EBSCO Information Services (EIS) is one of the best kept secrets in Massachusetts. The company, located in Ipswich, has over 3500 employees across multiple locations and is part of EBSCO Industries, a top 200 privately owned U.S. company. We had the opportunity to speak with Doug Jenkins, CIO of EIS, and learn why he considers EIS to be a tech company and how they manage tech development across such a large enterprise.
Give me the elevator pitch for EBSCO Information Services
EBSCO Information Services is a leading online research service that we sell to educational institutions worldwide. We also provide physical books and journals to those educational institutions. In addition to that, we sell and create products for the health marketplace worldwide. And then lastly, we also serve the corporate and government markets worldwide.
Do you consider yourself a tech company?
We’re definitely a tech company. When we look at how we’re growing and where our revenue is coming from, it’s very much in tech-enabled products.
We’re running a very large worldwide accessed information service every day. Over 5 million people will buy it or usei our information service and we have the kind of scale and growth that’s powering the company.
So, when we think about the opportunities ahead of us, it’s all about our ability to deploy technology and technology-enabled products, you know, to really power our company’s growth.
Are there particular emerging technologies that are important?
We built a private cloud and we’re also embracing the public cloud as well. So we’re in a transition right now between a very well established and productive application framework that we built on our own managed data centers. To make that environment more productive, we’ve invested in private cloud technologies like OpenStack. We’re using Platform9, we’re using AVI software, load balancers, we have a lot of technology going there.
We have a pretty sophisticated continuous integration and delivery pipelines there, but we’re also very much invested in AWS and the public cloud, and so we’re very much using all different forms of the AWS services. We’re using Netflix OSS as well as Spring Boot. We’re doing a lot of work in AWS cloud, so we’re right in that transition right now between an orderly transition from what we’re doing on premises and our private cloud to moving more and more of our workloads and services over to public cloud.
How has that worked out for your teams?
It’s been everything, challenging, I think invigorating, the teams themselves have had the opportunity to now learn entirely new technologies, and everybody’s aware that public cloud technologies are so emergent. The platform’s becoming so powerful. I think everybody in the development teams is excited to be able to be trained and to start deploying and developing applications in that environment.
You’ve moved EBSCO to a SAFe environment. Is that relatively new, and what does that mean for your team?
EBSCO Information Services started roots about 30 years ago. So we grew organically and through acquisitions for a long time, and about three years ago we realized that with the complexity, the numbers of people, the amount of revenue and number of products, the different markets we’re serving, we were starting to have problems with predictability and management.
We recognized that we needed something better, and we chose an enterprise Agile framework called Scaled Agile Framework. We’ve been deploying that for two years and people say that’s a five-year journey to transition to a fully robust and mature implementation.
Scaled Agile has been excellent for us. The teams are empowered, the teams are controlling the work, the teams are committing to the work that they take on.
It also has provided time for innovation, about 20% of an Agile team’s time, each quarter is allocated for unstructured experimentation as well as planning work for the upcoming quarter. It’s also a really emphasized just a social way of working. We’re two years into it, and we have more to go, but we’ve already seen quite a bit of results from it.
How does the SAFe environment allow you to scale?
It provides the methodology that allows you to do that. It’s Agile, which a lot of the industry’s quite familiar with at a team level. But the question is we have 550 technologists and a company of 3,500 people and we’re serving thousands and thousands of customers and so, how do you scale that? How do you organize the work of that many people? And that’s where SAFe comes in.
It organizes Agile teams into groups. In SAFe, those are called Agile Release Trains. There’s objectives and feature backlogs for them that the teams pull. There is also a portfolio management component of it that allows us to prioritize the work across the company, so that we can productively make sure that the teams are working on the most important work for the company.
And so we also do have several locations, so we’re coordinating and collaborating using all different technologies. Once every three months we try to get people together face to face. In SAFe, that’s called The Program Increment Planning event: all our employees working collaboratively figuring out and aligning all the technical planning to really create meaningful products in the market. We bring people together, we collaborate, we build relationships, and so in three months, we’re working on building out all those products, all the features.
What are some of the innovative things that your team has built that are not in the core line of business?
A lot of the innovation people have been playing around with is Alexa-based technology. We’ve had a lot of teams do all kinds of text and text to speech kind of interactions to try to build out beginnings of a full conversational UI.
What’s coming up next?
A number of different things. Technology-wise, we were part of the AWS Kubernetes launch. We were a part of the private preview on that. We participated in shaping that offering, and that’s a technology that we’re really excited about using. And we’ve been very much experimenting with a service mesh technology called Vistio.
With machine learning, we’re very much into that since we have petabytes of data here, and we have amazing scale of usage. You combine that kind of usage data with that kind of content that we manage here and it’s like a perfect situation to be able to really apply machine learning to improve search results, to improve our content processing. So we’re very interested in that technology and are doing a lot of work there.
