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Build the Backlog - Energy Exemplar Style

Written by:

Dr. Steven Broad

Imagine the scene - it's 2022 and the Xcelerate Sydney conference has just wrapped up. All our attendees have packed up and headed to the airport to return home. The Energy Exemplar team are gathered together on a rooftop balcony overlooking the harbor. It is a cool but pleasant evening, one for reflection and contemplation on the recent event. In our conversation, Patrick McKinlay, Senior Energy Market Analyst in Solutions, raises a truly wonderful thought: “Wouldn’t it be great for Xcelerate to include an event where users just tell us what they want from the product?”  

As a veteran of the software industry and a user of many software products, I know that user conferences often promise “feedback sessions” or “interactive brainstorming.” My experience with these is that they are usually more hype than substance. On that cool August evening, I thought that maybe it could be different. To me, those other user conferences, other software companies, other products, were just a bit too afraid of their users and their demands. If Energy Exemplar tried to do such a thing, we would need to do it with courage, openness, and ultimately follow-through for it to be the truly great experience I believed it could be. 

Just after New Year’s Day, following two more well-attended and energetic Xcelerate conferences in Lisbon and Dallas, our dynamic Marketing team requested an interactive session aimed at energizing Day 3 of our conference - Day 3 follows our memorable Xcelerate dinner event on Day 2, which is always an amazing event leaving more than a few people slightly bleary-eyed the next morning. I recalled Patrick’s suggestion. It was one I had contemplated in the past, but now we had an opportunity, perhaps even a mandate, to make it happen. Upon discussion, it turned out that many of my colleagues had also experienced the same underwhelming delivery of user input sessions at user conferences in the past. So, we were determined to learn from those experiences and make something that would really benefit Energy Exemplar users by:

  1. Improving communication and collaboration between our users about their needs for the future
  2. Establishing a user-driven conversation where Energy Exemplar focuses on listening and guidance
  3. Providing an insight into the process our Product Team employees to "Build the Backlog"

What is “Build the Backlog”? In Agile software development, a Backlog is a list of items for the software engineers to build. These Product Backlog Items (PBIs) sometimes also called Development Stories, together with strategic prioritization, create a plan for development of a Product. There are a few more nuances to product development, but that's the basic idea. With this in mind, we created Build the Backlog - Energy Exemplar’s Xcelerate session where users get to experience at least part of the process of turning Ideas into PBIs. Over the years, I have spoken to many users (and sometimes I have been that user) who have ideas they want to see built into a product that really matters to them. Usually, turning these ideas into something a developer can actually build requires getting answers to many questions, like 

  1. What problem does this solve?
  2. What is the expected outcome?
  3. Why is this important/ valuable/ better than what the product already does?
  4. Can you provide an example of how it works?

These are not the only questions, but some of the most urgent ones. Once we have these answers, the idea is ready for our creative, talented, and always-busy software engineers to take on. Of course, those always-busy software engineers are in fact busy, so prioritization becomes essential. At Energy Exemplar, we strive for a balance between total value to users and development effort when we prioritize. Understanding the value that these ideas provide for our users is therefore paramount. 

We held our inaugural Build the Backlog sessions at Xcelerate Singapore, Barcelona, and Nashville this year. In preparation, we trained 50 (yes, 50) Energy Exemplar team members to moderate Build the Backlog sessions at these events. Users selected which of eight idea themes they wanted to discuss, and then in small groups (usually fewer than 10 users per group), they shared their ideas, documented the underlying problem that needed to be solved, the expected outcome, the value, and gave examples of what those developments should do. They even prioritized their own groups’ ideas based on value and complexity. Energy Exemplar collected more than 150 user ideas from these Build the Backlog sessions!  

