Gary Allison's Leadership Blog

Effective Software Projects

Effective Software Projects and Tech News14 Jun 2008 05:15 am

This week Apple unveiled the iPhone 2.0 device and more importantly showed the results of their SDK released just 3 months ago for iPhone. As someone who has been leading teams in building mobile applications off and on over the last 6 years, the results are really impressive. The ease of which very sophisticated applications can be ported to iPhone is astonishing. During the keynote at the WWDC, some interesting games and just amazing medical imaging applications are on display.

More than simply an interesting use of mobile technology, in my view Apple has created the first viable platform to move laptop users to the truly mobile device. They have the device, now with 3G speed, they have the platform based on their desktop OSX, and they have the developer tools and APIs to quickly build the application.

Contrast this with google’s android. Cool concepts, plenty of big budget behind it, but no devices, and with so many vendors in play there is likely to be subtle differences in implementation / compatibility. These are problems that have plagued Windows Mobile and Java 2 Mobile Edition, both of which propose to be a unifying platform. Truth is that you have to build and test for each device you intend to support. This is expensive and inconvenient as you start putting conditionals in the code for devices, screen sizes, etc. And, is it just me, or are the top folks at google starting to look like IBMers?

This is where Apple has it right, in my view – great dev tools (as Microsoft ahs clearly shown is a key part of promoting a new platform), great platform (with innovative location and push notifications), and that gorgeous device. To top it off, they have a terrific market distribution channel with iTunes. Boy, do they have this right. I’m completely impressed.

Agile Software and Effective Software Projects20 May 2007 08:07 pm

The Third Sin of Software Projects is failing to understand its all about the people – attracting, retaining, and helping the best software development professionals available to succeed. The people on the project are the key determining factor of success. Let’s look at a few of the key factors in what we need in our people.

Productivity – you’ve probably read that top notch software developers are 2x – 5x more productive that the average developer. I’ve lived it and can attest. It’s not that the best will write 2 – 5 times as much code; it’s that they either can achieve the goal 2x – 5x more quickly, or just simply solve problems that others find unassailable. When I was early in my career I had the good fortune of working with just such a superstar: Brian. While I could hold my own in some of the most difficult projects, I could also see that Brian was simply a brilliant developer. He was simply world class, solving the most challenging issues and making it seem almost effortless. What if you could build a team mostly of this type of person? You could do anything! (FWIW: this also opened my eyes that I needed to focus my career on an area where I felt I could truly excel – leadership.)

Motivation – Software professionals are different than many other professionals in what motivates them. They are motivated by working with other smart people, working on challenging problems and cool technology, and by achieving a level of success personally and technically. (This last one is a complex subject as there are as many meanings of success as there are different types of people in software development). As leaders, we must understand that software professionals are motivated differently, and try to understand what success means to each person in our team.

Teams – In addition to having the most productive and motivated professionals, we need to be able to have them work effectively in a team. Dysfunctional personalities, poor attitudes, or weak contributors will torpedo a team very quickly. Any of these attributes in a team member negates all the positives above. Take a developer who is tremendously productive and knowledgeable, but just has a very negative attitude and they can drag everyone else down, kill cooperation and communication, and single handedly cause a project to fail. Conversely, a team that is made up of top-notch people that are motivated, focused, and check egos at the door can turn out the most innovative solutions imaginable.

Trust – finally, the key essential ingredient in the organization that makes it all work is trust. People within the team must trust each other to deliver, development must trust product mangers, teams must trust their leaders, and all the way through the organization. Very recently, I’ve heard about a situation where a new leader came into a development team and half the team left the company. It’s safe to say that more emphasis on building trust was needed! A subtle implication of trust is that integrity is required for trust to exist. The best companies I’ve worked with have a deep appreciation for all these ingredients, starting with the CEO. Those that don’t will fail.

