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Eating the elephant

Had a talk with the contractor who’s been responsible for the development of the websites for which I’m going to be responsible starting Monday. Websites that will be going live Any Week Now.

Productive discussion and a brief crash course in the software upon which these sites are built.

But what I also learned is some not wholly unexpected but difficult facts about the environment into which I’m headed. And it’s an environment pretty familiar to me — in many respects, it’s very much like the environment of my current job was the day I arrived.

One of the things I’ve learned through multiple jobs in my career is that most startup companies which have a core web services platform have a point I call Development Adolescence, a period analogous to true adolescence where one transitions from carefree childhood to responsible adulthood. And that transition is a period of difficulty, awkwardness, and often self-created pain and angst.

Development childhood is the period where a new company is initially creating and growing its web services. It needs to grow fast, and it doesn’t usually have a very detailed idea of what it needs its web services to be. So the web services tend to grow organically, rapidly, without a very clear picture of its destination. There are either no clearly defined business owners of the platform, meaning too many people drive the business process of its development and not enough people (outside the developer or developers themselves) have any accountability for that development. The application grows, it becomes harder to maintain because the code has no overall structure for its growth, requirements documentation is sparse to nonexistent and process flow documentation doubly so. “Technical debt”, meaning structural defects in the application that slow new development or require time invested to maintain the existing services, builds up. Developers start fearing the most onerous parts of the codebase and know that the entire system is brittle and can break in unexpected and non-obvious ways by any modification.

The tipping point is reached when either business needs outgrow the capacity of the existing platform to meet them, or the accumulated technical debt renders the platform so unstable or development so painful that the dev team cries out for relief. The business becomes aware that the current path is unsustainable, and that the development process must mature. And thus begins Development Adolescence.

Adolescence is the process of the development team leadership (by which I mean me) establishing a sustainable development framework for both stable growth in the web services platform and for controlling and prioritizing the flow of new change requests coming for the business. This process usually takes place in the context of either a major overhaul or wholesale replacement of the web services platform, transforming it into something that has a much better chance of serving the needs of the business in the medium to long term.

This isn’t awkward in and of itself, but the awkwardness ensues when the business, which has reached the point of understanding that the development process needs to greatly change, doesn’t yet understand that the business process must change too. When adolescence is reached, the business has become accustomed to how they do things — usually, they tell Dev to do something and Dev does it. There is no gatekeeper who prioritizes task, no real requirements gathering, no business owner to agree to the specific changelist, no placing the requirements in the context of the long-term business goals, nothing. And they are resistant to changing how they do things, because what they’ve done so far has worked, for them.

And so it is incumbent upon the development team leadership, along with the senior management responsible for the dev team (usually, the CTO/CIO), to bring the business to understand and buy into the value of changing their processes to work with the new business processes. And this is no easy task. Myself, I favor a top-down approach: Work with the CTO/CIO to get buy in from the CEO and/or the rest of the senior leadership team of the company, who then champion the business process changes with the rest of the business, who in turn adapt to change, slowly, step by step.

The problem with that path is that there’s always the chance you don’t get buy-in from the CEO/SLT. And that makes adolescence far more difficult to get through.

The other viable path is to try to convince the business more holistically by putting processes in place step by step and showing the business the benefits that are reaped by demonstration. This is an even slower, more incremental, far more painful process to adulthood.

Whichever path is taken, the question of how the business will emerge from adolescence is largely a question of how well the business adapts to change (er, okay, that and how well the development team imposes the process upon itself and how closely it adheres to that process, but I’m talking about the business here). And I’ve personally seen this go well, and go poorly, in my own work history.

The company I’m leaving is one where it’s gone poorly. The business adapted to some of the processes, but did a very bad job of bearing the pain of transition and began to slip into the mode of “panic-driven-development”, where the dev group was repeatedly directed to redirect its entire effort to whichever issue was causing the business the most pain at the moment. This results in lots of projects being left half-done, “to be finished later”, as the new greatest pain point becomes the new focus. Over. And Over. And Over Again.

TL’s Second Rule Of Development: Change to development processes is painful. If you’re going to commit to the change, commit to bear the pain, or you will fail.

I don’t know how well my new company will adjust to the change, nor how resistant it will be to changing at all. But I am fairly competent that the CTO, the new BA and I are all of one mind that we need to bring change to the company to usher it through its adolescence. And it will require an enormous, sustained, united effort to do this. It is a monumental task.

But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

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