Knoxville Utilities Board is the municipal utility for the Knoxville area in Tennessee, serving Knox County and the seven surrounding counties. KUB has about 400,000 customers and provides gas, water, electric, and wastewater services. We originally worked together on a website redesign for the organization. At the time, KUB had separate mobile and desktop sites, and traffic was migrating quickly toward mobile. A new website was needed, but KUB was also focused on growing best practices and knowledge within the team.
F. DeWayne Lane has been our primary contact at KUB for years and chatted with us about his experience with leveling up both the website and the team.
Sparkbox: DeWayne, can you talk a little bit about your initial needs?
DL: At the time, we had two code bases, and we wanted a fresh look. We had also started hiring young engineers and bringing them up through a tutorial process. Once we’d taught them everything we knew, they were stuck. So right from the start, we wanted Sparkbox to be a partner and mentor our team. We wanted modern, first-class design, but we also wanted to harvest processes out of this project to make our whole department better.Sparkbox: What made you decide to prioritize team development as part of the project?
DL: Honestly, we didn’t have a choice. We had to get better! I’d say it started about seven years ago when our original team looked around and noticed we all had the same amount of gray hair. We realized that we’d probably all leave KUB around the same time, even though that time was a long way off. We knew we had to do something to change the mix, so we brought in a group of amazing young people. We were very intentional about the work of bringing them up to speed. The new landscape of our team has brought in a ton of energy and been very successful.Sparkbox: How was the work balanced between Sparkbox and your team?
DL: We started with design options, and Sparkbox helped us move those design options through the executive stakeholders and get a decision. (Having their support with this process was great.) Once everyone agreed on the design, we decided to merge the KUB team and the Sparkbox team into one dev/ops team. Three of us, I and two younger developers, spent a whole week in Dayton at the Sparkbox office learning how to work as a team.
Sparkbox: What kind of work processes came out of that?
DL: We decided together how we were going to operate and interact as a team before we came back to Tennessee. We had daily standups. We all used Google Hangouts, and every morning we would get on the hangout and walk the board, which Sparkbox taught us how to do. The Sparkbox team encouraged us to start leading the meeting over time. It was a huge success and allowed us to bring new processes into our own work. Sparkbox introduced a culture where you do everything publicly, with dignity and respect. It’s not a question of criticism but a tone that’s productive and helpful.
With Sparkbox, some opportunities for teaching and learning were very intentional and others were just infectious. There were some sort of direct training opportunities and some learning opportunities that just came out of a shared culture. Sparkbox mentored us, and we’re carrying on the best we can with the learnings that we got from their team. This has become the example for what we look for in a partner and how we run a project.
Sparkbox: What would you tell a team just starting out on this kind of journey?
DL: Natural curiosity is important. We always say that there are kids who love toast and kids who just have to figure out what’s going on inside that toaster. We’ve got a lot of people who want to figure out how that toaster is working.
Another thought: be humble. I was intent on learning and being guided by what Sparkbox brought to the table. So I was forced to be humble, and we believe humility became a key factor in why this was successful.
Sparkbox: Anything you would have done differently?
DL: I wish I had more people who could have gone through that experience with me at the time! We limited it to just two or three, and I’d expand that if I could. We were focused on these more junior team members, but I think we could have included more seasoned folks on the team who are passionate about continuing to learn and continuing to get better.
Sparkbox: Can you talk about the project outcomes?
DL: Yeah! I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there was a great product at the end of it as well as an informed team. One of our goals for the project was a constant focus on the user. Why are we doing this? It’s not just for technology’s sake. We wanted to make sure that we were helping our customers do their work, get their bills paid, start their service, find what they’re looking for, and so on. The mantra for this project was that people would come to the website, do what they needed to do, and leave as quickly as possible. That’s what serves them, and that’s what we did. This has really been a great starting point, and I’m excited to see things continue to evolve.
Sparkbox and KUB have continued to work together since the completion of this initial engagement, although we’re proud to say that the internal team has become so skilled that they can handle most of the ongoing needs without our support. If you are interested in working with our team, just reach out.