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The Phases of SaaS Grief

July 24, 2018  |  Posted By: Marty Abbott

frustrated guy at a computer Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels
Over a decade of helping on-premise and licensed software companies through the transition to “Something as a Service” – whether that be Software (SaaS), Platform (PaaS), Infrastructure (IaaS), or Analytics (AaaS) – has given us a rather unique perspective on the various phases through which these companies transition.  Very often we find ourselves in the position of a counselor, helping them recognize their current phase and making recommendations to deal with the cultural and operational roadblocks inherent to that phase.

While rather macabre, the phases somewhat resemble those of grieving after the loss of a loved one.  The similarities make some sense here, as very often we work with companies who have had a very successful on-premise and/or licensed software business; they dominated their respective markets and “genetically” evolved to be the “alphas” in their respective areas.  The relationship is strong, and their past successes have been very compelling.  Why would we expect anything other than grieving?

But to continue to evolve, succeed, and survive in light of secular forces these companies must let their loved one (the past business) go and move on with a new and different life.  To be successful, this life will require new behaviors that are often diametrically opposed to those that made the company successful in their past life.

It’s important to note that, unlike the grieving process with a loved one, these phases need not all be completed.  The most successful companies, through pure willpower of the management team, power through each of these quickly and even bypass some of them to accelerate to the healing phase.  The most important thing to note here is that you absolutely can move quickly – but it requires decisive action on the part of the executive team.


Phase 1: Denial This phase is characterized by the licensed/on-premise software provider completely denying a need to move to an “X” (something) as a Service (XaaS, e.g. SaaS, PaaS) model. 

Commonly heard quotes inside the company:

  • “Our customers will never move to a SaaS model.”
  • “Our customers are concerned about security.  IaaS, SaaS and PaaS simply aren’t an option.”
  • “Our industry won’t move to a Cloud model – they are too concerned about ownership of their data.”
  • “To serve this market, a solution needs to be flexible and customizable.  Proprietary customer processes are a competitive advantage in this space – and our solution needs to map exactly to them.”

Reinforcing this misconceived belief is an executive team, a sales force, and a professional services team trapped in a prison of cognitive biases.  Hypothesis myopia and asymmetric attention (both forms of confirmation bias) lead to psychological myopia.  In our experience, companies with a predisposed bias will latch on to anything any customer says that supports the notion that XaaS just won’t work.  These companies discard any evidence, such as pesky little startups picking up small deals, as aberrant data points. 

The inherent lack of paranoia blinds the company to the smaller companies starting to nibble away at the portions of the market that the successful company’s products do not serve well.  Think Seibel in the early days of Salesforce.  The company’s product is too expensive and too complex to adequately serve the smaller companies beneath them.  The cost of sales is simply too high, and the sales cycle too long to address the needs of the companies adopting XaaS solutions.  In this phase, the company isn’t yet subject to the Innovator’s Dilemma as the blinders will not let them see it.

Ignorance is bliss…for awhile…

How to Avoid or Limit This Phase

Successful executive teams identify denial early and simply shut it down.  They establish a clear vision and timeline to move to the delivery of a product as a service.  As with any successful change initiative, the executive team creates, as a minimum:

  1. The compelling reason and need for change.  This visionary element describes the financial and operational benefits in clear terms that everyone can understand.  It is the “pulling” force necessary to motivate people through difficult times.
  2. A sense of fear for not making the change.  This fear becomes the “stick” to the compelling “carrot” above.  Often given the secular forces, this fear is quite simply the slow demise of the company.
  3. A “villain” or competitor.  As is the case in nearly any athletic competition, where people perform better when they have a competitor of equivalent caliber (vs say running against a clock), so do companies perform better when competing against someone else.
  4. A “no excuses” cultural element.  Everyone on the team is either committed to the result, or they get removed from the team.  There is no room for passive-aggressive behavior, or behaviors inconsistent with the desired outcome.  People clinging to the past simply prolong or doom the change initiative.  Fast success, and even survival, requires that everyone be committed.

