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TD Ameritrade accelerates innovation with agile, design thinking

Clint Boulton | Aug. 11, 2017
Your innovation center may indeed move fast and break things, but if you actually want to get products to market, don't underestimate the importance of agile development and design thinking.

One bot, built for Facebook Messenger and coming in a couple months, will allow clients to log into the social messaging app to conduct question-and-answer sessions for information on balances, positions and real-time quotes. Eventually, TD Ameritrade will expand the bot's functionality to allow clients to open accounts, close out positions and execute trades.

Harnessing application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable the company to connect bots with existing digital services without a lot of additional development, TD Ameritrade plans to build text and voice-based bots for WeChat, Amazon Echo, Google Home and other popular consumer tools. This API set will also enable the company to extend the reach of the Essential Portfolios roboadvisor to Amazon Echo, Google Home and other assistant tools.


Emerging technologies require modern methodologies

Getting products from innovation center to production isn't a matter of flipping switch. Sankaran says he has turned to agile, design thinking and lean startup methodologies for quickly building products and adapting rapidly to changes. Prior to Sankaran's arrival, most software development was conducted in waterfall methodology. In this model, the business units write stacks of software requirements and hand them off to IT to build over several months. Today TD Ameritrade software developers huddle with product managers and other business unit members to build products, an agile process Sankaran brought with him from Ford Motor Co., where he led application development until 2013.

Sankaran says his team is further shrinking its development-to-delivery windows by embracing devops processes for continuous integration and deployment. He says devops has become a necessity to build products. "If you don't do the devops piece in parallel where you have automated testing and continuous integration and you can deploy packages automatically you create a bottleneck in a different place," Sankaran says. "We've done a lot to allow our teams to build, deploy, and test software very quickly using automated testing routines. The result? Sankaran says the IT department has doubled overall throughput and efficiency in one year.

TD Ameritrade isn't simply whipping up roboadvisors and chatbots rapidly in an agile and devops vacuum. Sankaran says his team is increasingly embracing design thinking, a business philosophy that focuses on crafting a sound human experience that can be turned into a minimally viable product.

His team is working with Pivotal Labs, which helps IT departments properly scope projects with design thinking methodologies. They ask such open-ended questions as, "What would a client want to do with a product and how would they interact with it." The answers help product development teams communicate what they require, including product vision, scope and narrative to IT. Pivotal will typically embed designers with tech teams as the answers crystallize. "It doesn't need to be perfect, just good enough for our customers to try it out," Sankaran says, adding that he expects to bring in more design thinking coaches.


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