Business people need to understand how software development works

This led middle managers to over promise and under deliver. One middle manager told us that “you can get resources by promising something earlier, or promising a lot. It’s sales work.” This was made worse by the lack of technical competence among top managers, which influenced how they could assess technological limitations during goal setting.

As one middle manager pointed out to us, at Apple the top managers are engineers. “We make everything into a business case and use figures to prove what’s good, whereas Apple is engineer-driven.” Top managers acknowledged to us that “there was no real software competence in the top management team”.

Who knows if that notion about Apple is true or if it causes their success. The broader point of needing to understand the unpredictable nature of software is still important. As more organizations start using and making custom written software (if only to make mobile “store fronts” to their business), knowledge of the chaotic nature of software development needs to spread more beyond IT. Even IT people get it dreadfully wrong often.

So far the best tactic we have is to redefine what “success is”: it’s not delivering everything you promised on time, but being predictable about delivering something on regular intervals. That’s a vague way of saying delivering smaller batches of code into production more often. We sort of predict/hope that this results in more useful, better software overall. We’ll see.

Now, of course, part of this process is being honest about reality. The analysis of Nokia’s failures because “management” would not accept “real talk” from their employees will kill any innovation-driven business. As the company (and RIM and countless others) shows: tech companies are never so secure that they can afford to be confident in their market position.

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  1. Two things: firstly, with respect predictability and to folks’ experience of all of that software eating the world, all of us consumers of that software are already enjoying bite sized chunks called apps that quietly (and usually quite successfully) add bits of functionality week by week. Even the change of how to use some apps gracefully evolves as software engineers churn out new features; think of how the LinkedIn app looked 2 years ago, 1 year ago, 6 months ago. Somehow it has evolved slowly enough (or maybe “constantly enough”) for me to assimilate the changes without too much pain. So _that’s_ pretty cool.

    Secondly, related to your discussion of paranoia with Matt Ray and Brendan (and related to the mention of RIM and Nokia above), I think you guys were comparing two different kinds of paranoia: cultural paranoia (good) and personal paranoia (bad). A culture that engenders fear of being supplanted by the competition keeps everyone motivated. Paranoid individuals, on the other hand, will keep their heads down so they don’t get fired (even as the organization crashes into a mountainside). I’m glad to be part of a company with a healthy dose of the former and very little of the latter.


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