Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to Get Real in Corporate Development, Part III

This is the third part of an essay on how the concepts of Getting Real from 37signals can benefit development groups in corporate environments. Part I introduces the concepts of Getting Real and part II looks at the idea of building less. To build less, you need to select one problem to solve and focus just on that. Part I introduced this, so let's continue to look at that aspect.

Focus on one idea. Start with the big problem, build the large scale functionality and don’t sweat the details.

One challenge every development effort has is where to stop. That is, where to define the edge of the application. Otherwise stated as, "how far out from the core idea is it reasonable to extend?" For example, should the document handling system not only import PDF's, but generate PDF's and fax them?

One helpful concept is the constraint of time and budget. However, it is not uncommon in corporate development shops to have projects loose the continuity of effort that makes a strict delivery time or budget tracking approach overly challenging. Here is where having one focus pays of immensely.

The thinking is: We are going to solve only the problem at hand (Today's Problem). Building less gets us a solution more quickly. Focusing on the problem helps us meet the goal of solving only the problem at hand.

Engineers with are much easier to keep focused and on-task when they have a delivery due in only a few weeks. Assigning a single, short-term purpose accomplishes this. Part of the standard challenge in corporate development shops is that the an engineer wears many hats as she maintains existing applications, develops one or more concurrent projects, and concurrently designs and plans future applications.

Switching between different types of tasks is a known productivity killer. The well-known blog by Joel on Software lays out the trouble with human task switching. You know it yourself, having your concentrated thought process interrupted is, literally, disruptive. For your team, this means that they need quite, private work spaces, few meetings during sprints, and very long periods of uninterrupted time. It also means you need to keep their plates clear of other tasks.

When you do this, your engineers will be able to stay focused on delivering that one idea.

"Hmmm, good," you say, "but what is the correct one idea?" Good question. After all, "solve global poverty" is one idea, but it's obviously not at the right level.

You're looking for an idea that represents a specific business pain point with a solution that can be produced by a small team in a few quick iterations. Since your team of three engineers can't bang out a solution to global poverty in a few three-week sprints, it's not at the right level. (But you already knew that -- this was an illustration :-)

Let's try some on for size. "Create a portal that allows secure transmission of documents from customers to service representatives." Or how about, "Replace a key paper form with an internal website." Here's what each of these have going for them:
  • Each of these have a good change of being produced rapidly in only a few iterations.
  • They both address only one problem.
  • They require one small application to successfully meet the business need
  • They both are probably very well understood by stakeholders and engineers.

Given all this, there is very likely little risk of implementing the wrong software. Even if the end product doesn't work out completely, you have only invested a small amount of time and effort and you're team has more clearly illustrated the business need.

Are you thinking that you don't have any small, simple problems to solve? Are you thinking that you need complex applications to solve complex business problems? Are you thinking that there isn't any opportunity to do something small and elegant like this in your shop?

If you have any of these thoughts, or thoughts similar to them, please try an experiment. Find a key stakeholder at the line level. Perhaps a manager of customer service, or a project manager who executes key services repeatedly. Take them to lunch and ask them about the most challenging aspects of their work and the work their team or group does.

You will probably learn some things you didn't know. And some of what you learn could very well fall right into this camp of creating high-value for the business with a light, flexible, low-risk and low-cost development approach.

The next part is to work with wide brushes and big strokes. You're not looking for a whiz-bang gizmo that does everything. Get the big pieces right first. Now that you know about some business pain points (if you already knew some or knew the ones you talked about over that lunch, then kudos for you!), you're looking to address just that need. Nothing else right now, just that one need.

Yes, the fund accounting deals with mutual funds, 401(k)'s of mutual funds, annuities, closed-end funds, etc. But the bulk of the work is mutual funds. Or the bulk of the time is 401(k)'s. Or the bulk of the revenue is generated by something else. It's up to you to figure out, with your key stakeholders, what the most valuable problem to solve will be, then it's up to you to focus on that one factor.

The mandate you give your team is to fix just that one piece, make it better for the business and don't worry about the details. You will re-work and re-engineer as you dig down into the next set of priorities on upcoming iterations. But you will be providing a high-value solution in very short order, and that is worth more to the business in the long run.

