The Good, The Bad and the Ugly Truth about Developing Software Today

First, “the bad.”

If you have any involvement in the world of software development today, you know it’s challenging to say the least. Companies need to develop software as cheaply as possible, but many have learned the hard way that the cheapest route can lead to shoddy results (or no results at all!).

Just Google “failed IT projects” and you’ll find plenty of evidence, such as the 2009 IDC report that found 25 percent of IT project fail outright, and that 20-to-25 percent don’t provide ROI, and up to 50 percent required material rework. Add it up, and that’s a whopping 100 percent that either failed, needed rework or didn’t deliver as promised.

It gets worse.

CIO magazine has reported that two major surveys of more than 100 IT professionals across the country – conducted three years apart – revealed that:

  • In 2013, 50 percent of 127 surveyed companies had experienced an IT project failure within the previous 12 months.
  • The number grew to 55 percent reporting a project failure between January and March 2015.

A more recent report found that 25 percent of technology projects fail outright; 20 to 25 percent don’t show any return on investment; and as many as 50 percent need massive reworking by the time they’re finished. (Forbes 2016).

There are multiple reasons for these dismal statistics. One of the primary culprits, I suspect, is the failed offshore development adventure. Instead of providing a cheap, fast turnkey solution, offshore software project frequently was bedeviled by poor management, confusion about team roles and /quality standards well below what U.S. companies (and consumers) expect. In fairness to lower-paid offshore IT professionals, language barriers, and time zone and cultural differences are tough hurdles to overcome.

I know of what I speak. Intertech attempted engaging offshore developers years back to offer our customers a more effective solution. We worked hard to make those offshore engagements work, but in the end, we spent more money than we saved due to extensive rework. As much as we in IT want to believe space should not matter, proximity to customers and the people doing the work does make a significant difference.

And so, where do we from here?

The need to keep costs as low as possible has never been more acute. Global trade means (we) and our customers are competing with businesses around the world, many of which have much lower labor costs. We must find ways to keep delivering quality but at a price that doesn’t break the bank.

Next time: The ugly.

Getting Curious Gets Results

Curiosity might kill the cat, as the old saying goes, but it might just bring your business back to life. This month’s edition of Harvard Business Review focuses its spotlight on “The Business Case for Curiosity.” Harvard business professor Francesca Gino provides many thought-provoking ideas and practical ideas in her cover article. She also helped me realize how pivotal curiosity has been to the growth and success of Intertech, even though we do not expressly call it that.

“When we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively and have less defensive reactions to stress,” she notes. I’ve seen this very dynamic in meetings with senior leaders. We all ask a lot of questions and challenge each other to think deeper. Sometimes the best ideas emerge because one leader was particularly curious about a particular issue and kept pushing back with more questions.

Knowing that we all have a shared investment in the company’s success makes it easier to stay curious and not get defensive. This is an important part of our company culture too, which is why we host an annual Town Hall for employees to talk and share their ideas, concerns and recommendations (more about that below).

But, back to Professor Gino’s idea in brief: “Leaders say they value employees who question or explore things but research shows that they largely suppress curiosity, out of fear that it will increase risk and undermine efficiency. . . Curiosity improves engagement and collaboration. Curious people make better choices, improve their company’s performance, and help their company adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures. . . Leaders should encourage curiosity in themselves and others by making small changes to the design of their organization and the ways they manage their employees.”

She then lays out five ways leaders can bolster curiosity at work:

