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Scalability and Technology Consulting Advice for SaaS and Technology Companies

Hiring the Right Employees

July 26, 2019  |  Posted By: AKF

Running a technology company is a challenging endeavor.  Not only are consumers demands changing daily, the technology to deliver upon those demands is constantly evolving.  Where you host your infrastructure and software, what your developers code in, what version you are on, and how you are poised to deliver quality product is not the same as it was 20 years ago, probably not even 10 or 5 years ago.  And these should all be good things.  But underlying all those things is a common denominator: people.  In Seed, Feed, Weed I outlined what companies need to do in order to maintain a stable of great employees.  This article will delve down into the aspect of Seed a little more.

What is Seed?

At its core, seed is hiring the best people for the job.  Unfortunately, it takes a little bit of work to get to that.  If it was that easy, then this is where the article would end…

But it doesn’t.

Seed is not just your hiring managers dealing with a specific labor pool available to them.  It needs to be more than that.  It needs to be an ever evolving, ever responsive organism within your organization. 

If your HR Recruiting office is still hiring people like it did in the 90’s, then don’t be surprised when you get talent on par with 90’s capability.  No longer can you sit back and wait for the right candidate to come to you because chances are what you are hiring for is buried under a million other similar job postings in your area.  Your desired future candidates are out, going to meet ups, conferences, and other networking events.  To meet them, you too need to be in attendance. 

If you are able to hire a future employee from a conference where other employers are present, that is a great indicator of where your company stands.  If you can’t stand at least shoulder-to-shoulder with your competitors, then you will never be able to hire the best people.

AKF-Hiring the Right Employees

Location

There are many great advantages to the minimalization of the world through telecommunications.  Now if a certain skillset is only available half-way around the world, today’s technology makes it much easier to overcome the distance challenge.  This isn’t to say the debate over off-shore vs. near-shore or in-house has a clear winner, but there are many more options. 

So where should you be looking?  Do you want quality or quantity?  If quality matters, start where competition in your sector is heaviest.  If quantity matters, any place will do.  But hopefully you want quality.  Almost anyone can sit at a desk for 8 hours.  Very few talented programmers can adapt your current architecture to meet the demands of a market in 6 months.

If your company is afraid to enter a competitive technology market geography because of fear it won’t be able to hire more employees than the competition, then that should be a red flag.  Challenge breeds greatness.

Hiring

The hiring process itself should be iterative and multi-faceted.  Sure, it is nice to be able to tell a prospective candidate they will go through two 30-minute phone screens, followed by two 1 hour on sites, but maybe that job, or that candidate needs something a little more, or a little less. 

Don’t be afraid to deviate your approach based upon the role or the potential future employee.  Just make sure they are aware of it and why you are changing from what they were told.  This will give them a chance to shine more.  Recently, I got to be a part of a hiring process that should’ve involved two 30-minute phone screens and one 2-hour onsite.  That 2-hour onsite was deemed not long enough because the candidate and the future employer spent too much time discussing the minutiae of various implementations to an engineering plan.  And that’s ok.  They then asked the candidate to do a video conference where he stepped through the code base.  But they let him know why they needed that follow on.  It wasn’t to test him further.  It was because he had simply “clicked” too well with the engineering aspect and time ran away from them.

Additionally, it shouldn’t just be technology members involved in hiring developers.  Far too often a new employee has trouble meshing with the culture of the organization or team because they were asked purely technical-related questions or presented with technical scenarios.  Have someone from your People Operations or Marketing, involved as well.  This will help flesh out the entirety of the candidate and provide them with more knowledge of the company.

Far too often companies are so focused on their hyper growth that getting “butts in seats” matters more than getting the right people.  Nine times out of 10, one great employee is going to be better than three okay employees.

We’ve helped dozens of companies fill interim roles as we helped find great employees.  If you need assistance on how to identify a great employee, and Seed your company appropriately,

AKF can help.

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Top 3 Failures in Digital Transformations

July 11, 2019  |  Posted By: Marty Abbott

Attempting to transform a company to compete effectively in the Digital Economy is difficult to say the least.  In the experience of AKF Partners, it is easier to be “born digital” than to transform a successful, long tenured business, to compete effectively in the Digital age. 

There is no single guaranteed fail-safe path to transformation.  There are, however, 10 principles by which you should abide and 3 guaranteed paths to failure. 

Avoid these 3 common mistakes at all costs or suffer a failed transformation.

Top 3 Digital Transformation Failures

Having the Wrong Team and the Wrong Structure

If you have a successful business, you very likely have a very bright and engaged team.  But unless a good portion of your existing team has run a successful “born digital” business, or better yet transformed a business in the digital age, they don’t have the experience necessary to complete your transformation in the timeframe necessary for you to compete.  If you needed lifesaving surgery, you wouldn’t bet your life on a doctor learning “on the job”.  At the very least, you’d ensure that doctor was alongside a veteran and more than likely you would find a doctor with a successful track record of the surgery in question.  You should take the same approach with your transformation.

This does not mean that you need to completely replace your team.  Companies have been successful with organization strategies that include augmenting the current team with veterans.  But you need new, experienced help, as employees on your team. 

Further, to meet the need for speed of the new digital world, you need to think differently about how you organize.  The best, fastest performing Digital teams organize themselves around the outcomes they hope to achieve, not the functions that they perform.  High performing digital teams are

It also helps to hire a firm that has helped guide companies through a transformation.  AKF Partners can help. 

Planning Instead of Doing

The digital world is ever evolving.  Plans that you make today will be incorrect within 6 months.  In the digital world, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.  In the old days of packaged software and brick and mortar retail, we had to put great effort into planning to reduce the risk associated with being incorrect after rather long lead times to project completion.  In the new world, we can iterate nearly at the speed of thought.  Whereas being incorrect in the old world may have meant project failure, in the new world we strive to be incorrect early such that we can iterate and make the final solution correct with respect to the needs of the market.  Speed kills the enemy.

