Improving Our Industry: Its Time to Educate Outward, to Improve Inward

For so long there have been so many advocating the benefits of the various Agile, Lean, Iterative, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it-these-days methodologies. We, as software developers, seem to understand the benefits of these methods. So why, then, do we still have customers that insist on big design up front, waterfall based methodologies, and other practices that we know are wrong?

Some Ad-hoc Consulting

During my Christmas vacation, I had the opportunity to do some consulting / coaching for my dad’s current company. The employee list that I spoke to consisted of my dad, my aunt, and my cousin. It was a nice little family gathering, I got paid with some amazingly good barbeque, and it was a very enjoyable experience.

I’m a software developer working for a company that provides software development and related services. My dad’s company is a customer of a software development organization (not the one I work for), receiving some custom built software for a project. They have been running into some issues with quality and timeliness of delivery for the last year or so and were wanting to ask some very pointed questions about the state of the software development industry. Essentially, they wanted me to tell them whether or not the issues they were having are “normal” and / or “acceptable” when receiving custom software development services. My answer was an unfortunate “yes, this is normal”, but “no, this is not acceptable”.

Over the next few hours of our discussion, we touched on many different issues that they are having and how some of those issues can be addressed from their perspective and from the perspective of the software development supplier. In the end, I had successfully educated my dad’s company on a few key points, confirming their suspicions and observations, and giving some new directions to start heading with the company that is providing the development services. I can’t go into all of the detail, but the summary bullet points included the following:

  • The customer won’t know what they want until they see something they don’t want
  • The software provider should deliver a working, stable version of the system on a regular basis, allowing the customer to use it in it’s current form
  • The customer sets the priority of features and functionality to be implementing, in coordination with the technical needs and pre-requisites of the software development organization
  • The customer is allowed to say something is wrong, even when they receive what they asked for
  • The relationship between the customer and service provider must be a whole-team view. That is, “we are one team. we succeed together and we fail together”

On top of these bullet points, I laid out a simplified Scrum process for them, based on the already stated 3 week development cycle that the provider prefers.

In the end, my dad’s company was shocked, astounded, amazed, and energized by everything they heard. The light bulbs were clicking in their eyes, and I could see the value that they received form the conversations. They have dramatically changed their understanding of what it means to be a good customer and what it means to be a good supplier.

A New Perspective

As much as I believe I helped my dad’s company in their understanding of what they should expect and how they should approach their issues and needs, I also learned a great deal from this experience. It was very enlightening for me to hear the issues that we have known for so long as software providers, but from the customer’s perspective. Nothing that they spoke of was unknown or unfamiliar to me. I have lived through all of the same pains and issues that they are going through – from both a software provider and a customer of software services.

What really stuck with me from this experience, though, is the idea that our perspective on how to improve our industry is likely wrong. Yes, we need to continue educating our own ranks on the benefits of better software development techniques and processes. However, it does no good for us to have the perfect pneumatic toolset when the customer is asking us to use a rusted hammer and a broken hacksaw.

What I’m getting at is that its not us, the software providers, that need to change so greatly. Rather, our customer base needs to be educated and change. We need to stop being so self-centered and introspective for a while so that we can educate our customer base on what it means to be a good customer; how they can accomplish their goal of receiving quality software that provides true business value for them, at an affordable price. Until we have a customer base that expects software to be high quality, the first time, every time; expects to be given working software on a regular basis; and expects to be able to recognize that what they thought they wanted is not what they really needed; we will have no chance of our inward looking self-improvements taking hold.

I have to say, the Agile Manifesto got it right from a values perspective. The values espoused there are what we need to be looking toward, but I think our perspective needs to be changed on how we enable those values to be reached.

Of course, if we do succeed in educating our customers, we need to be able to respond appropriately. So please, continue the education of our own industry. Create better development standards that increase our quality and productivity. If our customer expects a quality delivery every 2 weeks, we better be able to deliver a quality product every 2 weeks. Just don’t stop here. Educate your customers. Help them understand the financial impact of poor development standards and processes. Change the norms and improve our industry by creating a customer base that requires perfect. The manufacturing industry did it 20 to 30 years ago. It’s time for us to step up to that level.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So where do we go from here? How do we start educating our customers? How do we change the social norms of software development so that our customers expect us to behave more like professional craftsmen and engineers, delivering quality faster?

I don’t claim to have the answers and I don’t claim to be the first to encourage this change. I only hope that we as an industry will begin to understand that the customer is usually the one that sets the expectation for how often software is delivered, and that we need the customer to expect something better.

The Pathfinder: Reaching Your Organization’s Goal