The No Surprise Rule
May 23, 2018 | Posted By: Geoffrey Weber
We blogged recently about how to write precisely and concisely, highlighting how important it was to learn the “Three Sentence Rule” early in our careers so that when we communicated with other executives, we communicated with extreme brevity and clarity. We might think of this as the “what” of executive communication. Today, we’d like to quickly describe a few ground rules with respect to the “when” and “how” of communicating as executives.
10 or 15 years ago, a fad swept through technology, executives everywhere were writing “How to Communicate with Me” articles for their teams and co-workers. In the most positive light, these were serious attempts by quirky executives to help their teams learn to conform to their own bizarre communications requirements. We would argue that a modern technology executive with a reasonably non-quirky personality need not pen such narcissistic claptrap. Communications is so basic, we should not over-think the process.
In today’s world, we have a variety of communications channels available: face-to-face, email, text message, internal communications tools (e.g. Slack) and the good old telephone. When an unexpected issue occurs on our watch, our primary duty is to inform our superior, by any means necessary as quickly as possible.
Whether we work in a large corporate environment with thousands of employees or in a small team with 10 people, immediate communications are an absolute requirement. If we fail to do so, our superiors may hear of the unexpected news before we have a chance to tell them. Think of a major system outage… while we work to determine a root cause, the VP of Marketing sends a quick text to our boss (let’s say the CEO in this case.). Now the CEO is in possession of bad news about something we are responsible for. Our phone will ring immediately, and we’ll be on our back feet explaining why we hadn’t taken a moment to call.
A worse example might be a system outage that we, as CTO, were not aware of, and the very same VP of Marketing texts the CEO again. Now when the phone rings, we are surprised, just as the CEO was surprised by the VP of Marketing. Our team has failed at a very fundamental level.
There’s an informal rule that states: No Surprises. The corollary is, communicate as early as possible and as often as possible. A site outage demands an immediate upward missive with frequent updates. The leaders who work under us must also live by this rule. We can never be left out in the cold when it comes to significant information. Furthermore, we are solely accountable for the communication of negative news up to our bosses.
The idea of communicating early and communicating often has a number of uses beyond crisis communications. In the early days of eBay, Marty Abbott (managing partner of AKF Partners) set 4 objectives for the site operations teams: Availability (99.9%), Scalability, Cost and Operational Excellence. Every member of the operations teams knew the current availability as it was communicated nearly continuously. The other 3 objectives were communicated with equal frequency. It would be a significant surprise if a colleague was working on a project that was not associated with Availability, Scalability, Cost or Operational excellence. A few years later, we borrowed Marty’s objectives at Shutterfly and simplified: Up, Fast, Cheap and Easy. All 50 operations team members knew those goals and we repeated them like a mantra.
The quickest path to failure as technology executives is non-communication, the opposite of communicating clearly and frequently. Worse, those executives that don’t stay ahead of the surprises technology throws at us every day will find themselves working in a different industry.
To summarize how to communicate:
When: early and often
How: any means available
What: 3 sentences.
We don’t need to write 5 page essays on how to communicate unless we are quite peculiar.
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Three Reasons Your Software Engineers May Not Be Successful
May 10, 2018 | Posted By: Pete Ferguson
Three Reasons Your Software Engineers May Not Be Successful
At AKF Partners, we have the unique opportunity to see trends among startups and well-established companies in the dozens of technical due diligence and more in-depth technology assessments we regularly perform, in addition to filling interim leadership roles within organizations. Because we often talk with a variety of folks from the CEO, investors, business leadership, and technical talent, we get a unique top-to-bottom perspective of an organization.
Three common observations
- People mostly identify with their job title, not the service they perform.
- Software Engineers can be siloed in their own code vs. contributing to the greater outcome.
- CEO’s vision vs. frontline perception of things as they really are.
Job Titles Vs. Services
The programmer who identifies herself as “a search engineer” is likely not going to be as engaged as her counterpart who describes herself as someone who “helps improve our search platform for our customers.”
Shifting focus from a job title to a desired outcome is a best practice from top organizations. We like to describe this as separating nouns and verbs – “I am a software engineer” focuses on the noun without an action: software engineer instead of “I simplify search” where the focus is on verb of the desired outcome: simplify. It may seem minor or trivial, but this shift can be a contributing impact on how team members understand their contribution to your overall organization.
Removing this barrier to the customer puts team members on the front line of accountability to customer needs – and hopefully also the vision and purpose of the company at large. To instill a customer experience, outcome based approach often requires a reworking of product teams given our experience with successful companies. Creating a diverse product team (containing members of the Architecture, Product, QA and Service teams for example) that owns the outcomes of what they produce promotes:
- Creating products customers love
If you have had experience in a Ford vehicle with the first version of Sync (bluetooth connectivity and onscreen menus) – then you are well aware of the frustration of scrolling through three layers of menus to select “bluetooth audio” ([Menu] -> [OK] -> [OK] -> [Down Arrow]-> [OK] -> [Down Arrow] -> [OK]) each time you get into your car. The novelty of wireless streaming was a key differentiator when Sync first was introduced – but is now table stakes in the auto industry – and quickly wears off when having to navigate the confusing UI likely designed by product engineers each focused on a specific task but void of designing for a great user experience. What was missing is someone with the vision and job description: “I design wireless streaming to be seamless and awesome - like a button that says “Bluetooth Audio!!!”
Hire for – and encourage – people who believe and practice “my real job is to make things simple for our customers.”
Avoiding Siloed Approach
Creating great products requires engineers to look outside of their current project specific tasks and focus on creating great customer experiences. Moving from reactively responding to customer reported problems to proactively identifying issues with service delivery in real time goes well beyond just writing software. It moves to creating solutions.