  1. Hire for curiosity. Google asks applicants: “Have you ever found yourself unable to stop learning something you’ve never encountered before? Why? What kept you persistent?” Finding people who keep learning out of personal interest is a good sign that they’re innately curious. A question I ask in interviews is “What is the last book you read for professional development?” To ensure they’ve read what they say they’ve said, I follow this question with “What is the biggest thing you learned from that book?”
  2. Model inquisitiveness. From our leadership to sales teams, we agree upon and read a book per quarter. Then we share insights we can apply to our firm.  I read The Economist and several other periodicals, two daily papers, multiple economic and business forecasting newsletters, and at any given time, a couple of books.  I also have always believed it’s important to listen more than I speak as a leader. In my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, I devote chapter 84 to the importance of listening to employees and to asking key questions. Listening to customers also is key, particularly in the early stages of a new project when we are working to understand expectations. Last, I look for ways to double down on learning and turn time commuting or running the kids around into learning with Audible and Blinklist.
  3. Emphasize learning goals. This one really hit home with me. Every Intertech team member has an annual learning goal. In an industry like software, staying ahead of the curve is essential. Notes Professor Gino, “Leaders can help employees adopt a learning mindset by communicating the importance of learning and by rewarding people not only for their performance but for the learning needed to get there.”
  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests. I’ll admit that in the press of daily business, this can be hard. Employees with proven expertise are extremely valuable. But we know the best employees are most excited about learning new skills and staying ahead of the pack. Every month, we have a company-wide “Second Friday BBQ” lunch (being honest, the BBQ turns into subs or pizza when the snow starts flying in Minnesota). On the Second Friday BBQ, one or more team members deliver a chalk talk on an emerging technology.
  5. Have “Why?” “What If. . .” and “How might we. . .?” days. As I referred to earlier, our annual Town Hall meeting is dedicated to just such questions. Employees take a half-day off from their regular client projects to gather in small groups to explore how we do things and how we can do things differently or better. This feedback is provided to senior managers anonymously so employees feel completely free to speak their minds and ask tough questions. It’s one of the most valuable management tools we have and employees consistently tell us they appreciate the chance to share in this way. In the past, we’ve also used a concept we call “FedEx Day” where employees have 24 hours to work on whatever they choose then present their results to the company.

Staying curious might be difficult when you’ve been running a business for a long time, but resist the trap of thinking you know it all. No matter what your industry, it’s no doubt changing at the speed of light. Curiosity is the only way to keep growing your business and your mind!

Being a Great Place to Work takes Work

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Intertech has been named a Great Place to Work for the 14th time by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal. We also were included in similar lists in the Star Tribune and Minnesota Business magazine earlier this year. These honors mean a lot because they validate my original dream of creating a great place to work where great people do great work for great clients!

Sorry, I know that’s a lot of “greats” but it truly sums up the vision and reality of Intertech today, thanks to hard work by a lot of incredible people. If you’ve read my book, “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership,” you know about the multiple strategies we use to make sure Intertech remains a great place – for employees and customers.

My book, of course, offers my personal perspective and philosophy on business management. For today’s blog post, I thought it might be interesting to share the verbatim feedback of Intertech employees. These comments are gleaned from employee feedback shared (anonymously) in the survey used by Minnesota Business magazine in determining the winners of this year’s “Best Place” competition. To keep it simple, I’ve organized the feedback into five primary categories. I hope this candid employee feedback helps you as you think about building your own positive work culture.

 

Recognition/Make a Difference

“I can make a big difference in how the company succeeds by my work. I enjoy my role here.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for anyone willing to keep an open mind and seek out the space they would like to conquer.”

“Management listens to my ideas.”

“Many things make me feel appreciated at Intertech, from personal thank you notes from Tom to our ACE program.”

“There are opportunities to learn new things, get experience by working with smart people and make important decisions for clients.”

“We have a yearly meeting to have the employees try to help grow and change the company by figuring out new ideas to try. If you have an idea for something new, they will hear you out and see if it is something that would add value.”

 

Professional Development

“Internal and external training is paid for by the company.”

“I have latitude to try new things.”

 “I have freedom to influence my career.”

 “I am able to continuously learn and challenge myself each day.”

 “This position has allowed me to increase my work skills.

“The training has been good.”

 

Respect/Trust

“They just trust me to get my work done.”

“I am not micromanaged.”

 “I am free to handle my customers and have company support when I need help.”

 

Work-Life Balance/Flexibility

“Intertech is VERY flexible, which allows me to still be in the supportive family role I want to be in at home.”

 “The days and hours are flexible, and the workplace environment is healthy and encouraging.”

 “The flexibility is much more than I could have hoped for.”

 “I routinely receive input supporting the importance of family life. As long as I fulfill my obligations, I am given a great deal of flexibility in work hours, location, time off, etc.”

 

 Great People

 “My colleagues are absolutely top notch!”

 “From peers to management, everyone is truly top notch.”

 “The people are great, not only in professional excellence but in personal goodness.”

 “Fun people and environment.”

 “My co-workers are accountable and I can depend on them.”

 

And my personal favorite anonymous employee comment:

 When asked “What does Intertech do efficiently and well,” an employee wrote:

 “There are too many things to choose from! From … training to consulting, we are all committed to excellence and it shows!”

Intertech Named the #4 Medium Sized Employer in Minnesota 

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No. 4 Medium: Intertech Inc.

