Over the last year or so, I’ve spent perhaps 50 hours rethinking what kind of business Oasis Digital should be. I’ve studied business models. I’ve made spreadsheets. I’ve looked around that numerous other consulting firms. The results of all that… are slowly emerging. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, though, I noticed something very interesting: the firms that appeal to me most, in terms of web site content, community involvement, portfolios, marketing approach, etc., are disproportionately Ruby or Ruby-Rails shops. I admire the “vibe” of the Ruby community:
Strong focus on design, to the extent that some Ruby-centric development firms have web sites which could pass for visual-design firms instead.
Ruby developers seem unusually aware of the extent to which syntax and conciseness matter.
There is much discussion of craftsmanship, though I’d need to survey a broader swath of production code to determine whether this discussion has a basis in reality.
Seemingly contrary to the above factors, Rubyists also appear to be unusually pragmatic.
This pragmatism translates to real-world financial impact: many developers make a good living with Ruby, and many firms are very happy with their Ruby projects.
Ruby events are numerous, nationwide.
There are numerous Ruby- or Ruby-Rails-centric development firms, and Oasis Digital is not one of them (we are perhaps a 5%-or-so Ruby shop, with Ruby expertise to effectively attack automated sysadmin, integration projects, and so on). We aren’t going to become a Ruby-centric-firm, either; and there are some technical aspects of Ruby that don’t impress me.
Rather, we want to bring some of the cultural qualities seen in the Ruby community, to other languages and tools. We care about design much more than most firms, and it shows in our GUIs. We care about user experience, and we are obsessed with quality, working results.
Recently I analyzed the relative payoff from different types of work I’ve done in my career to date. Some of the work has paid off reasonably well. But one particular bit of it stands out as a counter-example to common wisdom:
Between 1997 and 2000, I spent countless hours on the BDE Alternatives Guide, a section of this web site devoted to listing and analyzing the dozens of third-party database access libraries available for Delphi in that era. Delphi shipped with the BDE a not-great mechanism for database access. BDE was Borland’s answer to Microsoft’s ODBC, but unlike the latter, BDE didn’t get industry-wide support.
Working on the BDE Alternatives Guide had many positive payoffs:
It created a much-needed resource, greatly appreciated by thousands of developers.
I learned enormously in the process.
It put me in touch with dozens of library vendors, and many hundreds of developers.
It generated many incoming links and much traffic, around a million page views over a 5-year period.
Banner advertisements brought in a few hundred dollars, before I scrapped them to avoid the appearance of bias.
You might think, though, that establishing expertise as a Delphi database integration expert, would result in lots of consulting leads, new business, and job offers. Let’s look at the stats:
Total number of leads generated: 0
Total consulting work generated: $0
Total job inquiries and offers: 0
Yes, that’s right. Not a single firm ever contacted me to inquire about consulting, development, etc., as a result of the BAG. I’m still glad I did the work, for all the reasons above. But it is a counter-example to the notion of showing expertise and building a technical following, as a way to generate business interest. Sometimes the work pays off in new business, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The situation is not as dire as it sounds though; concurrently with that technical reputation, I was building a development-results reputation, and the latter was vital to launching Oasis Digital in 2001.
Oasis Digital (my firm) is a custom software development shop. It is not a staffing or recruiting firm; there are many good firms in those businesses, and I have no desire to join them in that market. Oasis Digital doesn’t offer contract-to-hire, it doesn’t charge a percentage of a hire’s pay, and does not recruit in for customer placement.
Nonetheless, we do occasionally help our customers hire.
I’ve heard customers and our own team members express surprise at this. Isn’t it against our own interest to help a customer with a direct hire, who might end up doing some work instead of Oasis Digital doing it?
In a short-term, trivial sense it is perhaps against our interest. If we wanted every project to go on forever, using 100% only Oasis Digital staff, then we would make sure to never help any customer with any hire at all. But that is completely unrealistic. There are millions of software developers (and sometimes it seems almost as many software development firms). We are in a competitive market. Our customers have a choice, they can do business with us or have someone else write their software instead, regardless of whether we help them with hiring.