Long gone are the “fire and forget” days of writing software, burning to a CD and pushing off tech debt until the next version. To Millennials, this Waterfall approach is foreign, but unfortunately we still see this mentality engrained in many company cultures.
Today it is all about services. A release is one of many in a very long evolution of continual improvement and progression. There isn’t Facebook V1 to be followed by V2 … it is a continual rolling out of upgrades and bug fixes that are done in the background with minimum to no downtime. Engineers can’t afford to be laggard in their approach to continual evolution, addressing tech debt, and contributing to internal libraries for the greater good.
Ensure your technical team understands and is very closely connected to the evolving customer experience and have skin in the game. Among your customers, there likely is very little patience with “wait until our next release.” They expect immediately resolution or they will start shopping the competition.
Translating the Vision of the CEO to the Front Lines
During our our more in-depth technology review engagements we interview many people from different layers of management and different functions within the organization. This gives us a unique opportunity to see how the vision of the CEO migrates down through layers of management to the front-line programmers who are responsible for translating the vision into reality.
Usually - although not always - the larger the company, the larger the divide between what is being promised to investors/Wall Street and what is understood as the company vision by those who are actually doing the work. Best practices at larger companies include regular all-hands where the CEO and other leaders share their vision and are held accountable to deliverables and leadership checks that the vision is conveyed in product roadmaps and daily stand up meetings. When incentive plans focus directly on how well a team and individual understand and produce products to accomplish the company vision, communication gaps close considerably.
Creating and sustaining successful teams requires a diverse mix of individuals with a service mindset. This is why we stress that Product Teams need to be all inclusive of multiple functions. Architecture, Product, Service, QA, Customer Service, Sales and others need to be included in stand up meetings and take ownership in the outcome of the product.
The Dev Team shouldn’t be the garbage disposal for what Sales has promised in the most recent contract or what other teams have ideated without giving much thought to how it will actually be implemented.
When your team understands the vision of the company - and how customers are interacting with the services of your company - they are in a much better position to implement it into reality.
As a CTO or CIO, it is your responsibility to ensure what is promised to Wall Street, private investors, and customers is translated correctly into the services you ultimately create, improve, and publish.
As we look at new start-ups facing explosive 100-200% year-over-year growth, our question is always “how will the current laser focus vision and culture scale?” Standardization, good Agile practices, understanding technical debt, and creating a scalable on-boarding and mentoring process all lend to best answers to this question.
When your development teams are each appropriately sized, include good representation of functional groups, each team member identifies with verbs vs. nouns (“I improve search” vs. “I’m a software engineer”), and understand how their efforts tie into company success, your opportunities for success, scalability, and adaptability are maximized.
Experiencing growing or scaling pains? AKF is here to help! We are an industry expert in technology scalability, due diligence, and helping to fill leadership gaps with interim CIO/CTO and other positions in addition to helping you in your search for technical leaders. Put our 200+ years of combined experience to work for you today!
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The Top Five Most Common Agile PDLC Failures
April 27, 2018 | Posted By: Dave Swenson
Agile Software Development is a widely adopted methodology, and for good reason. When implemented properly, Agile can bring tremendous efficiencies, enabling your teams to move at their own pace, bringing your engineers closer to your customers, and delivering customer value
quicker with less risk. Yet, many companies fall short from realizing the full potential of Agile, treating it merely as a project management paradigm by picking and choosing a few Agile structural elements such as standups or retrospectives without actually changing the manner in which product delivery occurs. Managers in an Agile culture often forget that they are indeed still managers that need to measure and drive improvements across teams.
All too often, Agile is treated solely as an SDLC (Software Development Lifecycle), focused only upon the manner in which software is developed versus a PDLC (Product Development Lifecycle) that leads to incremental product discovery and spans the entire company, not just the Engineering department.
Here are the five most common Agile failures that we see with our clients:
- Technology Executives Abdicate Responsibility for their Team’s Effectiveness
Management in an Agile organization is certainly different than say a Waterfall-driven one. More autonomy is provided to Agile teams. Leadership within each team typically comes without a ‘Manager’ title. Often, this shift from a top-down, autocratic, “Do it this way” approach to a grass-roots, bottoms-up one sways way beyond desired autonomy towards anarchy, where teams have been given full freedom to pick their technologies, architecture, and even outcomes with no guardrails or constraints in place. See our Autonomy and Anarchy article for more on this.
Executives often become focused solely on the removal of barriers the team calls out, rather than leading teams towards desired outcomes. They forget that their primary role in the company isn’t to keep their teams happy and content, but instead to ensure their teams are effectively achieving desired business-related outcomes.
The Agile technology executive is still responsible for their teams’ effectiveness in reaching specified outcomes (e.g.: achieve 2% lift in metric Y). She can allow a team to determine how they feel best to reach the outcome, within shared standards (e.g.: unit tests must be created, code reviews are required). She can encourage teams to experiment with new technologies on a limited basis, then apply those learnings or best practices across all teams. She must be able to compare the productivity and efficiencies from one team to another, ensuring all teams are reaching their full potential.
- No Metrics Are Used
The age-old saying “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” still applies in an Agile organization. Yet, frequently Agile teams drop this basic tenet, perhaps believing that teams are self-aware and critical enough to know where improvements are required. Unfortunately, even the most transparent and aware individuals are biased, fall back on subjective characteristics (“The team is really working hard”), and need the grounding that quantifiable metrics provide. We are continually surprised at how many companies aren’t even measuring velocity, not necessarily to compare one team with another, but to compare a team’s sprint output vs. their prior ones. Other metrics still applicable in an Agile world include quality, estimation accuracy, predictability, percent of time spent coding, the ratio of enhancements vs. maintenance vs. tech debt paydown.