Phase 2: Reluctant but Only Partial Acceptance
This phase typically starts when a new executive, or sometimes a new and prominent product manager, is brought into the company.  This person understands at least some of – and potentially all of – the demand side forces “pulling” XaaS across the curve of adoption, and notices the competition from below.  Many times, the Innovator’s Dilemma keeps the company from attempting to go after the lower level competitors. 

Commonly heard quotes inside the company:

  • “Those guys (referring to the upstarts) don’t understand the complexities of our primary market – the large enterprise.”
  • “There’s a place for those products in the SMB and SME space – but ‘real’ companies want the security of being on-premise.”
  • “Sure, there are some companies entertaining SaaS, but it represents a tiny portion of our existing market.”
  • “We are not diluting our margins by going down market.”

The company embarks upon taking all their on-premise solutions and hosting them, nearly exactly as implemented on-premise, as a “service”. 

Many of the company’s existing customers aren’t yet ready to migrate to XaaS, but discussions are happening inside customer companies to move several solutions off-premise including email, CRM and ERP.  These customers see the possibility of moving everything – they are just uncertain as to when.

How to Avoid or Limit This Phase

The answer for how to speed through or skip this phase is not significantly different than that of the prior phase.  Vision, fear of death, a compelling adversary, and a “no excuses” culture are all necessary components. 

Secular forces drive customers to seek a shift of risk.  This shift is analogous to why one would rent instead of owning a home.  The customer no longer wants the hassle of maintenance, nor are they truly qualified to perform that maintenance.  They are willing to accept some potential increase in costs as capex shifts to opex, to relieve themselves of the burden of specializing in an area for which they are ill-equipped.

Risk shift from on premise to SaaS products

If not performed during the Denial phase, now is the time to remove executives who display behaviors inconsistent with the new desired SaaS Principles


Phase 3: Pretending to Have an Answer
The pretending phase starts with the company implementing essentially an on-premise solution as a “SaaS” solution.  With small modifications, it is exactly what was shipped to customers before but presented online and with a recurring revenue subscription model.  We often like to call this the “ASP” or “Application Service Provider” model.  While the revenue model of the company shifts for a small portion of its revenue to recurring services fees, the solution itself has not changed much.  In fact, for older client-server products Citrix or the like is often deployed to allow the solution to be hosted.

The product soon displays clear faults including lower than desired availability, higher than necessary cost of operations, higher than expected operating expenses, and lower margins than competitors overall.  Often the company will successfully hide these “SaaS” results as a majority of their income from operations still come from on-premise solutions.

The company will often use nebulous terms like “Cloud” when describing the service offering to steer clear of direct comparisons with other “born SaaS” or “true SaaS” solutions.  Sometimes, in extreme cases, the company will lie to itself about what they’ve accomplished, and it will almost always direct the conversation to topics seen as differentiating in the on-premise world rather than address SaaS Principles.

Commonly heard quotes inside the company:

  • “Our ‘Cloud’ solution is world class – it’s the Mercedes of all solutions in the space with more features and functionality than any other solution.”
  • “The smaller guys don’t have a chance.  Look at how long it will take them to reach feature parity.  The major players in the industry simply won’t wait for that.”
  • “We are the Burger King of SaaS providers – you can still have it your way.  And we know you need it your way.”

Meanwhile, customers are starting to look at true SaaS solutions.  They tire of availability problems, response time issues, the customization necessary to get the solution to work in a suitable fashion and the lack of configurability.  The lead time to implementation is still too long.

Sales people continue to sell the product the same way; promising whatever a customer wants to get a sale.  Engineers still develop the same way, using the same principles that made the company successful on-premise and completely ignorant of the principles necessary to be successful in the SaaS world. 

How to Avoid or Limit This Phase

It’s not completely a bad thing to launch, as a first step, a “hosted” version of a company’s licensed product.  But the company must understand internally that it is only an interim step.

In addition to the visionary and behavioral components of the previous phases, the company now must accept and be planning for a smaller functionality solution that will be more likely adopted by “innovators” and “early majority” companies.  The concept of MVP relative to the Technology Adoption Lifecycle is important here.

