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Balance the System First

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Balance the System First

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Let’s say you are a company that builds an enterprise class software product, one that in general is pretty standard, but always seems to require some degree of customization… or maybe a new feature (or two) to get the big deal closed. Your product is much better than the competition, and has always been extremely high quality, and sales skyrocket.

Over the years, sales have continued to grow, and along with those sales, the size and the complexity of the product has grown along with it. Over time, the rate at which you can add new features into the product has gone down, even as the size of your development organization has doubled over that same period of time. To make matters worse, product quality is deteriorating, and you are on the verge of loosing a few long time customers.

The pressure to deliver new features gets more and more intense, while the quality of the product continues to decline, along with the rate of new releases.  It’s easy to think this is an engineering problem, but let’s look at the system a little more holistically, and explore how the whole system from sales to support contributes to this problem… and if we are going to fix it… contributes to the solution.

The Impact of Sales on Product Management

The whole process around selling puts pressure on Product Management in a number of ways. First, Product Managers are pulled into the sales process to help close the deals, so over time, they are less available to the teams. Second, there are more new requirements that have to be written, and fed to the development organization, to keep all those new features moving.  The net effect is that we have more requirements, less time to write them, and less time to spend with the developers to clarify them.

The Impact of Product Management on Development

We now have Product Managers that aren’t as available as they used to be, and the requirements they generate are higher level than they used to be, and there are more of them (requirements) than ever before.  Because the requirements are not sufficiently broken down, and not sufficiently understood, and the Product Managers are not available, we go into development with significant set of unknowns that are left to the developers to work out as they go.

Furthermore, the sheer volume of requirements is more than can be built within the timeframes that Sales has sold.  As Development slows down to analyze more and more requirements, less features actually get delivered, and more often than not, features get re-prioritized constantly to accommodate angry customers and mitigate slipped schedules, which results a ton of waste and re-work.  All the while, sales continues to sell, and the backlog continues to grow.

The Impact of Development on QA

Given fixed dates, limited resources, and apparently inflexible requirements… developers will do what they can to show as much progress as possible, often sacrificing quality to make a dent in the backlog.  Who needs tested code anyway, that’s what we have QA for, right?  The sheer volume of software that builds-up creates an ever growing backlog behind QA, and QA never can catch up.

To make matters worse, poor quality software has to go back through the development/QA cycle due to the vast number of problems QA finds in the code. Because (as we know) quality isn’t just about defects, it’s also about the maintainability of the code… as technical debt grows, the code gets harder and harder to work with, and harder and harder to test.  The defects that are found are difficult to fix, and fixing them often result in introducing even more bugs into the system.

The Impact of QA on Support and Sustaining Engineering

Because QA was pressured to quickly test the software, defects are often missed and passed into production. These issues result in more trouble tickets, calls to support, defects that have to be logged, tracked, and managed… and at some point, all that defective code has to be fixed. Because the sheer number of issues, and the fact the code is full of technical debt, Sustaining Engineering hits capacity pretty quickly.

The overflow from Sustaining Engineering either feeds back into Core Development, or back into Sales as issues get escalated, which ultimately feeds back Product Management, which feeds it to Development, which feeds it to QA and the cycle feeds itself in a never ending spiral.  Eventually the entire organizations ability to create new features and deliver working software grinds to a halt.

What do you do?

Okay… I think it’s clear that we should never have gotten ourselves into this mess… but now that we are here, what do we do about it?

  • Should I solve the problem by hiring? If so, what role(s) do I hire?
  • Should I solve the problem with training? If so, who do I train?
  • Should I use better engineering practices?  If so, which ones?
  • Should I use more automation?  If so, where do I start?
  • Should I solve the problem with process? If so, what process?
  • Should I solve the problem with pressure? What’s the impact of putting more pressure on this system?
  • Should I solve the problem with better management? Will efficiency gains make this system behave more predictably?
  • Should I stop selling new product? Should I only sell things that are off the shelf?

This clearly falls into the category of non-trivial problems… and like most non-trivial problems they have no easy answers.  The most important thing to realize though, is that people have careers wrapped up in the answers to this question.  Admitting you are in trouble is hard and taking the steps to fix the problems are even harder… while the destination is clear, the path from A to B is going to be difficult.

The core of the issue is that the demand for new software is far greater that our ability to produce new software. Even though our development staff has doubled, our ability to create new features is now reduced by the amount of time we spend defining the product, the time we spend working on legacy defects, the time we spend working with hard to manage software, the time we spend testing software, and the time we spend actually paying down our technical debt.

Our job is to get real about that… we have to bring our capacity into alignment with the demands of the organization.  Sometimes that means we have to reduce demand… sometimes that means we have to increase our ability to produce quality working, tested software.  Bringing new people into a broken system usually just makes the broken system worse, so my recommendation is to start by throttling back demand until we can get the system stabilized and balanced.

That means we might need to stop making commitments we know can’t be delivered, it might mean that Product Managers should work more closely with the teams, or it might mean that we need to hire some business analysts.  It might mean that we need to help QA by producing less crappy software and having developers focus on better unit and integration testing.  Developers can even help with manual testing in many cases.  We can reduce the load on support by delivering better software in the first place and fixing the stuff we have in production before we build more.

Maybe people in our organization need to move around.  Maybe some people need to find a different place to work. Maybe we need a more disciplined process, or execute the process we have in place more efficiently and more effectively.  Chances are we need a little bit of all these things… the trick is realizing that we don’t have a point problem that requires a point solution, we have a system problem and we need a systematic solution.  Fixing one part of the system will not generally make anything all that much better… sometimes it makes it worse.

Once we have the system in balance, now we can start thinking about where to hire or how to spend money… in a way that improves the entire system.  Bringing the system into balance has to be the place we start if we want a long term solution that will actually fix the problem is a sustainable way.


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