These metrics, their definitions and the means of measuring them should be standardized across the organization, with regular focus on results vs. desired goals. They should be designed to reveal structural hazards that are impeding team performance as well as best practices that should be adopted by all teams.
- Your Velocity is a Lie
Is your definition of velocity an honest one? Does it truly measure outcomes, or only effort? Are you consistent with your definition of ‘done’? Take a good look at how your teams are defining and measuring velocity. Is velocity only counted for true ‘ready to release’ tasks? If QA hasn’t been completed within a sprint, are the associated velocity points still counted or deferred?
Velocity should not be a measurement of how hard your teams are working, but instead an indicator of whether outcomes (again, e.g.: achieve 2% lift in metric Y) are likely to be realized - take credit for completion only when in the hands of customers.
- Failure to Leverage Agile for Product Discovery
From the Agile manifesto: “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software”. Many companies work hard to get an Agile structure and its artifacts in place, but ignore the biggest benefit Agile can bring: iterative and continuous product discovery. Don’t break down a six-month waterfall project plan into two week sprints with standups and velocity measurements and declare Agile victory.
Work to create and deliver MVPs to your customers that allow you to test expected value and customer satisfaction without huge investment.
- Treating Agile as an SDLC vs. a PDLC
As explained in our article PDLC or SDLC, SDLC (Software Development Lifecycle) lives within PDLC (Product Development Lifecycle). Again, Agile should not be treated as a project management methodology, nor as a means of developing software. It should focus on your product, and hopefully the related customer success your product provides them. This means that Agile should permeate well beyond your developers, and include product and business personnel.
Business owners or their delegates (product owners) must be involved at every step of the PDLC process. PO’s need to be embedded within each Agile team, ideally colocated alongside team members. In order to provide product focus, POs should first bring to the team the targeted customer problem to be solved, rather than dictating only a solution, then work together with the team to implement the most effective solution to that problem.
AKF Partners helps companies transition to Agile as well as fine-tune their existing Agile processes. We can readily assess your PDLC, organization structure, metrics and personnel to provide a roadmap for you to reach the full value and benefits Agile can provide. Contact us to discuss how we can help.
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Achieving Results, Culture, and the AKF Equation
April 24, 2018 | Posted By: Marty Abbott
We can tell a lot about a company within the first hour or so of any discussion. Consider the following statement fragments:
“We have a lot of smart people here…”
“We have some of the hardest working engineers…”
Contrast these with the following statement fragments:
“We measure ourselves against very specific business KPIs…”
“We win or lose daily based on how effectively we meet our customer expectations…”
There is a meaningful difference in the impact these two groups of statements have on a company’s culture and how that culture enables or stands in the way of success. The first group of statements are associated with independent variables (inputs) that will rarely in isolation result in desired outcomes (dependent variables). When used in daily discourse, they reinforce the notion that something other than outcomes are the things upon which a company prides itself. Our experience is that these statements create an environment of hubris that often runs perpendicular to, and at best in no way reinforces, the achievement of results. Put another way, when we hear statements like this, we expect to find many operational problems.
The second group of statements are focused on meaningful and measurable outcomes. The companies with which we’ve worked that frequently communicate with these statements are among the most successful we’ve seen. Even when these companies struggle, their effort and focus is solidly behind the things that matter – those things that create value for the broadest swath of stakeholders possible.
The point here is that how we focus communication inside our companies has an important impact on the outcomes we achieve.
Success is often a result of several independent variables aligning to achieve a desired outcome. These may include, as Jim Collins points out, being in the right place at the right time – sometimes called “luck”. Further, there is rarely a single guaranteed path to success; multiple paths may result in varying levels of the desired outcome. Great companies and great leaders realize this, and rather than focusing a culture on independent variables they focus teams on outcomes. By focusing on outcomes, leaders are free to attempt multiple approaches and to tweak a variety of independent variables to find the most expedient path to success. We created the AKF Equation (we sometimes refer to it as the AKF Law) to help focus our clients on outcomes first:
Two very important corollaries follow from this equation or “law”:
Examples of Why Results, and Not Paths Matter
Intelligence Does Not Equal Success
As an example of why the dependent variable of results and not an independent variable like intelligence is most important consider Duckworth and Seligman’s research. Duckworth and Seligman and associates (insert link) conducted a review of GPA performance in adolescents. They expected to find that intelligence was the best indication of GPA. Instead, they found that self-discipline was a better indication of the best GPAs:
Lewis Terman, a mid-20th century Stanford Pyschology professor hypothesized that IQ was highly correlated with success in his famous termite study of 1500 students with an average IQ of 151. Follow on analysis and study indicated that while these students were successful, they were half as successful as a group of other students with a lower IQ.
Chris Langan, the world’s self-proclaimed “most intelligent man” with an IQ of 195 can’t seem to keep a job according to Malcolm Gladwell. He’s been a cowboy, a stripper, a day laborer and has competed on various game shows.
While we’d all like to have folks of average or better intelligence on our team, the above clearly indicates that it’s more important to focus on outcomes than an independent variable like intelligence.
Drive Does Not Equal Success
While most successful companies in the Silicon Valley started with employees that worked around the clock, The Valley is also littered with the corpses of companies that worked their employees to the bone. Just ask former employees of the failed social networking company Friendster. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. In fact, most “overnight” success appears to take about 10,000 hours of practice just to be good, and 10 years of serious work to be truly successful (according to both Ramit Sethi and Malcolm Gladwell.)
Hard work, if applied in the right direction and to the right activities should of course help achieve results and success. But again, it’s the outcome (results and success) that matter.
Wisdom Does Not Equal Success
Touting the age and experience of your management team? Think again. There’s plenty of evidence that when it comes to innovative new approaches, we start to “lose our touch” at the age of 40. The largest market cap technology companies of our age were founded by “youngsters” – Bezos being the oldest of them at the age of 30. Einstein posited all of his most significant theories well before the age of 40 – most of them in the “miracle year” at the age of 26 in 1905. The eldest of the two Wright Brothers was 39.