Further, the company must be aggressively weeding product, sales, and technology executives who lack the behaviors or skills to be successful and seeding the team with people who have “done this before”.  Sales teams must act similarly to used car sales people in that they can only sell “what is on the lot” that will fit customer “need”, as compared to new car sales people who can promise options and colors from the factory (“It will take more time”) that more precisely fit a customer’s “want”. 


Phase 4: Fear
The company loses its first major deal or two to a rival product that appears to be truly SaaS and abides by SaaS Principles.  They realize that their ASP product simply isn’t going to cut it, and Sales people are finally “getting” that the solution they have simply won’t work.  The question is:  Is the company too late?  The answer depends on how long it took the company to get to this position.  A true SaaS solution is at the very least months away and potentially years away.  If the company moves initially right to the “Fear” stage and properly understands the concepts behind the TALC, they have a chance.

Commonly heard quotes inside the company:

  • “We’re screwed unless we get this thing re-architected in order to properly compete in the XaaS space.”
  • “Stop behaving like we used to – stop promising customizations.  That’s not who we are anymore.”
  • “The new product needs to do everything the old product did.” [Incorrect and prone to failing]
  • “Think smaller, and faster.  Think some of today’s customers – not all of them – for the first release.  Understand MVP is relative to the TALC.” [Correct and will help drive success]

How to Avoid or Limit This Phase
This is the most easily avoided phase.  With proper planning and execution in prior phases, a company can completely skip the fear stage.

When companies find themselves here, its typically because they have not addressed the talents and approach of their sales, product, and engineering teams.  Sales behaviors must change to only sell what’s “on the car lot”.  Engineers must understand how to build the “-ilities” into products from day 1.  Product managers must switch to identifying market need, rather than fulfilling customer want.  Executives must now run an entirely different company.


Final Phase: Healing or Marginalization
Companies successful enough to achieve this phase do so only through launching a true XaaS product – one that abides by XaaS principles built and run by executives, managers and individual contributors who truly understand or are completely wedded to learning what it means to be successful in the XaaS world. 


Summary
The phases of grief are common among many of our customers.  But unlike grieving for a loved one, they are not necessary.  Quick progression, or better yet avoidance, of these phases can be accomplished by:

  1. Establishing a clear and compelling vision based on market and secular force analysis, and an understanding of the technology adoption lifecycle.  As with any vision, it should not only explain the reason for change, but the positive long-term financial impact of change.
  2. Ensuring that everyone understands the cost of failure, helping to instill some small level in fear that should help drive cultural change.
  3. Ensuring that a known villain or competitor exists, against which we are competing to help boost performance and speed of transition.
  4. Aggressively addressing the cultural and behavioral changes necessary to be successful.  Anyone who is not committed and displaying the appropriate changes in behavior needs to be weeded from the garden.

This shift often results in a significant portion of the company departing – sometimes willingly and sometimes forcefully.  Some people don’t want to change and can find other companies (for a while) where their skills and behaviors are relevant.  Some people have the desire, but may not be capable of changing in the time necessary to be successful. 

Image Credit: Tim Gouw from Pexels

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People Due Diligence

July 12, 2018  |  Posted By: AKF

Most companies do a thorough job of financial due diligence when they acquire other companies. But all too often, dealmakers simply miss or underestimate the significance of people issues. The consequences can be severe, from talent loss after a deal’s announcement, to friction or paralysis caused by differences in decision-making styles.

When acquirers do their people homework, they can uncover skills & capability gaps, points of friction, and differences in decision making. They can also make the critical people decisions - who stays, who goes, who runs the various lines of business, what to do with the rank and file at the time the deal is announced or shortly thereafter. Making such decisions within the first 90 days is critical to the success of a deal.

Take for example, Charles Schwab’s 2000 acquisition of US Trust.  Schwab & the nation’s oldest trust company set out to sign up the newly minted millionaires created by a soaring bull market.  But the cultures could not have been farther apart – a discount do-it-yourself stock brokerage style and a full-service provider devoted to pampering multimillionaires can make for a difficult integration.  Six years after the merger, Chuck Schwab came out of retirement to fix the issues related to culture clash. The acquisition reflects a textbook common business problem. The dealmakers simply ignored or underestimated the significance of people and cultural issues.

