Archive for the ‘Software Development’ category

A second opinion

November 17, 2011

I have no idea what the inside of my body looks like and I have only a vague notion of what each of the pieces-parts are doing at any given moment.  Like most of us, I do have suspicions about when something might be wrong, but that’s when I typically turn to a pro and his or her tools and knowledge (like MRI’s, stethoscopes, etc.) to help figure out what’s going on in there.   It’s the only body I have and I plan to put it to continued good use well into the future.

And if I suspected that something was seriously wrong, I might even get ‘a second opinion.’  Depending on my insurance, I might have to pay out of my own pocket for that opinion, and there’s also a good chance I might hear the same feedback I got from the first physician, but hey, this could be serious and I can’t afford to take chances!

I work with a lot of organizations who rely on software and information technology about as heavily as I rely on my body.   In many cases, software runs their business and gives them a competitive advantage.   And many of these business users know as much about their software’s inner workings as I do about my body’s.    After all, it’s not their field of expertise.  They have IT professionals who are working ‘under the covers’ to make their software do what it’s supposed to do.

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But I’ve noticed they rarely, if ever, seek a second opinion.  Sometimes that takes the form of a “software audit” or a “code review.”   Usually, it’s done by an independent third party who, like a medical second opinion, may completely agree with what their IT pros are telling them.  On the other hand, if something is not being done according to best practices or industry standards, that’s about the only way they are ever going to find out.

Health Care has second opinions.  Construction has building inspectors.  Even elevators have to be routinely inspected.  Isn’t it about time the software industry grew up and realized that even though you may not always get a ‘clean bill of health’ from your audit, that’s better than waiting til they break out the scalpels…?

Speed Racer

November 10, 2011

My daughter ran in the Grand Rapids Marathon a few weeks back.  She finished in 4 hours and 30 minutes, which I believe is a respectable time to run 26 miles if you’re not from Kenya.  One of the things I learned from her preparations is that you have to have a “plan” for your race.  Her plan, apparently, was to use her heart rate to determine how fast to run each mile, striving to keep a relatively steady beats per minute, which may lead to less buildup of lactic acid or other ‘cramp inducers.’  Near as I can tell, she ran the first half of the race just slightly slower than the last half, but kept a pretty steady pace throughout.  Good for her!

I have decided, though, that if I ever run a marathon, I will take a vastly different and obviously superior approach.  I will jog the first 16 miles of the race and then sprint the last ten.   I am pretty confident I can beat her time by doing that.  I can jog 16 miles briskly in about 3 hours, and then sprint the last ten at ten miles per hour, in another 60 minutes, finishing in 4 hours.  Take that!

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I was committed to this plan until a few friends asked some probing questions like, “Bob, have you ever sprinted ten miles?”    Brutally, they followed up with, “Have you ever sprinted even two miles?”  And then, the coup de grace, “Have you ever sprinted even one mile after jogging 16??”

At that point, I realized the flaw in my plan.  Trying to go faster at the end of a long race is no strategy for success especially if:

a) you’re out of shape or

b) you’ve never done it before

So why do so many project teams and project managers think they can get to the halfway point of a project in six months and then finish the other half in two??

It’s gotta be the lactic acid buildup…

Talk to me!

October 6, 2011

I turns out that the first Secretary General of the U.N. was a Norwegian named Trygve LieHe served from the inception of the U.N. in 1946 until 1952, when Dag Hammarskjold took over.  Given that subsequent SG’s have been named Banki, Kofi and Boutros, I am guessing that if your name is Bill, you have no shot at the post.  But that’s not the point.

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I can imagine that Trygve was pretty excited when he got the job.  Imagine!  Bringing representatives from all over the world to discuss world affairs in one, big forum!  I wonder what day he woke up and thought, “oh crap, they all speak different languages.  This is going to be awkward…”  To this day, I am still fascinated when I see pictures of the U.N. with all the reps wearing headphones so they can hear the translation of the speaker’s words into their own tongue.  Phew, the logistics!!

I am equally fascinated that many of the project stakeholders and sponsors I work with have no idea that the systems and applications that they have bought, built and installed throughout their enterprise over the past 20 years are essentially the nerd equivalent of the U.N.  They seem to have little appreciation for the fact that their HR System speaks Swahili, their Invoicing System speaks Russian, and their Point of Sales System is a mute who, if she could speak, would speak Farsi.

