Building an app in an emergencyPath 2

Building an app in an emergency

by Cindy Scott

A quick scan of the app store shows that nearly any problem can be solved with a quick download. For H-E-B Partners, that statement is especially true. Our digital teams work hard to build innovative enterprise apps that empower our in-store teams to do their best work possible, saving them time and hassle in every step of their workflow.

So what happens when a global pandemic turns how everyone works on its head? We build nine apps. 

As the COVID-19 epidemic loomed, our teams created a suite of solutions to navigate this pandemic. Our team completely changed our approach: none of our previous org structures or responsibilities mattered. It didn’t matter whom you reported to or what you had been working on—if you were a part of our app cloud team, you were eager to help. One of the biggest challenges we faced was managing all of the Partners who wanted to assist. 

The key was creating tools that saved time without sacrificing function or the quality design of each H-E-B digital product.

The right tool for the job

We created a tool to help our HR team monitor employee travel reporting (complete with an API pulled from the CDC that displays high-risk destinations in real-time). In the span of a day, we built a crowd-sourcing app that enables non-store Partners to volunteer for shifts at stores that need extra help. We designed new ways to surface updated protocols, even creating tools that help our Partners find available childcare. While each newly built app solves a very specific problem, they share commonalities where it matters:

  • Mobile-friendly: We meet our Partners where they are.

  • Consistent look and feel: The Partner shouldn’t be able to tell if the backend is different, keeping their interactions intuitive based on the tools they already know.

  • Updated regularly: By automating our deployments, we can manage our load needs

  • Robust security: A rush is no excuse for an exposed app.

  • Functionality first: There is no such thing as delivering too quickly, as long as the tool does the job.

  • Scalable and available: Give us room to grow.

Our MVPs are fast (and thorough) 

Our goal is to solve the root problems, not just the issue at its face. For example, many of our stores have a fairly simple fix for when a Partner forgets to clock in or out: a notebook. Partners sign the book and admins with the proper permissions key in those missing punches. This is fine when there are only a few issues here and there—but becomes increasingly inefficient if you have an influx of new Partners who might forget the protocol and need to make adjustments. We could have created a digital notebook for admins to log a larger change file to solve the issue slightly more efficiently. But instead of replacing a paper list with an electronic list, we created SEA (Schedule Exceptions Assistant), allowing Partners themselves to submit timecard edits digitally, ensuring everything is updated and processed in a timely and consistent fashion. 

That level of problem-solving starts by having a conversation with the requester/business partner. What are their ultimate goals? When you have a clear grasp of your stakeholders’ needs, you can create solutions to problems that your stakeholders may not have even anticipated.

For example, so often people reach for spreadsheets when they need to report information. While it’s easy for them to create an Excel, that can create new problems: eventually, someone has to manually manipulate and compile that data. Eventually, there will be multiple versions of your spreadsheet saved on multiple drives and desktops to collate. And eventually, you lose insight into how the data is being used. We can step in and create something that solves for those issues—and provides richer data.

The timelines we worked under helped our stakeholders understand the value of an MVP. There wasn’t time to wait to go live until we had all the bells and whistles. By showing how we could iterate on our MVPs, we opened their world up to solving problems as an evolution, not a one-and-done solution. That only works if you set the proper expectations with the proper teams and keep them informed along the way. 

A developing situation

As the way COVID impacts our business and our daily life continues to evolve, the tools we need to address its impact will need to evolve as well. 

I’ve been with H-E-B for nearly 30 years, and I’ve seen my fair share of disasters. But now, we’re working on issues that are ongoing and pervasive. The entire state of Texas is our front line, and things won’t simply return to normal once we restore power to a store or reshuffle our Partners’ schedules. Fortunately, much of what we built can change and expand as our needs do. We can re-leverage the tools as we decide we need them again, and we can enhance them as our HR team’s priorities shift and, if new needs arise, we’re ready to build more. And when things are back to "normal," we'll have the same mission: to make working to feed Texas better and easier for every H-E-B Partner. If that's something you're interested in, we're hiring.

Cindy Scott is a Senior Engineering Manager on the App Cloud team. You can connect with her on Linkedin.

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