Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Company You Keep

Youth Culture - Mods & Rockers 1960s - 1970sImage by brizzle born and bred via Flickr

Have you thought of the impact of a highly connected, socially enabled society? The speed by which news travels today is at an all time high. Access to information is practically instantaneous. Communication channels are visible to practically anyone who wants to know about anyone or anything.

I recently made the switch back to management consulting. I joined a national firm as the Managing Director of Technology Consulting in Southern California. Having focused on running internal IT departments for the past 8 years, my contacts were primarily the employees I enjoyed working with, and a few vendors who brought high value. One of the challenges I thought I would face in transitioning back to the consulting world was dusting off the old contacts list and re-establishing my "services provider" network.

...That took about 10 minutes.

Impressive!.. but what's even more impressive is the access we all NOW have to the reputations of individuals, the corporations they work for, and the service providers they use. Transparency is everywhere. Just ask anyone you know on Linked-in, or anyone who knows anyone you want to speak to on Linked-in.

There is a message box on Linked-in that states how many connections you have access to. As of this morning, I currently have a way to reach 5,786,866 connections.

Wow! Talk about access.

There is no greater reason than this alone as to why it is absolutely essential to never compromise your integrity, your business dealings and your reputation. Serve your clients well, treat your employees like the gold they are, and don't bend on your values.

There is an old saying that goes something like this: "There is high price to pay for low living." Watch the company you keep and don't allow your principles to be compromised. News travels fast.

I interviewed a candidate for my firm yesterday. He had heard we were a great firm to work for from his network of friends. Oh, and by the way, he had done his homework... checked out my Linked-in profile, found my blog and read all the posts, etc. He told me that he had worked at other firms (names wont be mentioned here, but they were mentioned). A lot of the firms were "meat grinders." These firms not only abused their employees but destroyed business relationships. They entered into no-win situations for their consultants and clients, whether they intentionally underbid the job or allowed themselves to be taken advantage of by their clients, and ultimately drove their employees into the ground and destroyed business relationships. I reassured him that our firm doesn't operate that way. I told him that "not only do clients pick us, but we also pick them."

Society is just too connected today to keep bad company.

I am repeatedly amazed by firms that consistently underbid work. (check out the Contracts blog post I wrote in June, 2010). They must obviously be struggling in this economy to the extent that they are willing to offer contracts at the cost of their firm's reputation... because the news of botched jobs fly around like caps at the end of a graduation ceremony. And, not only is news of those firms shared, but even the individuals who sold (and attempted to deliver the work) are immediately available to anyone who wants to know.

Just ask me or any my 5,786,866 connections.

Meanwhile, for those who are destined to do the right thing for their employees and clients, accept the fact that you are probably the tortoise in this race. It's just a matter of time before you'll be called in to pick up the pieces and get your client across that finish line.

Have you experienced similar situations? I'd like to know.
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Web 2.0 - We're there... Are you?

A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in i...Image via Wikipedia

The idea of Web 2.0 has been around for a few years now (as early as 2004). I imagine like many other IT professionals, you have been "bandying about" the term in meetings. Have have you taken the time to address Web 2.0 internally? Have you thought about the future of computing and has your organization adjusted accordingly?

Here is a quick primer/defintion. Web 2.0 apps facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user centered-design and collaboraton. They are socially networked, mobile-accessed, quick to deploy, and highly interactive. Web 2.0 is also about how people use and build these applications. A typical Web 2.0 app can go from thought to deployment in less than a month... Sometimes less than a week, often undergoing many iterations.

Are you really set up for that? Really?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see how web 2.0 ready you are:

A. Am I expanding my data center? If your answer is Yes, then all I have to say is "Really?"... With advances in virtualization, and hardware infrastructure to deploy blades and other server farms, you should be getting 5 to ten times the computing power per square foot than you did 5 years ago. Add a little environmental private cloud scheduling capability, and your return could be 20 times when you stop maintaining underutilized resources. Continue reading.

B. Can my application development team request and deploy to a new environment in less than a day? If your app team is in constant battles with your infrastructure team to get access to environments... well, you are behind the power curve. Private cloud real-time scheduling and deploying environments is a reality today. Tools exist to do this real time. Building out your private cloud should be a priority in 2011, including developing Private Cloud policy administration.

