Software business would be so easy without customers and users

This has sometimes come to my mind when being in one of those moments of pressure to deliver the promised features on time. Or when hearing that the delivery is not what was ordered or doesn’t have all the features imagined or is perfect apart from being late.

Well, no-one says the software business is easy, and it definitely isn’t so. But why is creating working software in the real world so difficult? I think the main reason is because the software business is about creating and selling something which is much more intangible than what we as human beings are used to deal with. And we are pretty much just learning how this new field of industry really works.

The intangible nature of the software can be seen from how
  • things can change fast
  • big changes are possible
  • it’s not easy to describe what is actually needed
  • it’s not easy to say if something is good enough
  • there is always multiple workable ways to solve problems

The rules and the laws on how to build a good house and good software are different, we have a long history on successfully constructing the buildings, we know how to do it well, but we are just learning on what kind of new skills and ways of thinking are needed to create successful software projects.

Embracing the change

Using agile methods to create software comes from the learned lesson that it’s not useful to fight against the intangible nature of software and the process of developing it. We have to have tools that are able embrace the change rather than fight against it. And the whole iterative development process with practices like continuous integration, delivering often, test driven development and so on are aimed to make that possible.

So now we have a toolbox full of good ways to react fast when things go into unexpected directions as they always do and everything is fine, right?

Well, no. What hasn’t changed that much at all is the relationship between the customers and developers. While the methods of creating the software have changed to be more agile, the contracts have not changed that much. And in the end the contract is the bottom line of what is possible in the relationship between these two parties.

The tighter the contract, the less it allows room to react, and the more there is risk that the whole project is doomed in the end due to trying to pretend that what everyone is doing is something solid, pre-designable and predictable far in advance.

The trust allows more space to react

Constructing software for someone is about fusing their ideas and wishes into working software. And if it would only be that, it would be quite manageable, but unfortunately there is no escape from the hard facts of time and money, and usually in the form of not having enough of both.

Agility means the ability to change the direction fast, the steer of the boat of software creation. And changing direction means there has to be some openness that the current direction might not be the best direction. So being agile means inherently being able to withstand a little bit of unsureness, the lack of knowing. The more we can feel confident in moving to uncharted territory with the knowledge that if things go bad, we can react correctly, the faster we can travel safely. But that’s confidence on the tools and the people you are traveling with, it’s not the (contractually) enforced confidence in the plan that was created in the past and which might not be working very well anymore in the changed situation.

So, in order for the software process to be truly agile, there has to be trust between the parties. Trust that both are actually traveling together, not a totally known path, but mutually agreed direction. When this trust is not present, what remains are the rigid steel frames of contracts. And usually this state also contracts the space of creativity too.

The big questions

Now that we have some ideas on what is a good way to create software and what kind of relationship between a paying customer and supplier would be good base for the successful project, there are two big questions:
  • How do you sell an agile software project?
  • How do you create a good contract for an agile project?

I’m positive that there is plenty of room for improvements in that arena and it’s going to be interesting to see how the agile movement is going to be seen in the arena of selling and making contracts. I will try to cover some ideas on them in my next blog post.

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