Digital transformation for sonnen - a renewable energy service provider

Digital transformation is a complex process of reshaping an organization’s services, products and culture. It’s not about digitalization for the sake of it. In most cases it means transforming a company’s product portfolio, learning new perspectives and, as a result, improving the entire business. One of the most interesting digital transformation cases in our portfolio is our partnership with sonnen, a German energy sector company.

The Client:

sonnen is a renewable energy service provider with its headquarters in Wildpoldsried, Germany. Thanks to sonnen solutions, its customers can produce, store and share their own electricity. The balanced energy exchange between households connected to the sonnen network allows its customers to be 100% independent from traditional suppliers.

As a new energy provider, it offers B2C customers access to their own photovoltaic renewable energy source, energy storage with sonnen batteries, and the option to exchange electricity with other sonnen customers. In collaboration with their B2B partners, most of which are installers of photovoltaic systems, sonnen offers a hassle-free installation process for the necessary devices and software.

In 2019, sonnen became part of Royal Dutch Shell PLC within the business unit Renewables and Energy Solutions.

The problem:

sonnen turned to Boldare for the first time in late 2017, looking to source additional support for their internal software teams to speed up the development process for one of their applications - a user-centered platform for sonnen customers. We provided a scrum development team that helped them to launch a new MVP within two months. You can read a detailed case study for this product in our case study section.

Soon after our first collaboration, sonnen faced a completely new challenge related to the rapid growth of the company: the need to scale their teams and business while improving the integrity of their B2B2C services.

The company needed to scale its software development department teams from 40 up to more than 100 people, as of March 2019.

Carrying out scaling to such an extent needs thorough consideration and experience.

The growing complexity of their services and increasing number of customers had become the critical focus. Stakeholders mapped two potential areas that needed improvement:

  • To improve sonnen’s service ecosystem - integrate various business processes and decrease service complexity to improve the user experience.
  • To improve internal processes and make product development more efficient and agile.

Additionally, sonnen had to quickly build up capacity in the software development area and to build up an in-house team from scratch could have delayed their new projects by months.

At the same time, sonnen also faced other challenges:

  • Extremely competitive market.
  • Compound supply chain for sonnen hardware: batteries and EV chargers.
  • Providing high quality services to clients from different time zones.
  • High volumes of users, traffic and data.
  • Various standards and regulations in various national markets in which sonnen is present.
  • Technical debt from the company’s older applications.

The solution

The issues that sonnen, especially the digital department, faced were results of its complex structure and the fact that some of the services and products were being handled by third party companies. Additionally, the company was growing very fast, using support from various external companies to help them with its software development efforts - Boldare was one of those companies.

sonnen’s stakeholders decided to turn to Boldare in the search for a tailored solution. The reasons? While building digital products for sonnen, we proved our excellence in the areas of product development, process management and practical use of Agile. Furthermore, as a company with vast experience in Agile and digital transformation we were a natural choice as partners.

“Boldare stood out as a company who really wanted to understand our problem and fulfill our needs. If you see that the potential partner is on the same page as you, speaking the same language, trying to achieve something in a partnership and not just sign a contract, that is a winner.” Norbert Baumann, VP Research & Development at sonnen

After extended needs analysis, we suggested a digital transformation tailored to the needs of the digital department as a potentially helpful solution. This particular department is responsible for most of sonnen’s digital services and products.

  • Digital transformation would give the ability to build, execute, maintain and improve all the processes in sonnen’s B2B2C pipeline.
  • It would help to unify and simplify the different independent software ecosystems that work alongside sonnen’s services.
  • It would influence the whole digital department by implementing an agile mindset and scrum framework with the software development teams.

We jointly decided to focus our digital transformation service on two pillars:

  • Building new and improving existing parts of the software platform that would help sonnen to improve their sales process, increase customer satisfaction and give more control and transparency over the sales process via its partners.
  • Implement a transition to Agile to help sonnen change its structure to answer their employees’, customers’ and market’s needs better.

Improving those areas would support sonnen with scaling their teams and products coherently.

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Digitization in sonnen’s products, services and business processes

The actions that had to be taken to accelerate the digitization efforts were focused on both improving existing and building new applications. We supported sonnen with multiple development teams that were working hand in hand with their in-house and other external teams. Our main goal was to create top-notch software for their customers and business partners.

Between 2017 and early 2021, we helped to build and improve the following applications:

  • B2C sector: Customer Portal - an app that helps to manage sonnenBatterie household batteries.
  • B2C sector: An application that supports sonnenCharger- a household device to charge EVs (electric vehicles).
  • B2B2C sector: An internal platform to support collaboration with sonnen’s B2B partners. It allows the handling of documentation and contracts, generates offers for future customers, manages supply chains, shows sales progress, allows the signing of contracts, and guides new customers through the sales process in a hassle-free way.

One of the biggest gains for sonnen was the fact that the digital products were created by joint Boldare and sonnen development teams. This way we could build products according to Agile principles using the scrum framework collaboratively and practically.

This approach provided a huge advantage over relying on the independent, external Agile coaches who usually support companies with their mostly theoretical knowledge. This allowed us to share our know-how, solve real-life case scenario problems and provide practical support on a daily basis.