Agile Software and Effective Software Projects25 Mar 2007 03:55 pm

In this business, we are all subject to schedule pressure which is essentially market pressure. This pressure is often real, coming from executive management, the board, or investors. Despite this, there are some necessary steps in the development process that can seem expedient to skip that in many cases, just shouldn’t be skipped:

  • Prototyping the UI and getting feedback and buy in from Marketing and target customers. In the rush to get to market, we can easily skip this one. After all, once the design is done and the developers are implementing, its very expensive to change. Also, when working with new technologies, you don’t always know up front what is possible in the UI.
  • Throw away the prototype. Its tempting to keep the hastily constructed prototype and evolve it into the final product. Especially when considering the need to prototype to explore UI options and technologies, this early deliverable is critical but also a mess under the covers. Learn from it and toss it.
  • Internationalize the code and externalize strings up front. Its tempting to say “we can do that later”. Later is incredibly expensive. In our globalized world, most commercial software must be internationalized – design it in.
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Agile Software and Effective Software Projects08 Jan 2007 04:07 am

Talking about requirements makes people’s eyes glaze over, so lets ask a more poignant question. What market are we trying to win? This focuses our vision in a much more effective way. The first deadly sin of software projects lies in not asking this question. Requirements management is a fundamental necessity in software development. Changing requirements causes obvious schedule impacts but has more subtle impacts in quality of the product and maintainability of the architecture. But, lets face it, few systems worth building have all their requirements known up front. There is always some element of discovery as the business matures, as early customers give feedback, as new deals are brought to the table.

The deadly mistake that can make your software project, and even the company, fail is a lack of focus on precisely how this product will win in the market. To answer this question, this presumes we can answer these questions of precisely which market are we in, who are our competitors, what are the major technology movements in the market, how will the product be marketed and sold, how should it be priced, and who will buy it. Even if you are the “technology” guy in charge of the software project, you need to know the answers to these questions because it affects in important ways the requirements of the system.   Most companies start out with a pretty firm grip on how they plan to win in the market. What trips them up time and again is not realizing the answers are changing. The deadly sin here is that if the answers to any one of the questions above change over time, they can dramatically affect your requirements and ultimately lead to the failure of your software project (and the company).  These changes can take place very quickly and very subtly in a small project. For example, selling a product into a new channel or to a new type of customer can quickly mushroom into a set of new requirements that can crush your existing commitments. To mitigate this, it is essential that the product management team and development leaders be integrated into the sales processes to gain visibility into these opportunities so they can anticipate new requirements as early as possible. This can be difficult as everyone is excited about the new customer or opportunity, and many times it becomes a “peeling the onion” exercise. At first, it seems that the new customer only needs a small change to the product, and then another, and then another. These changes are driven because they are fundamentally a different customer than has ever purchased before. Recognizing this difference is crucial.   

Another good example I’ve encountered many times is the difference between reseller and direct customers. Resellers are extremely valuable sales channels, but have very different requirements in products and billing than do direct customers. It is important to recognize and understand these differences up front. A reseller may want to embed your product in theirs or rebrand your service / web site. They often want to hide the visible aspects of your product because they want to present only their brand to the customer. These features must be factored in up front as they are very expensive to retrofit.

Finally, the new customer may not necessarily drive changes into your core product, but rather may require you to drive changes into your core processes. For example, a telco customer may have very long cycles between applying updates and may require different service levels that your other customers. Each of these have a cost component associated. The longer upgrade cycles may mean you have to keep alive older branches of source code alive for emergency patching, along with test environments that support that branch. These kinds of patches can be very expensive both to you and the customer. Also, you may have to go through longer or additional test cycles for the releases that go to these customers in an effort to avoid these costs.

In conclusion, asking “What market are we trying to win” means understanding the answer to the question and measuring each sales success against that answer. If the sale represents a fundamental change to this answer, then take the steps to deliberately plan for the product and process changes necessary to deliver on the opportunity.

Agile Software and Effective Software Projects03 Jan 2007 04:07 am

In our examination of reasons why software projects fail, we start with a few basic assumptions. These seven deadly sins of software development assume that many of the fundamentals are in place: the team is staffed with trained experienced developers, you have a modern source code control system, build processes, test methodologies and automation, bug tracking system, project management systems, etc. In essence, we are assuming at least a CMM Level 2 team – without at least this level of process maturity, there are many other opportunities for the project to fail. This series of short articles focuses on the set of issues that sneak up on experienced software developers and development managers. They are seemingly common issues, but can surface in subtle and surprising ways while teams are heads down implementing a project. We’ll examine some examples along the way as well. Although we may have to change a few names, they will be real examples drawn from experience.