Another example can be found in the 2002 acquisition of PayPal by eBay.  The fact that many on the PayPal side referred to it as a merger, sets the stage for conflicting cultures.  eBay was often embarrassed by the fact that PayPal invoice emails for a won auction arrived before the eBay end of auction email - PayPal made eBay look bad in this instance and the technology teams were not eager to combine.  As well, PayPal titles were discovered to be one level higher than eBay titles considering the scope of responsibilities.  Combining the technology teams did not go well and was ultimately scrapped in favor of dual teams - not the most efficient organizational model.

People due diligence lays the groundwork for a smooth integration. Done early enough, it also helps acquirers decide whether to embrace or kill a deal and determine the price they are willing to pay.  There’s a certain amount of people due diligence that companies can and must do to reduce the inevitable fallout from the acquisition process and smooth the integration.

Ultimately, the success or failure of any deal has to do with people.  Empowering people and putting them in a position where they will be successful is part of our diligence evaluation at AKF Partners. In our experience with clients, an acquiring company must start with some fundamental question:

1. What is the purpose of the deal?
2. Whose culture will the new organization adopt?
3. Will the two cultures mesh?
4. What organizational structure should be adopted?
5. How will rank-and-file employees react to the deal?

Once those questions are answered, people due diligence can focus on determining how well the target’s current structure and culture will mesh with those of the proposed new company, who should be retained and by what means, and how to manage the reaction of the employee base.

In public, deal-making executives routinely speak of acquisitions as “mergers of equals.” That’s diplomatic, politically correct speak and usually not true. In most deals, there is not only a financial acquirer, there is also a cultural acquirer, who will set the tone for the new organization after the deal is done. Often, they are one and the same, but they don’t have to be.

During our Technology Due Diligence process at AKF Partners, we evaluate the product, technology and support organizations with a focus on culture and think through how the two companies and teams are going to come together.  Who the cultural acquirer is dependes on the fundamental goal of the acquisition. If the objective is to strengthen the existing product lines by gaining customers and achieving economies of scale, then the financial acquirer normally assumes the role of the cultural acquirer.

People due diligence, therefore, will be to verify that the target’s culture is compatible enough with the acquirers to allow for the building of necessary bridges between the two organizations.  Key steps that are often missed in the process:

• Decide how the two companies will operate after the acquisition — combined either as a fully integrated operating company or as autonomous operating companies.
• Determine the new organizational structure and identify areas that will need to be integrated.
• Decide on the new executive leadership team and other key management positions.
• Develop the process for making employment-related decisions.

With regard to the last bullet point, some turnover is to be expected in any company merger. Sometimes shedding employees is even planned. It is important to execute The Weed, Seed & Feed methodology ongoing not just at acquisition time.  Unplanned, significant levels of turnover negatively impact a merger’s success.



AKF Partners brings decades of hands-on executive operational experience, years of primary research, and over a decade of successful consulting experience to the realm of product organization structure, due diligence and technology evaluation.  We can help your company successfully navigate the people due diligence process. 


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Agile and Dealing With The Cone of Uncertainty

July 8, 2018  |  Posted By: Dave Berardi

The Leap of Faith

When we embark on building SaaS product that will delight customers we are taking a leap of faith. We often don’t even know whether or not the outcomes targeted are possible. Investing and building software is often risky for several reasons:

  • We don’t know what the market wants.
  • The market is changing around us.
  • Competition is always improving their time to market (TTM) releasing competitive products and services.

We have to assume there will be project assumptions made that will be wrong and that the underlying development technology we use to build products is constantly changing and evolving. One thing is clear on the SaaS journey – the future is always murky!

The journey that’s plagued with uncertainty for developing SaaS is seen throughout the industry and is evidenced by success and failure from big and small companies – from Facebook to Apple to Salesforce to Google. Google is one of many innovating B2C companies that have used the cone of uncertainty to help inform how to go to market and whether or not to sunset a service. The company realizes that in addition to innovating, they need to reduce uncertainty quickly.

For example, Google Notebook, a browser-based note-taking and information sharing service, was killed and resurrected as part of Google Docs and has a mobile derivative called Keep. Google Buzz, Google’s first attempt at a social network was quickly killed after a little over a year in 2011. These are just a few B2C examples from Google.  All of these are examples of investments that faced the cone of uncertainty. Predicting successful outcomes longer term and locking in specifics about a product will only be wasteful and risky.

