C.H. Robinson is a leading global third-party logistics provider (3PL). With this public company’s broad portfolio of logistics services, their 15,000 employees keep over 200,000 customers and contract carriers moving.
Nearly 800 people make up the IT organization, roughly 700 of whom are in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, with others distributed throughout offices in Kansas City, Missouri; Europe; and China. They're divided into teams that range from five to 15 employees, and each team chooses its own work style, from quality assurance to reporting methods and project management. This autonomy, of course, assumes that the IT organization stays aligned to working as a team. With the rapid growth of the company and IT organization, that's sometimes been easier said than done. So in recent months, the team has focused on making its workflows as collaborative and transparent as possible. This has called for not only a culture shift, but also consistently using better tools, which makes such a transformation possible. That's where GitHub and ZenHub came in.
A maze of tools and processes
The flexibility in tool selection afforded to teams was causing some challenges at C.H. Robinson, especially in standardizing code and providing project visibility and documentation, noted two of C.H. Robinson’s IT leaders, Enterprise Architect Jeff DeFauw (JD) and Engineering Craft Manager Tyler Patterson. “We were a collection of talented tribes,” JD said. “We all knew where to go to find berries and food, but no one knew where to find somebody else’s. Due to the wide range of techniques for managing source control and documentation, you never knew how to work on somebody else’s code, even if you could find it.”
It was clear that something needed to change—but as is usually the case, change itself can be a challenge. At C.H. Robinson, a highly-skilled architecture development team was deployed to run an experiment and reimagine the future of the company’s software development lifecycle. A small eight-person team was assembled to perform one-off tasks and projects in isolation. These experiments led to new productive ways of working for certain teams, but it wasn’t scalable until we chose to drive this change across all development teams.
“We wanted to enable teams to be the architects of their own success,” JD continued. “As we had empowered our teams, we inadvertently became a very siloed IT organization. To scale our learnings from our experiments, we intentionally evaluated new software revision tools that would provide us with a framework to be more collaborative. Ultimately, we selected GitHub as our tool of choice.”
C.H. Robinson’s choice hinged on three strong wins for the company: “The collaborative nature, or the ability to interact across silos, the ability to put documentation with code, and then finally, allowing us to in one fell swoop solve many of our challenges,” explained JD. “Now, with GitHub, all our code feels the same.”
But just as GitHub was providing consistency across the IT team, the diversity of project management tools brought its own set of challenges for developers. “All teams were empowered to pick their own backlog management solutions, which had a wide spectrum of possibilities and control features,” Tyler said. “This diversity led to our teams being paralyzed with too many choices.” Tyler continued, “In order to build upon the early success with GitHub, we wanted to extend its capabilities to further support our Agile journey. Therefore, we identified ZenHub as an integrated Agile project management tool. It provides the ability for development teams to manage their backlog in the same place they manage their code. It’s intuitive and easy. It eliminated a lot of the task switching from this tool to that tool, and the other big win was that ZenHub is built right on top of GitHub Issues.”
“It’s a huge win in our ecosystem where not everyone is uniform in terms of backlog management,” JD added.
With everyone on GitHub, we have shared visibility across the IT organization into everyone’s backlog.
Another benefit of using both GitHub and ZenHub was that developers at C.H. Robinson could now associate metadata to code. “I can have my issue, link my pull request, have a conversation, record that conversation, and in perpetuity be able to go back and review that conversation,” Tyler said, noting that the seamless connection between the two services has largely eliminated inefficient task switching for teams. “With our other tools, we were forced to build custom extensions to work around their limitations. With GitHub and ZenHub, both backlog and pull request management are in a single suite of tools, providing us with a more cohesive and efficient system.”
Growing pains and culture shifts
The move to GitHub and ZenHub has represented a broader change at C.H. Robinson—moving the organization towards an openness that surfaces the best solutions. “I would say both [GitHub and ZenHub] came from more of a groundswell of desire to move onto those tools,” Tyler said. “With GitHub, I thought I would have several developers who were now going to need to learn Git, adding lots of work. However, I have had a substantial number of them tell me, ‘GitHub was literally the only thing I used until I worked here’, or ‘I contribute at home.’”
To illustrate this point, JD recalled,
“We polled 25 new hires when we made the decision to move forward with GitHub. We were impressed that 23 had GitHub experience.”
Tyler continued, “On the ZenHub side, it was the same thing. We’ve actually seen the positive words of teams reaching out and saying, ‘I heard your team’s using ZenHub, can we?’ or, ‘I’m hearing that other product managers are getting easy reporting on what they need to know about their projects, about deliverables, and about sprints. Who can show me how to do this?’”
A world of openness and collaboration
This new style of cooperation and transparent coding fit nicely with the vision for a unified, streamlined C.H. Robinson. “We’re actually doing things internally to advertise code,” Tyler added. “Teams who have written really great test libraries, or written a screen that can be used in other places, for example.
Now that GitHub and ZenHub are in place, C.H. Robinson’s drive towards openness and collaboration is coming to fruition. “GitHub and ZenHub let us execute on openness, tearing down the IT wall, the code wall, the source control wall,” said Tyler. “Now I can see anyone’s backlogs, I can see anyone’s code. The combination of these two solutions really let us practice what we were preaching, instead of saying ‘Look how pretty this product is, don’t ask any questions about the code’.”
“Being able to have such an open and collaborative code base allows us to be an open and collaborative department and team, and deliver on better products,” he continued. “The world we’re working towards and trying to get to is, if everyone loves your work and thinks your project is as cool as you do, everybody’s going to want to help you. But, they need the tools to help. That’s what we’re providing now. We’re harnessing the power of the other developers across the world, who think the project is super cool and can help make it happen. That is what makes our IT world great.”
JD added, “Each developer should be empowered to be the architect of his/her own success and deliver value to the users.”
This vision is well under way at C.H. Robinson, thanks to the efforts of JD, Tyler, and the IT teams. If you’d like to join a company moving towards a modern workflow and collaborative developer environment, they’re also hiring!
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