The Stories of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated — And A Customer Bill of Rights in Software

I have been quite busy of late–with a good deal of travel mixed in–and so my posts have been stacked up in various states of completion. Thus, given a holiday and more travel next week, my postings will be fairly close to one another. If you missed my recent post on a digital IPM inventory please follow this link.

This post is somewhat focused on business owners, especially those in the technology industry not enamored of flimflam or used car salesman tactics. But it is also of interest to any organization or individuals who procure or are thinking of procuring software and their associated services.

Buying Software is Sometimes Challenging

Buying software and applying it to one’s business processes is fraught with risk and sometimes frustration, even for technology companies. We are in the midst of another technology bubble with a plethora of new products and companies being introduced virtually every week vying for attention.

Some of these use more traditional methods of development and delivery, and others more innovative methods. The hot topics remain Big(ger) Data and Cloud, though the definition of these terms varies considerably in practice. Thus, when looking at the market, companies and organizations need to be mindful of their needs, their expectations, and whether the purpose of acquiring the new technology is to simply improve performance over a legacy system, increasing one’s knowledge capabilities, improve productivity, or driving organizational change with the technology in the vanguard of that change.

To the manager, each of these decisions will determine the amount of risk that she or he can tolerate. Even after acquisition the manager, depending on the scope of the change, must assess and manage risk. I am yet to see any transition from one technology to another to be completely bump-free–and this extends from being on both sides of the table. I have been lucky thus far not to have experienced failure, but the level of effort required to be able to lay claim to that record has varied greatly from organization to organization. In most cases this is a people problem, where the technological challenges are easy to address but the tolerance of the organization to change or rapid change is somewhat limiting.

The explosion of software companies and solutions in each market has created an environment where more entities are vying for the same dollars. This is particularly true where solutions are focused on some niche within a larger vertical. I have seen this in the project and program management discipline, which even has a number of competitors that offer limited tools to address specific concerns. Needless to say, this is not my preferred vision or approach, but all of them offer some value that must be assessed against one’s needs.

From a market perspective, however, this has created a hyper-competitive environment. Consumers may mistakenly believe that this is a good development–and if the focus is on competing to make products better and more effective I would agree. But its the “hyper” part of that word that is the part that creates dysfunction.

Hyper-competition and dysfunctional markets

What this means is that when anyone begins to break away from the pack (or displace less agile incumbents) there are always the less ethical members of the industry that resort to character assassination, and rumor campaigns containing innuendo, misinformation–and outright slander–to try to tilt the balance. Unable to successfully articulate their own vision (if they even have one) and the relative merits of their own products, they see their only choice–usually in desperation–to denigrate others an attempt to bring their target down to their level. Oftentimes they will enlist partisans in the market–even disgruntled employees–to give a sheen of “truthiness” to their whisper campaign. The best liars use half-truths.

This being said, my own personal experience has been mostly positive. I have a very good professional relationship with the overwhelming majority of competitors and semi-competitors, and while we are aware of the issue of competition between us, we are able to respect and socialize in a civil manner.

After all, these aren’t just “competitors”–they are people. I learn and converse with them about, among other things, their concerns and perspectives on child rearing (or grandchild rearing), home renovation, recent travel, social perspectives, customer challenges, and the comedy of life. I learn about their experiences and often come away with a bit of knowledge that I did not possess before–applying the practice of lifetime learning to my social interactions–and I enjoy their company.

When a couple of them found themselves without a job, especially after the last financial crisis and recession, I assisted them in finding new employment and wrote glowing recommendations based on my first-hand experience in dealing with and observing them, even though we were competitors. If I had a matching position at the time, I probably would have brought the best of them into own company.

But with the good comes the bad.

Over the course of time I have occasionally learned a number of things about myself or my firm that I somehow had missed, and which seems to conflict with reality.

