DriveTime, a used-car and finance company for people with less-than-perfect credit, has more than 100 dealerships in the United States. Because the company finances more than 99 percent of the cars that it sells, and many of its customers don’t have complete financial records, DriveTime created its own software for helping match customers with the best vehicles and financing plans for their situations. When the company needed to update its application to provide a better customer experience and scalability, it moved its development efforts to the Microsoft® Application Platform, using Microsoft Visual Studio® Team System to create the new application, and Microsoft SQL Server™ 2000 Enterprise Edition as the data store. The DriveTime development team completed the project within four months, an estimated three times faster than with its old development tools and methods.
DriveTime is the nation's leading used-car dealership and finance company for people with less-than-perfect credit. By offering customers innovative credit solutions, quality vehicles, and outstanding customer service, DriveTime prides itself in providing options to people who've been turned away by others.
The company, headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, owns and operates more than 100 dealerships in 17 U.S. metropolitan areas, with more than 2,900 employees. DriveTime has sold more than 400,000 cars and issued loans totaling more than U.S.$4 billion. Because the company forms a long-term relationship with the customer—from finding the right car, to arranging financing, to servicing the loan—DriveTime has developed its own business intelligence tools to help it make the best decisions for its customers.
“Many of our customers don’t have a traditional credit score that can be accessed, and we’ve found that even for those who have credit scores, we can make better decisions using our own risk models that we’ve developed over the years based upon our experience,” says Mark Sauder, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at DriveTime. “We use our internally generated credit score to help us find the best match for our customers in terms of vehicle, down payment, interest rate, loan term, and other variables.”
The company’s proprietary software that is used in generating the internal credit score is hosted on the same IBM AS/400 computer system that hosts the company’s point-of-sale application. However, generating the company’s internal credit score for a customer is just a first step in the sales process. Sales associates use the score to search a database of all the cars that are available throughout the company’s inventory, so that customers can consider automobiles that are available from other DriveTime dealerships within the same city or metropolitan market.
DriveTime internally developed its DeskIt application, which helps sales managers match a customer with the best solution for automobiles, down payments, and other factors according to the internal credit score. DeskIt was created using early versions of Microsoft® Office Excel® spreadsheet software. The application had served the company well, but as the company enjoyed continued growth, it needed a new application that could scale better, while providing a friendlier user interface. Scaling was needed because response times had grown as more dealerships made use of the solution and as additional functionality was added to the application. The company also wanted to go beyond a spreadsheet format to provide the sales force with a more scalable, better performing, and user-friendly solution.
DriveTime created a new solution, DeskIt Plus, using Microsoft Visual Studio® Team System, a set of tools that helped the company’s software team collaborate and communicate more efficiently. Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Team Foundation Server, a core component of Visual Studio Team System, is a collaboration server that offers a number of functions including source code control, work-item and issue tracking, integrated process guidance, project health, and status reporting. The team also used the Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0.
||Visual Studio Team System and its Team Foundation Server proved a perfect match in supporting our agile application development.
Corporate Systems Director, DriveTime
The data store, which had been loaded into an Excel spreadsheet from the AS/400, was upgraded to Microsoft SQL Server™ 2000 Enterprise Edition database software running on the Windows Server® 2003 Enterprise Edition operating system. Team Foundation Server was used to create the Windows® SharePoint® Services portal to support development.
The development team, which included a database developer, a Windows Forms developer, and a business analyst, created a smart client application with a rich user interface and functionality to provide a compelling user experience across the company’s more than 100 dealerships.
Creating the Solution
The DriveTime development team’s agility was enhanced through the use of a Scrum development approach. Scrum is an agile project management practice that employs short iterations and continuous improvement, combined with frequent face-to-face communication among team members and stakeholders. The ability to shorten development time while staying close to its internal customers was a key factor in choosing Visual Studio Team System.
“We had previously developed using a traditional waterfall methodology [a hierarchical approach that sequentially moves, like a waterfall, from needs analysis to design to coding to testing to deployment] but found that we needed a more agile approach to development to match our corporate style,” says Brad Beebe, Corporate Systems Director at DriveTime. “With the old system, by the time we deployed a solution, the business needs may have changed.”
To stay close to the customer while expediting product development, the DriveTime development team used sprints (rapid periods of development) that were then reviewed with internal stakeholders. The DriveTime team used four-week sprints, taking advantage of the source control feature of Visual Studio Team System to coordinate versioning.
Developers used the static code analysis feature extensively, especially on infrastructure-related components, which helped improve reliability and the quality of code. The static code analysis feature helped DriveTime developers understand best practices and improve future code.
The schema compare feature was also helpful. “Our developers used the Schema Compare feature to compare two database schemas—typically from Development to Test, from Test to Production, and from Production back to Development—and to synchronize two databases across environments,” says Shripathi Krishnan, Database Technologies Manager at DriveTime. “Schema Compare was also used to highlight changed, new, and missing objects for further research.”
In a similar way, DriveTime developers used the Data Compare feature to compare data in two tables and to highlight differences. Krishnan notes that the Data Create feature was appreciated because it simplified the populating of development environment tables with sample data.
Testing the Solution
The DriveTime development team used Visual Studio Team System unit testing and automated Web tests to improve quality in the application, as well as to provide a clear path to continuous integration, with the potential to run unit tests on check-in. The Load Testing feature also proved useful.
