Ayende @ Rahien

Refunds available at head office

Your customer isn’t a single entity

An interesting issue came up in the comments for my modeling post.  Urmo is saying:

…there are no defined processes, just individual habits (even among people with same set of obligations) with loose coupling on the points where people need to interact. In these companies a software can be a boot that kicks them into more defined and organized operating mode.

This is part of discussion of software modeling and the kind of thinking you have to do when you approach a system. The problem with Urmo’s approach is that there is a set implicit assumptions, and that is that the customer is speaking with a single voice, that they actually know what they are doing and that they have the best interests. Yes, it is really hard to create software (or anything, actually) without those, but that happens more frequently than one might desire.

A few years ago I was working on a software to manage what was essentially long term temp workers. Long term could be 20 years, and frequently was a number of years. The area in question was caring for invalids,  and most of the customers for that company were the elderly. That meant that a worker might not be required on a pretty sudden basis (the end customer died, care no longer required).

Anyway, that is the back story. The actual problem we run into was that by the time the development team got into place there was already a very detailed spec, written by a pretty good analyst after many sessions at a luxury hotel conference room. In other words, the spec cost a lot of money to generate, and involved a lot of people from the company’s management.

What it did not include, however, was feedback from the actual people who had to place the workers at particular people’s homes, and eventually pay them for their work. Little things like the 1st of the month (you have 100s of workers coming in to get their hours approved and get paid) weren’t taken into account. The software was very focused on the individual process, and there were a lot of checks to validate input.

What wasn’t there were things like: “How do I efficiently handle many applicants at the same time?’'

The current process was paper form based, and they were basically going over the hours submitted, ask minimal questions, and provisionally approve it. Later on, they would do a more detailed scan of the hours, and do any fixups needed. That would be the time that they would also input the data to their old software. In other words, there was an entire messy process going on that the higher ups didn’t even realize was happening.

This include decisions such as “you need an advance, we’ll register that as 10 extra hours you worked this month, and we’ll deduct it next month” and “you weren’t supposed to go to Mrs. Xyz, you were supposed to go to Mr. Zabc! We can’t pay for all your hours there” , etc.

When we started working on the software, we happened to do a demo to some of the on site people, and they were horrified by what they saw. The new & improved software would end up causing them much more issues, and it would actually result in more paperwork that they have to manage just so they can make the software happy.

Modeling such things was tough, and at some point (with the client reluctant agreement) we essentially threw aside the hundreds of pages of well written spec, and just worked directly with the people who would end up using our software. The solution in the end was to codify many of the actual “business processes” that they were using. Those business processes made sense, and they were what kept the company working for decades. But management didn’t actually realize that they were working in this manner.

And that is leaving aside the “let us change the corporate structure through software” endeavors, which are unfortunately also pretty common.

To summarize, assuming that your client is a single entity, which speaks with one voice and actually know what they are talking about? Not going to fly for very long. In another case, I had to literally walk a VP of Sales through the process of how a sale is actually happening in his company versus what he thought was happening.

Sometimes this job is likely playing a shrink, but for corporations.

Comments

Urmo
06/11/2014 12:53 PM by
Urmo

"The problem with Urmo’s approach is that there is a set implicit assumptions, and that is that the customer is speaking with a single voice, that they actually know what they are doing and that they have the best interests."

No, no and no :) The only thing I'm advocating is that developing a software solution will force customer at some level to start thinking about the processes in case were are none. It's not about delivering the software that will solve all customer's problems but showing customer, that it has them through attaching processes to the nasty detail level of the software.

And the case you are describing of having a running meters of white-collar system analysis done before the actual development has a tendency (or event a guarantee) to gloriously fail even if customer knows exactly what it wants, knows the processes and it's all captured by very competent analyst.

Gene Hughson
06/11/2014 02:40 PM by
Gene Hughson

'And that is leaving aside the “let us change the corporate structure through software” endeavors'

Yeah, software is what culture picks its teeth with after eating strategy for lunch.

Kyle Szklenski
06/11/2014 05:27 PM by
Kyle Szklenski

Ha! I really like your comparison at the end, about being a shrink for a corporation. That's quite clever and good, and very apt in my experience.

Kijana Woodard
06/12/2014 02:47 AM by
Kijana Woodard

"What it did not include, however, was feedback from the actual people"

This is far too common. Too often the "user" being interviewed for requirements is a middle manager. It's worse when it's a middle manager from IT.

When the meetings are all devs and middle managers, the project will disappoint BOTH execs and "real users".

As a business minded developer, you have to force direct conversations with execs and real users. In my experience, this makes the project finish on/under time and budget because having those discussion clarifies the project. Genuine compromise can be made to meet high priority requirements within the allotted time.

All the "value add" from middle managers gets sent to dev/null.

Dan
06/12/2014 08:50 PM by
Dan

This rings true for me. In my experience, specs are typically delivered with major oversights, undersights, tunnel vision, you name it. I used to get frustrated when the specs weren't provided to me upfront and complete. Now I consider it crucial for success that good developers contribute to and guide the requirements gathering process.

flukus
06/13/2014 03:40 AM by
flukus

Modeling the software on what the users are doing generally makes the software better too.

There are too many times that I've seen user tasks shoe horned into a crud like architecture.

End users also tend to be more grateful when you automate or improve their repetitive tasks, managers don't really care.

Howard Chu
06/14/2014 11:41 PM by
Howard Chu

This is why I say "the customer is always wrong" - they never ask for what they actually need; they don't have a clue what will actually benefit them.

Kijana Woodard
06/26/2014 03:10 PM by
Kijana Woodard

"...they never ask for what they actually need; they don't have a clue what will actually benefit them."

The reason being the They and Them are two [or three] different sets of people. :-)

Kijana Woodard
06/26/2014 03:12 PM by
Kijana Woodard

"I used to get frustrated when the specs weren't provided to me upfront and complete."

Met too...until I got some "complete" "specs" upfront.

Five minutes into discussing them, they fall apart under their own weight. "But we spent 6 months on these..."