When the Customers Say "So What?"

As you, dear readers know, I have strong opinions on vestigial features in products. In the same way, I’m a strong believer in dumping and changing features that customers don’t care about: maintaining features that few people use is a night-mare and massive money-suck.

Somewhat counter-intutivly, then, I enjoyed this part of a longer quote from SalesForce.com CEO Marc Benioff:

Once we had the API really working well, then customers really started to hammer me on customization. They would say, ‘Why can’t I change this tab name, why can’t I change this field name, I want to be able to do this, and I want to be able to that.’ Well, [we would say] the problem is that the tab name is through the whole documentation. It’s in the singular, it’s in the plural. It’s not just in one language, it’s in twelve. And then customers would say, ‘Yeah. So what?’

I say it’s somewhat counter-intutive that I’d like that quote because it indicates a high-degree of extra features and customization. Programmers hate those two words. Benioff’s mock-response to the customer says why: whenever you change something, there’s a cascading effect of other stuff you have to change, not least of which is the docs.


So, a tiny change of a tab name entails a lot of work. But that’s only because the software vendor wants to maintain continuity in their software: they want all the parts of the software to “make sense” in relation to each other. One part of the software shouldn’t cause another part of the software to seem weird or funny.

Sidebar: Ad Continuity Attacks

As you might be thinking, or have lived through, this point is one of the best ways to waste hours discussing how to implement a feature. Since continuity can be highly judgmental, it’s a good arguing point. See security, usability, and performance for the other best ways to waste lots of time when talking about software.

“How much money does continuity make me?”

The point is, to avoid doing a change in software, we (the software makers) often say, “well, if we do that, it’ll have a cascading effect where this other thing won’t work, the docs won’t make sense, and all manner of other continuity problems will occur.”

While the above is an anecdote, I’d wager that in most cases, enterprise customers wouldn’t care about bad continuity: they’d rather have software that makes them more money than software that has good continuity. This type of thinking is part of what feeds the notion of good enough software.

Of course, things are a little different in consumer software. But then again, which one of Microsoft and Apple has the best continuity in their software?

(And check out the comments for some SalesForce.com backlash.)

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Software Evangelists…?

One of Steve’s recent posts reminded me of a question I’ve been kicking around for the past few days: not too many companies seem to have evangelist roles; why is that?

Sun, of course, has made that an official role, and Microsoft does as well, esp. in a psuedo-official way with passionate their bloggers and fans/”fans” (e.g., Joel Spolsky).

But, for the most part, it doesn’t seem like enterprise software companies have evangelists…at least in the extremely vocal and visible ways that Sun and MSFT do. Is it that (a.) most of those companies don’t need evangelists because their other marketing efforts are “just fine,” (b.) most of those companies either don’t think they need evangelists, or don’t even realize it, or, (c.) I’m just not looking harding enough to find them?

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Our man Klobe had a link to BarCampAustin. It’s Saturday, March 11th, 2006.

I’ve never been to a foo/bar/baz camp, so I figure with one in my town, I outta check this one out full-bore.

I proposed the session “Agile in the Real World: Wild Success, Terrible Failure, and Endless Yelling,” which I know many of you, dear readers, would love to give input on and participate in.

Hopefully several of you will work with me on that idea and show up at the camp as well.

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When the Dogs Make Their Own Food, or, Bottom-up Agile Innovation

An unbending tenant of eXtreme Programming is YAGNI, “you aren’t gonna need it.” As Ron Jeffries says:

YAGNI says, it never makes sense for a developer to implement things that aren’t asked for. It is always an explicit waste of the company’s money. It does not save money over doing the same thing later: the cost is the same, just spent later, which is a good thing. Making the marketing guys grin will not put money in the company’s pocket.

Much of Chapman’s In Search of Stupidity is an extended proof of why you’d want to use YAGNI to keep developers (and fame-crazed execs) from running wild with features. Any developer who’s suffered through hours long design meetings and protracted “debates” about how baroque to make a system become fast adherents to YAGNI as well. See KISS and Good Enough Software.

On the other hand, we have flickr. And del.icio.us.* And, oh yeah, Mr. $434.26, the GOOG.

“Some of the most intense users”

Cauvin linked to a set of interesting notes on Google’s product and project management taken in Jan. 2003 by Evelyn Rodriguez. On the topic at hand were these tidbits:

  • Employees (called Googlers) are best source for ideas at Google — also some of
    the most intense users of Google with well-formed opinions.
  • We get a lot of our ideas from our users (including customer support queue)
  • Next iteration [of Google News]: Didn’t make it to user studies because Googlers hated it.

While these notes are from 2003, that was obviously a critical time for Mr. $434.26, so the software development approach they were taking at the time is obviously of interest.