Thanks for staying with me as we continue exploring the approach of Getting Real in your corporate development shop.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How to Get Real in Corporate Development, Part II

This is the second part of an essay on how the concepts of Getting Real from 37signals can benefit development groups in corporate environments. Exploring this mash-up is worthwhile because at first glance, there seems to be very little in common between the web-application, small-team, product bootstrap philosophy in Getting Real and the realities of corporate development teams. These realities include governance, oversight, processes, controlled systems and similar best practices. But pull the covers back a bit and enough similarities appear to make for a compelling argument. Let's dive right in and take a closer look at the key concepts from the first essay.

Build less. Build smaller applications with only the most important features and delivery it quickly.

This is sage advice because the corporate development life cycle is typically beset with serious birthing pains. Life cycles are heavy with process, stages, gate reviews and sign-offs. The corporate process inevitably includes requirements gathering and documentation, which involve meetings, drawings, documents and reviews. The requirements themselves transform from stakeholder statements to business requirements to technical requirements to design documents. After all that, there is finally the build, test, deploy, train, support and maintain functions. All to get one release to the business users.

Some problems with this model is that it takes too darn long and is too darn expensive. Half a year can pass filled with stakeholder interviews, document drafts, reviews, modifications and so forth that will ultimately produce a few dozen pages of specifications and diagrams. One team of stakeholders, business analysis and engineers can easily spend multiple person months or even a person year (or years) producing 60 pages. If you have a blended team salary rate of $90K, then each page costs $1,500. And you haven't built anything yet!

"No" you might be answering resolutely right now, "but we know know what to build! And we have a plan to build it."

True. I've worked this way too and I know that it helps to reduce the risk of development in the long run. You can plan for a three-phase development effort, get the budget lined up and all that. However, please consider an alternative.

Your team knew -- on day one -- what was the most important functionality needed. You, and they, don't need 6o expensive pages for that. Here's how it would work for you when you Get Real.

Two good engineers and a business analyst -- your development team -- meet with the key stakeholders. The stakeholders are asked to identify their top problems within the problem space. Then they have to choose only one. The top problem. Your development team ask enough questions to fully understand that problem and how it relates to the other top problems.

Then, they go away and produce something small to fix that top problem and only that top problem. This takes three weeks. After all, they are focused on only one key important problem.

Next, the key stakeholders begin to use the new application. After one week, the team reconvenes and the development team learns what works, what doesn't and what the next most important problem to solve is.

At this point, you've spent a tiny fraction of the expense and effort of that functional specification we taked about earlier and you have an application that, hopefully, solves an immediate business problem. If it doesn't, it has shone a big, bright light on that problem. How much longer do you think it will really take your development team to get it right? One more iteration? Two? Fine; because at that point three months will have gone by and you will have a demonstrable ROI. Compare that to a functional spec that takes six to nine months to write. You are seriously ahead of the curve.

OK, another valid concern is that when your development team learns about the next problem they will have to throw away a lot of what they've done. And they might. This is why we focus on solving one problem within the context of the larger scope. However, it is critical to solve only one problem at a time. Fix the problem you have today, not the problem you anticipate having tomorrow.

The way to do this is to build only what you need to fix that problem. Build less. What is the smallest, most elegant solution to the business problem?

Keep in mind that the business problem might not be the problem the users report. They may be unhappy with emailing spreadsheets around and want the population, generation and transmission automated. However, what they really need is a way to exchange and store information centrally instead of relying on spreadsheets.

Thanks for reading. We will continue to peel back this onion in the next essay on Getting Real in your corporate development shop.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Using Getting Real Concepts in the Corporate Office

The talented and intelligent folks at 37signals have created some great applications. As major contributors to Ruby on Rails, they also have been fundamental in building and leading a revolution in rapidly developed, high quality web applications. 37signals is successful because they think creatively about the problem that they are trying to solve. Fortunately for all of us, part of that thinking is that they should be open and transparent with many aspects of their process and business. Therefore, they often preach about the practices that have helped them attain success.

