Mike Schaeffer's Blog

Articles with tag: career
August 14, 2007

For the better part of my career, I've straddled the fence between pure software development roles and consulting roles. My first job after graduating in 1997 was at a hardware firm developing embedded software for process control hardware. Over the three years I was working there, I was on point for everything from register-level device drivers running on the custom hardware to a device configuration GUI running on a PC. By the time I left the firm, I even had the opportunity to write a small programming language, complete with compiler and 'VM'. This was a perfect job for a guy with a freshly-minted Computer Science degree and a hankering to write some cool code. At least it was perfect at first.

What ultimately drove me to leave that role is something that I think most technical jobs, particularly those in product development, have in common: a severe risk of detachment from your clients. Software developers, myself included, tend to be an introverted lot; Even if they weren't, it's oftentimes percieved to be in the best interests of a software house to keep software developers on task developing software. In other words, there are both personal and corporate pressures to keep developers hacking away at the code instead of talking to customers. The risk here is that the people who best understand the products are the people that potentially least understand the customers. I can tell you from firsthand experience that, while I knew in detail the sampling characteristics of the device I was building, I had no idea how it might be used in a chemical plant to measure a temperature sensor and control a pump or a heater. It's easy to develop a product in that kind of vacuum and then get it totally wrong for your market. If you're not careful, it's also easy to get your product totally wrong for your own company, which is what arguably happened to the group I was in.

Organizations counter this risk of specialization by having other job roles that can be more focused on customer needs and less focused. From the perspective of someone sitting in an R&D lab, these other jobs represent the steps a product takes out the door towards doing useful work for a customer. A researcher discovers a new technology or technique, a developer turns it into a product, a marketer figures out how to promote it, a salesperson sells the product, and finally, a consultant integrates it into the customer's system. As work moves down this path, it gets progressively more applied and progressively less abstract. The reverse is true too: the further away from pure research you get, the closer you get to customer requirements. As much as a development lab has the responsibility to push product out to customers, customer-facing staff has the responsibilty to push information on customer requirements back to the lab to drive product development priorites. If a developer isn't talking to a customer and a consultant is, then it's a safe bet that the consultant has a better idea of what a product needs to do to sell.

This is the reasoning that led me out of pure software development and into a consulting role at a different firm. In this new role, I was on projects developing configuration websites for computer resellers. If you envision Dell's online computer configuration tool, you're not far off from the kind of websites I was developing. While consultants at this company still did a bit of programming, the theory was that the heavy lifting of actually building the software was done in the company's R&D lab. Consultants were to focus on more basic customization and integration work. On my projects, most of my software devlopment work was limited to customizing the layout of web pages and writing interfaces to databases and authentication providers. Interesting stuff, but not close to the same technical league as what I was doing in my previous job.

The risks in this kind of internal consulting role are different than the risks in a purely development role. Unlike a developer sitting in an R&D lab, someone who might get to see a customer once a month or two at best, a consultant quite often is working on-site with the customer on a daily basis. In fact, It's easy for a consultant to see customer staff far more often than other employees of their own company. Of course, this potential isolation also includes the R&D lab and the sales group. In the worst case scenario, you end up with three independant silos in your organization: sales selling whatever they want, developers developing whatever they want, and the poor consultants caught in the middle, between an over-ambitious contract and a under-done base product. I shared an office with a guy working on a project that was sold as a one month customization of one of our other base products. When I joined the firm, this project was in its 18th month of (mostly non-billable) consulting time. There was obviously a lot that had gone horribly wrong on that project, but foremost was a total disconnect between what the salespeople thought they had ready to sell and what the developers had actually produced to sell. (Not that the consultants were blameless on that project either: there were huge estimation and process problems in the customization work plan.)

I do not know of a role that is completely free of these types of risks, but my experience has tended to be that the difference between success and failure in any role is more related to communication with those around you than it is to technical skills. It is as much about giving your stakeholders what they want when they want it as it is anything else (including giving them something 'great'). This can be a difficult pill to swallow since it places emphasis on skills that do not come naturally to many developers. If you're a developer used to setting the development agenda it's even worse, since it might involve ceding at least some of this power to people downstream and closer to customers. However, if you're really good, you will do whatever it takes (even it it's 'not your job') to know your customer's business well enough to anticpate what they need before they request. Either way, success is ultimately about pressing your boundaries beyond your comfort zone to get what you need to do the thing you love in a way that satisfies those that care about your work.