While there are no doubt examples of successful innovation coming after the age of 40, and while some of the best managers and leaders we know are over the age of 40, wisdom alone is not a guarantee for success.
Only Success = Success
Most of the truly successful and fastest growing companies we know focus on a handful of dependent variables that clearly identify results, progress and ultimately success. Their daily manners and daily discourse are carefully formulated around evaluation of these success criteria. Even these company’s interaction with outside firms focuses on data driven indications of success time and time again – not on independent variables such as intelligence, work ethic, wisdom (or managerial experience), etc.
These companies identify key performance indicators for everything that they do, believing that anything worth doing should have a measurable value creation performance indicator associated with it. They maniacally focus on the trends of these performance indicators, identifying significant deviations (positive or negative) in order to learn and repeat the positive causes and avoid those that result in negative trends. Very often these companies employ agile planning and focus processes similar to the OKR process.
The most successful companies rarely engage in discussions around spurious relationships such as intelligence to business success, management experience to business success, or effort to business success. They recognize that while some of these things are likely valuable in the right proportions, they are rarely (read never) the primary cause of success.
AKF Partners helps companies develop highly available, scalable, cost effective and fast time-to-market products. We know that to be successful in these endeavors, companies must have the right people, in the right roles, with the right behaviors - all supported by the right culture. Contact us to discuss how we can help with your product needs.
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How to write concisely
April 11, 2018 | Posted By: Geoffrey Weber
The Three Sentence Rule
Variations of the Three Sentence Rule have been around for a long time. The differences are multiplicative but the base rule is a useful and often necessary tool to teach concision to the wordy.
Say what you need to say in THREE sentences, or less.
Anyone who has been through flight school learns how to be concise on the radio. Who are you? Where are you? What do you want? That happens to be three sentences. “Palo Alto Tower, Cessna 15957X; 5 miles southwest of SLAC with information Echo; request landing.” The need to be precise, accurate and speedy is a requirement at a tower as busy as Palo Alto tower. Controllers have no patience because there are 12 other aircraft waiting to communicate.
As technologists, we are generally rewarded for producing details, the more the better. Engineers have to be obsessed with substance; their work is about precision and there are no shortcuts when it comes to building complex tools. It wouldn’t make any sense to try and distill how Cassandra compares to a relational database, in three sentences, in a room filled with colleagues, at a meet-up.
But what if our CEO asks us about Cassandra? How can we possibly explain to someone who is just a wee bit tech-illiterate the differences between two very different data stores? Moreover, why on earth would we try and distill that down to three sentences?? Let’s start at the beginning… before there were databases there were Hollerith Cards…
Lack of brevity is a death sentence to any technologist who finds themselves interacting with non-technologists on a regular basis. We see this as a common anti-pattern for CTOs; some never learn the difference between a novel, a paragraph, or sentence and why each has utility.
The controller in the tower could care less about why we’re in an airplane today, that we’re stopping at the restaurant for the traditional $100 hamburger and that we need to be home for dinner tonight:
- Who are you?
- Where are you?
- What do you want?
- Cassandra is a new database technology.
- It’s very different than what we use today.
- It will lower costs in the next 12 months.
That is the CEO-version of Cassandra in three sentences. “What is it called, why should I remember it, what does it do for me?”
At AKF Partners, we believe that technology executives need to start practicing a version of the three sentence rule as soon as they transition into their first leadership role. Specialists in Operations roles have an advantage because of the daily chaos and need for ongoing communications: “Customer sign-in unavailable for 15 minutes; 100% of our customers are impacted for 15 minutes; we are restarting the service for 100% operations in 10 minutes—update in 20 minutes.”
- What happened?
- What is the impact?
- When is it going to be fixed?
There’s a practical reason for such precision: most CEOs are consuming information on tiny screens, sometimes over really bad internet (Detroit Airport) at 2 in the morning, and news also just arrived about a sales crisis in Europe, there’s a supply-chain issue in India, and the Wall Street Journal is doing a feature about the product that’s going live next week. If we mentioned Hollerith, or even thought about it for a second, we’re Exploring Alternative Employment. If they have a moment to breath, they can ask for more detail. Or maybe next week.
Sometimes we’re required to communicate when there’s no answer. Try this:
- Impact update,
- Standard procedures failed, assembled SWAT,
- Updates every 15 minutes until resolution.
An equally important rule for executives is the “No Surprise Rule” (stay tuned) and zero sentences are as fatal as 4 sentences at the wrong time. Keeping a CEO waiting for 2 hours until root cause is determined is stupid.
The final place to consider the Three Sentence Rule is the boardroom itself. Most boards members are not going to read through the 200 page board deck, and our ten minutes to discuss the Cassandra project is unlikely to resonate with most of the attendees. Up and coming executives understand the need for absolute precision. Steve Jobs could do it with a single slide:
Three sentences, if you count the background gradient as a sentence.
For the Board:
- We’re introducing new technology next fiscal year.
- It’s called Cassandra.
- A year from now I will demonstrate how it increased EBITDBA by $2M.
- Anything can be explained in 3 sentences
- Even concepts so fantastic they seem magical
- If you don’t believe me, Books in 3 Sentences
At AKF Partners, we can help with mentoring, coaching and leadership training.
