Software Development: Making Software Development Centers Work

Last time I shared a bit about the concept of Development Centers for software development. Because we effectively use this model at my firm – we call it “The Intertech Way” – I thought I would share the best practices for making it work.

The fundamental criteria for an effective Dev Center model is using defined methodology (and following it, of course!). I recommend several levels of leadership to ensure that the younger professionals (think of them as apprentices) are supported at every project level and, most importantly, that clients or end users (if you are interested in using the Dev Center model within your corporate IT department) receive quality software on time and within budget. Levels of accountability within your Dev Center might look like this:

  • Delivery Manager to ensure a standard process is followed on all projects and that quality standards have been met before project delivery.
  • Director of Consulting to ensure that each apprentice is paired with a dedicated senior professional
  • Dev Center Manager to mentor, help bolster technical skills, and to ensure all apprentices can operate at a consistently high technical level.

Maybe you will want a slightly different organizational structure in your Dev Center, but the key is to ensure you have more than simply a senior professional paired with an apprentice. The other roles are necessary to ensuring that younger team members develop consistency in their skills and the overall process they use to make software. We have found this model is working well and consistently results in turnkey solutions.

When I began this series of posts on the perils and challenges of software development, I lamented the high level of failed IT projects and my theory that offshore development is largely to blame. I noted that instead of providing a cheap, fast turnkey solution, offshore software projects frequently are 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.)

And yet many are holding tight to the offshore model hoping to save money. Ironically, instead of cost savings, we’re now seeing costs shift from the actual development work to the writing of requirements and quality assurance – and development takes longer because of the time lag in communication when team members are located around in the world and in different time zones. Also, not surprisingly, people writing such detailed requirements must be more advanced (i.e., expensive) to anticipate issues a lesser-skilled developer might face during a project.

The only true benefit with off-shore development is that it forces business leaders to think holistically about what they expect from an application on the front end. That helps to prevent costly changes in mid-stream. But the negatives of off-shore development still outweigh the benefits.

I’m convinced that guided learning and mentoring, in the matrixed leadership approach I described above, allows younger developers to be exposed to every aspect of a project (a good way to build your department’s expertise) while providing the guidance from deeply experienced IT professionals – and the level of accountability necessary for quality outcomes. With an offshore model or a completely outsourced model, however, there is no accountability at the individual level where it matters most.

Software Development: Balancing Youth with Experience

In our youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that younger people lack one very important attribute: experience. And while software development is a fast-changing industry that traditionally favors young people eager to learn, experience still is a critical ingredient in quality outcomes. Instead of putting young hotshots on a pedestal – and then suffering predictable disappointment when they stumble – I recommend a more moderate approach that goes back centuries in many traditional trades.

I’m talking about pairing younger professionals with more experienced people in a classic apprenticeship approach. This approach makes a lot of sense and still is common in European countries where young people often apprentice for several years before they are considered fully developed professionals. I think of this as the “Development Center” approach.

Besides ensuring valuable transfer of skills and judgment, a Development Center model provides financial benefits too. For companies relying entirely on in-house IT staff, employing a mix of young (and less expensive) and older (and more expensive) professionals helps keep overall employee costs more moderate. IT consulting firms, such as Intertech, that use this Development Center model can charge clients a lower overall project rate without sacrificing quality or accountability.

For this model to truly work, however, senior people must do more than peek over the shoulder of younger talent. Acting as true mentors, more experienced professionals should outline what younger team members are expected to do, review their code, and help integrate the work that they’re doing into the overall project.

And then there’s the harder to measure but infinitely invaluable transfer of “soft skills” that make all the difference between success and failure. At our firm, this means having one of our top consultants allocate 100 percent of his time to provide guidance on project management, communication, understanding Agile and Scrum, and how to work effectively with team members and clients. Watching senior people in action also allows younger people to develop critical skills. And clients obviously appreciate not picking up the tab for junior employee making mistakes or missing deadlines during the process!

I’m reminded of the picture of an older cobbler painstakingly making top-quality leather shoes while a young apprentice stands by observing and occasionally engaging in the less critical aspects of the job. While shoes are now manufactured in mass production factories, the old master/apprentice model still makes perfect sense for those engaged in the work of making software. (I will share more about how this works at Intertech in next post.)

