Another moment of fury

Back at work. This time my fury was inspired by Jack. He has been occasionally closeted with GandD over the last couple of months, and today he was demonstrating his cool new stuff.

Cool it may have been, but only in the sense of an approaching iceberg. We (in theory) have until the end of January to finish and test the latest release. Three weeks, loads of time isn’t it? That could be my new nickname for Jack “Loadsatime”.

For reasons best known to himself and GandD, they didn’t want, well, anyone with experience of users, such as myself, training or support, to comment (or even know about) the new features until they were properly implemented. So this was the gleaming remove the drapery moment; cut the red ribbon and reveal the glorious finished product.

Except, is there a way of putting this tactfully? Except there is no point in asking for feedback on a finished product unless the only feedback you want is “Isn’t it mahvellous dahling”.

What is that there for? Oh, I thought it might be a good idea. Do users need it? I don’t know. Is that very important bit that users might actually want to use easy to find? Well, it’s obviously really easy, you just open this dialog and find that button and then set this option…. You can imagine the rest. And, given the fact that there is three weeks left, they aren’t going to change anything at this stage, are they?

Admittedly, he did have three cast-iron and valid excuses
1. Gavin wanted it like that
2. David wanted it like that
3. It would have taken months to implement in a sensible way.

Well, maybe excuse no. 3 isn’t that valid, because it hinges on that big elephant in the sitting room, well, not merely an elephant in the sitting-room, there’s a volcano in the bathtub, a hyena in the kitchen, and fourteen zombies locked into the attic bedroom.

And they’re all asking the big question?
How are priorities set?

Loadsatime Jack can’t set them, because he does what GandD ask him to do. They have a difficult call to make.

First, they have limited development resource.
Second, they need to use it in a way that brings in returns

Some things, such as re-writing the whole thing from scratch, just ain’t going to happen. Not unless we get a massive injection of cash from some venture capitalists. And GandD wouldn’t sell their company unless it was sinking.

How can I persuade them that a project that is easier to use may be more worth having than one with more features?
How can I demand that a lot of that limited development resource is spent on making existing stuff better, rather than adding new stuff. At the moment I can’t think.
But perhaps I could persuade them that involving the idea of the user earlier in the process would be a good plan. Before they decide which features go in, even. At the moment though, I think I’ll just go out for a long walk and avoid the undead for tonight.

Preparing to return to work

It has been a long break for me, and I have mixed feelings about what awaits me on my return to work. Most of the other staff also took the week off between Christmas and New Year (though Jiri did not). I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I always feel that I should invite Jiri round for Christmas lunch and never do. He is probably perfectly happy on his own.

There is the standard stuff that always appears when you have had a break. The stack of problems that people discover because they’re not really working but are exploring the software to have something to do. The new features that Gavin has invented while going on a long walk after an all-night party. The new contacts that David has made while playing golf on Boxing Day, and their suggestions for what is needed to penetrate new markets. The stale issues that people couldn’t deal with just before Christmas so they put on the pile to be dealt with after Christmas when they would feel more inspired and less jaded.

All the tinsel that draped the stairs and monitors has been put away. Jiri is very happy because he managed to get an enormous amount done while the office was empty. The cleaners haven’t been in over the new year so his desk is festooned with crumbs and empty packets of Czech festive items. Jack isn’t back yet – he’s gone ski-ing with his girlfriend. Mr Grumpy is in, and he is delighted to be back at work. For someone who complains so much, he seems to enjoy life far more than most of the people I know.

I promised that I would provide a systems analysis of the company and I am just considering how to do it. Like most small companies, it consists of a series of departments, each run by a manager. Departments contain some specialised staff and some people who have ended up there and learnt on the job. In a good company, the departments will be work-shaped. That is, a department has a function to perform and its staff and systems enable it to carry out the function within the department. That’s easy if it’s a closed function, but speaking from experience, every function will require (at the very least) information from the rest of the company.

For example, marketing has a big marketing push to carry out in the new year – get customers before the end of the tax year in April, when they’re likely to have some extra budget to spend. Marketing need to know all the stuff about customers patterns of purchase (which is their own skill) and they need to feed that back into the company. They also need to know what the company is producing that they can sell in the new year. How do they do that? Do they get the over-optimistic views of GandD, or do they get the more realistic views of Ian? Do they have to come and chase and check whether what they have been told is true, or will the right information be passed on at the regular meetings? Have they got the experience to discount GandD’s over-optimism, and if so, how do they know which bits to discount? This is not something that can be codified, because the (say) 30% of stuff to discount will change each time? This is skill, but to be able to learn the skill, you have to know what goes in and what goes out. You have to know at what point the product starts to stabilise and you have real information to deal with. And from that, you have to find out what customers want and feed that back into development.

So marketing has several roles:
1. To sell stuff to customers (this is how it’s seen within the company, anyway)
2. To understand what the company produces and when it will be ready
2. To understand what customers need and when they buy it (that’s their own skill that enables them to do their job)
3. To tell the company what customers need and when they buy it
4. To create a trustworthy competent public image for the company

Now Jeanette is fabulous at selling. She’s pretty good at knowing what the company produces and how much of GandD to ignore. And when to ask them what is actually happening. And when to tell them stuff is a waste of time. But I’m not sure how much all of her knowledge about customers – why they buy, and even more importantly, why they don’t buy, filters back into the company. Should it? Can Jeanette’s sense of what people want be as important as what David picks up on the golf course?