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8th Light helps health care sharing ministry build a brand new digital presence.

For 20 years, Samaritan Ministries has facilitated the sharing of medical expenses only using paper. The not-for-profit organization offers a non-insurance approach to health care needs called health care sharing. When their members incur medical expenses, they forward their bills to Samaritan’s headquarters in central Illinois. Their staff checks these medical bills against their guidelines, and then orchestrates the flow of monthly “shares” member-to-member to spread the burden of these medical bills among all the members. But throughout Samaritan’s history, it had never provided its ministry through the Internet. The entire organization depended on paper.

“There is a lot of paper in this building,” Samaritan’s CIO Rod Roth said. And the volume grows every month, as more members refer their friends and family. This expansion tends to have a snowball-like effect, and the organization’s new member sign-up forms were flooding their Peoria, Ill., headquarters. Samaritan lacked the digital capability to ease this influx of paper, and their IT team lacked the personnel necessary to build a digital pipeline to catch up. “When I started working with Samaritan four years ago, there were three people in the IT department,” Roth said.

Samaritan needed to build Web-based services to complement their popular offline offerings, while simultaneously building a team of developers and operations talent capable of delivering and maintaining these Web services to better position the ministry for the future. Roth needed to orchestrate both of these initiatives while confronted with the harsh financial realities of not-for-profit ministries. “We had a fledgling group that we were bringing on board,” Samaritan’s Manager of Business Intelligence and Innovation Dana Pace said. “And I think it was important to Rod that we did things right—that we learned a good system, a good approach.”

Roth’s team attended the Software Craftsmanship North America conference to discover more ways to leverage the software craftsmanship movement to benefit their ministry. While there, they were inspired by the way 8th Light, the conference’s sponsor, had expanded its business.

8th Light hires its craftsmen through an exclusive apprenticeship program, which teaches students how to apply the standards, practices, and principles of software craftsmanship in a professional environment. This model of apprenticeship allows the company to bring in developers from many different backgrounds and skill sets, and train them to become professionals who work through a deliberate and iterative software development process.

Roth identified this model as a viable way for his own team to grow organically, making the most of their finite resources by creating great developers instead of simply hiring them. “We aspired to put in place the disciplines that 8th Light demonstrates,” Roth said. “But for me, the biggest clincher was the mindset around apprenticeships—the environment of learning and growing through apprenticeship, and the collaborative nature that approach spawns.”

Becoming Agile

Throughout their engagement, 8th Light’s craftsmen and Samaritan’s growing Technology team shuffled between offices more than 150 miles apart—two and a half hours by car, or a little over two hours on the Amtrak train plus an additional 45 minute car ride to the office. But 8th Light’s craftsmen understood the importance of collaboration, and they set up a rotation that would enable the teams to work from shared offices on a regular basis.

Productive partnerships are one of the core values of Software Craftsmanship, and the teams’ proximity allowed 8th Light to help Samaritan build the kind of collaborative environment that allows the Agile development processes to thrive. “I would call it a partnership,” Roth said. “We let 8th Light be part of the immersion that happened in our organization.”

One of 8th Light’s priorities was to promote the idea of partnerships and collaboration throughout Samaritan’s internal departments. “When we had those three people, and then four and five people, we were very much in the mindset that [the Technology team] will determine what’s being built, and we’ll get it to you and you’ll like it,” Pace said. “8th Light very quickly helped us learn how to have conversations about it, where you’re not just talking to the software developers—you’re pulling in the owners.”

As a team grows and work becomes decentralized, it’s even more important to coordinate internally. Before developers can begin working on a feature, they establish a clear set of acceptance criteria to work as parameters. This acceptance criteria is often connected to the mockups and front-end work from designers, which is itself dependent on input and feedback from stakeholders. This sequence dictates the workflow for Samaritan’s entire team, which at this point had grown to include 60 technology professionals, including additional contractors and 8th Light craftsmen.

“Where I think 8th Light’s been instrumental is in helping us to understand how to leverage an Agile mindset,” Pace said.

“It took us quite a few months, but we finally got to the point where [the business and design team] would plan and be four weeks ahead of us. So when it came time for us to develop, we could just look at mockups,” 8th Light craftsman Kelly Steensma said. “That was a really big challenge: learning how to get the design team and the development team on board.”

By pushing the design work a few weeks ahead of the developers, 8th Light designer Adam Kaplan had more space to help Samaritan’s design team consider some of the implications of designing for a large-scale application. They embraced feedback from stakeholders early and often. They crafted multiple wireframes and mockups that considered the users’ experience throughout the entire platform, not just its individual applications.

With full design templates in place, the developers were able to build out the application’s functionality with a clear direction in mind. Kaplan then helped finish the process by implementing the design templates into the development environment—”taking something static and building it to be dynamic.”

Becoming Digital

Samaritan Ministries has been helping and encouraging its members for two decades, but their Web tools were nonexistent. In order to offer more to their members, they needed to begin what developers call a “Greenfield Project,” Steensma explained. “This was starting from scratch.”

Before they could build the applications that would replicate their offline offerings, Samaritan needed to build a platform that could accommodate a whole suite of different applications. This platform needed to be able to extend in multiple ways in order to afford them the flexibility every blossoming tech team desperately needs.

8th Light’s team of polyglots agreed to adopt the C# and .NET tools that Samaritan’s existing team was already familiar with, and quickly helped to build a centralized platform that could coordinate authorization and authentication across any number of applications. It allowed Samaritan to build internal and member-facing apps, while also allowing partners to build third-party apps on top of the same interconnected platform.

The addition of this platform signaled a marked shift in the way Samaritan will function. The Sign-up Web app not only offers existing members the new option to “opt out of paper,” but also allows new members to sign up with Samaritan without mailing paper forms to their headquarters. A process that used to take days now takes minutes.

The platform has since grown to host upwards of 23 Web apps–both internal and member-facing–along with a number of third-party apps, each of them a self-contained JavaScript application that authenticates with the platform’s identity and access management through OAuth 2. The applications streamline the familiar offline offerings like membership continuation and medical needs management, and they also offer enhanced features that allow Web app administration and electronic signatures. Members can also view explainer videos along with a growing collection of members’ stories produced by Samaritan’s new media team for the video app.

Conclusion

Samaritan’s new Web services signal a transition in the way the entire ministry operates. “We had a lot of paper and no Web; now we’ve got paper and Web,” Pace said. “Eventually, we’d like to have a lot of Web and some paper.”

But Samaritan’s goal isn’t a simple transition from one medium to the other. They’re building applications that will link their expanding community of members together like never before. “8th Light has helped us reimagine how we’re going to do work,” Roth added. “We’re building a solution that’s nimble and will let us respond as our organization continues to grow and change.”

For the first time in their 20 years, Samaritan Ministries has a member-facing digital platform in place that will allow them to scale at the rate of their demand. Perhaps even more importantly, they also have a team that is capable of enhancing it. Both outcomes are a result of the productive partnerships that 8th Light helped create.

“There are a lot of people whom we can go to and say, ‘Help us build this software project’—we’ve got our picking of that,” Roth said. “But it’s the little things that matter. It’s the fact that [8th Light] is willing to take the time to share those insights that help you get better at what you do.”

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