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SaaS Migration Challenges
March 12, 2018 | Posted By: Dave Swenson
More and more companies are waking up from the 20th century, realizing that their on-premise, packaged, waterfall paradigms no longer play in today’s SaaS, agile world. SaaS (Software as a Service) has taken over, and for good reason. Companies (and investors) long for the higher valuation and increased margins that SaaS’ economies of scale provide. Many of these same companies realize that in order to fully benefit from a SaaS model, they need to release far more frequently, enhancing their products through frequent iterative cycles rather than massive upgrades occurring only 4 times a year. So, they not only perform a ‘lift and shift’ into the cloud, they also move to an Agile PDLC. Customers, tired of incurring on-premise IT costs and risks, are also pushing their software vendors towards SaaS.
But, what many of the companies migrating to SaaS don’t realize is that migrating to SaaS is not just a technology exercise. Successful SaaS migrations require a ‘reboot’ of the entire company. Certainly, the technology organization will be most affected, but almost every department in a company will need to change. Sales teams need to pitch the product differently, selling a leased service vs. a purchased product, and must learn to address customers’ typical concerns around security. The role of professional services teams in SaaS drastically changes, and in most cases, shrinks. Customer support personnel should have far greater insight into reported problems. Product management in a SaaS world requires small, nimble enhancements vs. massive, ‘big-bang’ upgrades. Your marketing organization will potentially need to target a different type of customer for your initial SaaS releases - leveraging the Technology Adoption Lifecycle to identify early adopters of your product in order to inform a small initial release (Minimum Viable Product).
It is important to recognize the risks that will shift from your customers to you. In an on-premise (“on-prem”) product, your customer carries the burden of capacity planning, security, availability, disaster recovery. SaaS companies sell a service (we like to say an outcome), not just a bundle of software. That service represents a shift of the risks once held by a customer to the company provisioning the service. In most cases, understanding and properly addressing these risks are new undertakings for the company in question and not something for which they have the proper mindset or skills to be successful.
This company-wide reboot can certainly be a daunting challenge, but if approached carefully and honestly, addressing key questions up front, communicating, educating, and transparently addressing likely organizational and personnel changes along the way, it is an accomplishment that transforms, even reignites, a company.
This is the first in a series of articles that captures AKF’s observations and first-hand experiences in guiding companies through this process.
Don’t treat this as a simple rewrite of your existing product - answer these questions first…
Any company about to launch into a SaaS migration should first take a long, hard look at their current product, determining what out of the legacy product is not worth carrying forward. Is all of that existing functionality really being used, and still relevant? Prior to any move towards SaaS, the following questions and issues need to be addressed:
Customization or Configuration?
SaaS efficiencies come from many angles, but certainly one of those is having a single codebase for all customers. If your product today is highly customized, where code has been written and is in use for specific customers, you’ve got a tough question to address. Most product variances can likely be handled through configuration, a data-driven mechanism that enables/disables or otherwise shapes functionality for each customer. No customer-specific code from the legacy product should be carried forward unless it is expected to be used by multiple clients. Note that this shift has implications on how a sales force promotes the product (they can no longer promise to build whatever a potential customer wants, but must sell the current, existing functionality) as well as professional services (no customizations means less work for them).
Many customers, even those who accept the improved security posture a cloud-hosted product provides over their own on-premise infrastructure, absolutely freak when they hear that their data will coexist with other customers’ data in a single multi-tenant instance, no matter what access management mechanisms exist. Multi-tenancy is another key to achieving economies of scale that bring greater SaaS efficiencies. Don’t let go of it easily, but if you must, price extra for it.
Who owns the data?
Many products focus only on the transactional set of functionality, leaving the analytics side to their customers. In an on-premise scenario, where the data resides in the customers’ facilities, ownership of the data is clear. Customers are free to slice & dice the data as they please. When that data is hosted, particularly in a multi-tenant scenario where multiple customers’ data lives in the same database, direct customer access presents significant challenges. Beyond the obvious related security issues is the need to keep your customers abreast of the more frequent updates that occur with SaaS product iterations. The decision is whether you replicate customer data into read-only instances, provide bulk export into their own hosted databases, or build analytics into your product?
All of these have costs - ensure you’re passing those on to your customers who need this functionality.
May I Upgrade Now?
Today, do your customers require permission for you to upgrade their installation? You’ll need to change that behavior to realize another SaaS efficiency - supporting of as few versions as possible. Ideally, you’ll typically only support a single version (other than during deployment). If your customers need to ‘bless’ a release before migrating on to it, you’re doing it wrong. Your releases should be small, incremental enhancements, potentially even reaching continuous deployment. Therefore, the changes should be far easier to accept and learn than the prior big-bang, huge upgrades of the past. If absolutely necessary, create a sandbox for customers to access new releases, but be prepared to deal with the potentially unwanted, non-representative feedback from the select few who try it out in that sandbox.
Wait? Who Are We Targeting?
All of the questions above lead to this fundamental issue: Are tomorrow’s SaaS customers the same as today’s? The answer? Not necessarily. First, in order to migrate existing customers on to your bright, shiny new SaaS platform, you’ll need to have functional parity with the legacy product. Reaching that parity will take significant effort and lead to a big-bang approach. Instead, pick a subset or an MVP of existing functionality, and find new customers who will be satisfied with that. Then, after proving out the SaaS architecture and related processes, gradually migrate more and more functionality, and once functional parity is close, move existing customers on to your SaaS platform.
To find those new customers interested in placing their bets on your initial SaaS MVP, you’ll need to shift your current focus on the right side of the Technology Adoption Lifecycle (TALC) to the left - from your current ‘Late Majority’ or ‘Laggards’ to ‘Early Adopters’ or ‘Early Majority’. Ideally, those customers on the left side of the TALC will be slightly more forgiving of the ‘learnings’ you’ll face along the way, as well as prove to be far more valuable partners with you as you further enhance your MVP.
The key is to think out of the existing box your customers are in, to reset your TALC targeting and to consider a new breed of customer, one that doesn’t need all that you’ve built, is willing to be an early adopter, and will be a cooperative partner throughout the process.