So let’s declare this week Language Appreciation Week.  If you are working with someone who is trying to get two systems to talk to each other and, in fact, have an intelligent conversation, cut them some slack and recognize that it’s harder than you may think.  Right, Trygve?

Schaden-what???

July 21, 2011

As many of you astute linguists know, Schadenfreude is a German word that basically means “taking pleasure in the misfortune of others…”  Germans have a more sophisticated word for this than we do because, well, first of all, they are more disciplined and sophisticated, and secondly, they like to create long, complex nouns for everything near as I can tell.  Our best options in English seem to be “I told you so” and “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah…”

All in all, though, I’d say the whole concept is pretty childish and selfish.

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So imagine my shock this week when I caught myself slipping into the world of Schaden.  I am working on a project with some pretty aggressive deadlines (read, virtually impossible to meet) and a team that, though dedicated, is quite novice at taking on such an intense project.  I feel like, as a good consultant should, I have pointed out these things to the stakeholders, but they have doggedly persisted in their approach and retained their timelines.  I suppose that’s their prerogative.

Then, all of a sudden, I was filled with anticipation of a day that might come when they have missed all their deadlines, and I could trot out, even if it was unspoken, with a gleeful “I told you so.”  Fess up – the reason there’s a word for this is German is because it’s pretty innate human behavior.  You’ve done it too, haven’t you?

But the reality is it’s not helpful to anyone to behave this way.  I caught myself and have renewed my determination to find ways to bring this thing to a positive outcome, or at least go down with the team.  Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, remember there’s no Schadenfreud in “team…”

Less is More

April 7, 2011

I had a strange convergence of events this week.  I have been working closely with a client during the requirements phase of a big, complex project that could easily evolve into “more is more” if we’re not careful.  I am reading ReWork by Jason Fried, which is just an interesting little collection of one or two page thoughts on how to work smarter and be more productive.  On page 83, there’s a segment titled “Throw Less at the Problem.”   Inspiring and counter-intuitive!  But here’s the convergence topper!

I was watching Jimmy Fallon’s talk show.  His guest was Jerry Weintraub who, among other things, supposedly managed Elvis Presley’s road show engagements for a while.  He told a great anecdote on the show, which I will try to summarize:

He said he booked Elvis at an afternoon gig in Miami in July.   According to Jerry, Elvis had two key requirements for his performances:

  1. there need to be women in the front rows of the audience (duh)
  2. the venue has to be full

Jerry booked an 10,000 seat arena for the show.  He called to check on ticket sales and was told by the local promoter that the show had sold out.  When Jerry got there the day of the show, the promoter fessed up and said they really had only sold 5,000 seats and that he lied about the sales because he thought that’s what Jerry wanted to hear.  Who wants to go to an indoor concert in the middle of a July afternoon in Miami??  So Jerry had to sell 5,000 seats in a few hours to make sure the arena was full for Elvis’ concert.  Or did he???

He said he hired a few local workers and removed 5,000 seats from the arena!  Brilliant! Elvis was very happy with the “sellout” for the show.

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So next time, before you throw more resources, money, time and effort at a problem, consider what you might take away instead…  Who knows what you might come up with!

The Money Changers

January 15, 2010

Although I love a good metaphor (and bad ones, according to my wife) I am not usually given to Biblical ones.  But I gotta throw something out there….

There’s a passage in Matthew, in the new testament, where the usually mild-mannered Jesus “loses it” and throws all the money changers out of the temple.  I guess these folks, among other services, sold doves and other livestock to temple patrons to be sacrificed, and exchanged foreign currency for whatever coinage was in vogue on the temple mount at the time, shekels most likely.

Fast forward 2000 years or so, and go to any technology convention.  In a vast area someplace (usually on the way into a session you’d like to attend) are rows and rows of tables of Independent Software Vendors (aka ISV’s) who desperately want you to stop by their booth and buy a goat or a hen (oh wait, confused there…  I mean take a brochure or try out a 30 day free demo)

Disclaimer:

  1. some of my best friends are ISV’s
  2. I use third party software at my clients all the time and work to implement all sorts of solutions that use ISV products, usually with some level of what would be considered “success”

Having said that, the last straw for me came from an interesting tweet from alert reader, Woody, who shared a link about “booth babes” from the just-ended Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas [duh] that goes into the lives and motivations of the lures to a software or product display at a convention.  Nice.