Eschew waterfall models, prescriptive financial models and static planning in favor of Agile methodologies, near term adaptive financial plans and OKRs.  Spend 5 percent of your time planning and 95% of your time doing.  While in the doing phase, learn to adapt quickly to failures and quickly adjust your approach to market feedback and available data. 

The successful transformation starts with a compelling vision that is outcome based, followed by a clear near-term path of multiple small steps.  The remainder of the path is unclear as we want the results of our first few steps to inform what we should do in the next iteration of steps to our final outcome.  Transformation isn’t one large investment, but a series of small investments, each having a measurable return to the business.

Knowing Instead of Discovering

Few companies thrive by repeatedly being smarter than the market.  In fact, the opposite is true – the Digital landscape is strewn with the corpses of companies whose hubris prevented them from developing the real time feedback mechanisms necessary to sense and respond to changing market dynamics.  Yesterdays approaches to success at best have diminishing returns today and at worst put you at a competitive disadvantage.

Begin your journey as a campaign of exploration.  You are finding the best path to success, and you will do it by ensuring that every solution you deploy is instrumented with sensors that help you identify the efficacy of the solution in real time.  Real time data allows us to inductively identify patterns that form specific hypothesis.  We then deductively test these hypotheses through comparatively low-cost solutions, the results of which help inform further induction.  This circle of induction and deduction propels us through our journey to success.

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Technology Consulting Services: Key Differences between Due Diligence for IT and Due Diligence for Product Technology

June 28, 2019  |  Posted By: Roger Andelin

Due Diligence Header for AKF Growth Blog
The two most common types of technology due diligence requests we see at AKF are

  • Product Technology Due Diligence
  • Information Technology, or IT, Due Diligence.

Both types are very different from each other, but often get confused. This article will explain the differences between Product Technology and
Information Technology – and why understanding the difference is critical to a company’s success and profitability.

IT Department

An IT department is typically led by a Chief Information Officer (CIO). The focus of the CIO is on information technology that supports the ongoing operations of the business. The CIO and the IT team’s key outcomes are typically around employee productivity and efficiency, applying technology to improve productivity and to lower costs. This includes technologies that run the financial and accounting systems, sales and operations systems, customer support systems,  and the networks, servers, and storage underlying these systems. The CIO is also responsible for the technologies that are used in the office such as email, chat, video conferencing systems, printers, and employees’ desktop computers.

Product Technology

Conversely, Product Technology (or Digital Product Technology) is typically led by a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). The focus of the CTO is building a product or service for customers out of software and running that product or service on cloud systems or company-owned systems, although the latter is becoming less common. Put another way, CTOs build and run software as revenue generating products and services

Whereas the CIO runs a cost center and is responsible for employee productivity, the CTO is responsible for revenue and cash-flow. Sales growth, time to market, costs of goods sold, and R&D spend are some of the factors included within key outcomes for the CTO.

For example, if you were running a newspaper business, your primary product is the news. However, you also must build applications to read news like mobile apps and web apps. It is the job of your CTO to build, maintain, and run these apps for your customers. Your CTO would be accountable for business metrics – such as the number of downloads, users, and revenue. If your CTO is distracted by CIO issues of running the day-to-day business of the office, they are being taken away from their work to build and implement the revenue generating products and services your company is trying to create.

Differences

Product Technologies and IT Technologies are very different. CIOs and CTOs have very different skills and competencies to manage these differences. For example, a CIO often possesses deep knowledge of back-office applications such as accounting systems, finance systems, and warehouse management systems. In many cases they likely rose up through the technology ranks writing, maintaining, and running those systems for other departments in the company. They are excellent at business analysis, collecting requirements from company users and translating those requirements into project plans. CIOs are often proficient at waterfall development methodologies often used to implement back-office applications.

The IT team is often largely staffed with people who know how to integrate and configure third-party products, with a small amount of custom development. The opposite is true for most product technology teams typically staffed with software engineers who are building new solutions and a smaller number of engineers integrating infrastructure components.

CTOs possess entirely different technology skills needed to build and maintain software as a service (SaaS) for the company’s customers. CTOs possess the skills to architect software applications that are scalable as the company grows its customer base. The AKF Scale Cube is an invaluable reference tool for the CTO building a scalable software solution based on scalable microservices. CTOs must have the skills to run product teams, including user experience design, along with software development. CTOs are more likely to be proficient in Agile development methodologies, such as Scrum. CTOs are expected to know the product development lifecycle (PDLC), mitigate technical debt liability, and know how to build software release pipelines to support continuous integration and delivery(CI/CD).

What We See In The Wild

Regularly, when AKF is called to perform technology due diligence, we often find that Product and IT are combined!  This has been especially true for older, established companies, with traditional IT departments. CIOs took on the responsibility of building and running customer-facing internet and mobile software products and services rather than creating a separate Product Development Team under a CTO. The results are often not positive because the technical, product, and process skills are very different between the two.

This mistake is not exclusive to older companies. We see startup CEO’s making the same mistake, often under the rationale of reducing burn. However, when a startup CEO looks to the CTO to help set up new employees’ desktop computers or to fix a problem with email, it is a huge distraction for the CTO who should be focused on building and improving the company’s revenue-generating products.

AKF Recommendations

AKF recommends that CEOs not combine Product Development and IT departments. Understanding this distinction and why these two very different departments need to function separately is critically important.  Our primary expertise at AKF is to help successful companies become more successful at delivering digital products. AKF focuses its expertise on helping product development teams succeed. We have developed intellectual property, including the AKF Scale Cube, used to evaluate product architecture and to guide successful product development teams. 

We also help CEOs, CTOs, CIOs and IT departments who are looking to improve performance and deliver more business value by creating efficient product development processes and architectures. Give us a call, we can help!

