Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Development and Delivery or Management and Marketing Gimmicks?

SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: The following post contains extreme amounts of cynicism brought on by excessive contact with various marketroids and PHBs. Read at your own risk. May lead to hair-pulling, spontaneous gnashing of teeth and depression.

I’ve been working for a fairly typical, small IT services shop over the last year or so and I’ve seen projects come (rarely) and projects go (often). I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the insistence of upper management on concentrating on the wrong things, viz. management and marketing gimmickry rather than core delivery. I’ll be leaving this place in a couple of days (Hallelujah! :-), so here is an amalgam of what I’ve learnt about servicing your clients and knowing your markets (usually by watching us fail to do so properly).

At the lower end of the SME segment, the customer is more concerned about the actual delivery/success of the project while at the higher end, he's more concerned about the perception of delivery/success.

Let me illustrate what I mean by taking an extreme example. Let’s compare the actions and attitudes of a large trans-national IT services company (Big Corp) v/s a one man code shop (One Man Army a.k.a. Rambo). The actual situations below are not directly applicable except in the most extreme cases since you’ll no doubt be somewhere in the spectrum between Big Corp and Rambo, rather than at the ends of the rainbow. You’re relationship with your customer will thus be suitable nuanced.

The ‘customer’

Big Corp’s end customer is usually not the actual business entity they’re dealing with. It’s far more specific. It’s actually the business person they’re interacting with; the guy who’s brought them in. A ‘company’ has no mind of it’s own and despite the legal precedent set in many countries, it is not a ‘person’ in any sense of the word. It has no concept of profit or loss, or success or failure (or right and wrong for that matter). The people within it do.

This may seem like an extremely trite observation, but it is central to understanding the actions of any business. In any business relationship, the vendor/consultant/etc. will try and align themselves to the people they’re reporting to, not to the business at large. If an action will help their corporate patron succeed (and thus help them succeed) at the cost of the client business entity, they will do it

This is true for the one man shop too, but at the market level he operates within, he deals with people who are directly and immediately affected by the success or failure of the business as a whole. He’s usually dealing with the business owner or is only one step removed from him. He thus has to justify his presence by providing actual, immediate and tangible business benefits. He has to deliver.

The end goal

Now keeping in mind that the end customer is not the business but someone within it, the end goal shifts in a subtle way. It’s no longer necessarily about providing value, but the perception of value. Big Corp has to concentrate on providing its corporate patrons with ammunition they can use in the boardroom. They have to justify the expenses they’re incurring and to bolster their position. A project which is wildly successful, but cannot be used to further the position of the patron is useless compared to another which is a failure, but can be successfully spun as being otherwise.

The goal is to help the customer (i.e. Big Corps corporate sponsor) to move up the ladder, thus putting him in a position to reward Big Corp with larger and juicier contracts.

Rambo on the other hand, has to stay on the ball and actually deliver the product as specified. In a smaller business, any investment has to start showing returns pretty fast and a failure to do so can be catastrophic. Small business owners are infamous for trying to squeeze the maximum benefit out of every dime, since the dime in question usually belongs to the owner himself. The one man shop therefore cannot simply deal in perceptions, but has to provide tangible benefits in order to justify its presence. Its goal is thus to deliver the product and satisfy the customer (which is usually the actual business, not an employee within it) in order to receive more contracts in the future.

The ‘product’

The end product description too now undergoes a subtle change. The product is thus not necessarily working software - in time and under budget - but the perception of this having been delivered. Any roll-on effects on the business are usually so delayed that they can be safely ignored or blamed on other people later.

Rambo on the other hand, is stuck trying to actually deliver the product as specified.

The deliverable

Now we come to the meat of the matter. Having laid out the realities of life in the industry, what is the actual deliverable expected of the vendor and thus, what is it that is actually delivered.

Big Corp will concentrate on strengthening it’s corporate sponsor. Quick on-time delivery of the product is one way to do this, but it may be easier and cheaper to provide him with talking points, studies and white-papers instead. For example, Big Corp will spend quite some time giving it’s sponsors documents and presentations which will show just how profitable it is to farm business out to Big Corp like entities (but especially to Big Corp). Thus the deluge of studies favouring flavour-of-the-month management methodologies and out-sourcing techniques. A quick glance at the web site of any large IT vendor will show it to be replete with things of this nature.

The one man shop will concentrate on quick, on-time delivery. It’s very difficult for him to duck the bullet and find excuses for any defects. He has to deliver! Since he’s smaller, he doesn’t have a vast pool of potential victims clients to fall back on. Since the investment of the business in him is usually small as well, it’s easy to cut him adrift. Having relatively more to lose and few ways of weaseling out of his obligations, Rambo is usually forced to do a better job of things, or perish trying.

The end

So what does all this mean for smaller IT service shops? Simply this.

Cut the crap.

If you're a small company, you need to concentrate on development and delivery rather than trying to copy the big boys and talking about ‘management initiatives’, two-in-a-box hierarchies and all that jazz. Your customer is not interested in your marketing spiel because the market you’re trying to serve is extremely result oriented. Save the bullshit for when you’re all grown up.

Figure out how to deliver projects on time and under budget or be forced out of the market. It's as simple as that.

In fact, it's so simple and obvious, I just might have to write a white-paper on it...

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Henry Jacob said...

Yes Arsalan, I can understand your feelings :-)

I agree with you mostly, but, we need to tell new stories or marketing gimmicks(what ever you call it), etc to get more customers, as long as they are authentic and works, there should not be any issue.

Unfortunately, the difference between the perception of management and reality of software development is widening. most of the time, we are trying to address the wrong problem.

Arsalan Zaidi said...

My main point is that smaller companies should focus on delivery. All the customer cares about is your ability to deliver, so trying to convince him of that is fine.

He really doesn't care about your commitment to the CMMi process, not unless it has a measurable (positive!) impact on delivery. :-)