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high quality web apps in short timespans.

Upstream Agile GmbH

From Journeyman to Client

February 13, 2010 by alex

Agile project management makes the client an integral part of the development process. This article explains what your responsibilities and powers as a client are, and helps you to understand project management the way we see it.

In the traditional (waterfall) model of software development someone writes a specification of the whole software and then the programmers fail to implement it within the given time/budget. To be honest I don’t know a lot about this way of doing software, but I’ve seen it fail.

But I do know a bit about how we write software. In contrast, agile development works in small steps. There is no upfront specification, as we acknowledge that this specification would be incomplete and quickly outdated by changing requirements. Instead we work in short iterations (at upstream typically ~2 weeks) where we only plan ahead for a short amount of time.

By aggressively prioritizing what is most important we are able to release software that fulfills the needs of the business with less clutter in a shorter amount of time.

For me this sentence is really the essence of agile project management as it shows its most important point: prioritizing what is important for your business.

What is software the fulfills the needs of the business? It’s a software that solves your specific problem. If you want to sell something online it allows your customers to click a buy button. If you need to send invoices it will put a bunch of numbers on a sheet.

What is less clutter? Less clutter means if you want to sell something online it neither has a tag cloud nor a facebook like wall for every product where users can post their video reviews. If you need to send invoices it will not let you upload pictures for it.

What is less time? Less time means we deliver your product faster because we spend less time on implementing features because there are fewer features. It does not mean that we can program faster because we are doing agile (seriously we can’t).

What is prioritizing? You do the things first that are most important.

So what is important? And here is where it gets difficult.

What is important is your – the client’s – decision. The problem is that a lot of things can be (thought of as being) important. For a web site, the start page has to have a maximum conversion rate, SEO is important, scalability is important (isn’t it?), usability is important, choice of technology is important, the database schema is important… you get the idea.

But do you know what’s really important? That your business problem is solved. And do you want to know how many kinds of business problems there are? Well, there’s exactly one: make (more) money.

I think it actually is that simple, but from what I’ve seen it can become really hard to focus on that one goal, when you think you have to consider all that other stuff as well, but let me say this again: as a client it’s not your responsibility to think about the database and scalability (you won’t have to scale in the beginning). Your one and only problem is: how do I make money with this. Everything else comes after it.

A good way to focus on solving that problem might be to ask yourself this question: How do I make (more) money?

Case Study

Let’s stick to the example of an online shop and let’s assume you want sell e-books. Of course you look at the competition first, and there is amazon.com. They sell e-books and from what it seems they are making a whole lot of money from it, so that must to be a good starting point. From their site you collect a bunch of requirements you also want in your shop:

  • Categories: Books must be in categories so people can find them.
  • Tags: With tags people can click on tag clouds and then see all the books to that tag.
  • Related books: “People who have bought this might also like…” - I love that feature
  • User reviews/ratings: when users review the books we can make a top list and then everyone will buy the top books.
  • Licensing: You have talked to the publishers already and they have these complicated licenses where you may only sell a certain book in a certain country but only at full moon when it’s raining - so the shop needs to take all this into account.
  • Internationalization: We need at least English, Spanish and Mandarin to reach more markets
  • Statistics: You want to know at what time and weather conditions people buy books from where, on which browser and operating system and which IP address they used to do it. From that data you will be able to optimize the hell out of the start page.

So, that looks like a reasonable list of requirements doesn’t it? With this shop you could steal a nice market share from amazon right? Well, let’s take that list to the test: does it help me to make money?

  • categories: no
  • tags: no
  • related books: no
  • reviews/ratings: no
  • licensing: no
  • internationalization: no
  • statistics: no

Surprised? I hope at least a little bit. So what would make you some money?

In order to make money
as the owner of the shop
I want people to buy a book

With all the fancy features above you forgot (sorry, I forgot) the only important feature of the site: a button that says “Buy this e-book”. By the way the format of that feature request comes from the BDD (behavior driven development) people. This is the generic template:

In order to <business value>
as <role>
I want <feature>

This is a brilliant template that you can use to take all your feature ideas to the test. Remember that the only valid business value here is to make money. And that the only role that is important here is you as the stakeholder of the project.

Let’s look at your features:

Categories

In order to make money
as the owner of the shop
I want categories

How is a category going to make money? A category is a means to, well, put your books into categories. You might at some point decide that you can sell more books by putting them into categories because that big list of 1000 books on you start page crashes people’s browser and they can’t buy your books anymore, but for now you haven’t even sold a single book yet, so categories are definitely not going to make you any money right now.

Tags

A few years ago someone declared that if you want to be “Web 2.0” you need tags. That’s why a lot of websites have tags nowadays. Like categories you can’t make any money out of tags.

Related books

While this is a popular feature at amazon, your yet to be launched shop wouldn’t even have enough data at the beginning to make any sensible claims about what books are related. Again, at the beginning this won’t matter at all. You can always add it later, when the money making assertion becomes true.

Reviews/Ratings

While reviews can be a good way to promote books and build trust for your customers, when you launch your site there won’t be any reviews because nobody has bought a single book yet. So unless you charge people for being able to write reviews this is not going to pay your rent.

Licensing

Sure, we can build you a system that grabs the weather from weather.com, can calculate the moon phases over the sahara and figure out people’s countries by their IP address, but it’s going to cost you. How about this: You start and market your shop in only one country. This can be your home country or the country with the simplest licensing model. After you have sold enough books there we can start working on the rest (and you can pay us from the money you have made already).

Internationalization (I18n)

Again, we can build you any system you want, but be warned, some people read and write from right to left or top to bottom. WIth I18n you are opening a whole new can of worms. How about we do I18n later, after you have proven that your business model works in one country (or language region, which might cover a lot of countries (thinking English/Spanish/Mandarin)).

Statistics

Sure it’s important to measure the success (or failure) of your business. But before you have a business there isn’t really much to measure is there? And how about this: for now every time someone buys a book you open up your spreadsheet app on your computer and put a date and a price in it. I know it may seem archaic but it works. If you want to go crazy you can even use a real book made of paper, but since you’re selling e-books you probably don’t want that.

All these examples boil down to this: test your features agains the BDD template: can I make more money now when we implement this. A lot of them are really not that important now and you can use something simpler instead.

Conclusion

Deciding what is important is the one big way that you can control the project. Programming takes time and we don’t usually have a lot of ways to make that faster within a project. But choosing wisely the features that you really really need to start selling your products can make the difference between a 4 week and a 6 months project. We do the best we can to help you with those decisions but ultimately they are yours.

If we spend 6 months working on your project and it’s still not done then that’s not a programming problem, it’s a management problem, because we have been working on too many features, of which many probably weren’t as important as you thought (no offense). On the other hand if we make it in a few weeks, we'll congratulate you and bring some drinks to your early launch party.

(On a side note we recently released cobot.me after only 4 person weeks of development it doesn't have a lot of features, but that’s a different post.)