Therefore, the real question is whether to be greedy for the short term, or visionary for the long term. We choose the latter. Our policy is that we are happy to help our customers hire direct staff. We believe that this will, in the long term, lead to success for our customers and for Oasis Digital.
We assist with hiring in 3 ways.
Direct Assistance with Hiring and Onboarding
At Oasis Digital we have a somewhat unusual hiring process: in addition to the usual interviews by phone, in person, and otherwise, we ask (and pay) prospective developers to write some code for us based on a short specification. The resulting code, and conversation about it, provides a great opportunity to get to know someone (and to assess the results they will create) very quickly before hiring them. We assess technical skills as well as teamwork / cultural fit. We have a high bar to hiring and a defined process to reach that bar. At the same time, our process respects potential employees, by not asking for sample work to be done for free.
A good hire, though, is not the finish line. It is the starting line! During the first months of a new developer’s work we have an onboarding process in which the new developer sets up a work environment (mostly by referring to project documentation), then implements tiny changes, then small changes, then medium changes, then finally can begin work on large, important tasks. Throughout these initial months, the new developer works with more frequent collaboration and code/change review than will be needed in the long run. We have found that with our hiring and onboarding processes (described above at a very high level), we have a high success rate.
The first and most direct way we can assist our customers, therefore, is to simply execute these processes for them: assist with interviews, sample projects, and lead the onboarding effort.
When working with a mixed team consisting of Oasis Digital staff as well as customer staff, we hold everyone to the same high standards.
I’ve seen teams that work the other way: accepting a lower standard of work from a customer’s internal staff. It ends badly. We would rather lose a customer, than ship bad software. Our reputation matters more than the next dollar.
Pass It On
Lastly, our processes aren’t a deep secret; the key is not the ideas, it is the execution. We are happy to teach our way of working to customers (and everyone else, in blog posts and talks). Even at the price (free to read, normal billing for customer work) it is a hard sell, though: hiring is often deeply embedded in how companies work.
I’ve summarized here at a high level; expect future posts and talks with many more details.
On Feb. 27 at St. Louis Innovation Camp 2010, I gave a talk on the SaaS business model. I posted the slides, handout, audio, and transcript soon thereafter. Here, finally, is a video of the 44-minute-long talk. Why did it take over three months to get online? Read on below.
The following has nothing to do with the content of the video.
This is an x.264 video, shown here initially with a Flash-only player (FV WordPress Flowplayer). Later I’ll replace this Flash-only widget with one that offers HTML5 video (for iPad use, in particular), when I find one that works sufficiently well.
That’s the easy part, though. Getting this video to you here was an adventure, and not in a good way. Three recordings were made of the talk:
We hired a professional videographer to record the talk. When I say professional, I mean it only in the most literal way, i.e. the videographer charged money. They showed up with a nice camera and a wireless lapel mic… but somehow produced a broken video recording (the first 10-15 minutes were intermittant video noise). In addition, the mic gain was turned up way too high and thus the audio is awful.
I recorded the audio using a $5 microphone plugged in to an iPod Nano, sitting on a table at the front of the room. It’s a bit noisy, but with a few minutes of work with Audacity (Noise Removal and Normalization), the results are much better than either video attempt.
Armed with this, I set about to somehow combine the video from #2 with the audio from #3. I send emails describing this mess to several videographers I found on Craigslist. Most of them didn’t reply at all. I finally got a cost estimate from one, of many hundreds of dollars or more, and not much assurance of results.
Now I’m willing to spend some money to get good results, but spending it without confidence of results is less appealing; so I set about trying myself instead.
First, I cleaned the audio in Audacity as mentioned above.