Our next article on SaaS migration will touch on organizational approaches, particularly during the build-out of the SaaS product, and the paradigm shifts your product and engineering teams need to embrace in order to be successful.
AKF has led many companies on their journey to SaaS, often getting called in as that journey has been derailed. We’ve seen the many potholes and pitfalls and have learned how to avoid them. Let us help you move your product into the 21st century.
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There Are Always Plenty of Incidents from Which To Learn
January 13, 2018 | Posted By: Dave Swenson
Sorry, False Alarm…
On January 13, 2018, what felt like an episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” unfolded in real life. Just after 8 in the morning, residents and visitors of Hawaii were woken up to the following startling push notification:
Thankfully, the notification was a false alarm, finally retracted with a second notification nearly 40 interminable minutes later.
The amazing, poignant and sobering stories that occurred from those 40 minutes, included people:
- determining which children to spend their last minutes with,
- abandoning their cars on streets,
- sheltering in a lava tube,
- believing and acting as we all would if we believed the end was here.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a Black Mirror episode and paralyzed an entire state’s population. Thankfully, the alarm was a false one.
A Muted President
As President Trump took office, he introduced a new means for a President to reach his constituents—Twitter, averaging 6 to 7 tweets per day during his first year. On November 2, 2017, many bots that were created to closely monitor the tweets of @realDonaldTrump started reporting that the account no longer existed. Clicking to his account took the user to the above error page.
For a deafening 11 minutes, the nation was unable to listen to its leader, at least via Twitter.
The Hawaiian false alarm was sent by the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Their explanation of the incident was that during a shift change, an employee clicked “the wrong button” while running a missile crisis test, then subsequently clicked through a confirmation prompt (“Are you sure you want to tell 1.5 million people this?”).
Twitter employees had reportedly tried for years to get management attention on ensuring accounts weren’t deleted without proper vetting. The company typically used contractors in the Philippines and Singapore to handle such account administration; Trump’s account was deleted by a German contract worker on his last day at Twitter. Acting on yet-another-Trump-complaint, believing such an important account couldn’t be suspended, the worker’s last action for Twitter was to click the suspend button, and then walked out of the building causing the Twitterverse to read far more into the account’s disappearance than they should have.
In both of these situations, the immediate focus was on the personnel involved in the incident. “Who pushed the button?” is typically always one of the initial questions. Assumptions that a new employee, or rogue worker were behind the incident are common, and both motive and intelligence of all involved are under inspection.
We at AKF Partners constantly preach “An incident is a terrible thing to waste”. Events such as these warp the known reality into “How the shit can that happen??”, causing enough alarm to warrant special attention and focus, if not panic. Yet, all too often we see teams searching frantically to find any cause, blame the most obvious, immediate factor, declare victory, and move on.
“Who pushed the button?” is only one of many questions.
Toyota’s Taichi Ohno, the father of Lean Manufacturing, recognized his team’s habit of accepting the most apparent cause, ignoring (wasting) other elements revealed by an incident, potentially allowing it to be eventually repeated. Ohno (the person, not the exclamation typically uttered during an incident) emphasized the importance of asking “5 Why’s” in order to move beyond the most obvious explanation (and accompanying blame), to peel the onion diving deeper into contributory causes.
Questions beyond the reflexive “What happened?” and “Who did it?” relevant to the false alarm and erroneous account deletion incidents include:
- Why did the system act differently than the individual expected (is there more training required, is the user interface a confusing one)?
- Why did it take so long to correct (is there no playbook for detecting / reversing such a message or key account activity)?
- Why does the system allow such an impactful event to be performed unilaterally, by a single person (what safeguards should exist requiring more than one set of hands?)
- Why does this particular person have such authorization to perform this action (should a non-employee have the ability to delete such a verified, popular and influential account)?
- Why was the possibility of this incident not anticipated and prevented (why were Twitter employee requests for better safeguards ignored for years, why wasn’t the ease of making such a mistake recognized and what other similar mistake opportunities are there)?
Both of these incidents have had an impact far beyond those directly affected (Hawaiian inhabitants or Trump Twitter followers), and have shed light on the need to recognize the world has changed and policies and practices of old might not be enough for today. The ballistic missile false alarm revealed that more controls need to be placed on all mass communication, but also that Hawaii (or anywhere/anyone else) is extremely unprepared for the unthinkable. The use of Twitter as a channel for the President now raises questions over the validity of it as a Presidential record, asks who should control such a channel, and raises concerns on what security is around the President’s account?
Ask 5 Whys, look beyond the immediate impact to find collateral learnings, and take notice of all that an incident can reveal.
AKF Partners have been brought in by over 400 companies to avoid such incidents, and when they do occur, to learn from them. Let us help you.
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Conway’s Law – The Rest of the Story.. and How To Fix It
December 14, 2017 | Posted By: Marty Abbott
The Law that Almost Wasn’t
Conway’s law had a rather precarious beginning. Harvard Business Review rejected Conway’s thesis, buried as it was in the 43d paragraph of a 45-paragraph paper, on the grounds that he had not proven it.
But Mel had a PhD in Mathematics (from Case Western Reserve University – Go Spartans!), and like most PhDs he was accustomed to journal rejections. Mel resubmitted the paper to Datamation, a well-respected IT journal of the time, and his paper “How Do Committees Invent” was published in 1968.
It wasn’t until 1975, however, that the moniker “Conway’s Law” came to be. Fred Brooks both coined the term and popularized Conway’s thesis in his first edition of the Mythical Man Month. It has since been one of the most widely cited, important but nevertheless incorrectly understood and applied notions in the domain of product development.
Cliff’s Notes to “How Do Committees Invent” (the article in which the law resides)
Conway’s thesis, in his words:
… organizations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.