For example, I heard (and was asked by a customer about its veracity at the time) that my company was close to insolvency. This rumor made the rounds for about three years and I was surprised in its persistence given the length of time that it was repeated. (The reality: I acquired full control of my company and we’ve experienced years of significant growth, though being privately owned and hence financially opaque to the market provides the environment for this kind of misinformation). At one point a document was anonymously posted on-line that seemed authoritative and embarrassing, combined with a concerted whisper campaign to spin its significance to support the first rumor. (Turned out that it too went the way of the first rumor). Recently I learned that a large customer was so dissatisfied that they were dropping our product and looking for alternatives, another fact of which I was unaware. (Senior management of the customer, after hearing about the rumor, invited anyone who thinks they believe what was said to give him a call and he will provide the facts).

But I don’t feel picked on.

Those aforementioned competitors with whom I have civil relations have from time-to-time been targets by some of these same bad actors in our market. Over lunch or in side conversations we often share the latest slander being spread. Oftentimes it is there that I learn of the latest whisper campaign–except that, unlike those that fuel the rumor, they identify the source.

Why is this important? Because of experience and standards of practice.

First, experience: during the last speculative real estate bubble financial institutions engaged in cutthroat competition, engaging in unethical business conduct to undermine their competitors. The response of those that were targeted was to retaliate in like manner. Pretty soon the entire industry went into the toilet and there were no good people among those that were left when the bottom dropped out. There are many other such examples in which entire markets are held in low esteem due to poorly regulated or transgressive business practices.

When you throw mud at least some of it will stick to you.

Second, standards of practice: all of the firms and government organizations in our industry must conform to a standard of business ethics. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest or unethical behavior is sanctioned. It appears on websites and it is enforced by management. So when you hear “shhh, hey…did you hear…” and the price to this bit of information is maintaining the anonymity of the source, then you know that someone is engaged in unethical practices and you should break the cycle.

So what is one to do? Well, you can get into the gutter and sling mud as well–but refer to the note on mud sticking to the thrower above (as well as the example of the financial services industry). Aggressive legal action is also an option, but anyone who thinks that the legal system is anything but Byzantine–and very expensive–is fooling themselves. It’s usually unnecessary except in the most extreme cases. Litigation comes with its own perceptions.

A Customer Bill of Rights

The purpose of a whisper campaign in business is to eliminate consideration of the target from the competitive range. Unfamiliarity of any sort–with the company, a new or innovative technology or approach, or normal operational security in business–simply provide a rich environmnet for the spinner of tales to operate. It thrives in darkness. Given risk, fear, and trepidation in acquiring a software solution, they oftentimes are a consideration that creates delays and frustration since the rumor must be addressed.

Thus, there is another approach: it is to use sunlight to cleanse the market of the most dirty of practices.

My response to our industry–the software industry–is a Customer Bill of Rights. These are principles and practices to which I abide. I challenge all other software solutions providers in my market to sign on to these same principles. I think the consulting companies that inhabit our market would benefit from these as well.

One–To truthfully represent our own product capabilities and limitations so that the customer can make an assessment of whether the products meet their needs in relation to other products on the market. While criticism and differences will arise regarding competing products and visions, our marketing will not be based on degrading the work of competitors. Our message will focus on differences in functionality and technical approach.

Two–To provide as much transparency as possible to our prospective customers to our existing customer experience and satisfaction levels. This will include, where existing customers have not selected privacy, to allow for unfiltered communication with our present customer base. For existing customers who wish to remain anonymous we will continue to respect their privacy.

Three–Since we are not afraid of our products’ performance, to always demonstrate its capabilities in a live environment that replicates as best as possible the perspective of the customer.

Four–To provide to any prospective customer who requests it, an evaluation copy of our products to test and evaluate to determine if they will best meet their needs, and to provide support for their effort as with any other established customer. In addition to the software itself, the necessary information for evaluation will include full documentation and training materials related to our products so that we meet our goal of full transparency.

Five–In seeking to fully understand customer requirements, to have the moral courage to admit those cases where our products will not satisfy those requirements. This includes honestly identifying competing products or alternative products that may meet customer needs where our own products do not.