So here’s my “ask” of my ISV friends.  (I first learned to use the word ‘ask’ as a noun at Xerox – they were famous for that…)   If you are going to physically position yourself in the way of our session, lunch or happy hour beer, and lure us to your booth with “babes,” why don’t you balance that with a few honest statements about what your product DOESN’T do.  I can honestly say that I have never had an ISV tell me, in printed material or a pre-sales call, that their software isn’t good at X and was never meant to be used as Y.  We’re gonna find out anyway, why not tell us before we invest?  Do you need the sale that bad?  Do you really want to deal with the fallout from unfulfilled promises later?

If you can’t bring yourselves to do it, have the booth babes do it.  I promise, we won’t walk away…

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Rear View Mirror

January 7, 2010

Today, it seems everyone wants to be a “futurist.”  Or maybe that should be, TOMORROW everyone wants to be a futurist.  I never did get verb tenses very well.  In any case, I have decided that yesterday, I am a Pastist.  That’s the opposite of futurist, right?  I mean, it’s easy to prognosticate about what might happen in 5 or 10 years.  Even with Facebook making it so easy to find people you had the good fortune to lose touch with, who’s really gonna track you down to tell you how wrong you were?  But the past, that’s indisputable.  Much tougher!  That’s why there are so many futurists and so few pastists.  In fact, the annoying squiggles under the word itself tell me that Microsoft doesn’t even think it’s a word.  Clearly there’s no higher authority than that!

As a pastist, though, I want to point out three trends from the PAST 10 years  that I find particularly disturbing:

1) Outsourcing – who’s idea was that anyway?  My guess is some CFO under a lot of pressure to find the last semi-legal way to satisfy his or her ravenous shareholders and who had no respect for the real work that IT professionals do.  And more importantly, the irreplaceable intellectual capital (that’s right, as opposed to the “real” capital that the CFO cares so deeply about) that you just glibly shipped outside your company without realizing it’s the same as if you had shredded your precious financial documents from the past 3 filing years.  Oh wait, you did that too!

2) Client/Server – nothing says organization and synergy like taking your corporate data and chopping it up into little pieces, hiding it in all your departments, and then later spend literally millions of dollars trying to reassemble into something meaningful.  Seriously, that’s what most Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing projects are.   Sad attempts to glue back together your mom’s favorite china plate that you dropped on the tile floor.   But don’t worry, once all the pieces are reassembled, you can put them in “the cloud…”

3) SAP – I guess, in many ways, this was the best alternative to client/server.  Buy a single, all-encompassing and hopelessly complex, “best practice”-based combination business process/software/workflow, stop everything else you are doing for 5 years to try to implement it, and then wait for either the promised ROI to magically appear or the phone call to come to the CEO’s office and explain yourself before your exit interview…

What does all this have to do with being a better leader? 

In the next ten years (or if you’re into New Year’s Resolutions, the next 3 months) buck a trend.  Do what your instincts tell you are right, instead of what “everyone else is doing.”  Focus on your customers or, God-forbid, your employees and ignore the folks whispering that if you just put your whole business on an iPhone app, build a Facebook fan page, and Twitter all day long you’re guaranteed to succeed…  Damn futurists…

Real guts

November 20, 2009

It has taken me quite some time to finally admit a truth.  I am a chicken.  I am not a big fan of roller coasters, though I do occasionally ride the more tame ones, I wouldn’t bungee jump off a porch, skiing down a black diamond slope seems more like punishment than “outdoor fun”,  and my idea of a “rush” is a 3 1/2 foot downhill putt for a buck.  Yup, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to make that diagnosis.

So you can imagine how much I admire people with guts.  And here’s one I just learned about, thanks to a Facebook post by my good friend Ilya and a little extra research.  He’s the founder of 37Signals and his name is Jason Fried.  37Signals, as you may know, is a software development company that makes, among other things, BaseCamp, and appears to have been there at the beginning of the creation of Ruby on Rails, a very popular open source framework for developing software applications.  What’s interesting is that none of what I just mentioned is why I admire him or think he has guts.  Here’s why.  This is an excerpt from an article about him in eWeek, talking about the team at 37Signals:

Want to work at home? Cool. Want to come in to the office? No problem. Want to take a few hours off in the middle of the day to goof off and look at Internet videos or read? Please do it; it’s encouraged, Fried said. He doesn’t believe in treating employees like children. 