C. Is your ratio of .NET or Java developers to Ruby on Rails, SalesForce or MOSS greater than 10 to 1, 20 to 1 or even Infinite? Not good if you said yes to this one... You're not ready. You may have the desire to work in a Web 2.0 world, you just don't have the right tools. Another good way to check whether you are up to date on your tools is calculate your BA to Dev ratios. If the ratios are even, you are doing a great job. If the numbers are 1:5 or more (ba:dev), chances are you are trying to make things happen with more difficult technology than you need to today.

D. Do you have an endpoint architect on staff? Mobile computing is a reality today, and the wiser companies are transforming the way they do business, by putting in a mobility strategy in place that allows their workforce to do business when/however they choose.

The IT landscape is changing. Here are some practices to put into play to better meet the needs of your business and effectively compete in tomorrow's computing world.

1. Let go of applications that aren't critical to your business. IT doesn't have to control everything. And quite frankly, if an application isn't critical to contributing to your company's profit, you really ought to hand it right back to the department that wants it (it matters to them). Give them a budget, an off the shelf SaaS solution and have an SI deploy it in the cloud. Stop worrying about it, and focus on what matters... believe me, the SI will be able to provide it for less than you can. And, any headcount deployed on a non-critical app is one that could have been working on a critical one. This isn't worth fretting about.

2. Get on the cloud. Develop your strategy for what belongs on the public cloud, and what should go on a private cloud. On average, it takes an infrastructure team no less than a month to procure, setup and deploy an environment today. If there is no budget for a new environment, the dealings that occur between infrastructure and development teams to get access to an environment is a complete waste of time. That is simply unacceptable today. The goal here is to minimize/eliminate the need for development teams to even talk to infrastructure teams. Deployments should be "1 command line" executions by application teams to private or public cloud resources. Response and build out should take minutes. Infrastructure teams should focus on building internal farms and setting policy for the development team's scheduling of environments. As for the public cloud, you should already have a deal with Amazon, Google or Microsoft's Azure services in place. Today, this problem is VERY solveable.

3. Make the internal skills shift. Take some of those Java and .NET developers and put them on Sharepoint, Sales Force and Ruby on Rails projects. Deployments on these platforms are muchquicker than Java or .NET. Ruby on Rails, or even PERL, are open source standards that deploy under any operating system, and have hundreds of packages (modules) available for anything your heart desires.. oh yeah, and they're free.

4. Move to a highly collaborative methodology like Agile. Prioritize what's important, mock it up in a prototype and iterate through it numerous times, then quickly deliver it. Get dedicated users to buy-in. There is no excuse for not being able to deliver and deploy code monthly if you like, and you can certainly push the envelope to weekly with the right tools. It's just going to be a bit more challenging if you're going to do it in Java or .Net.

In summary, the landscape is changing for IT. On the one hand, the things that aren't critical to the bottom line should be let go of and handed off to skilled SI's and SaaS providers. Deploying to the cloud is critical (both private and public) and is instrumental to your ability to meet ever growing demands of the business and time to market. Your application development teams should be better enabled to deliver quickly with tools that allow them to deploy on various platforms. Investigate public cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings. You'll be surprised with what you can get for very little or nothing to start. Your infrastructure team should become effective by essentially becoming invisible and work on establishing farms and setting user policy for private cloud access.

Finally, develop applications that are highly social, interactive, and accessible. Develop a true mobile strategy that includes deployment to Androids and Ipads. Use SI's to coach and mentor your development group, but recognize that this isn't a "one-off thing." This is it.... This is the future... We're here and you need to be there as well!

How effectively has your organization dealt with the move to 2.0? I'd like to know.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Successfully Delivering Complex Systems

A reduction on complex systemsImage by dvidal.lorente via Flickr

Have you ever worked on a large transactional system? The complexity of a large transaction, such as the development of insurance quote or loan origination system where there are many integration points with third party data providers, often experience navigational challenges or become too complex with the need to reconcile data. They are often too difficult for users to work.

Typically, what happens in these systems is the development team is continually confronted by end users with demands for increased flexibility. Development continually attempts to add more flexibility into the system, but the code becomes too complicated. The development team and the users become more and more frustrated as efforts bring little in the way of results to the problem.