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Transforming to SaaS is not just a technology change

June 19, 2019  |  Posted By: Larry Steinberg


Transforming a traditional on-premise product and company to a SaaS model is currently in vogue and has many broad-reaching benefits for both producers and consumers of services. These benefits span financial, supportability, and consumption simplification. 

In order to achieve the SaaS benefits, your company must address the broad changes necessitated by SaaS and not just the product delivery and technology changes. You must consider the impact on employees, delivery, operations/security, professional services, go to market, and financial impacts.

Employee Transformation

The employee base is one key element of change – moving from a traditional ‘boxed’ software vendor to an ‘as a Service’ company changes not only the skill set but also the dynamics of the engagement with your customers. Traditionally staff has been accustomed to having an arms-length approach for the majority of customer interactions. This traditional process has consisted of a factory that’s building the software, bundling, and a small group (if any) who ‘touch’ the customer. As you move ‘to as a service’ based product, the onus on ensuring the solution is available 24x7 is on everyone within your SaaS company. Not only do you require the skillsets to ensure infrastructure and reliability – but also the support model can and should change.

Now that you are building SaaS solutions and deploy them into environments you control, the operations are much ‘closer’ to the engineers who are deploying builds. Version upgrades happen faster, defects will surface more rapidly, and engineers can build in monitoring to detect issues before or as your customers encounter them. Fixes can be provided much faster than in the past and strict separation of support and engineering organizations are no longer warranted. Escalations across organizations and separate repro steps can be collapsed. There is a significant cultural shift for your staff that has to be managed properly. It will not be natural for legacy staff to adopt a 24x7 mindset and newly minted SaaS engineers likely don’t have the industry or technology experience needed. Finding a balance of shifting culture, training, and new ‘blood’ into the organization is the best course of action.

Passion For Service Delivery

Having Services available 24x7 requires a real passion for service delivery as teams no longer have to wait for escalations from customers, now engineers control the product and operating environment. This means they can see availability and performance in real time. Staff should be proactive about identifying issues or abnormalities in the service. In order to do this the health and performance of what they built needs to be at the forefront of their everyday activities. This mindset is very different than the traditional onpremise software delivery model.

Security Implications

Shifting the operations from your customer environments to your own environments also has a security aspect. Operating the SaaS environment for customers shifts the liability from them to you. The security responsibilities expand to include protecting your customer data, hardening the environments, having a practiced plan of incident remediation, and rapid response to identified vulnerabilities in the environment or application.

Finance & Accounting

Finance and accounting are also impacted by this shift to SaaS - both on the spend/capitalization strategy as well as cost recovery models. The operational and security components are a large cost consideration which has been shifted from your customers to your organization and needs to be modeling into SaaS financials. Pricing and licensing shifts are also very common. Moving to a utility or consumption model is fairly mainstream but is generally new for the traditional product company and its customers. Traditional billing models with annual invoices might not fit with the new approach and systems + processes will need to be enhanced to handle. If you move to a utility-based model both the product and accounting teams need to partner on a solution to ensure you get paid appropriately by your customers.

Customer Service

Think through the impacts on your customer support team. Given the speed at which new releases and fixes become available the support team will need a new model to ensure they remain up to date as these delivery timeframes will be much more rapid than in the past and they must stay ahead of your customer base.

Your go to market strategies will most likely also need to be altered depending on the market and industry. To your benefit, as a SaaS company, you now have access to customer behavior and can utilize this data in order to approach opportunities within the customer base. Regarding migration, you’ll need a plan which ensures you are the best option amongst your competitors.

Most times at AKF we see companies who have only focused on product and technology changes when moving to SaaS but if the whole company doesn’t move in lockstep then progress will be limited.  You are only as strong as your weakest link.

We’ve helped companies of all sizes transition their technology – AND organization – from on-premises to the cloud through SaaS conversion. Give us a call – we can help!

 

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Achieving Team Autonomy not Anarchy

June 10, 2019  |  Posted By: AKF

Agile teams sometimes struggle with the meaning and value of autonomy within a team.  Is it the autonomy to decide how best to accomplish a goal?  Is it the autonomy to choose what tools and processes they will employ to accomplish that goal?  Is it both?  To answer this, we need to first determine where autonomy drives value creation and where it destroys value within an enterprise.


Getting Team Autonomy over Anarchy

Consider the following analogy:  We have the autonomy to determine what roads and paths we will take to a destination when driving a vehicle, but we are governed by speed limits, right of way (which side to drive on, stop signs, stop signals and other road signs), emission standards, and both vehicle and personal licensing.  Put another way, we are completely empowered to determine WHAT path we take, and WHY we take it.  We are much more limited in HOW we get to a place (on road, off road, speed, only licensed vehicles, etc) and WHO can do it (only sober, licensed drivers).  How does this apply to a fully autonomous technology team? 

The value-creation of autonomy within a team deals with what path a team takes to accomplish a goal and the reasoning as to why that approach is valuable.  A failure to provide structure and rules for how something is accomplished through architectural principles, coding standards, development standards, etc. can start to escalate the costs of development and destroy value.  Also, not sharing best practices through standards, means that teams are bound to repeat mistakes and cause customer interruptions.  While there is a narrow line between autonomy and anarchy, the difference on their effect in an organization is significant.

Consider the matrix below which distinguishes between decision making (What path gets taken to a result and Why that path is taken) and governance (the rules around How and Who should do something).  In an Autocratic organization there is a high amount of Governance controlled via a Top-Down method of Management.  Agile teams here are bounded by how they can accomplish a goal and crippled by what path to take because of the heavy involvement of Management.  Here is where you find organizations that are described derogatorily as Bureaucratic.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, if an Agile shop finds itself unbounded by Governance and capable of making all decisions then you run into the possibility of anarchy.  This type of environment is what allows start-ups to thrive in their early days, but once you have moved beyond a handful of employees, it is necessary to start building governance. 