Conway calls this self-similarity between organizations and designs homomorphism. Preamble to the thesis helps explain the breadth and depth:
… the very act of organizing a design team means that certain design decisions have already been made, explicitly or otherwise
Every time a delegation is made … the class of design alternatives which can be effectively pursued is also narrowed.
Because the design which occurs first is almost never the best possible, the prevailing system concept may need to change. Therefore, flexibility of organization is important to effective design.
Specifically, each individual must have at most one superior and at most approximately seven subordinates
Examples. A contract research organization had eight people who were to produce a COBOL and an ALGOL compiler. After some initial estimates of difficulty and time, five people were assigned to the COBOL job and three to the ALGOL job. The resulting COBOL compiler ran in five phases, the ALG0L compiler ran in three.
There are 4 very important points, and one very good example, in the quotes above:
1) Organizations and design/architecture and intrinsically linked. The organization affects and constrains the architecture - the opposite is not true.
2) Depth of an organization negatively effects design flexibility. The deeper the hierarchy of an organization, the less flexible (or alternatively more constrained) the resulting architecture.
3) We will make mistakes and must organize to quickly fix these.
4) Team size should always be small – which also has an implication to the size of the solution part a team can own (think Amazon’s re-branding of this point of the “2 Pizza Team” (author’s side note – read Scalability Rules for how this came about).
Important corollaries to Conway’s law suggest that if either an organization or a design change, without a corresponding change to the other, the product will be at risk.
Common Failures in Application of Conway’s Law and How to Fix Them
There are five very common failures in organization and architecture within our clients, the first four of which relate directly to Conway’s points above:
1) Organizations and architectures designed separately. Given the homomorphism that Conway describes, you simply CANNOT do this.
2) Deep, hierarchical organizations. Again – this will constrain design.
3) Lack of flexibility. Companies tend to plan for success. Instead, assume failure, learning, and adaptation (think “discovery” and “Agile” instead of “requirements” and “Waterfall”).
4) Large teams. Forget about these. Small teams, each owning a service or services that the team can support in isolation.
There is a fifth violation that is harder to see in Conway’s paper. Too often, our clients don’t build properly experienced teams around the solutions they deploy. Success in low-overhead organizations requires that teams be cross functional. Whatever a team needs to be successful should be within that team. If you deploy on your own hardware, you should have hardware experience. If you need DBA talent, the team should have direct access to that talent. QA folks should be embedded within the team, etc. Product managers or owners should also be embedded in the team. This creates our fifth failure:
5) Functional teams. Don’t build teams around “a skill” – build them around the breadth of skills necessary to accomplish the task handed to the team.
Conway’s Parting Shot and Food for Thought
Noodle on this: Conway identified a problem early in the life of a new domain. Yet what was true in Conway’s time as a contributor to the art is still true today, over 50 years after his first attempt to forewarn us:
Probably the greatest single common factor behind many poorly designed systems now in existence has been the availability of a design organization in need of work.
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AKF Partners helps companies ensure that their organizations and architectures are aligned to the outcomes they desire. We help companies develop better, more highly available and more highly scalable products with faster time to market and lower cost. Give us a call or shoot us an email. We’d love to help you achieve the success you desire.
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Tuckman’s Stages and Agile Development
November 8, 2017 | Posted By: AKF
In 1965, psychologist Bruce Tuckman published his theory of group dynamics. This theory describes the stages (or phases) through which a team progresses enroute to optimal productivity. While generally useful for any organization, and prescriptive as to what leaders should do when to boost performance, it has profound impacts to Agile development practices and how we build organizations around these Agile practices.
The first stage is forming. This is where the team first comes together. Here, the individuals are trying to get to know each other. They tend to be polite and cordial, but they do not fully trust each other.
In this stage, the team productivity and team conflict are low. The team spends time agreeing to what the team is supposed to do. This lack of agreement of the team’s purpose can cause members to miss goals because they are individually targeting different things. Team members rely on patterned behavior and look to the team leader for guidance and direction. The team members want to be accepted by the group. Cautious behavior on the part of the team starts to depress overall team outcomes. Good leadership, emphasizing goals and outcomes is important to set the stage for future team behaviors and outcomes.
Once the team’s goals are clear, they move into the next stage, storming. Here, the team starts to develop a plan to achieve the goal and defines what to do and who does it. Friction starts to occur as members propose different ideas. Trust within the team remains low and affective conflict rises as people vie for control. Cliques can form. Productivity drops even lower than in the first stage.
Once the team agrees on the plan and the roles and responsibilities, it can move to the next stage. Without agreement, the team can get stuck. Symptoms include poor coordination, people doing the wrong things and missing deadlines, to name a few. Good leadership here focuses on fast affective conflict resolution, and serves to help reinforce team goals and outcomes in order to quickly move to more productive phases.
Once team members agree to the plan and understand their roles, they enter the norming phase. Affective conflict goes down, cognitive (beneficial) conflict and trust increase. The team focuses on how to get things done and productivity begins to increase. The team develops “norms” about how to work together and collaborate. A lack of these norms can cause issues such as low quality and missed deadlines.
Leadership within the team becomes clear and cliques dissolve. Members begin to identify with one another and the level of trust in their personal relationships contributes to the development of group cohesion. The team begins to experience a sense of group belonging and a feeling of relief from resolving interpersonal conflicts. Team identity starts to take hold and innovation and creativity within the team increases. The members feel an openness and cohesion on both a personal and task level. They feel good about being part of the team.
The final stage, preforming, is not achieved by all teams. This stage is marked by an interdependence in personal relations and problem solving within the realm of the team’s tasks. Team members share a common goal, understand the plan to achieve it, know their roles and how to work together. The team is firing on all cylinders. At this point, the team is highly productive and collaborates well. They are trusting of each other and “have each other’s back.” Healthy conflict is encouraged. There is unity: group identity is complete, group morale is high, and group loyalty is intense.