Large transactional systems that are designed poorly usually die of their own weight. As more and more complexity is handled, the code becomes considerably more brittle. Often good coding practices are bypassed, and you just end up with a bowl of spaghetti in your implementation.

So, why is that? Intuition would lead you to think that the more you attack a problem the better the end result will be. But, it never works out that way. The more you work to include new features, shortcuts, hyperlinks, etc., the more messy the system becomes.

The problem lies in the approach to handling complex transactions. Most teams do a good job of identifying the transaction that needs to be modeled. They immediately go to work to develop a solution that almost always ends up being some sort of logically organized wizard. The application may have the ability for navigation, say with a few quick navigational features (such as tabs). Even though there is an appearance of an orderly transaction, you quickly finds that there are plenty of dependencies between the tabs. As new requests come in from users to handle alternative workflows, you quickly discover that in-line validations often fall apart as data dependencies exist between various sections of the transaction. The system quickly exposes its inflexibility. One good sign you are getting into trouble is when small requests seem inordinately long to solve.

The way to handle complex transactional systems is to stop driving all solutions and alternatives to the transactional level and begin thinking about the interactivity required by the users when they collect the data. In the insurance industry, it is not uncommon to spend 15-30 minutes on a single transaction, such as a quote or application. Begin by acknowledging that there is absolutely no way that ANY transaction will ever go from top to bottom in an orderly fashion (ever!). The interactivity your user will face with his customer will require ultimate flexibility when assembling the transaction.

So, rather than dealing with how to navigate at a transactional level, start thinking about the tools that are necessary for the user to successfully navigate his interaction with his customer. Once those tools are in place, your user will be able to quickly navigate through his interaction, and be able to deep dive into the transaction when and where it is appropriate. By not confusing the interaction with the transaction, you will be able to deliver simple, tight, and distinct elements of your transaction and (ultimately) avoid creating an unworkable mess.

So, lets see this in practice by getting back to the insurance example. When studying the interaction between user and customer, there are many things required to complete the transaction that have nothing to do with the transaction at all! For example, the customer may want to run different scenarios, or the user may want to jot down a note or a telephone number if a call gets dropped, or the user may want to explore historical information during the transaction that has nothing to do with the user's new transaction (e.g. like how much he paid the last time he renewed his policy). The team should explore this interaction and be able to distinguish what a user desktop would look like in spite of a transaction. You may want to introduce concepts like a scenarios file with a scenario comparison tool. You may need to build a "post-it" feature where the user can jot down a quick note or that phone number if the call gets dropped. Maybe the users need a cut/paste feature to a small portlet window that can hold information you will need to reference throughout the call. Maybe they need an "undo" button, or multiple retractable points stored to being again in the interaction. These items are not transactional in nature, they are desktop enablers at best and will allow you to abstract the flexibility the users will need above the transactional requirements.

The next thing to do is segregate the components of a transaction from each other so they are simple and distinct, and can be "assembled" into the entire transaction. Avoid wizards (implied, or even explicit wizards) and sequence rules. Keep interactivity and the flexibility at the higher level, and the transaction element level self-contained.

The more complex the transaction is, the less likely you will be able to stick to a transactional workflow. Model the interaction, and the transactional elements will be able to be defined quickly, efficiently and not die of their own weight because you'll avoid confusing the transaction with the interaction.

How have you dealt with segregation of interaction and transaction in your complex systems? I'd like to know.
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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Large Project? Invest in a Continuous Integration Environment

"The Basics Of Unit Testing" by Marc...Image via Wikipedia
I've always admired small, highly effective teams. The reality is that it is much simpler to be effective when dealing with small teams. The smaller the more effective. If we take this to the ultimate extreme, say a team of one person, there are no arguments, work is done and understood by everyone on the team.

In reality, most projects aren't done by just one person. Generally, communication and understanding becomes exponentially diminished with greater numbers of people on a project. Imagine running a project with 50 people. Regardless of all the design documentation, meetings and communication, there are bound to be misunderstandings and an assortment of problems.

That is why its important to constantly keep the code base in check. Sure, that's what QA is there for. However, what I've found is that with very few exceptions most QA teams have a heavy emphasis on functional qa testing, and often that is performed manually over and over again.