AKF Autonomous Teams

Where companies with Agile succeed is when Governance is in place and decisions are driven from the bottom.  Ownership and appropriately known boundaries allow Agile teams to deftly maneuver and get after the concept of “Build Small, Fail Fast”.  Lastly, it is important that the lessons learned from all of the Autonomous teams are continually brought up and shared across the multitude of products and teams you have.  It is a waste of time to reinvent the wheel when another team has already solved the problem.


Empowering Teams
Teams should be built around the suggestions from AKF’s white paper on Organizing Product Teams for Innovation: small, cross functional teams built around a service, who are empowered to be autonomous and work independently on their own.  Autonomy should be defined within the rules of the organization, inform the organization’s architectural principles, and drive adherence through leadership.  This is by no means a notion that the organization should avoid cross functional empowered teams!  As we state in our white paper, “We still have executives developing strategy, functional teams (product management, etc.) defining subservient strategies and road maps.  But the primary identities of these folks are embedded within the teams that implement these solutions.”

It is also easy to confuse the notion of empowerment and autonomy.  Empowerment is an action of delegation coupled with the assurance of resources and tools to complete the desired outcomes to the delegated party.  It is only through empowerment that autonomy can be achieved within an organizational hierarchy.  Further, it is only through empowerment that autonomous agile teams can be established.  But both empowerment and autonomy need to have rules governing their action or issuance.  Specifically, an agile team is empowered to be autonomous with the following constraints:  following development protocols and standards, adhering to architectural principals, adhering to established best practices regarding test coverage, etc. and ensuring that you achieve the “non-functional requirements” codified within the Agile Definition of Done.



Have your autonomous technology teams been free to make decisions that do not align with the vision of the company?  Are you fearful of switching to Agile because of the rampant anarchy they will exhibit?  AKF Partners can help ensure that your organization is aligned to the outcomes it desires.

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The Crippling Cost of Distractions

March 19, 2019  |  Posted By: Pete Ferguson

The Crippling Cost of Distractions

Burst.com photo of woman trying to read a book, type on her computer, and look at her phone at the same time

Perhaps the biggest thief of progress is the misuse of time. Not talking about laziness here – I’m referring to what we often see with our clients – losing focus on what matters most.

Young startups are able to accomplish great things in a very short amount of time because there is rarely anything else to distract them from achieving success and everyone is focused on a shared outcome. Any money they have will likely be quickly exhausted. So food, sleep, vacations, and a life are all put on hold - or at least on the back burner - until products are built, tested, released, and adopted.

As a corporate survivor of 18 years at eBay, I’ve seen a few common themes within my own experience that are also exhibited at other companies where I’ve been involved in the Technical Due Diligence, three day technical architectural workshops, and longer term engagements where I’ve been embedded one of several technical resources. These distractions include:

  • Acquisitions
  • Supporting legacy applications at the cost of new innovation

Acquisitions

Often M&A teams are highly focused on the short term – what can be accomplished this year or this quarter.

I’ve been involved in many due diligence activities as an internal consultant and as a third-party conducting an external technical due diligence. There is a lot of pressure on the M&A team to sell the deal, and in my experience I’ve seen the positives inflated and the negatives – well, negated, to get the deal done.

Often the full impact on the day-to-day operations team is either not considered or underplayed – if not optimistically overvalued as to how much work can get done in a week realistically over time.

Acquisition Distractions Development is Required to Resolve:

  1. Integration of Delivery (How to ship, security requirements, etc.)
  2. Process (Agile vs. Waterfall, what flavor of Agile, etc.)
  3. Product (Sharing of technologies and features)

An older example, but one that has renewed relevance with the recent focus of another activist investor is the story of eBay’s acquisition of Skype in Q4 of 2005. For shared resources within eBay, this was a huge distraction of already overly leveraged operations teams having to take on additional tasks. The distraction from eBay’s core mission was the true tragedy as it lost focus and opened a window for Amazon to grow 600% over the next 7 years (during one of the worst markets since the Great Depression) while eBay struggled to rebound its’ stock price. When eBay reemerged, Amazon had become a market leader in online commerce and has since pulled significantly ahead in many additional markets.

AKF Partners Cost of Distraction for eBay with Skype Purchase

In our technical due diligences and three day architectural workshops, we can see how companies who were once lean and mean become quickly overwhelmed and distracted from innovation by trying to integrate a flood of acquisitions.

At winning companies, we see that M&A teams carefully evaluate:

  1. If acquisition will bring immediate ROI (PayPal immediately impacted eBay’s stock price positively and was able to sustain for several years, where Skype did the opposite)
  2. How much effort integrating the acquisition will require and build enough resources in the acquisition cost to accomplish a speedy induction
  3. How well the two companies’ cultures meld together

From an internal perspective in my time at eBay, the value Skype would bring wasn’t apparent, and externally most analysts were similarly scratching their heads. For Amazon, it was a godsend as it gave them an opportunity to bear down and focus and take a lot of market share from a sleeping and distracted giant.

Supporting Legacy Applications at the Cost of New Innovation

Legacy applications will keep every business from certain opportunities. We have seen multiple times where a company who was once a leader and innovator became too sales-focused and started squeezing out every last ounce of profitability from their legacy products. As a result, a large % of top developers were focused on building out new features into a declining market allowing a window of opportunity for new startups and competition to edge in.

Top of mind examples are Workday’s stealing of market share from SAP before they purchased Success Factors, or Apple’s edging into PC sales as they created a larger ecosystem of phones, tablets, laptops, TV boxes, etc.

Google is one of the best examples of being willing to dump legacy products - even successful ones - if they see support and maintenance as not keeping up with ROI or cutting into areas where they can innovate faster (Froogle, and Google+ and their capping of support of Chromebooks and Pixel phones at 5 years).