“We had been working with three different coaches and no one delivered such concrete outputs that I can clearly see where we should go as you did in one day.” Friederike Sophie Peter, Project and Change Manager

Here are some highlights of our collaboration:

  • An increase from 5 Boldare experts working for sonnen with the first MVP application in early 2018 to 47 experts during the peak of activity in summer 2019.
  • 12 mixed (internal and external) development teams worked on sonnen’s projects in 2020.
  • We supported sonnen with experts, such as scrum masters, frontend developers, backend developers, product and UX designers, business analysts, QA engineers, and business consultants.
  • To improve the management of such a big environment we helped with implementation of Nexus (a scaled scrum process), a framework that allows us to manage complex software products delivered by multiple teams.
  • We used the following technologies: AWS, Java, Nest.js, Node.js, TypeScript, Marble.js, React, Python and Ruby.
  • At the peak of our engagement with sonnen between 2018 and 2020, we contributed around 6,500 person-hours monthly.

As a result, we improved and expanded sonnen’s app ecosystem on two fronts:

  • In the B2C area we delivered client-faced solutions that improved customer satisfaction and overall user experience of the services.
  • In the B2B2C area we helped to develop a platform that unifies processes and helps sonnen and their partners - mostly installers - exchange information. Thanks to these improvements, the number of new leads and customers increased. The process of communication between partners and the sales department at sonnen became faster and easier for both sides. Instead of several independent applications connecting independent brokers with sonnen, all communication was via sonnen’s internal software. This allowed the organization to gain more control and transparency over the whole process.
Highlights of the sonnen and Boldare partnership

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Digital transformation as part of sonnen’s organizational culture

The other great challenge that sonnen was facing was the large number of teams working on the same products and the need to scale existing teams from 40 to over 100 people in order to grow the business. The development teams were searching for tools to improve communication processes both internally and with external partners, as well as to improve development planning and waterfall processes, and transparency. As a result, they had also experienced the emergence of knowledge silos and inefficient team structures.

The company’s stakeholders were aware that there was room for change in the way the organization works. Implementing Agile methodologies looked like a suitable solution. In order to make the first step in an Agile transformation, the company hired an external Agile coach among other and smaller impactful measurements that cultivated the successful transformation.

In the spring of 2019, we conducted a workshop dedicated to scaling, to strengthen sonnen’s knowledge and give insights about our expertise with Agile and scrum. We conducted a needs analysis to map the biggest pain points and create a realistic status quo description. One of the first decisions made after the workshops was to create a team that would be responsible for the organizational transformation to Agile working.

This intercompany transformation team included a scrum master and CTO from our side, two VPs from sonnen’s digital department, a product owner and an Agile coach from sonnen.

The role of the team was to:

  • Fix the most urgent issues occurring between sonnen’s employees and third party companies, including Boldare.
  • Create a scalable environment through Nexus scrum implementation.
  • Implement a community of practice group for sonnen’s scrum masters, that would eventually lead the transformation after completing the work of the transformation team.
  • From Boldare’s side: to guide and support sonnen’s teams with scrum implementation.

The Boldare team worked alongside sonnen’s teams and was dissolved when those teams reached a satisfactory level of self-organization in terms of Agile and scrum.

Sharing our practical knowledge was crucial, as we have practical experience in complex software-focused environments, similar to those at sonnen. We conducted a series of workshops that helped sonnen employees to understand and work on the transformation process. Each one was dedicated to a different area of the transformation:

  • Scaling workshop - extended sonnen employees’ knowledge of scaling processes.
  • A kick-off workshop for all people committed to the development process to further educate them on aspects of digital transformation.
  • Introduction to Nexus Integration Team workshops - dedicated to the practical aspects of scaled scrum (Nexus).
  • Event storming workshops - focused on scaling.
  • Roadmap planning - for dozens of development teams.
  • Cross-team retrospectives - conducted to keep track of potential pain points.

The results of our bilateral collaboration were:

  • A shift in the mindset of sonnen’s software development team to a more holistic approach, instead of focusing mainly on the technical aspects of building products.
  • We delivered practical knowledge of using Agile methods, hands-on.
  • Improved team collaboration by initiating a so-called community of practice. CoPs are intercompany groups that gather specialists in specific areas - designers, devops or QAs. Each CoP was working on improvements or solving particular problems, e.g designers created a first style guide and later built a design system for sonnen’s applications. CoPs help to exchange knowledge between various stakeholders - sonnen’s and the external teams - but also strengthen the integrity of the created products and processes. Its members did not create independent teams but belonged to regular scrum development teams.
  • sonnen’s product owners became regular members of Boldare’s teams. Mixed teams worked on the same principles and goals, which improved communication between both sides and strengthened the partnership.
  • Practical implementation of Nexus, improving clarity in the software development process, especially in such a complex environment.
  • sonnen strengthened its position as a market leader in Germany and has subsequently expanded its operations beyond Europe.

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Final conclusion and results

Boldare conducted a digital transformation for sonnen’s digital department, starting from needs analysis, through solution proposal, finishing with implementation. We supported multiple product development projects, using agile methodologies and a scaled scrum approach.

Furthermore, we helped one of sonnen’s most impactful departments transform itself from a hierarchy to be self-organizing, agile and product-driven.

As a result, sonnen’s customer experience was improved, and internal operations and supply chains were optimized. Today, sonnen builds its own in-house scrum teams that continue the development and maintenance of their digital products and we, as Boldare, still play an important role as a software development service provider and Agile consultants.