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Behind the Code: Making Automotive Technology Fast and Flexible


Fast, lightweight innovation

For Tonya Wallace, being agile is a way of life.

We’re not just talking about being flexible and resilient (though as a hardworking mother of six, Tonya has plenty of experience with that too!). We’re referring also to Agile methodology: an IT project management approach used to deliver fast, high-quality technology solutions.

Tonya, Director of Agile Delivery at Cox Automotive, is an advocate and user of the agile methodology and its accompanying frameworks. She knows firsthand that the methodology allows for collaboration and quicker results.

“Our company drives to the same scaled agile framework, which helps to deliver high business value in short-cycle increments,” Tonya explained. “That’s the whole point of agility: to get the product out to the customer as quickly as possible, to get feedback as quickly as possible and to iterate on what that feedback is.”

Tonya leads agile delivery for four release trains. Each powers finance and insurance solutions that enable the behind-the-scenes of the car-buying process, such as digital contracting and lender aftermarket products. The newest of her release trains will lead Cox Automotive’s AWS migration to cloud services in a two-year effort.

The importance of agility really hit home for Tonya in March 2020, when COVID struck and automotive dealers could not be on-site in their offices.

“So what do you do if you’re a dealer who’s still relying on paper and face-to-face transactions?” said Tonya. “We quickly pivoted and delivered assisted remote signing out into the field. That’s the benefit of having smart people working within an agile framework. We broke down silos. People worked across different teams and trains, and we leveraged our remote environment like nobody’s business.”

Behind the code and finding the "why"

Tonya’s tech roots were planted in 2002 when she opened a small, minority-owned tech company to build custom applications with small teams of developers.

“I fell in love with requirements, automation, collaboration, iterative development and relentless improvement,” Tonya said of her first experience in the field. “I didn’t find out about Agile until years later, and I went back to school for my MBA in project management in order to enhance my understanding and knowledge about the project management discipline.”

Post-graduation, Tonya hit the ground running with her new passion and skills.

She was hired as a business analyst with the Department of Revenue, where she participated in Agile transformation. She moved on to a pharmaceutical company, where she led the cloud platform Agile team as a process specialist and trainer, coach and consulting liaison. Afterwards, she became senior scrum master and Agile coach at an automotive technology company. But in these positions, Tonya said she found the project management process to be – well, not agile.

“It was very heavy, very rigorous, very stringent,” Tonya said about one experience. “No one led with the ‘why,’ so people didn’t understand why we were doing things the way we were doing them, and if we lack buy-in, it creates gaps.”

A friend who worked at Cox recommended that Tonya explore a position with the company. In 2018, Tonya became a senior release train engineer for Cox Automotive’s DealerTrack brand. Not only did Tonya find Cox’s tech teams more conducive to Agile, but her leadership skills blossomed in Cox’s flexible environment too. Tonya has since spearheaded initiatives, facilitated DISC personality trainings and served as a thought leader in the industry.

Tonya has the heart of a teacher, and that translates to her life outside of work too. She loves being able to nurture and coach her daughter and five sons.

“The way I parent is the way I coach an agile team,” she said. “I believe the strong foundational principles of having the confidence to fail fast, self-organize, be courageous and transparent and drive toward relentless improvement builds solid character. I will often run mini retrospectives after practices and games!”

Giving everyone a voice

Tonya contrasted Cox with other companies when it comes to valuing employees.

“I love that Cox gives engineers a voice,” she said. “I’ve seen workplaces where it’s more of a ‘just sit there and code’ type of environment. Not here. They encourage communication and transparency. All teams have the ability to share ideas. We have senior leaders inboxing engineers to say things like ‘How are you? Is everything going okay? I saw you did XYZ today and I wanted to thank you.’ I’ve never had that at any other company.”

Tonya said one reason why voices are elevated at Cox is because it’s a culture of achievement.

“This is an organization of high-performers,” Tonya said (and she would know!). “What we do matters. We’re creating things that will progress our culture, our environment, our world and how we do business tomorrow.”

Tonya, who is part of Cox’s diversity and inclusion working group, added that Cox is intentional about its stance on increasing numbers of minority employees in leadership positions and nurturing talent and diverse employees within the company.

And the cherry on top?

“Sometimes in companies, you’ll find personalities clashing and a cutthroat environment. I’ve found that people here are nice. I mean, actually, genuinely nice. We’re constantly pushing the message of collaboration, communication and respect. I’ve never seen leaders so accommodating and caring.”

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