Agile Software and Effective Software Projects28 Dec 2006 02:03 pm

Its been a very busy forth quarter rounding out 2006. Business travel has taken me to South America twice, we’ve been working on closing a number of deals, and December saw the largest number of products all go GA ever in a month at Simdesk. All these are great reasons for not keeping up with the blog, but its time to get back to it.In 2007, I’m planning to write a series of articles on Software Development revolving around common sense knowledge every leader of a project should know. Though I place them in the realm of common sense, I’ve also seen them sink projects over and over again for those that are unaware (or just too busy to notice). Every series like this needs a catchy title, but I’m afraid we’re out of luck. We’re going to call this one “The 7 Deadly Sins of Software Projects”. If you’re in the business, I’ll wager you’ve either seen a few of these or maybe even been guilty yourself. Its easy to do because they can sneak up on you. Stay tuned.

Effective Software Projects and Leadership27 Aug 2006 09:17 pm

Ok, so your want to startup or install self-directed teams.(see a previous post on change). As with any change, this is a big challenge and there is no guarantee that it will be accepted completely by the team. Some will be uncomfortable with accepting accountability, a strong Scrum master will be needed, and some just don’t like having to fit within a structured process. In our adoption of Scrum, a few things have helped us gain acceptance:

Training We are fortunate to have a certified Scrum Master on board who has trained the whole team. A full day of training was invested in every member of the team. Additional training is needed for Scrum Masters because their execution needs to be effortless for the process to flow.Executive Buy-in and Support All levels of management must support the process. The integrity of Sprint content must be held in tact for the process to work. During the sprint, business needs sometimes require us to trade Sprint tasks for backlog items, but the integrity is maintained if the team signs up to the change.Strong Leads that are Willing to take on Scrum Master role this process of self directed team still requires someone on the team to drive the process. In my experience, a strong and effective lead developer is one of the most rare and valuable commodities in the Software Engineering world.In short, the only mistake we have made with Scrum is not more quickly adopting the process everywhere in the team. At the end of the day, team success is the greatest motivator for this or any other change.

Effective Software Projects and Leadership27 Aug 2006 02:42 am

About 18 months ago, we adopted a self-directed process called Scrum in part of our development team – the part that focuses on end user applications.  Most of the team was a little apprehensive, but they are solid folks and they put it in action. 


Recently, we made the move to transition the whole team to Scrum, something I should have done long ago.  Initially, I believed that complex pieces of server-side software had longer life cycles, longer testing cycles, and therefore perhaps the Scrum process wasn’t a good fit.  I was wrong.  What we could have seen are the same benefits on the server-side that we’ve seen on the client.  So, now we are rolling it out team-wide.  So what are some of those benefits?


The most important benefit is the placing of ownership where it needs to be – at the team level and ultimately at the individual level.  Whether they are taking a turn at Scrum Master, or just part of the team, each person owns reporting on their progress, the whole team owns the sprint backlog delivery, and has the power to say no to things not in the Sprint.


Team planning and ownership of the deliverable by the team – each Sprint (we use a month), the team signs up to a number of developer days, test days, and Tech writing days available.  We estimate the line items in the backlog and allocate the available days.  Its all team driven, and as such, the team owns the plan for the Sprint delivery.  In addition, the team demonstrates the deliverable from last Sprint – a powerful way for them to show accomplishments.


Peer-to-peer accountability – another significant benefit.  With Scrum, there is no place to hide from missed deliverables, poor quality, and lack of skill.  Any team member can take any item of the backlog and work on any piece of the system. As such, Scrum breaks down artificial barriers.  And, with daily scrum meetings on what was accomplished and planned for each day, it is pretty easy to tell if someone isn’t pulling their weight.


Forcing the business to define priorities – Scrum forces a booked plan, reconciled to business priorities at the beginning of each Sprint, monthly for us.  It provides a systematic way to pull in all the business inputs (sales, marketing, support, et al) into the planning process – and enforces that this is there only chance to get input into the development cycle until next Sprint. (Not really of course, but it does force the conversation.)

 next Blog…. Success Criteria for Adoption of Scrum

Effective Software Projects and Leadership15 Aug 2006 10:15 pm

The Second Law of Software Dynamics:  shipping software is a commitment, not an event.

Customers generally expect once they have adopted your software or service that you are going to continue to develop it, service it, respond to their requests for tweaks, and keep up with competitive forces.  In short, they made a commitment (time, dollars, training, or perhaps a key part of their business) to you, and they are expecting the same.

Yes, this applies to Web 2.0, SAS, and whatever the new paradigm of the day is. It is all just software in different cloth. It may be delivered in a different way, or have a new business model attached, but the commitment remains the same.

(What is the First Law?  Given any non-trivial system, as long as you test software, you continue to find bugs. I need to blog on when is enough, enough someday soon)

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