Second, I watched the video and listened to the audio a few times, to get the approximate starting timestamp in each one of the moment the talk actually started; each recording had a different amount of lead-in time
Third, I grabbed ffmpeg, the swiss army knife of command line video and audio processing. After reading a dozen web pages of ffmpeg advice, and a number of experiments (with short -t settings, to quickly see how well it works without waiting to transcode the whole thing), I ended up with this command to produce the encoded video:
I then noticed that the MacPorts installation of ffmpeg omits the important qt-faststart tool, and found this helpful version of qt-faststart and used it instead, on my Mac; later I switched to a Linux machine with an ffmpeg install including qt-faststart. Without the faststart step, the metadata in the m4v file is arranged in a way that prevent progressive/streaming play-while-downloading.
The results are good but not great:
The video has some motion/interlace artifacts; these were present in the original recording, and I’m not aware offhand of what to do about them
The video camera used rectangular pixels; the pixel aspect ratio is 3:2 while it is intended for display at 16:9. I wasn’t able (at least in 20 minutes of learning and experimentation) to get the 16:9 output working correctly, so if you grab the underlying m4v file you can see the aspect ratio a bit off in the shape of the clock on the wall, for example.
The audio-video sync is adequate (and plenty good enough to follow along) but not perfect. Clearly using the audio track on a video recording is much better than putting them together in post-processing.
The audio is not as good as if I used a lav or headset mic, though I think it’s quite remarkably good for a $5 mic plugged in to iPod.
I’ve no idea if ffmpeg complies with any of the relevant copyrights/patents/whatever in video production, though it seems hopefully safe to use for a one-off non-commercial video like this. (Normally I use Apple’s iMovie for my videos, and I assume Apple has taken care of such things.)
A few morals of this story:
Get some powerful tools, and learn how to use them.
Be willing to pay for professional work, but be skeptical. Just because you pay, doesn’t mean it will be quality work.
Have a plan B. If I had assumed that at least one of the two videos would get decent audio, and skipped my own audio recording, I’d not have been able to deliver the acceptable audio here. If Dave had assumed that my professional videographer would produce results, and turned off his camera, we’d have no video here at all.
As usual, the vimeo page offers it for HTML5, non-Flash platforms like the iPad.
Back in 2004 I co-founded Mobile Workforce Management, a vertical market SaaS firm. For the first 6+ months, I was the entire development team, while my co-founder was the entire analysis, support, and customer happiness department. Over the course of a few years, we hired developers, a very-senior developer / leader / general manager, support staff, and more. In spite of these hires, as of 2007 I was still in the loop for numerous critical processes that had to happen every day or week to keep the doors open – not a great situation.
Around that time I was inspired to take a month-long family vacation, far longer than any past vacation. My family made arrangements to spend 3 weeks in a house by the beach, 1000 miles away, in the summer of 2008; these arrangements must be made far in advance, as such houses tend to fill up. I’d be away for approximately an entire month, allowing for travel time and stops along the way.
With that hard date in hand, my notions of ironing out the business processes “someday” were swept aside, and I set about tracking, automating, documenting, and delegating any of the work that involved me and had to happen at least monthly.
accounting / bookkeeping / payroll
customer relationship processes
design and code reviews
It took months of hard work (by myself and others) to build up our company ability to handle all of these things well in my absence. As of the vacation date, all of this was set up to run smoothly either entirely without me, or with a tiny bit of remote input from me.
This worked, in fact it worked so well that our customers didn’t even notice my absence.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the work I did then to increase our organizational process maturity was a turning point in the life if the business, enabling its eventual sale. Before that work, I’d have been a bit embarrassed to say “organizational process maturity” in public. Afterward, I have lived (rather than just learned about and talked about) the notions of working on-rather-than-in a business, of building a business with a life separate from that of its owners.
In retrospect I’m calling that trip a Strategic Vacation – a vacation taken both for its own value, and to drive the accomplishment other critical goals. If your business needs you every single day, that’s a problem. Create some pressure on yourself to solve it, by scheduling a strategic vacation, then go make it happen.
I’m trying something new with this post: a short video presentation of approximately the same content.