Six–To focus on satisfying our customers’ needs by treating every customer as if they are the most important customer, regardless of size or significance to the bottom line. Any customer questions and issues will be addressed immediately and respectfully. At the core of this commitment is to ensure that customer expectations are understood and fully addressed.

Seven–To commit ourselves to constant product and process improvement with a focus on customer satisfaction in seeking new and innovative solutions. As such, while doing our own due diligence in being mindful of our market and its competitive benchmarks, we will also treat our competitors with respect, understanding through our own efforts the work that is usually involved in running and operating a business. Where that respect is not reciprocated our policy will be to simply avoid engaging with those individuals or companies, and sanctioning them as necessary, as anyone caring about business ethics would do.

I am confident that the more my customers and the market knows personally about me the better. Let the chips fall where they may. I am equally confident that the more the market knows about my business team, our products, and our reputation, the more they will like what they experience and see. My personnel and I make no claims of infallibility, but we work hard to address our shortfalls–our most challenging competitor is ourselves and the goals that we strive to meet.


Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow–Post-Workshop Blogging…and some Low Comedy

It’s been a while since I posted to my blog due to meetings and–well–day job, but some interesting things occurred during the latest Integrated Program Management (IPMD) of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) meeting that I think are of interest. (You have to love acronyms to be part of this community).

Program Management and Integrated Program Management

First off is the initiative by the Program Management Working Group to gain greater participation by program managers with an eye to more clearly define what constitutes integrated program management. As readers of this blog know, this is a topic that I’ve recently written about.

The Systems Engineering discipline is holding their 21st Annual Systems Engineering Conference in Tampa this year from October 22nd to the 25th. IPMD will collaborate and will be giving a track dedicated to program management. The organizations have issued a call for papers and topics of interest. (Full disclosure: I volunteered this past week to participate as a member of the PM Working Group).

My interest in this topic is based on my belief from my years of wide-ranging experience in duties from having served as a warranted government contracting officer, program manager, business manager, CIO, staff officer, and logistics officer that there is much more to the equation in defining IPM that transcends doing so through the prism of any particular discipline. Furthermore, doing so will require collaboration and cooperation among a number of project management disciplines.

This is a big topic where, I believe, no one group or individual has all of the answers. I’m excited to see where this work goes.

Integrated Digital Environment

Another area of interest that I’ve written about in the past involved two different–but related–initiatives on the part of the Department of Defense to collect information from their suppliers that is necessary in their oversight role not only to ensure accountability of public expenditures, but also to assist in project cost and schedule control, risk management, and assist in cost estimation, particularly as it relates to risk sharing cost-type R&D contracted project efforts.

Two major staffs in the Offices of the Undersecretary of Defense have decided to go with a JSON-type schema for, on the one hand, cost estimating data, and on the other, integrated cost performance, schedule, and risk data. Each initiative seeks to replace the existing schemas in place.

Both have been wrapped around the axle on getting industry to move from form-based reporting and data sharing to a data-agnostic solution that meet the goals of reducing redundancy in data transmission, reducing the number of submissions and data streams, and moving toward one version of truth that allows for SMEs on both sides of the table to concentrate on data analysis and interpretation in jointly working toward the goal of successful project completion and end-item deployment.

As with the first item, I am not a disinterested individual in this topic. Back when I wore a uniform I helped to construct DoD policy to create an integrated digital environment. I’ve written about this experience previously in this blog, so I won’t bore with details, but the need for data sharing on cost-type efforts acknowledges the reality of the linkage between our defense economic and industrial base and the art of the possible in deploying defense-related end items. The same relationship exists for civilian federal agencies with the non-defense portion of the U.S. economy. Needless to say, a good many commercial firms unrelated to defense are going the same way.

The issue here is two-fold, I think, from speaking with individuals working these issues.

