Monthly Archives: June 2010

Lessons Learned Working in a Service Company Servicing Large Projects

I was fortunate enough recently to attend LeanCamp, an unconference organised by Salim Virani and aimed at people interested in the Lean Startup meme. I was reminded the other day of one of the sessions I attended. “Lessons Learned Bootstrapping a Service Company” was run by Chris Parsons about his experiences in starting his company, Eden Development.

Of the conferences that I have been to recently, I’ve found myself gravitating towards sessions that take an experience report format more. I like them as they’re nothing more than observational. Whilst they do often focus on one subject in particular the people presenting are giving you an opportunity to listen to their experiences, good and bad of trying to do something one way or another and not just trying to sell you a mentality / ideology. I do find sometimes that they let themselves down in the respect that evidence provided of the effects is anecdotal instead of quantitative. Happily, this was a less formal session and so that wasn’t a concern.

At 7digital we’re starting to near the end of the first phase of a project that is large in comparison to the normal size of those that we do. To be specific, we’ve been involved in the project since June last year and have been actively working to deliver features for the client since early November. It has consumed at a minimum, 4 developers full time and for a couple of months, 8. As I suggest, not large necessarily in comparison to other projects within the industry, but large for us.

I was reminded of Chris’ session as I start to reflect on what I have learned in delivering this project. Chris outlined 5 key lessons in a slide deck and then spoke about them. I thought that I might use those headings as the basis for my own blog post in respect of what I have learned.

1. Learn How to Say No

Chris’ point in the presentation was that he wished that he’d learnt to say no more often to pieces of work that he took on in the formative stage of Eden.

I’m certainly not in a position to be able to make those decisions outright at 7digital nor for that matter would we as a company want to; we’re in a privileged position that allows us to work with some great clients on interesting pieces of work that suit all concerned.

In the case of this project in particular owing to the client’s incumbent delivery process, we’ve had to accept that we have to work in a way that is contrary to the way in which we’re happiest delivering software. In contrast to Chris’ point, I think what I’ve learnt or at least had reiterated to me, is that saying yes to something but in doing so asking why, is very powerful. On a number of occasions I’ve been able to ask why a practice is used and in doing so understand 2 things; the context that surrounded the practice and secondly, the way in which the practice is viewed. With those bits of information I’ve been able to bring some subtle but nonetheless tangible change to the project and hopefully have contributed to making it more successful as a result.

2. Hire Passion over Experience

I don’t have notes that have the specifics of Chris’ points here but remember agreeing wholeheartedly with him. I think he made the point that there was a correlation between those that were passionate about development and the breadth of their skill set and ability to pick up say, a new language.

There isn’t really anything within this point that I can speak about that isn’t only tenuously linked and so I am leaving comment in this section.

3. Spend Where the Value Is

On this point, Chris spoke about the fact that at Eden, rather than having invested in tailored office space from the outset as so many other startups do (along with presumably, micro scooters / space hoppers / foosball tables etc), they invested in things that mattered such as decent chairs and machines for their staff.

In deference to our typical approach to development, on this project we did a lot of up front analysis, some 2 or 3 months, which at the time felt a little uncomfortable. Reflecting upon this now I think we did about the right amount and instead of just documenting requirements we spent a lot of time challenging them in order to understand the problem that was attempting to be solved. We asked the client to give us ways in which we could measure success of the software we were to deliver and most importantly, we tried to understand what the smallest piece of work we could do for the client to suffice their requirement. This is not to say that we’ve done half a job, far from it. I think that whilst we were constrained to an extent by the project bias this piece of work took, we have attempted to embed an incremental approach where possible. I think that this effort was worth the investment of our time and money, we haven’t to date included the work done in any bill but it has paid for itself in my opinion. We ended up with a very discreet set of functionality that services a requirement and nothing more. We didn’t end up developing software that isn’t going to be used and the software that we have delivered is in the most part, measurable aiding our desire internally to automate all of our acceptance tests.

4. Cashflow

Here, Chris spoke about how having some savings as a company has helped Eden move from a position where they were chasing all types of work even that that was underpaid to one where they can afford to be a little more selective about the type of work or the clients that they work with.

For us in respect of this project, it’s certainly not work that we would have turned away. It has been a great piece of work to be involved in. My main lesson here has been that there is a hidden cost often not consider associated to development of this size in a department the size of ours. As I stated at the beginning of this article, this project has utilised up to 8 developers for a time which equates to roughly a third of the department. Because of the way the department is structured, we have 4 product teams and the fact that this work spanned 2 of those, it heightened the need for effective communication and the need for collaboration between the teams which has a cost associated with it. When considering work of this relative scale again, I will be sure to consider that fact.

There is also the matter that undertaking a large body of work such as this for us could have presented problems in our ability to undertake other smaller pieces of work; we might have missed out on opportunities elsewhere. Thankfully we haven’t, or at least we haven’t noticed any that we have.

5. Have a Higher Purpose

Finally, Chris spoke about the fact that in setting up Eden his desire was always to be building great software for clients. He went on to say that building a company is made up of a thousand small decisions and that it’s important to let the people who work for you to make those decisions though the only way that that would be successful is to have a clear vision that everybody knows and understands. He suggested that he has been known to “pop quiz” people within Eden on it.

In the Development Team here at 7digital we’re continually striving to produce software that is the right thing and is to a high standard of quality. From the moment that we set out on this endeavour we have strived aided by the Green Field nature of this work, for sure, to deliver against those aspirations and based on the measures that we have in place internally, I think we succeeded. One example that I would cite is this; we found that there was a misunderstanding owing to assumptions within everybody’s understanding of our acceptance criteria for one of the features. Unfortunately this wasn’t caught until fairly late on. Given that we had a suite of unit, integration and system level tests we were able to quickly understand the impact of this new requirement and go on to make the change. Having worked on many different projects throughout my career I’ve rarely before been afforded such confidence that a requested change would be successful and have so little impact. Anecdotal evidence I know, but enough for me in this case.