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)
- Build less. Build smaller applications with only the most important features and deliver it quickly.
- Focus on one idea. Start with the big problem, build the large scale functionality and don’t sweat the details.
- Get something functional and useable deployed quickly. Plan on your next release right away. Make a choice and go with it.
- Start with the UI design and focus on how your users will use your application.
- Focus on fulfilling business stories, not big specification documents.
- Keep your developers on the front line of support
- 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.