There is undisputed value in functional testing. But what is often overlooked, is the need to capture those functional tests and automate them. If you are on a large project, and haven't implemented test automation software, you are wasting money... lots of it.

However, that alone isn't enough. The old saying regarding quality testing is that "you have to build it into your product, not just test it at the end." And so, we now face the modern-age tester: the developer, the need for test driven development, and continuous integration.

TDD has developers create tests before code is ever written. Naturally, if you run the test before anything is written, it should fail. Once the unit of code is completed, the developer can run the same test and prove that his code works.

To accomplish this, Developers, especially those on large projects where code is flying around everywhere, need to develop xUnit test (e.g. jUnit for java, etc.) that prove to them, and others, that their code is working. Once the unit of code is developed and the junit test passes, they should migrate the code to another development environment: The Continuous Integration Environment (if you don't have one of these, you need to go procure one).

The continuous integration environment(s) are used to repeatedly run the entire suite of tests developed to prove the code works. This is critical in large projects, because undoubtedly at some point, someone will change existing code and will introduce regression errors somewhere else in the application. In fact, this is generally why teams begin to develop "snowflakes" (see my blog post on snowflakes) which is even worse.

Regression errors can be so reputation damaging to your team, that you ultimately would be wise to avoid regression altogether and invest in continuous integration. No one likes to hear from their users that something that was working fine no longer works.

Developers should immediately promote their code into a continuous integration environment after completing a unit of work and making sure that the x-unit tests pass. Continuous integration should run tests repeatedly many times per day. The person in the role of continuous integration tester, should promote the code to the next scheduled run, and include the tests the developer created to verify his code. This way, the developer can be assured that the continuous integration testing resource will know if other developers break his code.

If the test run passes, all is good and the developer moves on to the next task. If not, the continuous integration tester, demotes the code and sends the developer back to the drawing board.

Now, one common problem I've seen is when testers start changing tests to accomodate sub-optimal (i.e. crappy) code. HUGE MISTAKE... DON'T DO IT! This ultimately will ruin your project. It's absolutely critical keep the code pristine. Reject the bad code, and get that integration build right back to being pristine.... Ostracize that developer like a medieval noble tossing a scarlet fevered serf over the castle walls. Out! Now! Before he infects everyone.

Obviously, you're not going to fire the guy (at least not yet), but he needs to get the message that the code has to work without breaking the pristine code already in place.

Occasionally, you will come across changes that cause breaks (which is also normal, and is part of the cost of support automation and integrated testing in place). This will require the continuous integration tester to remove tests. However, don't ever do that carte blanche. Each test needs to be tagged with the person who created it, and serious discussions need to occur if the continuous integration suite tests are going to removed. Bring in the person whose test has been violated, and get their buy in, as well as any analyst that can validate the necessary change. Never just listen to the guy who broke the test... we know what he'll tell you!

What challenges have you experienced in your code when working large projects? I'd like to know.
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Monday, June 28, 2010

Agile Survivor: How to Avoid Getting Voted Off the Island!

One of the most interesting things about moving to Agile is the self-governing aspect of being on a scrum team. Agile provides tremendous transparency to its participants. Everyone is working together to get a goal accomplished, and they become accountable to each other each day in the daily stand-up meeting.

If you can't cut it, the team will eventually boot you from the island, ala Survivor. The only thing missing is the formal tribal council, the tiki flame lantern and the metal do-bob to extinguish your flame.

Though eliminating individuals really shouldnt be the goal of any organization, raising the bar and expecting great performance is.. and, if after numerous attempts at counseling, etc. the individual doesn't improve, this hard reality will ultimately pay off. Its actually kind of refreshing to management to witness "self-governing" teams take the action necessary to get results. So, from this perspective, Agile can be a great way to raise the bar.

However, Agile teams can get "clickish," and they can, over time, become stagnant in productivity. Why?

The Agile methodology tends to group individuals that will work together for many sprints, often for years. Teams get into a groove, and you may find yourself creating "high performance" as well as "regular" performance teams. But the stagnancy problem can occur at the peak of the maturity of an Agile team: when the team becomes comfortable with all its members. Typically, at this time, the team has come to love agile, each other, and they feel productivity is just fine.

But what if it isn't?