Anyone can read their preachings online. For free! It's a great concept, and one that is often encouraged by industry leaders -- think Seth Godin for one.

You can also purchase a high-quality bound copy of their book “Getting Real” from Lulu.com. I have because I like being able to read when not in front of the computer. It’s all laid out in their book (the exact same copy in the web pages, downloadable PDF or book) – their philosophical approach to clients, development, hiring, customer service, and so on.

When I became aware of 37signals , I was developing Ruby on Rails web applications. Because I was creating web apps, which is clearly the focus of the book and philosophy, I found myself agreeing with just about everything they were saying. And hey, I’m a software development veteran.

I’ve done this for years and years and have focused extensively on managing complex projects to successful deliveries. I’ve been through waterfall, spiral, iterative, agile, ad hoc, chaotic, random and panic-driven development models. I agreed with what they were saying because it makes sense and I was able to make it work successfully on my projects without any pain or difficult transitions. There aren’t many “new” development philosophies about which that can be said! For light, flexibile web apps, “Getting Real” made total sense and, more importantly, it worked.

But what about corporate environments with ongoing development efforts? These shops have a different set of starting points and different base assumptions. What if you aren’t developing a web app? What if you aren’t focused on revenue generation with your app? What if your users are waiting for their application and have expectations about how it will help them?

Can your corporate development efforts also Get Real? Yes, I believe that they can. let's look at the components of Getting Real that will help your corporate development teams use the principles from Getting Real to improve productivity and stakeholder satisfaction levels.

Let’s start with some of the key concepts of Getting Real that are directly beneficial for all development efforts. (Links are to the essays on those concepts)

  1. Build less. Build smaller applications with only the most important features and deliver it quickly.
  2. Focus on one idea. Start with the big problem, build the large scale functionality and don’t sweat the details.
  3. Get something functional and useable deployed quickly. Plan on your next release right away. Make a choice and go with it.
  4. Start with the UI design and focus on how your users will use your application.
  5. Focus on fulfilling business stories, not big specification documents.
  6. Keep your developers on the front line of support
  7. Be willing to radically change the application to make it better. Resist the urge to make one monolithic tool to solve everyone’s problems at once.

Notice that these nuggets are completely environment, tool, and technology agnostic. There are some radical ideas that will doubtlessly shake up the “way things are done”, but these are the right ideas to grab onto and the right changes to make.

Fortunately, there are some components of Getting Real that an internal corporate development group can safely ignore right off the bat. For example, you’re probably not looking to generate revenue with something like an internal workflow enhancement tool. Not that you can ignore development costs or the value proposition of the development effort, but at least your users won’t be facing the prospect of paying a monthly fee. (Although, there may be something here….)

You can safely ignore the need to market and promote your application extensively. Please note the qualifier. The new whiz-bang tool you’ve developed for Operations is straight sunk costs if end users aren’t using it. Therefore, they do need to know about it and they should be excited about its arrival and feature set. But that should come from good communications and interactive product development and not from promotional marketing campaigns. Trumpeting successes is always allowed, however, so some allowance is made, but we’re not talking at all about the same degree of importance of marketing discussed in the book.

Most importantly, as you – the development lead, manager, director, VP, CTO, Whatever – read Getting Real, you can insert your favorite technology du jour whenever the book talks about web applications. The thrust of web apps in Getting Real is their rapid deployment and instant accessibility to customers. No CD burning, no distribution efforts, no retail operations, etc.

But let’s face it, how long does it really take to deploy a new version of an internally developed application in your shop whether it was written in C++, Java, Lotus Domino, C#, .NET or Ruby on Rails? If you’re thinking “weeks”, then you’ve got another problem, don’t you? You can quickly push out new applications through automated corporate update mechanisms, internal web sites and internal installers with the exact same degree of responsiveness that is the base assumption in the book So don’t sweat it that you’re not making a web app. The underlying philosophies in “Getting Real” remain pertinent, applicable and valid to you and can revolutionize your development centers.

The next essay will look at those seven take-away concepts in greater detail and will focus on how you can leverage these concepts to make high quality software faster.