The first is, I think, that too much deference is being given to solution providers and some industry stakeholders, influenced by those providers, in “working the refs” through the data. The effect of doing so not only slows down the train and protects entrenched interests, it also gets in the way of innovation, allowing the slowest among the group to hold up the train in favor of–to put it bluntly–learning their jobs on the job at the expense of efficiency and effectiveness. As I expressed in a side conversion with an industry leader, all too often companies–who, after all, are the customer–have allowed themselves to view the possible by the limitations and inflexibility of their solution providers. At some point that dysfunctional relationship must end–and in the case of comments clearly identified as working the refs–they should be ignored. Put your stake in the ground and let innovation and market competition sort it out.

Secondly, cost estimating, which is closely tied to accounting and financial management, is new and considered tangential to other, more mature, performance management systems. My own firm is involved in producing a solution in support of this process, collecting data related to these reports (known collectively in DoD as the 1921 reports), and even after working to place that data in a common data lake, exploring with organizations what it tells us, since we are only now learning what it tells us. This is classical KDD–Knowledge Discovery in Data–and a worthwhile exercise.

I’ve also advocated going one step further in favor of the collection of financial performance data (known as the Contract Funds Status Report), which is an essential reporting requirement, but am frustrated to find no one willing to take ownership of the guidance regarding data collection. The tragedy here is that cost performance, known broadly as Earned Value Management, is a technique related to the value of work performance against other financial and project planning measures (a baseline and actuals). But in a business (or any enterprise), the fuel that drives the engine are finance-related, and two essential measures are margin and cash-flow. The CFSR is a report of program cash-flow and financial execution. It is an early measure of whether a program will execute its work in any given time-frame, and provides a reality check on the statistical measures of performance against baseline. It is also a necessary logic check for comptrollers and other budget decision-makers.

Thus, as it relates to data, there has been some push-back against a settled schema, where the government accepts flat files and converts the data to the appropriate format. I see this as an acceptable transient solution, but not an ultimate one. It is essential to collect both cost estimating and contract funds status information to perform any number of operations that relate to “actionable” intelligence: having the right executable money at the right time, a reality check against statistical and predictive measures, value analysis, and measures of ROI in development, just to name a few.

I look forward to continuing this conversation.

To Be or Not to Be Agile

The Section 809 Panel, which is the latest iteration of acquisition reform panels, has recommended that performance management using earned value not be mandated for efforts using Agile. It goes on, however, to assert that program executive “should approve appropriate project monitoring and control methods, which may include EVM, that provide faith in the quality of data and, at a minimum, track schedule, cost, and estimate at completion.”

Okay…the panel is then mute on what those monitoring and control measure will be. Significantly, if only subtly, the #NoEstimates crowd took a hit since the panel recommends and specifies data quality, schedule, cost and EAC. Sounds a lot like a form of EVM to me.

I must admit to be a skeptic when it comes to swallowing the Agile doctrine whole. Its micro-economic foundations are weak and much of it sounds like ideology–bad ideology at best and disproved ideology at worst (specifically related to the woo-woo about self-organization…think of the last speculative bubble and resulting financial crisis and depression along these lines).

When it comes to named methodologies I am somewhat from Missouri. I apply (and have in previous efforts in the Dark Ages back when I wore a uniform) applied Kanban, teaming, adaptive development (enhanced greatly today by using modern low-code technology), and short sprints that result in releasable modules. But keep in mind that these things were out there long before they were grouped under a common heading.

Perhaps Agile is now a convenient catch-all for best practices. But if that is the case then software development projects using this redefined version of Agile deserve no special dispensation. But I was schooled a bit by an Agile program manager during a side conversation and am always open to understanding things better and revising my perspectives. It’s just that there was never a Waterfall/Agile dichotomy just as there never really was a Spiral/Waterfall dichotomy. These were simply convenient development models to describe a process that were geared to the technology of the moment.

There are very good people on the job exploring these issues on the Agile Working Group in the IPMD and I look forward to seeing what they continue to come up with.