Reasons to sunset legacy products in favor of focusing efforts on developing the “next big thing:”

  1. Rising Maintenance and Talent Costs – Cost and scope creep happen suddenly and often are much greater than companies are willing to measure or to admit. One of the more informative questions we always ask is: “if you were to build a new product, what would it look like?” or “if you were to go out to market today, would you develop a new product the same way?” The answers are usually very revealing and conclusive - the legacy products have run their course.
  2. Longer Term Profitability – It takes a bold move to suspend the current cash cow in favor of focusing “all hands on deck” to develop the next big idea and future cash cow. Even when the potential future could be a 3, 4, or 5X revenue generator, companies get short-sighted and are only focused on this quarter’s revenue.
  3. Lost Opportunity Cost – Put aside your current quarterly projections for sales of legacy products, what is your current and potential competition building today that could greatly diminish your company in just a few years?

Conclusions

To compete with young, well-funded and high octane startups, legacy companies need to create a labs environment to attract top developers and free them from daily distractions of supporting legacy software to remain focused on emerging products and markets.

To succeed, teams must be focused on the highest possible ROI.

  • Ensure acquisitions have been properly evaluated for the amount of time and energy it will take to integrate their products and that the cultures of your company and that being acquired are compatible.
  • Supporting legacy applications is important for ongoing profitability, but likely can also be done by teams with less experience and expertise. What is often not factored properly is the opportunity cost of keeping legacy products in play long past their shelf life.
  • Keep your A-teams focused on new product development, not on keeping the lights on. Create a separate Labs organization and treat them like a startup, and free them from legacy decisions on infrastructure, coding languages, etc. Your competition is starting with a fresh slate, you should too.

We’ve helped many startups and Fortune 500 companies make the transition from legacy software and hardware to SaaS and cloud infrastructure to increase scalability while providing high availability. Let us help your organization!

(Photo Credit: Matthew Henry downloaded from Burst.Shopify.com)

 

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Seed, Feed, Weed

December 6, 2018  |  Posted By: AKF

USSOCOM Logo
The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has 5 truths that they live by.  All of them have guided SOCOM to be the premier fighting force in the world and they all center around people:

-Humans are more important than hardware

Never prioritize your equipment over people.  Hardware is always easily replaced.  The same is true in technology.  Buying a new server is easy.  Replacing good engineers is not.

-Quality is better than quantity

Anytime you have the choice between one fully capable person and two okay people, always choose quality over quantity.  It gives you the ability to still get the job done and provides more overhead for future hires.

-Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced

Just like SOCOM, engineers cannot be made in a factory.  Yes there are boot camps that help to fill the void in engineering roles but even those graduates still require time to get up to speed on what it is your organization does.  No two companies are the same.

-Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur

If you hire engineers based upon a disaster, they will be ready for tomorrow’s disaster, not today’s.  Always be prepared.

-Most special operations require non-SOF assistance

Engineers can’t work alone.  If QA, Security, Marketing, etc. are not present and supporting, then the work that is produced will not be what is required.
It takes an entire team beyond just engineers to get the job done.

People are what make organizations great, nothing else.  You may be known for a product, but it is your people that developed it and keep it running.

 

Seed, Feed and Weed

AKF has a principle of Seed, Feed and Weed.  Broken down into each component:

AKF Seed, Feed, Weed

Seed
Every day new technology and talent is being produced.  Additionally skilled individuals are always looking for their next challenge, particularly if they currently work in a non-favorable company.  Some companies use entities to find and evaluate new talent to see if they would be a good fit.  Others rely heavily upon their own brand to attract talent.  And still others network throughout the community to make sure they are constantly aware of locally available skill.

Given that every day distance from the workplace matter less and less for employees, using all three can be very integral to staying viable.  If using an outside entity to evaluate new talent isn’t feasible, make sure that you have a solid method in place for determining not only people’s skill, but their fit into your culture.  If you don’t have a strong name to fall back on, make your software the differentiator.  You may not be the biggest mass producer of widgets in the world, but maybe you are the only one who can make them blue.  Gravitate towards that for attracting talent.  And lastly if you can’t network then take some tips from marketing.  Figure out how to get out there and sell yourself and your company.  If you can’t talk excitedly about what you do with someone you meet, then they won’t be excited to work for you.

Feed
There are different facets to Feed.  An important aspect of Feed is feedback.  Continually communicating with your employees about how they are doing (and not just the wrong stuff) gives them a sense of direction for where you think they should be going.  It also lets them know that you pay attention and value their work.  Beyond feedback is also training.  Managers need to be aware of the required training that someone needs to do their job.  If they are managing your databases and have zero database knowledge that is an issue.  But employees need more than just required training.  They need something that stimulates them.  Leaders ensure that employees grow beyond what their role defines them as.  If they want to take Underwater Basket Weaving, well encourage it.  It may not always benefit the company, but if it benefits the employee it usually has a way of having positive returns for everyone.

Weed
Last, and certainly not least, is Weed.  No one likes to be the bad guy.  Firing people is tough - but getting rid of people with bad behaviors or repeatedly poor results is part of our duty as managers and executives.  Have you tried to make them better?  Maybe they were just in the wrong position or didn’t have the right training.  Or worse, they just weren’t a good fit for the company.  If someone has bad behavior it can be very difficult to remedy.  If someone is lacking experience, then it just takes training and mentorship.  9 times out of 10, experience can be fixed.  9 times out of 10 it is just better for everyone to part ways with behavioral issues.

The key to a good workplace is identifying which is most important to you at any given time as sometimes it can shift.  Which of the three to apply more focus on depends on the condition of your team.

People
So why are people so important?  Unless you have already developed Artificial Intelligence they are the ones doing the work.  The Special Operations Community is aware that money can be used to purchase new equipment but the right people take time and nurturing.  The same should be applied for your business.  If availability and scalability are your concerns, money can get you all the rack space or cloud storage you need.  But only time and effort can get you the right people to manage it. 

 

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The AKF Difference

December 4, 2018  |  Posted By: Marty Abbott

akf difference

During the last 12 years, many prospective clients have asked us some variation of the following questions: “What makes you different?”, “Why should we consider hiring you?”, or “How are you differentiated as a firm?”.

