Why Chipotle Accelerated Its Software Development Pace


With business processes running through software platforms, the speed with which systems can be updated to meet challenges can impact financial performance.

Chipotle CTO Curt Garner says his company has been working since 2019 to accelerate its development cycle, and the pace has picked up during the pandemic. Today, the restaurant chain sometimes deploys software several times a day. It is on track to execute 500 deployments this year across its digital ecosystem, including mobile, web, Chipotle Rewards and backend systems that leverage the platforms.

“Our view has always been that the thread of digital should be pulled through the entire experience,” Garner said in an interview with CIO Dive. “It’s not enough to have a great app or an interactive website if you fail in product delivery or guest experience.”

Large enterprises struggle to achieve an agile software development cadence, with enterprise applications often lagging behind the development pace of more consumer-friendly applications. Chipotle has improved the speed with which it can adjust digital platforms by leveraging Agile methodologies and setting expectations for year-over-year improvement.

Forrester research shows the challenges of implementing Agile practices at scale. According to a survey published in April, only a quarter of professionals say their teams are “very competent” in Agile practices.

Top performers are in the minority, with just 7% saying their teams are 100% competent, according to the study.

To measure improvements, Chipotle’s technology organization drew inspiration from a key metric in the restaurant industry: comparable sales, which helps companies get a sense of performance in the context of similar stores.

“We have the same philosophy on technology teams: we need to improve by 10% every year,” Garner said. “That’s how these development models also developed throughout the company.”

Quick service software

A key part of Chipotle’s strategy, set in 2020, was the addition of Chipotlanes – its drive-thru vision. The company scheduled to complete 2020 with 165 new Chipotlanes, and currently has 430 in service, CEO Brian Niccol said during the company’s second quarter 2022 earnings call on July 26.

Chipotlanes are different from a first-in, first-out drive-thru. Instead, they operate on an invisible queue of commands. Thus, digital systems are essential for smooth coordination.

“A lot of these releases are about optimizing the experience for both the consumer and the crew member,” Garner said. Updates to logistics software have allowed the company to get a more accurate estimate of time spent on orders.

To accelerate development, leaders face multiple obstacles. One is access to talent, an issue that runs through broader business technology goals as top talent heads for the exit.

Another is regression, as the habit of a waterfall approach to software development has endured. Waterfall methodologies were present in 43% of companies interviewed by Forrester in the fourth quarter of 2021, compared to 29% during the same period in 2019.

For Chipotle, frequent rollouts mean more chances to personalize experiences, as stores in one region may have different needs than in other locations.

“The most important benefit of these frequent platform changes is being able to react very quickly to changes in the market,” Garner said.


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