Rip Van Winkle Speaks!

The only disappointing presentation occurred on the second and last day of the meeting. It seemed we were treated by a voice from somewhere around the year 2003 that, in what can only be described as performance art involving free association, talked about wandering the desert, achieving certification for a piece of software (which virtually all of the software providers in the room have successfully navigated at one time or another), discovering that cost and schedule performance data can be integrated (ignoring the work of the last ten years on the part of, well, a good many people in the room), that there was this process known as the Integrated Baseline Review (which, again, a good many people in the room had collaborated on to both define and make workable), and–lo and behold–the software industry uses schemas and APIs to capture data (known in Software Development 101 as ETL). He then topped off his meander by an unethical excursion into product endorsement, selected through an opaque process.

For this last, the speaker was either unaware or didn’t care (usually called tone-deafness) that the event’s expenses were sponsored by a software solution provider (not mine). But it is also as if the individual speaking was completely unaware of the work behind the various many topics that I’ve listed above this subsection, ignoring and undermining the hard work of the other stakeholders that make up our community.

On the whole an entertaining bit of poppycock, which leads me to…

A Word about the Role of Professional Organizations (Somewhat Inside Baseball)

In this blog, and in my interactions with other professionals at–well–professional conferences–I check my self-interest in at the door and publicly take a non-commercial stance. It is a position that is expected and, I think, appreciated. For those who follow me on social networking like LinkedIn, posts from my WordPress blog originate from a separate source from the commercial announcements that are linked to my page that originate from my company.

If there are exhibitor areas, as some conferences and workshops do have, that is one thing. That’s where we compete and play; and in private side conversations customers and strategic partners will sometimes use the opportunity as a convenience to discuss future plans and specific issues that are clearly business-related. But these are the exceptions to the general rule, and there are a couple of reasons for this, especially at this venue.

One is because, given that while it is a large market, it is a small community, and virtually everyone at the regular meetings and conferences I attend already know that I am the CEO and owner of a small software company. But the IPMD is neutral ground. It is a place where government and industry stakeholders, who in other roles and circumstances are in a contractual or competing relationship, come to work out the best way of hashing out processes and procedures that will hopefully improve the discipline of program and project management. It is also a place of discovery, where policies, new ideas, and technologies can be vetted in an environment of collaboration.

Another reason for taking a neutral stance is simply because it is both the most ethical and productive one. Twenty years ago–and even in some of the intervening years–self-serving behavior was acceptable at the IPMD meetings where both leadership and membership used the venue as a basis for advancing personal agendas or those of their friends, often involving backbiting and character assassination. Some of those people, few in number, still attend these meetings.

I am not unfamiliar with the last–having been a target at one point by a couple of them but, at the end of the day, such assertions turned out to be without merit, undermining the credibility of the individuals involved, rightfully calling into question the quality of their character. Such actions cannot help but undermine the credibility and pollute the atmosphere of the organization in which they associate, as well.

Finally, the companies and organizations that sponsor these meetings–which are not cheap to organize, which I know from having done so in the past–deserve to have the benefit of acknowledgment. It’s just good manners to play nice when someone else is footing the bill–you gotta dance with those that brung you. I know my competitors and respect them (with perhaps one or two exceptions). We even occasionally socialize with each other and continue long-term friendships and friendly associations. Burning bridges is just not my thing.

On the whole, however, the NDIA IPMD meetings–and this one, in particular–was a productive and positive one, focused on the future and in professional development. That’s where, I think, that as a community we need to be and need to stay. I always learn something new and get my dose of reality from a broad-based perspective. In getting here the leadership of the organization (and the vast majority of the membership) is to be commended, as well as the recent past and current members of the Department of Defense, especially since the formation of the Performance Assessments and Root Cause Analysis (PARCA) office.

In closing, there were other items of note discussed, along with what can only be described as the best pair of keynote addresses that I’ve heard in one meeting. I’ll have more to say about some of the concepts and ideas that were presented there in future posts.