Not all teams get to this phase. They can get stuck in a previous phase or slide back into them from a higher phase. Leadership that focuses on affective conflict resolution, team identity creation, a compelling vision and goals to achieve that vision is critical to reaching the Performing phase. It is usually not easy for teams to quickly progress through these stages, and it often takes 6 months or more for a team to reach the Performing phase.
Impact to Agile Development
We often see companies make the mistake of coalescing teams around initiatives. Sometimes called “virtual teams” or “matrixed teams”, these teams suffer the underperforming phases of Tuckman’s curve repeatedly, especially when these initiatives are of durations shorter than 6 months. But even with durations of a year, six months of that time is spent getting the team to an optimum level of performance.
Tuckman’s analysis indicates that teams should be together for no less than a year (giving a 6 month return on a 6-month investment) and ideally for about 3 years. The upper limit being informed by the research on group think and its implications to creativity, performance and innovation within teams. Teams then should become semi-permanent and we should seek to move work to teams rather than form teams around work. To be successful here, we need multi-disciplinary teams capable of handling all the work they may get assigned. Further, the team needs to be familiar and “own” the outcomes associated with the solution (or architectural components) with which they work. More on that in future articles discussing Conway’s Law and Empathy Groups.
AKF Partners helps companies understand and apply the extant theory around organizational development in order to turbo-charge engineering performance. Wondering if your engineering productivity decreases as you grow your engineering and product teams? We can help you fix that and get your productivity back to the level it was as a startup!
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What Google Got Right and Wrong with Firing James Damore
August 9, 2017 | Posted By: Marty Abbott
We have a saying in AKF Partners that “an incident is a terrible thing to waste”. When things go poorly in a firm, stakeholders (shareholders, partners, employees) pay a price. Having already paid a price, the firm must maximize the learning opportunity the incident presents. Google wasted such a learning opportunity by failing to capitalize on an incredible teaching moment with the termination of James Damore (the author of the sometimes called “Anti-Diversity Manifesto”). While Google seems to have “done the right thing” by firing Damore, it is unclear that they “did it for the right reason”. The “right reason” here is that diversity is valuable to a company because it increases innovation and in so doing increases the probability of success. Further, diversity is hard to achieve, takes great effort and can easily be derailed with very little effort. Companies simply cannot allow employees to work at odds with incredibly valuable diversity initiatives.
Diversity Drives Innovation and Success
My doctoral dissertation journey introduced me to diversity and its beneficial effects on innovation, time to market, and success within technology product firms. Put simply, teams that are intentionally organized to highlight both inherent (traits with which we are born) and acquired (traits we gain from experience) diversity achieve higher levels of innovation. Research published in the Harvard Business Review confirms this, indicating that diverse teams out innovate and out-perform other teams. Diverse teams are more likely to understand the broad base of needs of the market and clients they support. Companies with very diverse management teams are 35% more likely to have financial returns above the mean for their industry. Firms with women on their board on average have a higher ROE and net income than those that do not.
Differences in perspective and skills are things we should all strive to have in our teams. As we point out in The Art of Scalability, these differences increase beneficial cognitive conflict. Increases in cognitive conflict opens a range of strategic possibilities that in turn engender higher levels of success for the firm.
We have for too long allowed the struggle for diversity to be waged on the battleground of “fairness”. The problem with “fair” is that what is “fair’ to one person may seem inherently unfair to another. “Fair” is subjective and “fair” is too often political. “Success” on the other hand is objective and easily measured. Let’s move this fight to where it belongs and embrace diversity because it drives innovation and success. After all, anyone who can’t get behind winning, doesn’t deserve to be on a winning team.
Achieving Diversity is Hard
While the value of diversity is high, the cost to achieve it is also unfortunately high – especially within software teams. As my colleague Robin McGlothin recently wrote, the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women over the last 25 years is declining. Most other minorities are similarly underrepresented in the field relative to their corresponding representation in the US population.
As in any market with high demand and low supply, companies need to find innovative ways to attract, grow and retain talent. These activities may include special mentoring programs, training programs, or scholarships at local universities meant to attract the group in question. These approaches may seem “unfair” to some, but they are in truth capitalism at its best - the application of market forces to solve a supply and demand problem. When a skill or trait is under high demand and short supply, the cost for that skill goes up. The extra activities above are nothing more than an increased cost to attract and retain the skills we value.
Companies desiring to achieve success in innovation through diversity MUST approach it in a steely, single-minded fashion. Any dissent as it relates to outcomes detracts from the probability of success. How many people with diverse backgrounds will leave or have left Google because of Damore’s missive? How many candidates won’t accept offers? Losing even one great candidate is an unacceptable additional cost given the already high cost to achieve success.
The Bottom Line
Structuring organizations and building cultures that tap the power of inherent and acquired diversity pays huge dividends for firms in terms of innovation, time to market, ROE and net income. While the rewards are high, the cost to achieve these benefits are also high. Success requires a steely, single-minded pursuit of diversity excellence.
The successful company will allow no dissent on this topic, as dissent makes the firm less attractive to the ideal candidate. Given a constrained supply under high demand, the candidate can and should go to the most welcoming environment available.
Put simply, Google did the right thing in firing Damore. But they failed to fully capitalize on the unfortunate event. The right answer, when asked about the reason for firing, would look something like this: “We recognize that diversity in experiences, background, gender and race drives higher levels of innovation and greater levels of success. Our culture will not tolerate employees who are not aligned with creating stakeholder value.”
Interested in driving innovation and time to market in your product and engineering teams? AKF Partners helps companies create experientially diverse product teams aligned with business outcomes to help turbo-charge performance and team innovation.
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