Here is an area of confusion that has come up both at Oasis Digital, and at every other firm I’ve worked:
estimate ≠ promise
Around half of my software development and leadership experience has been in enterprise/internal software development, and that is the world I am thinking of as I write this.
Software development, like other endeavors with a significant creative component, is inherently unpredictable. With a good, deep understanding of the development process, you can build a model of the probability distribution of the cost, effort, and elapsed time for software development work. In the large, on average this can be made to work: small and large projects can succeed, within some broad range of predictability.
But notice also how common it is for large complex projects (in software and elsewhere) to be farcically over budget and late. This is not (usually) due to incompetence or fraud. It is because of the inherent unpredictability of the work.
If someone claims that they (or you) can exactly predict software development work, they are:
padding their estimates very substantially, stating a date or cost much later/higher than a neutral median estimate would suggest
As a customer of software development services, and as a provider of such services, I don’t want any of those things.
Blame the Service Trades
I place some of the blame for the confusion of these two wildly different things, on the service trades: it is common for auto repair shops, roof installers, landscapers, and the like to offer something they call an estimate, but which is actually a fixed price quote (a promise).
Sadly, while there are plenty of common good synonyms for promise, there aren’t many for estimate. We’re stuck with using the word estimate, and explaining that we really mean it as defined. Perhaps in a few more decades we will lose the word entirely, much like the word “literally” has come to mean its antonym, “figuratively”, which renders it mostly useless.
An estimate is an approximation of an unknown quantity. Typically in the world of software development, it is a prediction of the cost, working hours, or delivery date of a project or milestone. It is not in any sense a commitment, any more than estimating the temperature outside this afternoon is a commitment.
As the word implies, a customer reasonably expects the actual value to vary somewhat, in either direction, from the estimate. In fact, if an estimate turns out exactly match the actual result, there is a good chance the books have been cooked. Moreover, if the work is completed at-or-before the estimate most of the time, this means the estimates (on average) are too high.
An estimate “costs” nothing, other than the time/effort required to create it, which consists of analyzing the work at hand, decomposing it in to parts, and comparing those parts to past work.
A promise, also called a commitment, deadline, quote, fixed price, etc. is a different beast entirely.
With a promise in hand, a customer should expect with high confidence that the actual value (for cost, hours of work, delivery date) will be less than (before), or equal to, the promised value/date.
Be wary of a promise easily made and freely given: it probably doesn’t mean anything at all. A wise customer (and I aim to count myself in this category) should expect that a casually made commitment will probably be broken; not because the maker is morally defective, but simply because meeting a commitment for complex work requires considerable effort and thought. Without evidence that happens, it would be mere wishful thinking to expect the results delivered as promised.
Likewise, keeping promises often has a cost. If the work underway gets behind the schedule needed to meet the promise, something will have to give:
Other work may fall behind, as time and effort are diverted to meet the promise.
Weekends, evenings, and overtime work may be needed. These might appear free, but are not.
Staff may need to be reassigned, or added
Additional hardware and software may be needed.
These risks cost real money; thus a wise promise-maker will find that, on average, it costs more to promise feature X by date D, than to delivery feature X by date D without such a promise.
Estimates are Cheaper, so Prefer Estimates
At Oasis Digital, we provide many estimates, but few promises. Most of the time, an estimate is what our customers need; and we can provide at estimate with very little cost. Typically we estimate reasonably well:
small features usually arrive with a day or two (plus or minus) of the estimated delivery date (and likewise for cost)
medium items within a week or two of the estimate, likewise
large items (major new features or subsystems with complex interdependencoes) within a month or so, likewise
The key here is is that with good estimate, commitments (promises) aren’t needed very often, and therefore the cost of promises can be avoided.
But Learn How to Promise Well, Also
Yet occasionally, a customer needs a commitment, most often because a software version needs to be available to match an important business event with a fixed date, such as a presentation, a legal filing, etc. I’ll follow up later (no promise or estimate, as to when) with thoughts on:
how to credibly make promises (as a service provider)