Intertech was named the #4 medium sized employer in Minnesota.  My thanks to our loyal customers and mega-dedicated team for making us possible.

Here’s an excerpt from the publication: “Software developer Intertech Inc. is receiving its 14th Best Places to Work this year. It’s one of the Business Journal’s winningest companies. Helping it attain this distinction are employee benefits that include three-month paid sabbaticals for every seven years of employment, a flexible work culture and selective hiring standards that focus on building a cohesive team.”

See the full article here.

Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization

Working with Purpose“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”  This old maxim speaks to the importance of purpose in our personal lives. But purpose matters at work too. In fact, without clear purpose it will be difficult to find — and hold onto – great employees, not to mention making a difference for your customers.

In fact, making a difference is the stated purpose of Intertech. We exist to “create a place where people matter and where our partners’ businesses are improved through technology.”

It’s that simple but it’s also that profound. Our purpose has fueled our growth from a tiny startup to a multi-million dollars enterprise that employs nearly 100 people and works with hundreds of organizations throughout Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

“Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” an article in the July-August 2018 edition of Harvard Business Review gives an excellent overview of how purpose can energize employees and organizations. Authors Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakor are business professors who’ve spent a great deal of time studying organizational purpose – or, more commonly, the lack of purpose at work.  They surmise “most business practices and incentives are based on conventional economic logic, which assumes that employees are self-interested agents. And that assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

How can companies engender a shared work vision? Quinn and Thakor say “By connecting people with a higher purpose, leaders can inspire them to bring more energy and creativity to their jobs. When employees feel that their work has meaning, they become more committed and engaged. They take risks, learn and raise their game.”

Before you write “purpose” off as another business fad, consider this:  ‘. . .when an authentic purpose permeates business strategy and decision making, he personal good and the collective good become one. Positive peer pressure kicks in, and employees are reenergized. Collaboration increases, learning accelerates, and performance climbs.”

That’s not just musings from an academic ivory tower; it’s reality that I see every day at work in my own company. But purpose must truly permeate your business for it to generate these desirable results. The HBR article provides a handy blue print for how to do just that:

  1. Envision an inspired workforce – This first step involves changing how you think about employees. Get out of the old adversarial mindset and instead “Look for excellence (in your people), examine the purpose that drives that excellence, and then imagine it imbuing your entire workforce.”
  2. Discover the purpose – The authors note, “you don’t invent a higher purpose; it exists already.” We discovered ours by asking our people to describe the qualities that define our highest functioning team members, as though they were talking to aliens from another planet. That exercise showed us that going the extra mile for clients and each other, being positive, and a high standard of excellence is what we’re really about.
  3. Recognize the need for authenticity – “When a company announces its purpose and values, but the words don’t govern the behavior of senior leadership, they ring hollow.” Luckily, putting people first and making a difference with technology were the two reasons I founded Intertech!
  4. Turn the authentic message into a constant message – Imbuing purpose is ongoing work. We’ve found creative, fun ways to reinforce our purpose through employee recognition programs, which I describe in detail in my book “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership.”
  5. Stimulate individual learning – “As leaders embrace higher purpose they recognize that learning and development are powerful incentives. People actually want to think, learn and grow,” note the professors. I could not have stated that more eloquently myself. Learning is such an important value at Intertech that we build a learning objective into everyone’s annual performance plan. We also provide funding and time off to support the learning objectives.
  6. Turn midlevel managers into purpose-driven leaders – Not surprisingly, when managers really “get” the purpose, they play a vital role in helping it sink into the collective conscience of the entire organization.
  7. Connect the people to the purpose – Employees on the frontlines are the ones who make purpose truly come alive. The employee recognition program I mentioned earlier is completely driven by employees who recognize and nominate each other for awards. This process reinforces our purpose: making a difference to each other and our employees. It’s beyond gratifying to see how team members routinely extend themselves to help colleagues and to ensure that customers are delighted. Beyond this, we also take time at our quarterly meeting to share the good being done through the Intertech Foundation.
  8. Unleash the positive energizers – “Every organization has a pool of change agents that usually goes untapped,” which the authors refer to as “the network of positive energizers.” They recommend identifying them and launching them throughout your organization to “help increase buy-in, tell the truth and openly challenge assumptions.”

The authors cannot guarantee that operating with purpose will lead to positive economic benefits, although they do cite major research pointing to a strong correlation between the two. From my personal experience I can tell you that operating a purpose-driven company not only results in good things for employees and customers, it’s a highly satisfying and rewarding way to do business!