The cone of uncertainty describes the uncertainty and risk that exist when an investment is made for a software project. The cone depicts the amount of risk and degree of precision for certainty thru the funnel. The further out we try to forecast features, capabilities, and adoption, the more risk and uncertainty we must assume. This is true for what we attempt to define as a product to be delivered and the timing on when we will deliver it to market. Over time, firms must make adjustments to the planned path along the way to capture and embrace changing market needs.

In today’s market we must quickly test our hypothesis and drive innovation to be competitive. An Agile product development life cycle (PDLC) and appropriately aligned organization helps us to do just that. To address the challenge the cone represents, we must understand what an Agile PDLC can do for the firm and what it cannot do for the firm.


Address the Uncertainty of the Cone

When we use an Agile approach, we must fix time and cost for development and delivery of a product but we allow for adjustment and changes to scope to meet fixed dates. The team can extend time later in the project but the committed date to delivery does not change. We also do not add people since Brooks Law teaches us that adding human resources to a late software project only delays it further.  Instead we accelerate our ability to learn with frequent deployments to market resulting in a reduction in uncertainty. Throughout this process, discovery of both what the feature set needs to be for a successful outcome and how something should work is accomplished.

Agile allows for frequent iterations that can keep us close to the market thru data. After a deployment, if our system is designed to be monitored, we can capture rich information that will help to inform future prioritization, new ideas about features and modifications that may be needed to the existing feature set. Agile forces us to frequently estimate and as such produce valuable data for our business. The resulting velocity of our sprints can be used to revise future delivery range forecasts for both what will be delivered and when it will be delivered. Data will also be produced throughout our sprints that will help to identify what may be slowing us down ultimately impacting our time to market. Positive morale will be injected into the tams as results can be observed and felt in the short term.

What agile is not and how we must adjust?

While using an Agile method can help address the cone of uncertainty, it’s not the answer to all challenges. Agile does not help to provide a specific date when a feature or scope will be delivered. Instead we work towards ranges. It also does not improve TTM just because our teams started practicing it. Company philosophies, principles, and rules are not defined through an Agile PDLC. Those are up to the company to define. Once defined the teams can operate within the boundaries to innovate. Part of this boundary definition needs to start at the top. Executives need to paint a vivid picture of the desired outcome that stirs up emotion and can be measurable. The vision is at the opening of the cone. Measurable Key Results that executives define to achieve outcomes allow for teams to innovate making tradeoffs as they progress towards the vision. Agile alone does not empower teams or help to innovate. Outcomes, and Key Results (OKRs) cascaded into our organization coupled with an Agile PDLC can be a great combination that will empower teams giving us a better chance to innovate and achieve desirable time to market. Implementing an OKR framework helps to remove the focus of cranking out code to hit a date and redirects the needed attention on innovation and making tradeoffs to achieve the desired outcome.

Agile does not align well with annual budget cycles. While many times, an annual perspective is required by shareholders, an Agile approach is in conflict with annual budgeting. Since Agile sees changing market demands, frequent budget iterations are needed as teams may request additional funding to go after an opportunity. It’s key that finance leaders embrace the importance of adjusting the budgeting approach to align with an Agile PDLC. Otherwise the conflict created could be destructive and create a barrier to the firms desired outcome.

Applying Agile properly benefits a firm by helping to address the cone and reducing uncertainty, empowering teams to deliver on an outcome, and ultimately become more competitive in the global marketplace. Agile is on the verge of becoming table stakes for companies that want to be world class. And as we described above noting the importance of a different approach to something like budgeting, its not just for software – it’s the entire business.

Let Us Help

AKF has helped many companies of all sizes when transitioning to an organization, redefining PDLC to align with desired speed to market outcomes, and SaaS migrations. All three are closely tied and if done right, can help firms compete more effectively. Contact us for a free consultation. We would love to help!


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Marriage counseling for technology and business partners!