The answer has many components.  Sometimes our answers are clear indications that we are NOT the right firm for you.  Here are the reasons you should, or should not, hire AKF Partners:

Operators and Executives – Not Consultants

Most technology consulting firms are largely comprised of employees who have only been consultants or have only run consulting companies.  We’ve been in your shoes as engineers, managers and executives.  We make decisions and provide advice based on practical experience with living with the decisions we’ve made in the past.

Engineers – Not Technicians

Educational institutions haven’t graduated enough engineers to keep up with demand within the United States for at least forty years.  To make up for the delta between supply and demand, technical training services have sprung up throughout the US to teach people technical skills in a handful of weeks or months.  These technicians understand how to put building blocks together, but they are not especially skilled in how to architect highly available, low latency, low cost to develop and operate solutions.

The largest technology consulting companies are built around programs that hire employees with non-technical college degrees.  These companies then teach these employees internally using “boot camps” – creating their own technicians.

Our company is comprised almost entirely of “engineers”; employees with highly technical backgrounds who understand both how and why the “building blocks” work as well as how to put those blocks together.

Product – Not “IT”

Most technology consulting firms are comprised of consultants who have a deep understanding of employee-facing “Information Technology” solutions.  These companies are great at helping you implement packaged software solutions or SaaS solutions such as Enterprise Resource Management systems, Customer Relationship Management Systems and the like.  Put bluntly, these companies help you with solutions that you see as a cost center in your business.  While we’ve helped some partners who refuse to use anyone else with these systems, it’s not our focus and not where we consider ourselves to be differentiated.

Very few firms have experience building complex product (revenue generating) services and platforms online.  Products (not IT) represent nearly all of AKF’s work and most of AKF’s collective experience as engineers, managers and executives within companies.  If you want back-office IT consulting help focused on employee productivity there are likely better firms with which you can work.  If you are building a product, you do not want to hire the firms that specialize in back office IT work.

Business First – Not Technology First

Products only exist to further the needs of customers and through that relationship, further the needs of the business.  We take a business-first approach in all our engagements, seeking to answer the questions of:  Can we help a way to build it faster, better, or cheaper?  Can we find ways to make it respond to customers faster, be more highly available or be more scalable?  We are technology agnostic and believe that of the several “right” solutions for a company, a small handful will emerge displaying comparatively low cost, fast time to market, appropriate availability, scalability, appropriate quality, and low cost of operations.

Cure the Disease – Don’t Just Treat the Symptoms

Most consulting firms will gladly help you with your technology needs but stop short of solving the underlying causes creating your needs:  the skill, focus, processes, or organizational construction of your product team.  The reason for this is obvious, most consulting companies are betting that if the causes aren’t fixed, you will need them back again in the future.

At AKF Partners, we approach things differently.  We believe that we have failed if we haven’t helped you solve the reasons why you called us in the first place.  To that end, we try to find the source of any problem you may have.  Whether that be missing skillsets, the need for additional leadership, organization related work impediments, or processes that stand in the way of your success – we will bring these causes to your attention in a clear and concise manner.  Moreover, we will help you understand how to fix them.  If necessary, we will stay until they are fixed.

We recognize that in taking the above approach, you may not need us back.  Our hope is that you will instead refer us to other clients in the future.

Are We “Right” for You?

That’s a question for you, not for us, to answer.  We don’t employ sales people who help “close deals” or “shape demand”.  We won’t pressure you into making a decision or hound you with multiple calls.  We want to work with clients who “want” us to partner with them – partners with whom we can join forces to create an even better product solution.

 

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The Importance of QA

November 20, 2018  |  Posted By: AKF

“Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it.  It’s what the customer gets out of it.”  Peter Drucker


Importance of QA - Team sitting at conference table

The Importance of QA

High levels of quality are essential to achieving company business objectives. Quality can be a competitive advantage and in many cases will be table stakes for success. High quality is not just an added value, it is an essential basic requirement. With high market competition, quality has become the market differentiator for almost all products and services.

There are many methods followed by organizations to achieve and maintain the required level of quality. So, let’s review how world-class product organizations make the most out of their QA roles. But first, let’s define QA. 

According to Wikipedia, quality assurance is “a way of preventing mistakes or defects in products and avoiding problems when delivering solutions or services to customers. But there’s much more to quality assurance.”

There are numerous benefits of having a QA team in place:

  1. Helps increase productivity while decreasing costs (QA HC typically costs less)
  2. Effective for saving costs by detecting and fixing issues and flaws before they reach the client
  3. Shifts focus from detecting issues to issue prevention

Teams and organizations looking to get serious about (or to further improve) their software testing efforts can learn something from looking at how the industry leaders organize their testing and quality assurance activities. It stands to reason that companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon would not be as successful as they are without paying proper attention to the quality of the products they’re releasing into the world.  Taking a look at these software giants reveals that there is no one single recipe for success. Here is how five of the world’s best-known product companies organize their QA and what we can learn from them.

Google: Searching for best practices

Google Search Logo
How does the company responsible for the world’s most widely used search engine organize its testing efforts? It depends on the product. The team responsible for the Google search engine, for example, maintains a large and rigorous testing framework. Since search is Google’s core business, the team wants to make sure that it keeps delivering the highest possible quality, and that it doesn’t screw it up.

To that end, Google employs a four-stage testing process for changes to the search engine, consisting of:

  1. Testing by dedicated, internal testers (Google employees)
  2. Further testing on a crowdtesting platform
  3. “Dogfooding,” which involves having Google employees use the product in their daily work
  4. Beta testing, which involves releasing the product to a small group of Google product end users

Even though this seems like a solid testing process, there is room for improvement, if only because communication between the different stages and the people responsible for them is suboptimal (leading to things being tested either twice over or not at all).