“Load testing helped us uncover scalability issues in one of our key inventory services and verify that the resulting changes increased performance,” says Brendon Birdoes, Distributed Applications Manager at DriveTime. “Load testing also validated another inventory service that implemented a new architecture, so that the team could deliver the product to production with confidence that it could handle necessary loads.”
Managing the Project
Developer collaboration and team management was enhanced through the use of project portals supported by Windows SharePoint Services. A new portal is automatically created for each team project that is created in Visual Studio Team Foundation Server. These portals enable everyone to access project information, which in turn encourages discussion, debate, and further improvement. The team project portals also serve as a central repository for document-based work products, such as requirements and architecture documents. Having these resources available to everyone helps foster common understanding across projects and resources, and helps centrally maintain version control.
Using Visual Studio 2005 Team System and the Scrum methodology to create its DeskIt Plus solution provided DriveTime with a number of benefits, including a better customer experience, agility to meet internal customer needs, enhanced collaboration, and tripled development speed.
Better Customer Experience
DriveTime has built its business on providing an exceptional experience for its customers. “All our vehicles are inspected, passed through our reconditioning center, and subjected to a computerized title search to ensure that they haven’t been damaged in the past,” says Sauder. “Then we offer straightforward, no-haggle pricing that includes a warranty. Perhaps just as important, we provide our own financing, which means we don’t want to sell customers a car they can’t afford.”
“More than 99 percent of our sales are finance sales, so our customers are really shopping for financing as much as they are shopping for a car,” says Sauder. “This means that an integral part of our service is getting the customer into the right car as it relates both to the sales price and what they can afford in terms of down payment, interest rate, and financing term. Balancing all these factors, while matching the customer to the car they desire, can get complex at times. The application we created provides a very friendly front end for the user experience, while integrating with our powerful analytics on the back end.”
The earlier version of the application used an Excel spreadsheet for the customer interface. Office Excel provided all the information required for structuring a sale, but DriveTime required faster performance as well as easier integration with back-end systems.
“Using Windows Forms to create a rich client application, our customers can see the detail on any vehicle they like, whether it is in the same lot or located across town,” says Birdoes. “The development team, using the Scrum method and Visual Studio Team System, continually showed the key business stakeholders what they were doing, which enabled real-time design changes that in the end resulted in an application that our dealers enjoy using.”
Birdoes also noted that integrating the solution with SQL Server provided the company with the scalability it needed to grow well into the future.
Agility to Meet Internal Customer Needs
As DriveTime prepared to create the next version of its business-critical DeskIt application, it changed its development direction from Web-based applications to Windows Forms—based applications using Visual Studio Team System. Microsoft development tools provided an ideal match with its corporate need for agility.
“We wanted agility; we wanted to involve our stakeholders with our developers throughout the process with a Scrum approach of rapid prototyping and continually fine-tuning to meet the needs of our internal customers,” says Beebe. “Visual Studio Team System and its Team Foundation Server proved a perfect match in supporting our agile application development.”
The agility of the Scrum approach to development saved the company a lot of time that would otherwise have been spent creating specifications and eliminated the problem of business needs changing during what used to be a longer development period.
“We used a four-week sprint approach to our Scrum development,” says Birdoes. “Every 20 business days the product was demonstrated to our business users. They became partners in the development process and helped us make a better, more relevant application. This was so much better than the waterfall approach we used to use. When we released our product this time, it was absolutely current to the business needs, and our users knew that they had helped create it. We couldn’t develop with this kind of immediate agility without Visual Studio Team System.”
DriveTime enhanced collaboration among developers, analysts, and other stakeholders by using Visual Studio Team System.
“One of the key tenets of our Scrum approach to development was to maximize communication,” says Beebe. “We wanted to get away from people isolated in cubicles writing documents and code. We needed to have open communication between the teams, and high visibility for everyone to see what was happening at any point in time.” Birdoes adds, “The combination of Visual Studio Team System and its Team Foundation Server provided a rich collaboration environment. We had a central portal for any document that the team created, any links that they wanted to share, and all the code. All this combined to support the process of collaboration between the developers and the analysts.”
Tripled Development Speed
DriveTime estimates that it can create new applications three times faster since moving to developing solutions with the Scrum method using Visual Studio Team System, including Team Foundation Server, to create solutions for the Microsoft Application Platform.
“With our old development tools and waterfall development methods we might have spent 12 months creating the DeskIt Plus application that we just completed within 4 months,” says Birdoes. “The faster development time makes a big difference to our business.”
The new development environment and the company’s Scrum approach to rapid development have made it easier to identify and fix bugs, contributing to faster overall development.
“Our emphasis on early prototyping and frequent demonstrations to our analysts reveals bugs earlier in the development process,” says Krishnan. “Visual Studio makes it easy to debug and easy to rapidly prototype. With our old approach, bugs would remain hidden longer and were more difficult to resolve because we lacked the frequent touch points that we now have with our internal customers.”
The Schema Compare feature of Visual Studio Team System has also proven to be a time saver. “It used to be difficult to keep track of which database objects had been changed between builds,” Krishnan says. “The Schema Compare tool enables you to check for changes at any point to ensure that your code is up to date. And Visual Studio has reduced build time for code releases from days to just a few hours.”
The monthly demonstrations with internal customers has sped development by ensuring that product development tracks with customer needs. “With our four-week sprints and in-progress demonstrations to our business users, the worst you could do would be to lose four weeks because you’d gone in a wrong direction,” says Krishnan. “If that were to happen, you’d know you’d lost four weeks—not the eight months or two years that might have been wasted with our old waterfall approach to development.”
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