The older have a lot to teach the young and it’s time the IT industry starts acknowledging this truth. When we do, we all win.

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!

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!

 

How CEOs Manage Time

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”

This wise observation is attributed to poet Emily Dickinson, the famous reclusive writer who lived her entire life at her family home in Massachusetts. She did not hold or attend meetings, deal with email, supervise employees or seek to advance an agenda as a company CEO. Yet, Dickinson put her finger firmly on the most important point in business and in life: time is fleeting and it’s the most precious of all our resources in life. Time is, in fact, the “stuff” that life is made of!

This point also is front and center in a new article, “How CEOs Manage Time,” in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review. The article summarizes a study of CEOs at 27 large companies for 13 weeks by Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria and Harvard Business School Professor Michael E. Porter.

Nohria and Porter note that being a CEO is challenging and that effective time management is key because stakes are high. “The success of CEOs has enormous consequences—good or bad—for employees, customers, communities, wealth creation and the trajectory of economies and even societies. Being a CEO has gotten harder as the size and scope of the job continue to grow, organizational complexity rises, technology advances, competition increases, and CEO accountability intensifies,” they write.

As the CEO of a mid-sized privately-owned company, I face many of the same challenges as CEOs at large, public companies but on a smaller scale and without the pressure of meeting shareholder expectations. Still, this study resonates with me and I’d to share a few article highlights for other CEOs who may not have time to read HBR and to add my two cents of course!

The job of CEO can be all consuming. Many CEOs spend nearly 10 hours each business day, plus close to four hours on both Saturday and Sunday attending to business. CEOs in the Harvard study also reported working 2.4 hours daily while on vacation. Many also travel for work, which means being away from family on many nights and even weekends.

How can CEOs keep their jobs from consuming them and destroying their families? The authors have several suggestions:

  • Make time for personal well-being, including health, fitness and rest. If you’ve read my book, “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership,” you know I’m firmly committed to personal work/life balance. That’s why I take time to every morning to exercise, meditate, visualize, read/write, and spend time with my kiddos before heading to the office.
  • Make time for family. In The 100, I’ve shared before how the annual fishing trips with my dad before he died are responsible for some of the most precious memories I have of him. Since then, my wife Linda and I have instituted Second Sunday Family Dinners at our place. This includes my mom, our siblings and their kids. Because it’s the same day every month it’s been easier for family members to make it part of their regular schedule.
  • Avoid the lure of e-email. Whatever your email of choice, use the spam features to help manage the avalanche of email overwhelming most CEO inboxes. I also recommend limiting the number of times each day that you check your email. Most critical: only handle a message once versus letting it clog up your inbox or slip from your mind.
  • Be agenda driven. Note the authors, “A clear and effective agenda optimizes the CEO’s limited time; without one, demands from the loudest constituencies will take over, and the most important work won’t get done.”
  • Rely heavily on direct reports. This advice is golden. At Intertech, we use cascading daily huddles to ensure all have a chance to share status and to highlight any stuck items. Huddles “bubble up” and once it’s time for my daily huddle with my direct reports, I’m able to gain a clear understanding of what’s happening with key projects and clients without having to wade into the weeds. We also build regular opportunities into our schedule for all-company meetings. And a variety of informal social gatherings provide a chance for me to talk with all employees, or at least those that would like to chat with me directly.
  • Make meetings shorter and more effective. I devote considerable time to the topic of meeting management in “The 100,” but this advice is a great summary!
  • Allow for accessibility and spontaneity. While it’s tough to be available on a moment’s notice as CEO, leaving a little room in your schedule for spontaneous conversations makes sense. As the authors note, “Spontaneity and accessibility enhance a CEO’s legitimacy. Leaders whose schedules are always booked up or whose EAs see themselves as gatekeepers and say no to too many people risk being viewed as imperious, self-important, or out of touch. EAs play a key role in finding the right balance here.”

I could go on, but you need to manage your time effectively too. If you can find the time, though, please check out my book for more tips such as these. The time you save will be invaluable.