A major problem with many projects is the quest for perfection. We don’t want to release a software application until it looks perfect, there are no bugs, it’s fast, and the user experience is flawless. And that’s a great ideal for any project. Unfortunately, the quest for perfection invariably adds scope-creep. What was originally deemed a good design is now less than perfect and requires tweaks. The performance is just not fast enough yet, so we’ll tune the servers. An executive decided there is a new piece of required functionality that simply must go in. On and on we go, and the app release is pushed back further and further. Projects can go on for a year or more before being released. Certainly we want solid software applications, but what does this quest for perfection bring us? In the end, very little of value. As release dates get pushed back, the customer begins to lose faith in the abilities of the development team to deliver. Increased time-to-market means we miss opportunities to sell our product. Increased release cycle times make us less responsive to user issues we didn’t see. These problems are among the issues solved by agile development. Frequently releasing code means that users can start getting essential functionality quicker, time-to-market is diminished, and teams can react to changing user requirements quickly. But to get there, we have to determine what the minimum viable product is and accept that things may not be perfect. We need to accept that our initial version will not be the best there is, but that it’s good enough to do what we set out to do. Understandably, this may feel uncomfortable to the perfectionist in us – after all, we want to give our absolute best. We want a product that we can be proud of and that the customer is dying to have. But if we wait, with delay after delay, we run the risk of having the best app that will never be used because someone else beat you to it.
Today, I was read an article asking why you do whatever it is you do. If you are trying to sell to a customer, they’re not interested in what you sell but rather why you sell it. You may sell widgets, but people don’t buy widgets for the sake of having widgets – they buy widgets for whatever it is they do – the why. In my business, people don’t buy code – they don’t care about code. What they do care about is the why. Why do I write code? I write code to simplify business processes, to improve operational efficiency, to increase revenue, to ensure compliance with regulatory guidelines, and to simply make my client’s life easier. People buy those things! As a business, wouldn’t you pay for operational efficiency, increased revenue, and easier compliance management? Software can have an impact on every facet of a business and take your business to the next level. Don’t waste your time doing tasks that aren’t generating maximum revenue for your organization – find software solutions to solve those problems so you can spend your time having a real impact on your business by focusing your talents where they will generate the most revenue!
Today, I was reading some advice from Simon Sinek. He says we should always work to outdo ourselves. Don’t focus on others, don’t strive to be number 1, don’t compare yourselves to others, compare yourself to you. Are you making progress? This is great advice in the tech world as well as the business world. Sure, I can be disappointed that my company isn’t as big as Microsoft yet. Or I can compare where my business is today to where it was last year and ask if I’m making progress. If you are a programmer, is your code better today than it was a year ago? If you are a system administrator, are you better with Windows administration than you were a year ago? If you’re a network admin, do you understand Cisco routers better than last year? If the answer is no, why not? Unfortunately, too many people in the world today spend too little time advancing their skills. Then, when it comes time for a raise, they wonder why they didn’t receive what they expected. How do you make progress in the tech world? It’s actually not hard. Read books, see what people are posting on Twitter, write code (if you’re a programmer), attend conferences, tinker with new hardware, etc. Skill only comes with practice! I read someone else say that things are either green and growing or brown and dying. This is certainly true of skills. Use them or lose them. If you’re not advancing your tech skills, those skills will atrophy. If you want to achieve excellence in your field, challenge yourself to be better today than you were yesterday and then take action to ensure it happens!