And then product-wise, we’ve seeded a whole open source initiative for the library market in which we serve called FOLIO. In the library world there’s software that runs the library much like an enterprise system runs a company, and that’s called Libraries Services Platform (LSP). We are creating FOLIO as the first open source entry in that market. And we’ve got a tremendous amount of participation. FOLIO is a unique, exciting opportunity for us to be able to return some good to the library market, as well as offer commercial services.
We will be offering analytic products very shortly. As I mentioned, we have a lot of content, we also a lot of customers and usage data, and so our customers are looking to benefit as they do collections development in a library and deciding what to buy where I think we have a unique ability to be able to add value to that process for them. So those are some of the things I think are pretty exciting in our future.
Are you hiring?
Yes. We’re hiring all agile roles. From developers, front end, full-stack developers, certainly people with AWS skills, but we still definitely have part of our infrastructure that in running in a more typical on-prem technology basis. We’re also hiring for product owners and scrum masters, were running scrum, agile, and everything in between.
We also have development manager openings and I would say, for people who have joined our company recently have worked in other Agile enterprises, they find this refreshing and different where we’re, we really are trying to hold true to some of those principles in the way it can work. And that includes the Agile development managers. So here we expect development managers to be coaches, supporting, mentoring.
You know, we’ve looked at things like Google Project Oxygen and what makes for a really effective development manager in the game of aiming toward a high performing work team. And that’s what we expect of our managers too. So it’s a great place to come in, learn Agile, learn the technology stacks that we’re using, get involved with the cloud and then also, if you’re interested in management, to really develop the kind of skills that I think are the way high performing teams need management to conduct themselves.
We hear from a lot of companies that struggle to develop managers. It sounds like you have a training and learning environment.
We’ve spent a lot of time on that because, prior to rolling out SAFe, we had managers coming to the role with very different ideas of what a manager should be. There’s the command and control behaviors, all these other behaviors, so we’ve had to really develop curriculum, messaging, all kinds of coaching to make sure that we have managers in the role that are really conducting themselves in the way we believe that role needs to be done.
If you’re a developer who’s looking for that kind of support and it’s your first time of seeing if a management role is right for you, this would be a great place. We’ve also had people who try that and then decide that you know what, managing really isn’t, and we totally facilitate moving folks who tried that and decided that it isn’t for them into the development roles, the architecture roles, that they might’ve come from.
Does EBSCO have any career transition folks?
We do. That’s the great thing about working here is that you get to know many people who have moved around, and they have so much great institutional knowledge. We have people who have been here for 20 plus years. Someone I worked with in marketing worked in HR for quite some time. She decided to give marketing a try. She really felt she had some good strengths there. So she’s been a beacon in marketing for a couple of years now. So I think it really allows you to be sort of entrepreneurial.
In tech, we definitely have people. I mean we’re going through this mega transition, from a lot of the legacy kind of technologies to this cloud base. And, so we’ve been moving people through that transition through training, you know, people who were maybe sys admins becoming dev-ops engineers and learning how to code. They hadn’t coded really, maybe lightweight script, and now they need to be able to, so we’ve been doing quite a bit of that or manual. Some people in manual QA who had interest and aptitude to be able to learn how to do test automation and such and be SDETs, you know, we’ve done that. Just over the past year there’s over 10 people who have transitioned out of those kinds of roles into a software development role.
You are not headquartered here, right?
So EIS is part of EBSCO Industries, and EBSCO Industries is a large family-owned, top 200 privately held company in the country that not many people have heard of. They’re headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama; however, EBSCO Information Services, which is the largest of the holding companies with EBSCO Industries, is headquartered here in Ipswich. The founder of the online research part of our company is Tim Collins, and he started that in his home in Topsfield as an undergrad, and he’s still our CEO today.
Why are you in MA? What do we do well for an industry like yours?
So, we’ve grown. I mean, we’ve been able to compete worldwide and in large part due to the talent that we have available to us here in Massachusetts, in the North Shore specifically since that’s where most of our employees from. We draw employees from MetroWest as well, in addition to those who are fully remote all the time. We have people coming from Boston and the whole of the commuter rail line all the way through Salem and on up as well as MetroWest, Merrimack River Valley, New Hampshire, Maine, etc.
That talent pool is amazing here in Massachusetts. I’ve seen stats and the Massachusetts educational system, we’d be ranked around eighth in the world if we were a country. So that speaks a lot to just the quality of some of the resources and the and the kind of talent that we need to power our company, and it’s been very successful for us. We’ve been able to grow here.
As, you know, we’ve able to meet our growth needs here in Massachusetts, and the North Shore has been an advantage for us. There’re a lot of companies in Boston, there’s a lot of great technology, but I think we’re a little bit different. We’re here in the middle of a building on the side of the Ipswich River. We’re right within 100 yards of Ipswich’s downtown center with all kinds of restaurants, and most of our employees are living with a great quality of life in the neighboring communities with fantastic schools. And the commute here is either by commuter rail or not a problem. More people are riding their bikes or are walking. We have a lot of people who are actually live within walking distance of the company. So it’s been a fantastic place to grow the company and we foresee continuing to do that.