Build the Backlog Nashville 1
Build the Backlog Nashville 2
Build the Backlog Barcelona
Build the Backlog 4
Build the Backlog Singapore
Build the Backlog Singapore 2

User ideas came in all shapes and sizes. Many ideas for new inputs and outputs were offered. Some popular areas for modeling expansion included: 

  • Weather and weather-correlated data, e.g. Demand, Renewable and Hydro forecasting 

  • Hydrogen modeling improvements 

  • Reporting enhancements 

  • Workflow Automation needs 

  • Modeling Support, e.g. 
More data validation, Version control ,Transforming “raw” data into PLEXOS data 
  • Resource Adequacy enhancements 

  • Data Integration with other 3rd party data sources 

  • Transmission modeling enhancements and performance improvements 


Some of these ideas were already in our Backlog prior to Xcelerate and they have now been prioritized. As a result of these sessions many other ideas have been added to the Backlog and expedited to support user needs. 

In fact, our July PLEXOS Cloud release included two ideas that surfaced in our Xcelerate Build the Backlog sessions.

The first of these was Solution Comparison in BI Reports in PLEXOS Cloud. This feature allows users to craft their own multi-model Solution Comparison dashboard in PLEXOS Cloud and visualize differences between several simulation results. 

Solution comparison PLEXOS Cloud

Solution Dashboard Photo 2 July 2023The second was the Simulation Monitoring dashboard. This dashboard allows users to track the status of their simulation while it is running with an easy-to-read, customizable visualization. 

Simulation Monitoring Dashboard July 2023

Numerous other features in PLEXOS and Aurora have been introduced in recent months that have come directly from “Build the Backlog” feedback. 

On top of all of the above, our users loved the experience - we had live polling immediately after Build the Backlog during our Hackathon Review sessions, where attendees shared their feedback. Despite the early hour, and the excellent parties held the previous nights, the energy level in these sessions quickly ramped up to some of the most enthusiastic engagement that I have seen at Xcelerate. Watching two hundred and fifty people in vibrant conversation in our main event hall in Nashville was really a sight to behold! Our live polling efforts captured the opinions of more than 400 of our users across all Xcelerate events. 

Build the Backlog Word Map

The Energy Exemplar Xcelerate events continue their journey. This July, we hosted Xcelerate Ed events in Delhi and Mumbai. More are coming to cities around the world throughout the remainder of the year. The next opportunity to participate in a Build the Backlog session will be at next year’s main Xcelerate events. But the good news is that you don’t have to have to wait for Xcelerate to help Build the Backlog!

You can always share your ideas with us on the xChange portal. Users can log into the portal and write up ideas any time of the day or night. Just as with Build the Backlog, other users can see and comment on your ideas and even vote them up or down. As we bring those Ideas into the Backlog, authors and Idea subscribers can receive notifications about the status and delivery of those Ideas. To date, we have delivered more than 20 of the ideas from the xChange portal to our users, with more coming in each release. 

Energy Exemplar is committed to innovation. Indeed, it is one of our core values. We know that true innovation begins with our users, who are themselves a complex group with varied backgrounds and expertise. Build the Backlog is partly about learning from our users what they want in our products. As you will notice in the feedback, it serves another purpose: creating a space for our users to collaborate with each other on the most challenging and important topics in our industries. With Energy Exemplar setting the stage and letting users drive Build the Backlog, the conversation is user-to-user. Ideas appear on how to take the next step in several different areas, which only happens when our best experts (You!) talk to each other. We look forward to continuing to innovate, inspired by our users, solving the toughest problems of the industry at a crucial time in its history. Thanks so much to you! 

Dr. Steven Broad

Dr. Steven Broad joined Energy Exemplar in 2015. As Senior Principal Product Manager for the PLEXOS Engine and AI/ML, he builds simulation and optimization products for the Energy industry and adjacent verticals that address customer needs for market modeling that is holistic, economically fundamental, and accounts for the physical constraints of the system. Steven has helped transform energy market analysis for many businesses in the industry, leveraging his background in applied mathematics and 25 years of experience building software tools for commercial simulation applications to help them craft a vision for their transformation as well as a plan to achieve it.