Kanban and Lean Startup: Making the Most of Both

Alexei Zheglov reflects on his startup experience and David Anderson’s kanban method in light of Eric Ries’ lean startup movement. Making the most of both approaches requires understanding how they relate to each other.

A Post-dot-com Story
Between 2002 and 2006, I lived in New York City and worked for an Internet advertising startup called WhenU, which made a software product and distributed it to a very large number of users. I was one of the few early-stage software engineers at the company. The product displayed relevant ads and search results based on users’ browsing patterns.

The Internet advertising field attracted many players that came to be known as “spyware.” Unlike them, our company didn’t send user data to our servers. Instead, we ran all logic on the users’ computers using a frequently updated, impersonal set of heuristics. We were the good guys!

WhenU was a precursor of lean startups. Of course, we cannot say it was a lean startup, because the term did not exist yet. The company represented a resolute departure from the dot-com ways of the 1990s. It actually made a profit and wasn’t eager for an IPO. More importantly from today’s perspective, we built, measured, and learned.

The company challenged its software engineers to assume much broader roles. For example, we were always actively involved in deployments. After delivering the software to the users, we also measured how it performed in the field. The company quantified user feedback, tested hypotheses, and processed large amounts of (impersonal) statistical information. The business learned from the statistically validated results, for example, that its new algorithm increased the click-through rate in the travel category by 50 percent.

I was trained, experienced, and believed I understood the software development process or whatever that meant at the turn of the millennium. Then, I landed in what today we might call DevOps, and I had to dust off my statistics textbook, too.

Reflecting on what went on in our New York office with the benefit of today’s knowledge and hindsight makes it very clear how the modern kanban and lean startup concepts can be combined. But first, we have to revisit Eric Ries’ lean startup principles and apply some lean-kanban thinking to WhenU’s operations.


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