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 12:  Traffic travels on t...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
I recently attended an Agile conference in Lost Wages (aka Las Vegas), where a few senior types (old foagies like me) started asking about how to improve overall performance of Agile teams. There weren't too many good answers in the sessions. Responses seemed a bit defensive, and delivered with a "you don't get it" sort of attitude.

Well, I got news for some of those speakers. While the Agile experience is extremely rewarding to the team, project results are non-negotiable. What I mean is "Results are defined as Scope delivered within time and cost constraints." Businesses invest in IT projects because they want results, not just a great experience for the techies... and, don't get me wrong, when the experience is good and the employees love it, then generally, you'll have more dedication to the projects, and the team will get "more into" their work.... no argument there. I'm talking about overall results.

There is no argument that Agile is a game-changer. Users are brought in early, and your team is always working on high priority items with frequent deliverables. That's all goodness. But, as a manager, you need to be aware of various items:
  1. Measure Personal Productivity- OMG! How can you single people out????? Tepper, you are a sacriligeous hypocrite! Stop insulting the Agile Gods! Look, as a manager, you need to make sure your team is still playing a little "Survivor".... Chances are there may be people getting carried by others, who may be creating negative inflow or regression errors. It's human nature to take care of our own, and Agile teams can become family. The reality is they have probably stopped optimizing their productivity. Measuring personal productivity and occasionally changing team members around will keep things crisp- but shake things up too often and you'll only introduce chaos.
  2. Identify and Correct Negative Inflow and Regression Problems- What problems are being created and who is creating them? Ultimately, these items turn into additional work for the team. What is breaking in production? As the manager, it is your responsibility to deliver projects with high quality. Get your teams to find these and deal with the root cause.
Over the next few blogs we'll discuss techniques to measure and prevent many of the issues that slow down Agile teams.

What are your challenges in your Agile implementation? How are you optimizing performance? I'd like to know.
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Thursday, June 24, 2010


AktNotarjalny-1923Image via Wikipedia

Why is it that some deals go well and some don't? What is the secret to striking a great consulting deal and, if you're trying to sell one, what is the secret to closing a deal? What are the fundamental pieces to forming a deal and what can you do to avoid getting the short end of a deal?

Lets talk about deals, today. How to make sure contracts you enter into a good deal, and how to avoid bad deals. Lets cover:

  1. Closing Deals
  2. Why "Win-Win" deals are the only ones that work best
  3. Terms and Conditions

Closing Deals

For a good number of years I worked as a leader in a couple of consulting practices. My responsibilities included selling and delivering deals. The one thing I learned early on when I was selling deals is that you need three things to get a deal closed:

  1. A need
  2. A budget
  3. A sense of urgency
It's my experience that any deal that doesn't have all three elements on this list will not get signed. If you have two of the three, your deal won't close. I mention it only because it is very common to have the first two, but the signature authority will not sign without the urgency. Many of our sales people could talk to potential clients for hours on end about a deal... no trouble getting the meeting, even outlining a project plan and budget, but they couldn't close the deal. In the business climate, if there isn't a sense of urgency, your deal will be pushed to the back.

In other cases, there was a sense of urgency.. Lots of good discussion, but the sales people never checked to see if the people they were talking to actually had a budget. Lots of enthusiasm and need, but they were talking to the wrong people.

So, its important to realize you need all three.

Why "Win-Win" Deals are the Only Ones that Work Best.

It is all too common that the sharper negotiator gets the upper hand in a consulting deal, whether its the client or the contractor. However, when your procuring intellect, as you do in consulting, its important to recognize that you can damage yourself by breaking the other party. When you strike a "win-lose" the likelihood of any project success is severely diminished. These hardly ever work.

Lets say you're the consulting firm and end up on the LOSE side of a negotiation... The other people you will need to please on this contract are your partners/owners, and you will be forced to do everything in your power to make the deal work for them, and that includes subcontracting the work just so you can retain a profit. I find it amazing how often folks will revel in the fact that they just drove a supplier into the ground, only to be presented with the provider's "B" team. As a customer, your goal is to drive a great bargain, but to also recognize when things just look too good. When you push it that far, you're pretty much looking at a disaster in the making.