July 8, 2018  |  Posted By: Dave Swenson

AKF often finds itself required to act as a marriage counselor trying to improve the relationship between technology and business ‘spouses’. In fact, we rarely find the relationship between these partners without at least some opportunity for a 3rd party, external, unbiased perspective to produce some suggestions. Given the backgrounds of the prototypical CEO or CTO, it is no surprise there are misunderstandings, miscommunication, and misalignment – there is a substantial experiential chasm between the two…

Experiential Chasm

Recognizing how big this chasm, where it is narrow vs. wide between the two partners is vital to bridging this gap. One of the key aspects we try to immediately ascertain is whether there is a true partnership in place, versus a customer / order taker mindset. How much trust is currently present? Is a single language being used by the two, or is it bits and bytes vs. $$$?

Whether you are a CTO or a business executive, we suggest you go through the following set of questions. Even better, ask your tech or business partner to do their side and discuss and compare! Additionally, this self-analysis shouldn’t occur only at the highest levels, but all throughout the organization, particularly if you’re organizationally aligned.

Technology Leader

 

Questions for Technology Leaders:
  • When did you last come up with a proposal to increase revenue? The best and perhaps most extreme, example of this is AWS, where the technology team took an internal solution built to improve Amazon developer productivity, recognized that all developers must face the same infrastructure challenges, and proposed it to Bezos as a new business line. Are you constantly seeking out ways in product, marketing, sales, technology to generate additional revenue, or solely focused on cost containment?
  • Do you understand the balance sheet, statement of cash flows and income statement of your company? These artifacts describe how the overall business community, your investors, are measuring you. Learning the meaning of these documents aids in spanning the bits & bytes vs. $$$ language barrier. This is where getting an MBA provides the most value.
  • Can you represent the importance of addressing technical debt to your business peers? You are responsible for the technical debt in your codebase, not your business. If you can’t explain the true ongoing cost of the incurred debt, if you can’t justify the periodic pay down of that debt, you frankly are failing as a technology leader, at least if you have a business partner willing to listen.
  • Can you state the highest priority issues facing your business peers today? We love the following quote from Camille Fournier ( former CTO of Rent the Runway and author of The Manager’s Path):

    “If the CTO does not have a seat at the executive table and does not understand the business challenges the company is facing, there is no way the CTO can guide the technology to solve those problems”

  • Do you feel your team, your engineers, understand how their daily activities affect the business and your customers? I once left a company producing a relational database to then join a startup that had built its application on top of that RDBMS. I quickly found issues that I knew could easily and cheaply be addressed but had never heard of these pain points until I personally experienced them! I vowed to never be so removed and distant from my customers again. Zappos requires all new employees to take a month-long customer service stint, spending 40 hours on the phones. During the holiday peak, all employees are expected to jump on the phones to ensure the same level of response as the rest of the year. Don’t just “eat your own dog food”, but understand how your customers eat it.
  • Do your engineers understand what each functional product component costs to build, maintain, and support - relative to the value it brings to the business? Do they push back against product and business when there’s a minimal or even negative ROI? A great vehicle to explain revenue flow is a Dupont diagram, mapping out the user experience flow, and assigning value across that flow. That value makes it clear that say, a .5% improvement in relevant search results can turn into a .025% uptick in items in cart, that turns into $X increase in revenue.
  • Do you provide early feedback on the likelihood of making key dates? Is that feedback consistently incorrect? If you’ve ever had your house remodeled, you’ll agree that there’s little that is more frustrating than a contractor who consistently under-delivers, and it late on agreed to delivery dates. You’ve got plans hinging upon the construction completion date, and when that date slips, it destroys your plans. Your business peers feel the same way when your date slips, or scope gets cut. Are you actively seeking out the causes of such delays? How can you be transparent with your partners when you don’t understand the causes?
  • Does your technology team measure themselves against metrics that are meaningful to the business? Ensure your teams are measuring the outcome of their work, not simply the completion and delivery of that work. And, that outcome measurement should be made in business terms. Velocity should always be measured, but an increase in velocity is frankly less important than moving targeted business needles in the desired direction!
  • What are you least transparent about, and why? Typically, the issues we are most reluctant to share are those we ourselves are uncomfortable with. The answer to this question can show you the areas where you are paying the least attention.