And what’s interesting is how involved the “Googlers” (man, I’d kill myself if I had to go by that moniker) themselves are in playing the role of customer. In the world of Agile, that’d be a big poop-on-that no-no: in most Agile implementations, the product owner is the mouth-piece of the God of Features, The Customer.

At the other end of the spectrum are developers who are writing and using the software: those “intense users” at Google.

Eating Your Own Dog Food

In software, we call this “eating your own dog food.” While I obviously have infinite respect for everything else good product managers do, the eating your own dog food principle is the most important one to follow, and yet the one least used.

If you’re working on some big, complex piece of enterprise software, for example, ask yourself, “would I want to install this and configure it?” Chances are, the answer is no: in an enterprise software shop, one of the hardest things to do is to find a running copy of your software (dev instances don’t count). No one wants to go through the hassle of installing that beast, which usually involves several hours, cryptic error codes, and dedicating a whole machine.

The CEO Test

Never mind the ever insulting “my mother/aunt/some clueless old lady” test; a product manager I know has a real answer for this problem: “The CEO should be required to install every piece of software their company makes.” In other words, the CEO would have such a terrible time installing most pieces of software that they’d use their bully-pulpit to make install easy.

Install is just the first part of your software (and as the first impression a customer gets, ask yourself, “how much time do we spend assuring that the install makes the best impression?”). The next step, of course, would be to require the CEO to use the application weekly, if not daily, with the same hopefully result.

The flip-side is that as a buyer of software, one of your first questions should be, “tell me how your company uses this software. Give me details.” If a company — esp. a large company that has all the same IT concerns as any other company — doesn’t use it’s own software, they’re sales people better be ready to dance up a storm to explain why.

Agile Dog Food?

Charles and I have talked about the lack of dog food eating in Agile quite a lot in the podcast (esp. in the first two episodes: 1 and 2). We’ve never come to a good conclusion, except that there’s something missing.

As the Google notes above indicate, employees are often one of the best sources for features, esp. if they’re users of the system. There’s certainly some shuckin’ and jivin’ that can be done to say that Agile thinking addresses this (we listen to customers, programmers could be customers, ergo we listen to programmers). But, as of yet, figuring out how to harness the innovative abilities of the developers is something that most Agile software development methodologies as practiced don’t do well. Of course, you could knock out the word “Agile” from that sentence, and it’d be even more true.

* My gut tells me that flickr and del.icio.us “allow” their developers to drive features. A couple of quick searches didn’t find anything to confirm it, so for now my proof is simply my instincts. For Google, on the other hand, I have the above “proof.”

[DrunkAndRetired.com Podcast] Episode 37 – Web as Platform, GUI vs. Web-app

In this episode, I ask Charles two questions:

  1. What do you think of “the web as a platform” concept?
  2. Is all that hassle with web-apps really worth it? Wouldn’t you rather be GUI programming?

The is the tail-end of last week’s recording, so you might consider this part two of that episode.

As always, leave a comment on the blog entry, email comments (text or MP3s) to comments@drunkandretired.com, or call out Skype number and leave voice-mail: drunkandretired or +1-512-879-6339.

(This episode edited by Coté)

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The Java Podcasters, Part 1


Chris Adamson contacted Charles and I a short while ago with some interview questions about Ye Olde DrunkAndRetired.com Podcast. We, of course, gleefully accepted, and had a good time talking with him. He seems like the type that doesn’t get all uptight about people being fast and loose, which, of course, is a pre-req for our podcast ;>

This week is
part 1 of the interview series. There’re several podcasters interviewed, and as they say, Chris looks to have saved the best for last: we’ll be in part two next week.

Until then, check out the first part, and keep hittin’ reload on that site until you see part two where Charles and I will answer all the questions you’ve ever had about the podcast.

(Well, probably not. If we don’t, send those to use, and we’ll answer them.)

In New York Feb. 3rd to Feb. 7th

The lovely Ms. Kim Skotak and I will be in NYC from Feb. 3rd to Feb. 7th in for her birthday. She’ll be regular spring-chicken at the rip old age of 25.

I hope to at least see the venerable Josh “to the” Knowles, but perhaps we’ll find time to see anyone else who’s interested.

(Not that I know too many people up in the Heart of Yankee Land. I’m just trying to act all cool like I do. Suck it!)

We’ll be flying JetBlue, so I’m looking forward to finally seeing what all the fuss is about.

Best 30 Seconds of DrunkAndRetired.com Podcast?

Dear listeners,

Another podcast wants to excerpt 30 seconds of our podcast in a larger show about podcasts. We will be searching for that 30 seconds across all 35 episodes, but I thought I could use the wisdom of crowds to make the work more efficient.

If you have a favorite 30 seconds — or even just an episode — please leave a comment below to help us out. Perhaps we’ll even take all the suggestions and put together a best of show, prefixing each with, “Mr. Jomdom liked this one best…” and the like.

Oh, and we need to get it to the dude by tomorrow, Thursday ;>