In the late 90’s, I attended the Army’s Primary Leadership Development Course, which was a requirement for promotion to Sergeant. This 4 week course included classes on leading physical fitness training, marching troops, compass and map reading (including a required night land navigation course), and other tasks necessary for leading soldiers in battle. Throughout the courses on leadership, the distinction between a leader and a manager was made clear. Of course, outside the military, I think most people would say they are synonyms. In the Army, leadership is defined as direct management of troops while management is indirect. What does this mean? It means that a leader directly interacts with his or her subordinates and a manager does not. A leader eats lunch with his team, a manager does not. A leader knows what’s going on in the lives of his team, a manager does not care. I don’t want to infer that management is in some way bad. We need managers – people in positions behind the scenes that move the wheels of an organization. But even more so, we need leaders. We need people who others aspire to be like, a person who inspires his team to great things, an individual that encourages others to be more than they currently are or even think they can become. For a leader, an individual will work extra hours, come in on Saturday, and end up being happy about it! In my entire career as a software engineer, I have found few people that meet these ideals. I’ve seen many managers, but few actual leaders. Indeed, in the software world we see titles like “Director”, or “Scrum Master” – neither one shows any sense of leadership. The title “Scrum Master” would never be chosen by a real leader because it suggests an incredible amount of superiority over the team. Leaders are part of what’s going on. They are doing what they tell others to do. They are protecting the members of their team. They are encouraging their team to do more. They are not above the action, they are an integral part of the action! Aren’t those the people you want to work for? The people you hope to be like? If you want employees to take your business to the next level, employees who are committed to your organization, empower them by ensuring the leaders you pick know how to lead – not just manage – those in their care.
Recently, I was contacted by an individual leading a group of young engineers into a state-wide competition. This leader wanted to discuss the project and see if I had any advice. I provided him a simple improvement that would have greatly improved the product that the team was working to produce. Then, a few days later, I heard that he had decided not to take my advice. Instead, he would use my suggestion as an improvement if his team was selected to advance to round two of the competition. This really disappointed me. This leader has taught his team to try just hard enough – not to do your best. And, he made the mistake of assuming that his inferior product would advance to the next round. In today’s highly competitive market, this is the exact opposite of what the next generation needs to see. Instead, we need to install in those underneath us a quest for excellence – not mediocrity. If you can do better, why aren’t you? If you can make the product better, what’s stopping you? Innovation and excellence require pushing yourself every day – you can never settle for anything less. In everything you do, bring your A game. If you don’t, someone else will and you’ll be left on the sideline.
One of the most important things to most customers is customer service. And how do users rate customer service? Typically, by two criteria – the speed at which results are achieved and how satisfactory the results were. You can look at review websites for any product or service and see people complaining about one or the other. As consumers, we want what we want, and we want it now! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that – capitalism encourages such a model.
But here’s the problem I see in my business – consumers who want something, but won’t communicate what it is they want. Or consumers who are quick to complain about an issue but won’t provide the information to resolve that issue. I have customers who will send me an email about an problem wanting it immediately fixed. But when I send email after email to gather more information, they are ignored. Then, the customer sends me another message asking if their problem is fixed. I have software customers who will report a high priority bug, but won’t tell me how to reproduce it and ignore emails from the ticket tracking systems.
Fortunately, the resolution to the problem is simple: If you want excellent service from the companies you work with, be prepared to offer excellent service to those companies when they are trying to resolve your problem. Otherwise, you only get out what you put in – and that’s not the fault of the company servicing your problem!
Yesterday, I started up my spare laptop to load an Android Studio project. The laptop I normally use for this project was at the office, and I was sitting at home. I had to upgrade the version of Android Studio first, and then load the project. But, after over an hour, I still had not written a single line of code. On my Mac, I could have upgraded and had the project open and running in under ten minutes – but my old Windows computer is so slow it’s painful.
Consider the company you work for or the projects you work on. What is the cost of using slow hardware to your organization? What about to your productivity on your projects?
Many people look to buy a cheap computer for work and, indeed, a large number of companies do the same. Why spend too much on computers? Here’s why – when you buy a $500 machine instead of a $1,000 machine, you saved $500. However, during the lifetime of that computer – say two years – you will be less productive than on a more powerful computer that doesn’t have you waiting to work. Do the math and you quickly see that the $500 you saved in cheap hardware is dwarfed by the losses to productivity. If a faster computer allows you to work just a marginal 5% faster, that would mean that – during the course of 2 years – you would accomplish an additional 208 hours of work. (40 hours / week * 52 weeks / year * 2 years * 5%) Even at minimum wage, that comes out to over $1,500 dollars of additional work. Some may argue that the work they do doesn’t require a fast computer. That’s fine, buy cheap computers for those tasks. But for me, as a software engineer, the computer is often a limiting factor to my performance. And, I suspect many other fields are the same.