It’s easy for anyone to read that and say, “yeah, that’s exactly how I would treat my employees too if I ran a software company.”  But let me tell you that, when you’re worried about revenue, billings, cash flow, customer satisfaction and the second mortgage on your house you took out when you started the company, and you walk past a team member who is napping at their desk, goofing off, or setting up his or her fantasy football lineup in the middle of the day, you’d be surprised how quickly every fiber of your being wants to ask them what the heck they’re doing.  If you don’t believe that, you’ve never been in that situation.  Walking by, paying attention to your own tasks and trusting that the rest of your team is doing the same no matter what outward indications you’re getting to the contrary takes real guts.  And from what I can see, Jason Fried’s got ‘em.

If you want to learn more about Jason or read some thought-provoking insights into how he views work, check out this article.  Unless you’re chicken…

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Nothin’ but the best, Alice

October 29, 2009

We decided to get a family portrait done, because it had been approximately 15 years since the last one, and it seemed like we should capture an image of our children before we have to steal one from their AARP membership cards.  So we searched relentlessly for just the right photographer, since this was such an important undertaking and we wanted it to turn out just right.  One photographer in particular impressed me a great deal.  He talked a good game and seemed genuinely interested in capturing the “Kreha Essence.”   As he became more enthused about the project, he reached into his equipment bag and took out his camera, a Kodak Instamatic Brownie camera that looked like it probably captured the drama of the landing at Normandy.

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Needless to say, we moved on to the next photographer…  Now here’s what you’re thinking:  I’ve never seen a serious photographer who doesn’t also have a passion about their equipment, because his or her cameras are an extension of their art.  Of course not!  They understand that investing in quality equipment, even though it’s expensive, is a necessary cost of doing business, and, quite frankly, of making the right impression on some of their clients.

So why is it that some technology consulting companies can’t seem to find the funding to provide similar quality equipment for their technical staff?  What message does that send?

Just to round this out, I went to a panel discussion last week on using technology to market your company.  As we rolled around to the subject of tools, new media, etc. one of the panelists, the CEO of a small, growing company, actually said, “I wanted an iPhone, so I finally had to buy them for my staff.”  Nice message.

I realize how costly it can be to replace or upgrade laptops, servers, your network and other infrastructure that your teams use to do their work on a very short cycle.  Do you realize how costly it is NOT to do that…?

Instructive yes, hypocrite no

July 23, 2009

It occurred to me that I left one rather important detail about my last post out.  And that would be the answer to the inevitable question:

Hey moron, if you estimate hours and do fixed price work, which is essentially inevitable in consulting, what’s your solution to this dilemma of hours and revenue management?

Not wanting to be a hypocrite or someone who points out challenges with no solution, here’s what I recommend:

For purposes of this discussion, I will assume there are three separate milestone payments in the contract. 

1)  Consider each milestone and its associated payment like a separate “mini-project.”  Estimate the hours for that mini-project and consider that the baseline.  Include planned payments and the average cost of your employees, including benefits, etc.  SHARE THAT NUMBER WITH THE WHOLE TEAM.  Repeat for all additional milestones.  You should end up with something like this:

Milestone Estimated Hours Fixed price payment due upon completion Avg total cost of employees per hour planned gross  profit
1 500 50000 51 24500
2 1000 100000 51 49000
3 500 50000 51 24500

2) start the project

3) keep track of actual hours

4) at the end of each milestone, add a column to the table and put the total hours expended to achieve the milestone.  SHARE WITH THE WHOLE TEAM.

5) calculate your ACTUAL Profit based on the actual hours worked to achieve that milestone.

6) start the next milestone.

7) at the end of the project, calculate your total profit.  SHARE WITH THE WHOLE TEAM.

8 ) review the estimates versus actuals with at least the project leadership team, evaluate where you did well and where you could have improved/been more efficient.

9) If you used less hours than what you estimated, celebrate!

10) If you used WAY more hours than you estimated, kick yourself for estimating poorly, not the project team.

11) take the word “overage” out of your vocabulary forever.  There’s no such thing…


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