Business Executive
Questions for Business Executives:
  • What is your reaction when you hear that a date has slipped? “Shit happens” is too simple of an explanation, but there are many reasons why a key date slips. There might have been a change in prioritization, driven from the highest levels. There could have been critical site issues that pulled the team away from new functionality. The scope could have been grossly underestimated, or have grown for innumerable reasons along the way. The key thing is that your technology partner should be able to explain the causes - so don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation. Just don’t start the conversation by pointing a finger.
  • Do you feel technology as a whole understands the business? Are engineers close enough to your customers to really understand the value you bring them? I am always dismayed when I find engineers who don’t understand what value, and how, your product provides the customer. An engineer shouldn’t only be motivated by technology problems but should appreciate the value their product provides. I had the great pleasure of witnessing a company adopt Agile, resulting in tighter bonds between customers, business, and technology. A particular engineer had never understood the value of their product, not to just to their immediate customers but their customers’ customers. As this was a medically-oriented product, that end value was basically a better life. The engineer had worked at this company for a few years, yet never witnessed the true value of the product he had been building – a tragedy in my book. Make the effort to ensure everyone in your company understands the value your products provide, and the revenue stream flowing into the company – it will absolutely be worth the investment!
  • Do you as a business leader spend as much time attempting to understand the technology team as they are hopefully trying to learn to read financial statements? Any time? I absolutely love when a business leader is present at an AKF workshop/engagement. I certainly appreciate the dedication of time, but more importantly, the desire to better understand. Have you asked your technology team for a walkthrough of how the systems work? What their challenges are?
  • Do the business leaders understand how to ask questions to know whether dates are both aggressive and achievable? Your car has a redline. Do you typically exceed that redline RPM? Doubtful. Do you understand when your technology team has over-extended themselves? When they have relied upon heroics to meet a delivery?
  • Does the business spend time in the beginning of a product life cycle figuring out how to measure success? The entire company, business / support / sales / marketing / product / technology teams should be driving to achieve important business goals, and measure themselves by the progress, the outcomes, towards those goals. Delivering new functionality is critical, but more important are the improvements in business metrics that functionality brings. Are you measuring how you are affecting business metrics?

Questions for Both:
  • What are your shared goals? We are firm believers in OKRs (Objectives & Key Results), shared across the entire company. Alignment around these goals help frame discussions.
  • Who gives more than takes? How are compromises reached? There should be no real scorecard on this (classic passive/aggressive move, don’t go there), but can you provide examples of where you met in the middle? As in every relationship, it is critical to both give and take.
  • Do you meet mostly by exception? When was the last time you did lunch? I hated my dentist for years until I met him on a soccer field and saw the whole individual, not just the guy that causes me pain. Commit to meeting your technology/business partner on a regular basis, including periodic out-of-the-office meetings.
  • What is your “Marriage Math”? Psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., when trying to determine a methodology to predict which marriages will last and which will end in a divorce, found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions fell below 5:1 (5 positive for every negative interaction), divorce was likely. Do you have a healthy line of communication with your partner, or does the communication quickly degrade into contempt and name calling?

Hopefully, now you agree that a look at your relationship with your technology/business partner is of value. Every relationship requires investment and commitment on both sides. Consider bringing AKF to help facilitate these discussions – we are excellent marriage counselors.

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The No Surprises Rule

May 23, 2018  |  Posted By: AKF

No Surprises

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:

  • Motivation
  • Quality
  • 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.

Conclusions

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.

RELATED CONTENT

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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
Top Five Agile Failures

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:

     
  1. 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.

     
  1. 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.

     
  1. 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.

     
  1. 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.

     
  1. 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…”

Or

“We have some of the hardest working engineers…”

Contrast these with the following statement fragments:

“We measure ourselves against very specific business KPIs…”

Or

“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.


Outcomes First

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”:

And…


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: AKF

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?

Rewind:

  • 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.

In summary:

  • 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

AKF scale cube cloud computing SaaS conversion

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.

SaaS Migration is About More Than Just Technology – It is An Organization Reboot
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).

Single/Multi/All-Tenancy?
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.  See our SaaS Migration service


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