The opposite is true as well. If you are the consulting agency and you just got the sweet deal everyone has always dreamed about, be ready. It's only a matter of time before the client figures it out and starts working you out, quite possibly forever. Abusive deals may bring you great short term revenue, but can also backfire on you when someone finally figures out what is going on. Your reputation will be marred, and someone (you, or both you and the guy at the client site who signed the deal) will be shown the door. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but in the business of collaboration to successfully deliver a project, its not.

While its important to drive a good bargain, you will reach a point of diminishing returns. One way to avoid this is to figure out what is good for both sides. Contracts need to be established in a "win-win" style, especially where services are involved, or you will have a catastrophe looming in the wings. I have found in my role as a"client" who understands how consulting practices operate, that my most trusted partners will share their goals with me. Those include:

  1. Profit they are trying to achieve
  2. Contingency they are building into the project
  3. Marketing / Reputation goals.

I, on the other hand, will share my goals with them as it relates to:

  1. Assuring I get qualified and dedicated staff
  2. Knowledge transition
  3. Warranties

Time and Materials Considerations

I also like Time and Materials contracts with lots of signoffs. When I was in the consulting side, I would look for frequent signoffs from clients on deliverables throughout the entire project. I used to tell everyone in the practice "Your always good until the very last signature." What that meant was that if I had a client signature on a document that articulated the progress and the particular deliverable of the project we were in agreement at that time. I would make a point of saying to my clients that we would have many of these. I'd also pointed out that if they were unhappy with our services they always had the option to let us go, but I structured my frequent signoffs so we couldn't dispute any deliverable up to the point of the signoff.

I found that this no-nonsense style worked for both of us (clients and consultants) because it kept us focused on working on the project. In a fixed price contract, as a provider you are focused on meeting the absolute minimum required to maximize your profit. As a client you are focused on getting as much as humanly possible from your provider for the same amount of money.

Guess what. That doesn't work. That is founded on grandstanding and embedded beauracracy. There is no efficiency and streamling... no economy to the solution. A fixed price contract always has a winner and a loser, and often two losers. Do time and materials and you get quicker results, more elegant solutions and longer value from what will become a trusted relationship.

The Terms and Conditions

The terms and conditions is a critical piece of any contract. For anyone who's done contracts, you know that you will spend a good deal amount of time arguing IP. Keep in mind that the tools used to create your solution are rarely IP your provider can sell you. The techniques are also items consultants need to be able to redeploy. However, your specific algorithms and methods which your company owns are yours, and as a client you should protect your company from potential misuse with other clients of your consultants.

One thing I insist on doing in any terms and conditions negotiation is to make sure that whatever you discuss works both ways. Always ask yourself "Is this term fair to me and is it fair to you? What if we worded this exactly the opposite way.... does it still work?" I find that good terms and conditions are equilateral not unilateral in their structure. If you're not sure exactly whether the term you're negotiating is critical, ask for exactly the opposite, if the other side finds it untolerable, then there is an advantage that is probably inequitable. Avoid agreeing to those points.

Also, remember, that a skilled negotiator may have to give in on several points... Get a feel for what it is you are willing to trade for. Its not too uncommon to say "I'll give you this, if you give me that." In the end, the Terms and Conditions are just a structure for the delivery of the work. Often, the Ts and Cs get into a tug of war between each party's legal departments. So, it is important to be flexible, but both sides should strive to be fair.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

UAT - The Hidden Time Bomb

BEIJING - AUGUST 22:  (L-R) Steve Harris, trac...Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So many software developers are familiar with the four phases of software development. No, I don't mean the SDLC that spells out Inception, Elaboration, Construction and Transition.... More like the SDLC that starts with the "Honeymoon" phase, the "disillusionment", the "trenches" and "catching up to expectations."

We've all seen it... Everyone is genuinely excited at the beginning of a project.. Enthusiasm is high as requirements are written, the users seem engaged... and even though the requirements are a bit difficult to read or maybe slightly unclear, there is a feeling from the users that the team gets it, so we move along. Somewhere at about the 50% mark it settles in. The users become a little more involved and the team realizes that the requirements didn't quite cover all of the features that are going to be needed. There is tremendous intensity in this phase (the trenches). Finally, you think you are there. You're coming to the end of your budget, the schedule dictates that you should be wrapping it up and do final user acceptance tests (UAT). The software will be deployed in about a month and you are ready to deploy.