But the teams responsible for Google products that are further away from the company’s core business employ a much less strict QA process. In some cases, the only testing done by the developer responsible for a specific product, with no dedicated testers providing a safety net.

In any case, Google takes testing very seriously. In fact, testers’ and developers’ salaries are equal, something you don’t see very often in the industry.

Facebook: Developer-driven testing

Facebook does not employ any dedicated testers at all. Instead, the social media giant relies on its developers to test their own (as well as one another’s) work. Facebook employs a wide variety of automated testing solutions. The tools that are used range from PHPUnit for back-end unit testing to Jest (a JavaScript test tool developed internally at Facebook) to Watir for end-to-end testing efforts.

Like Google, Facebook uses dogfooding to make sure its software is usable. Furthermore, it is somewhat notorious for shaming developers who mess things up (breaking a build or causing the site to go down by accident, for example) by posting a picture of the culprit wearing a clown nose on an internal Facebook group. No one wants to be seen on the wall-of-shame!

Facebook recognizes that there are significant flaws in its testing process, but rather than going to great lengths to improve, it simply accepts the flaws, since, as they say, “social media is nonessential.” Also, focusing less on testing means that more resources are available to focus on other, more valuable things.

Rather than testing its software through and through, Facebook tends to use “canary” releases and an incremental rollout strategy to test fixes, updates, and new features in production. For example, a new feature might first be made available only to a small percentage of the total number of users.

                            Canary Incremental Rollout
Incremental rollout of features

By tracking the usage of the feature and the feedback received, the company decides either to increase the rollout or to disable the feature, either improving it or discarding it altogether.


Amazon: Deployment comes first

Amazon logo
Like Facebook, Amazon does not have a large QA infrastructure in place. It has even been suggested (at least in the past) that Amazon does not value the QA profession. Its ratio of about one test engineer to every seven developers also suggests that testing is not considered an essential activity at Amazon.

The company itself, though, takes a different view of this. To Amazon, the ratio of testers to developers is an output variable, not an input variable. In other words, as soon as it notices that revenue is decreasing or customers are moving away due to anomalies on the website, Amazon increases its testing efforts.

The feeling at Amazon is that its development and deployment processes are so mature (the company famously deploys software every 11.6 seconds!) that there is no need for elaborate and extensive testing efforts. It is all about making software easy to deploy, and, equally if not more important, easy to roll back in case of a failure.

Spotify: Squads, tribes and chapters

Spotify does employ dedicated testers. They are part of cross-functional teams, each with a specific mission. At Spotify, employees are organized according to what’s become known as the Spotify model, constructed of:

  1. Squads. A squad is basically the Spotify take on a Scrum team, with less focus on practices and more on principles. A Spotify dictum says, “Rules are a good start, but break them when needed.” Some squads might have one or more testers, and others might have no testers at all, depending on the mission.
  2. Tribes are groups of squads that belong together based on their business domain. Any tester that’s part of a squad automatically belongs to the overarching tribe of that squad.
  3. Chapters. Across different squads and tribes, Spotify also uses chapters to group people that have the same skillset, in order to promote learning and sharing experiences. For example, all testers from different squads are grouped together in a testing chapter.
  4. Guilds. Finally, there is the concept of a guild. A guild is a community of members with shared interests. These are a group of people across the organization who want to share knowledge, tools, code and practices.

                            Spotify Team Structure
Graphic showing how team guilds are built with experts on each team

Testing at Spotify is taken very seriously. Just like programming, testing is considered a creative process, and something that cannot be (fully) automated. Contrary to most other companies mentioned, Spotify heavily relies on dedicated testers that explore and evaluate the product, instead of trying to automate as much as possible.  One final fact: In order to minimize the efforts and costs associated with spinning up and maintaining test environments, Spotify does a lot of testing in its production environment.

Microsoft: Engineers and testers are one


Microsoft’s ratio of testers to developers is currently around 2:3, and like Google, Microsoft pays testers and developers equally—except they aren’t called testers; they’re software development engineers in test (or SDETs).

The high ratio of testers to developers at Microsoft is explained by the fact that a very large chunk of the company’s revenue comes from shippable products that are installed on client computers & desktops, rather than websites and online services. Since it’s much harder (or at least much more annoying) to update these products in case of bugs or new features, Microsoft invests a lot of time, effort, and money in making sure that the quality of its products is of a high standard before shipping.

What you can learn from world-class product organizations?  If the culture, views, and processes around testing and QA can vary so greatly at five of the biggest tech companies, then it may be true that there is no one right way of organizing testing efforts. All five have crafted their testing processes, choosing what fits best for them, and all five are highly successful. They must be doing something right, right?

Still, there are a few takeaways that can be derived from the stories above to apply to your testing strategy:

  1. There’s a “testing responsibility spectrum,” ranging from “We have dedicated testers that are primarily responsible for executing tests” to “Everybody is responsible for performing testing activities.” You should choose the one that best fits the skillset of your team.
  2. There is also a “testing importance spectrum,” ranging from “Nothing goes to production untested” to “We put everything in production, and then we test there, if at all.” Where your product and organization belong on this spectrum depends on the risks that will come with failure and how easy it is for you to roll back and fix problems when they emerge.
  3. Test automation has a significant presence in all five companies. The extent to which it is implemented differs, but all five employ tools to optimize their testing efforts. You probably should too.

Bottom line, QA is relevant and critical to the success of your product strategy. If you’d tried to implement a new QA process but failed, we can help.

 

 

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The Domino or Multiplicative Effect of Failure

September 18, 2018  |  Posted By: Pete Ferguson

AKF Partners swim lanes
As part of our Technical Due Diligence and Architectural reviews, we always want to see a company’s system architecture, understand their process, and review their org chart.  Without ever stepping foot at a client we can begin to see the forensic evidence of potential problems.