The power of the machines you purchase for your employees has a direct impact on their productivity. You may think you’re saving money with bargain computers, but long-term you’re losing far more in productivity.
This morning, I woke up to a light dusting of snow outside. I went to sweep the snow from the front steps, and ended up knocking a vertical bar off the hand railing. As the steps are less than 6 months old, this was very disappointing to me. I contacted the contractor and am waiting for a response. I wish I could say that was the only issue I’ve had with another organization’s quality or customer service this month, but I’d be lying. I purchased an annual subscription to an online news site only to find that their computers say my subscription started in March – instead of December – so my annual subscription will be due 3 months after I paid for it. Their support has still not responded to the issue. I contacted a university in Pittsburgh to get information on taking the HSK exam (Chinese language proficiency) and never heard back. A second university I contacted replied within minutes – with two URLs that were both wrong. And, for one more poor customer service issue, I have been unable to get Google to fix a problem with my account for almost two months now. The problem is on their end, it’s documented in numerous places, but all I am ever told is to upgrade to Silver support to have it fixed. I have to pay them more money to fix a problem that is on their end.
These stories are all just from this month. We live in a world where people have become lazy and sloppy. Quality is increasingly difficult to find, and support is often so bad we’d rather not even try. For me, as a software engineer, this is unacceptable. Every line of code I write – whether for my projects or for a customer – is written so that it can be maintained long-term. I take pride in the quality of my code and the applications I develop. I am more than happy to support the applications and code I write because I create a quality product. My code is a reflection of me.
When you’re looking for development resources for your projects, do they feel the same way? Or will you regret your decision this time next year?
At a recent chamber of commerce meeting, a fellow member asked me what my company does. I replied that I create custom software solutions for businesses. He was incredulous that people actually paid for custom software. Sadly, this wasn’t a small business that might struggle to see the benefit of custom software — this was a large, well-established local business. Exactly the kind of customer that has much to gain from custom software development. But what do businesses stand to gain from custom software development? First and foremost, custom software allows the organization to have tailor-made solutions to their problems. Software is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The application that works great for a small business may not be flexible enough for a large business. Conversely, an application that works great for a large business may be needlessly complex for a smaller business. Even more importantly, off-the-shelf solutions don’t take into account the things that make a business unique. After all, doesn’t every business have something that makes them special? Maybe your organization makes custom products — how do you quote the product? Maybe your organization is an innovator in your market space — how do you implement process to aid in that innovation? Whatever it may be, your company is like no other — and custom software solutions can aid you in exploiting the things that set you apart from the competition. Second, off-the-shelf software may be updated or changed in the future in ways that break functionality you depend on. Remember the last time you updated Windows? Did everything go smoothly? Off-the-shelf software is the same thing — maybe it works great, maybe not. But as a business, is that a risk you’re willing to take? Custom software can mitigate that risk since you — the customer — are in control of any new features in the application. Furthermore, you can have the software modified to ensure compliance with new laws, new processes, or new requirements of any kind. Try having off-the-shelf software updated to meet your new requirements. Third, custom software can be written to integrate with your other systems. Integration of systems can ensure that data is not required to be entered multiple times, it can enable faster processing of information, and it can greatly improve operational efficiency. Custom software can be written to read inventory from your existing inventory control system, update employee data in your employee management systems, integrate with your customer management systems, or interface with any other systems your company depends on. Off-the-shelf software simply can’t compete with that. Fourth, custom software can be supported by the developers who wrote it — developers you have interfaced with, developers who understand your business and what makes it unique. Off-the-shelf support may or (more likely) may not meet your needs as an organization. Late on a Friday night, do you want to call a foreign call center for your software and hope someone can help or would you rather call the local software company and have them stop by tonight to diagnose and solve the problem?
As a software engineer for nearly 20 years, I can site countless samples of work I’ve done that has improved an organizations revenue, improved workflows, aided in reporting data to senior management, and ultimately aided the organization in increasing market share. And isn’t that exactly what businesses want? To increase market share? Why a company would not want custom software is a better question!