Teams channel where community members can regularly share questions and help each other work through ideas or troubleshooting.
  • An annual in-person community meetup where process owners and developers participate in learning sessions around topics like agile, solution showcases, and a hackathon.

Senior IT Consultant, Jodie Alexander, is one of the key stakeholders tasked with fostering the low-code community within Schwarz. “The community plays an important role in enablement. They are there to support each other in the development process and share knowledge,” said Alexander.

This sense of comradery becomes increasingly important as Schwarz onboards new Mendix users at various levels of technical acumen. Developers like Marcian from the Schwarz Romania team have experienced the value of the community firsthand, especially as part of a global and co-located team.

“My initial experience was in JavaScript frameworks, but some of my colleagues do not have that experience. Mendix as a platform enables everyone to participate in development in some way and you don’t always need a highly-technical background,” he shared.

“Another phenomenon I’ve witnessed in the past is that more and more colleagues from different departments who don’t have anything to do with coding are joining us. They’re able to play around with the platform and come to us with questions and we can give them specific answers, because we’re speaking more of the same language.”

In the program’s early days Schwarz started with a team of 20 using Mendix and has grown to over 200. “Mostly we see that people succeed best when they are open for collaboration and communication,” said Schatz.

“It’s important to us to create this sense of community where people can ask questions and receive a lot of answers. The more we collaborate with one another, the better we can help to remove roadblocks and keep projects moving. Open-mindedness and open communication are critical for driving new ideas forward.”

Vision for Future Success

Since adopting Mendix in 2021 the Schwarz team has been successful in meeting their objectives to empower local developers and scale out digitization projects quickly. But the journey doesn’t end there.

“Being successful is one thing, but having it known that you’re being successful is another thing,” said Alexander.

Prochazka shared that year one was focused on delivering MVPs and getting live, and year two has honed on optimization of processes, costs, and resources. For instance, Sammet and the DevOps team are exploring things like Kubernetes runtime deployment, automated role creation, and proactive governance checklists to mitigate vulnerabilities.

On the impact of their Mendix applications thus far, Prochazka said, “So far we have been successful in addressing challenges to achieve the performance or customer satisfaction requirements. One thing that I am always positively surprised about is how fast a developer with interest in the technology can learn the platform and do great things in just a few weeks or months.”

Structured low-code development has put the Schwarz team in a position not just to catch up, but also to get ahead and proactively address challenges their business is facing.

“With Mendix, we can provide a complete platform not just to build an application, but to run it, operate it, monitor it, and so on. And this can all be done by a small team who has, in just a few years, allowed us to scale from zero to over 100 production applications that are delivering value,” Prochazka concluded.