So, here we are. UAT. All of a sudden people you've never met show up at your door and politely introduce themselves. You smile, turn to your team and ask... "who is that, again?" - They don't know either. The first few tests work just fine. The first day was a success, but there are a few more days to get through. On the second day, the users come up with a series of tests your team is unaware of and magically, like a surreal nightmare, your development train runs over that penny on the rail, and the cars begin to fall off the track, toppling all over the place. Your project is WAY off the mark.... It doesn't do this, and it doesn't do that....

You have lost control. That wonderful project of yours that you've reported as "Green" in your status reports for the past 6 months is now "RED" ... Blood red. You are caught off guard... you have lost your balance... you are in a free fall and you can't even see the floor. Sure, if we were in outer space there would be complete silence, but we're not... so management hears you screaming "Noooooooo!" as you fall, down... down... down... no end in sight... just a faint echo as they look into your development well and you fade from view. (dramatic, huh?).

Well, unfortunately, this is not all that uncommon. This happens a lot. UAT is the gotcha for the development team. There is nothing more in this world that raises the hair on my neck than a UAT surprise. As a project manager or development lead, UAT is the validation that you got it right, and for some reason, everyone gets so preoccupied with the development of the project that they miss the most important part of any software development... the acceptance of the code.

I can tell you, I have seen the best projects fail in UAT. Perfectly delivered, meticulous projects, that when reviewed were absolutely delivered to the contract. The development team did it, but the client wouldn't accept it. The worst case that I can remember ultimately took a small consulting practice out of business as UAT went on for months beyond the fixed price contract. The practice prevailed in arbitration, but the costs were overwhelming and the office was shut down. Perfect software development proven in an arbitration resulted in a failed consulting practice. Unfair. Oh, and in addition, the client who decided to go to arbitration lost a lot of money as well chasing the consulting company.

So, how can one avoid these kind of problems? Even if you deliver your project perfectly, as my friends in Dallas did. The first thing you need to come to terms with is that your contract should go well beyond the development of the project. Its easy to say, "we did everything right," they just don't want it, or its not my problem they don't get it. I guarantee that at a minimum you will pay, your reputation will suffer, your business will suffer.

The UAT phase is the most critical phase of your project. Does that sound ridiculous? Think about it. If you can't control the UAT, you are entering the "financial loss" phase of the project. And, let me be clear, when I say control, I don't mean "win the test of wills." I mean understand the amount of time required, the potential to make critical fixes, and assure the software will be used and accepted by going through ALL of the pertinent test cases required to accept it.

The biggest flaw I see in software development is the poor preparation teams make towards UAT. The best way to avoid UAT time bombs is to get your users to pony up and agree to all of the test cases they will run. Immediately challenge them when they identify them. I've listed questions below that you need to find answers to, and formally agree to, immediately after requirements and no later than the beginning of development (months ahead of UAT). Additionally, you need to revisit this list multiple times throughout development to make sure there will be no surprises in UAT. If you find that the answers are changing or growing, you need to plan and budget accordingly:
  1. Who will be performing the UAT?
  2. Do those identified represent 100% of the users?
  3. What specific cases will you run? (get a list and full understanding of conditions that will be checked)
  4. Are we certain that those cases will cover 100% of the acceptance ?
  5. Which exception cases do we need to run in UAT? (outside of normal flow)
  6. Are there any more?
  7. When I document these, will you be able to provide an authoritive signature that states that successful completion of these tests constitutes acceptance?
  8. If not, then lets keep working this document until you can.
  9. Who will provide the final signature on acceptance?

The development of a well written and understood UAT plan is validation for your requirements. If the UAT goes beyond your requirements documents, your team missed the objective, and the software will not be accepted.

Furthermore, assign a lead who is skilled in change management to be the responsible person on the dev team for a successful UAT. This person should be meeting regularly with the client's organization to show them work in progress (what the system looks like and how it will be used) months in advance of the software's completion. They should understand concerns and help promote the use of the software. The feedback they receive should be shared with the development team and taken very seriously. When replacing an existing system, they should also take the time to understand the older system so that important features the users want/need aren't overlooked.

What UAT surprises have you experienced in your career? How could those have been mitigated? I'd like to know.
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