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Press Release: Tom Salonek, Intertech Software's CEO, featured in Minnesota Business Magazine explains the seven elements of successful e-business software projects

e-Dos and e-Don’ts: The seven elements of successful e-business software projects as originally published in Minnesota Business magazine

by Tom Salonek, Intertech Founder and CEO

“More people have ascended bodily into heaven than have shipped great software on time.”

-Jim McCarthy, The Dynamics of Software Development

Funny quote, right? But after years of being committed to getting software projects finished on time and within budget, I’ve learned that getting software done right is no laughing matter.

In fact, it’s downright hard.

Gartner Group estimates that approximately 75 percent of e-business efforts fail due to lack of technical consideration or poor business planning. So whether you’re a business leader planning for your company’s next major e-business initiative, or a software consultant working with that business leader, you’ve got a major challenge on your hands.

Through the years, I’ve learned some things about successful software development. And as you’ll read, my “seven secrets” are not really secret at all—they make perfect business and technology sense. The trick is to actually do all of them…every time. Miss one or two and you join Gartner’s beleaguered 75 percent gang.

Select the Right Technical Partner

Some 97 percent of U.S. business organizations have outsourced or used technical consulting services for some part of their e-business initiatives, according to VarBusiness/Reality Research. Obviously, choosing the right partner is key. But how do you make a good choice in such a crowded, noisy, and fast-paced marketplace?

Take your time. Ed Yourdon, an author and software methodologist, says the difference between a good programmer and a bad one is tenfold. So don’t rush to choose before you’ve really done your homework.

Avoid “bait and switch.” You know the scenario—meeting with a ringer on the sale and then being assigned a junior staff member who’s cutting his teeth on your project.

Count track records. Many new firms have sprung up and old firms, previously entrenched in Y2K work, now are touting their e-business expertise. Firms coming from a client/server-centric background are more likely to have the skill sets required for Web-deployed software projects.

Insist on apples-to-apples. Unlike cars or detergent, it’s harder to make comparisons between providers of software development services. At a minimum, insist that all vendors under consideration stipulate whether or not their bids include time for changes to the prototype, design, testing, staged quality assurance steps, as well as follow-on support.

Communicate constantly. Ask questions, volunteer information, and keep the lines of communication wide open as you look for your technical partner.

Carefully Define the Software Challenge

Some say a problem defined is a problem half solved. This is especially true with software projects. In fact, a study at IBM by Felix & Watson found that well-defined objectives were the number one factor in successful projects. It makes sense. You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint. A major software development effort should warrant the same level of meticulous, upfront planning. Your fundamental planning should include:

  • A project plan defining the project’s vision, areas of responsibility, and critical success factors: what the project must deliver to be successful.
  • Functional design specifications. This document is built in conjunction with a prototype and defines what the system does.
  • A prototype that creates an interactive way to design the system. Using the prototype, all flows of the system can be defined.
  • A technical design document that defines the software logic, data, and infrastructure and how they fit together.
  • A Gantt chart or timeline, stating who, what, when and defines interdependencies. As the project progresses, the Gantt chart is updated. The Gantt chart also can show “what if” scenarios, such as “what if we remove a person from the team” or “what if we add another feature.”
  • Ongoing communication to make sure all of the above is done correctly.

Encourage Effective Team Work

When it comes to effective teamwork, small definitely is beautiful. An ideal project team has five or fewer members. If your project is large, break it up into features and assign feature teams—teams of five or fewer. Also, keep in mind the time worn adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Phased releases are the norm with major software efforts (the next version of MS Word will be release 10.0). Other tips include:
  • Define clear lines of responsibility early, which will help keep turf wars to a minimum. If you’re using an outside vendor, make sure the vendor’s role also is clearly defined and communicate this—at the project’s start—to your internal staff.
  • Clearly state expectations so everyone is on the same page.
  • Choose a central point of contact at your company and at the vendor company.
  • Clearly state priorities so everyone knows what is an “essential” feature, versus features that are nice but not crucial.
  • Communicate constantly.

Communicate Frequently

You may think I’m beginning to sound like a skipping CD, but it’s a point that can’t be emphasized too often. In working with outside vendors in offsite locations, you may wonder what they are up to or what roadblocks they might be encountering. Expect regular updates. At minimum, expect weekly updates.

Work Smart

Okay, no one wants to work “stupid.” But working smart means thinking hard. IBM built an empire around the word “think.” Thinking is key to deploying applications on time. To get people thinking:
  • Encourage team members to constantly ask, “What could be done today that would have the greatest impact on future development?”
  • Keep meetings focused. Set meetings for first or last thing in the day or right before lunch. Cut off aimless talkers and honor everyone’s time.
  • Make decisions on the spot—it will help to keep meetings focused and avoid creating endless “make work.”
  • Make every minute count. Some project teams fall into the 12-hour workday rut. Funny thing is, people aren’t really working all of those 12 hours. They still need time to eat, talk with friends, and get their clothes cleaned. If you routinely expect people to put in 12-hour days you’ll probably end up with less productivity than if everyone was putting in 8-9 really focused hours.
  • Remember: there is no silver bullet. From business process reengineering to object-oriented programming to code generators, there isn’t one “thing” that will make development simple or easy. Rather, like everything else, it is a set of “things” consistently done well that produces great results.

Constantly Improve the Process

As “e-business” becomes, simply, “business,” a significant amount of business initiatives will have an IT spin. Because this isn’t the last one you’ll be managing or delivering, you need to:
  • Prepare to change. Good software doesn’t die, it just metamorphoses. Good e-businesss software requires business objects, well-defined customer profiles, clear business events—these are a focused effort not a by-product. Sometimes this will cause differences in the original cost—making one vendor appear a lot cheaper. Before you get sucked in, factor in costs for ongoing maintenance and changes.
  • Follow some process. Before we can improve something, we need to understand what it is now. Follow a process proscribed by your vendor, but make it your own with constant improvements.
  • Encourage business and technical reviews. No one has the corner on good ideas. Even if you are moving fast, get buy in, and check off. Another call to communicate!
  • Get it in writing. Programmers and vendors eventually move on. When your project is wrapping up, make sure that you’ve got documentation on all of the code and that it meets your standards.
  • Do a post mortem. (This is another form of communication.) If there were problems, don’t blame. Ask, “what could be done to make it better next time?”

Understand the End Game

The end game, the time right before the software goes live, can be difficult. It’s manageable if you follow a few simple steps:
  • Keep teams on track. Tell them to turn off e-mail, voice mail, and stay focused. Hold off on any non-essential meetings.
  • Keep the site in a known state. Have team members apply their changes to the site at least daily. Test the site continuously.
  • Remember, not all bugs are deadly. Sometimes bug fixing introduces more bugs—can you live with the bug or is it critical to fix?
  • Alpha, Beta, and “Soft Launch” releases are not the time to solicit features. It’s time to shake out bugs and launch. This is one time that communication is not key.

So you made it through. Your company has a top-shelf new online business application and your team is exhausted. Even though I promised seven elements, I’m adding an unofficial eighth.

Take Time to Celebrate

Napolean said, “I’ve found an interesting fact—men are willing to die for medals.” Now, I’m not suggesting you ask anyone to fall on their swords, but at least take them out for a beer. If nothing else, it’s one more chance to communicate!


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