Like that ugly couch you bought when you were in college and still have in your front room, often inefficiencies in architecture, process, and organization are nostalgic memories that have long since outlived their purpose – and while you have become used to the ugly couch, outsiders look in and recognize it as the eyesore it is immediately and often customers feel the inefficiencies through slow page loads and shopping cart issues.  “That’s how it has always been” is never a good motto when designing systems, processes, and organizations for flexibility, availability, and scalability.

It is always interesting to hear companies talk with the pride of a parent about their unruly kid when they use words like “our architecture/organization is very complex” or “our systems/organization has a lot of interdependent components” – as if either of these things are something special or desirable!  Great architectures are sketched out on a napkin in seconds, not hours.

Great architectures are sketched out on a napkin in seconds, not hours.

All systems fail.  Complex systems fail miserably, and – like Dominos – take down neighboring systems as well resulting in latency, down time, and/or flat out failure.

ARCHITECTURE & SOFTWARE

Some common observations in hardware/software we repeatedly see:

Encrypt Everything

Problem: Overloaded F5 or other similar firewalls are trying to encrypt all data because Personal Identifiable Information (PII) is stored in plain text, usually left over from a business decision made long ago that no one can quite recall and an auditor once said “encrypt everything” to protect it.  Because no one person is responsible for a 30,000 foot view of the architecture, each team happily works in their silo and the decision to encrypt is held up like a trophy without seeing that the F5 is often running hot, causing latency, and is now a bottleneck (resulting in costly requests for more F5s) doing something it has no business doing in the first place.

Solution: Segregate all PII, tokenize it and only encrypt the data that needs to be encrypted, speeding up throughput and better isolating and protecting PII.

AKF Scale Cube - Sensitive Data Segregation

Integration (or Rather Lack Thereof) Of Mergers & Acquisitions

Problem: A recent (and often not so recent) flurry of acquisitions is resulting in cross data center calls in and out of firewalls.  Purchased companies are still in their own data center or public cloud and the entire workflow of a customer request is crisscrossing the country multiple times not only causing latency, but if one thing goes wrong (remember, everything fails …) timeouts result in customer frustration and lost transactions. 

Solution: Integrate services within one isolated stack or swim lane – either hosted or public cloud – to avoid cross data center calls.  Replicate services so that each datacenter or cloud instance has everything it needs.

Monolithic Databases

Problem: As the company grew and gained more market share, the search for bigger and better has resulted in a monolithic database that is slow, requires specialized hardware, specialized support, ongoing expensive software licenses, and maintenance fees.  As a result, during peak times the database slows everyone and everything down.  The temptation is to buy bigger and better hardware and pay higher monthly fees for more bandwidth.

Solution: Break down databases by customer, region, or other Z-Axis splits on the AKF Scale Cube.  This has multiple wins – you can use commodity servers instead of large complex file storage, failure for one database will not affect the others, you can place customer data closest to the customer by region, and adding additional servers does not required a long lead time or request for substantial capital expenditure.

AKF Scale Cube - Swim Lanes


PROCESSES & ORGANIZATION

What sets AKF apart is that we don’t just look at systems, we always want to understand the people and organization supporting the system architecture as well and here there are additional multiplicative effects of failure.  We have considerable expertise working for and with Fortune 100 companies, startups, and agencies in many different competencies.  The common mistakes we see on the organization side of the equation:

Lack of Cross Functional Teams

Problem: Agile Scrum teams do not have all the resources needed within the team to be self sufficient and autonomous.  As a result, teams are waiting on other internal resources for approvals or answers to questions in order to complete a Sprint - or keep these items on the backlog because effort estimation is too high.  This results in decreased time to market, losing what could have been a competitive advantage, and lower revenue.

Solution: Create cross-functional teams so that each Sprint can be completed with necessary access to security, architecture, QA, and other resources.  This doesn’t mean each team needs a dedicated resource from each discipline – one resource can support multiple teams.  The information needed can be greatly augmented by creating guildes where the subject matter expert (SME) can “deputize” multiple people on what is required to meet policy.  Guilds utilize published standards and provide a dedicated channel of communication to the SME greatly simplifying and speeding up the approval process.

Lack of Automation

Problem: It isn’t done enough!  As a result, people are waiting on other people for needed approvals.  Often the excuse is that there isn’t enough time or resources.  In most cases when we do the math, the cost of not automating far outweighs the short-term investment with a continuous long-term payout that automation would bring.  We often see that the individual with the deployment knowledge is insecure and doesn’t want automation as they feel their job is threatened.  This is a very short-sighted approach that requires coaching for them to see how much more valuable they can be to the organization by getting out of the way of stifling progress!

Solution: Automate everything possible from testing, quality assurance, security compliance, code compliance (which means you need a good architectural review board and standards), etc! Automation is the gift that keeps on giving and is part of the “secret sauce” of top companies who are our clients.

Not Empowering Teams to Get Stuff Done!

Problem: Often teams work in a silo, only focused on their own tasks and are quick to blame others for their lack of success.  They have been delegated tasks, but do not have the ability to get stuff done.

Solution: Similar to cross functional teams, each team must also be given the authority to make decisions (hence why you want the right people from a variety of dependencies on the team) and get stuff done.  An empowered team will iterate much faster and likely with a lot more innovation.

CONCLUSION

While each organization will have many variables both enabling and hindering success, the items listed here are common denominators we see time and time again often needing an outside perspective to identify.  Back to the ugly couch analogy, it is often easy to walk into someone else’s house and immediately spot their ugly couch! 

Pay attention to those you have hired away from the competition in their early days and seek their opinions and input as your organization’s old bad habits likely look ridiculous to them.  Of course only do this with an intent to listen and to learn – getting defensive or stubbornly trying to explain why things are the way they are will not only bring a dead end to you learning, but will also abruptly stop any budding trust with your new hire. 

And of course, we are always more than happy to pop the hood and take a look at your organization just as we have been doing for the top banks, Fortune 100, healthcare, and many other organizations.  Put our experience to work for you!

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