The Rhythm of Application Development Success

December 22, 2020

As a Portfolio Product Owner and the business owner responsible for unit profitability and client satisfaction in a for-hire development shop, I am challenged to find a way to juggle the challenges of correct estimation, target attainment, proper supervision, empowerment, quality, issue containment, client expectations, and employee growth/retainment.  These are common challenges for any development shop.

As we approach twenty years in business; coding, delivering, growing, overcoming obstacles, and finding new ways to balance all, I’d like to share a tool, a piece of advice that has served me well to lead my team.  And that is the understanding and execution of rhythm.

The realization you are operating at a pace or rhythm of actions and the decision to control this rhythm appropriately is vital to your success.  This concept can be best explained by drawing a metaphor to musical performance, where teamwork and timing are the difference between a melodic success or a discordant disaster.

A small band of four members is like a SCRUM team on a project.  Each member has a role they must master; teamwork and timing are essential to get a pleasing product.  An orchestra of ten members operates on the same rules as a small band, but they have subgroups that come into play at select instances to drive a point or create an impinging effect. A modern full-scale Symphony Orchestra can contain one hundred members and requires an artisan called a Maestro, aptly named, to guide the group to perform at the most sophisticated and demanding musical collaboration available to us.  For us Portfolio Product Owners, the challenge does not stop there, for we are required to manage bands playing pop, rock, jazz or soul, orchestras playing swing, pop, new age and classical, and symphonic orchestras playing Mozart, Beethoven and Bach- all at the same time.

Today I gave a cursory look at my backlog, and I’m “managing” approximately 45 resources, where they must coordinate and work closely with more than 200 other professionals to attain success.  I am responsible for twenty-six active projects, each with their own level of intensity, and nine software products, including our Website, Intranet, and Social Media.  All are happening at the same time.  I am required to be a Maestro, and I am no magician.

In choosing and developing a management strategy to deal with this challenge, I had the following vital goals:

  • The diverse nature of what we do is beyond the scope of competence of one person.  I decided that I needed a close team of four to seven senior development executives to manage the team effectively.  Decisions must be collective, so I formed an Executive Team.
  • I realized that we needed a meeting and methodology where project managers and product managers could report the progress of their targets, vent impediments for the possibility of easy resolution, and voice the needs for resources, or other assets.  So, I formed a Projects team separate from the Products team as they have different needs and, in our case, participants.  Better to have two meetings of 30 minutes back to back, than one meeting of 60 minutes and waste the time of 30 to 40 percent of the participants.
  • As one of the most experienced project managers and coders of the group, my goal was to replace myself as quickly as possible and empower my team to manage their groups and make their own decisions. I’m nearly 60, and I started at 15.  Succession is a factor.
  • The only guide to success is unit profitability and client satisfaction.  The others may seem secondary, but profitability and approval are directly monitored by juggling the concepts stated above.  I invite you to take another look at them.
  • I had to resist the temptation to micro-manage and learn to get out of the way. 
  • The technological competence, by that I mean our understanding and effective use of the tools we use to create a product, is there.  For me it was a priority to identify those tools and push towards attaining mastery of them, while letting our clients and prospects know our leading role in this.  We have won many awards for truly remarkable performance.

To apply these concepts and create the rhythm and style of the business unit, I selected the following actions to take:

  • The Executive Team meets first thing on Mondays, and this is my meeting.  We track about 35 vital targets, including each major project, our products, opportunities, production evolutions, their commissions (yes they are commissionable employees, and I want them to make sure that I track the payment of their commissions as a priority for me), the status of our products, billing progress, staff utilization, and critical situations, which we usually tackle last.  We get through the rhythm of coordination before we tackle the “big” problems.  This is a 30-minute meeting.  I may have a breakout meeting with some of them after handling a crisis, that is, to listen to their needs, give them advice, help them make a decision, or issue an order as a last resort.
  • The Projects Team runs all projects and each active project has a Project Manager and Technical Lead assigned to it.  These are formal assignments.  I meet with all of them first thing on Tuesdays.  Thirty minutes for all Projects and another thirty minutes for Products.  This is not my meeting; it is their meeting.  Each meeting is orchestrated by the Senior Project Manager of our Executive Team where all Project Managers report their projects’ status, discuss impediments, share successes, collaborate, and ask for resources or assistance. Each project is assigned a RAG (Red, Amber, Green) Status: for Scope, Time, Resources, and Finance.  Each project has an area where the PMs note their progress, plans, and concerns.  As it is their meeting, I allow some latitude in the use of that documentation, but not in the RAG status assessment.  We use Microsoft DevOps to track and groom the backlogs for each project and product.
  • Since learning and growth are vital in our unit, the first meeting on Wednesday is invested in tracking the success of certification training for our staff, where we reward our fastest, and allow them to start to lead, and gently nudge the laggards.  I tell my team that any consulting firm’s motto is “Up or Out.”  And the “out” includes moving to a client in a leading role.  We beam with pride at having produced three government CIOs and at least two VP Level CIOs for private enterprise.
  • Once a month, the whole team meets; we call it the Code Point (our methodology) Development Network.  It is a gathering of the cadre to connect, remind all of our standards, push what is truly important, teach by showing a successful action, and enjoy pizza.
  • Various times per year, we meet in a cinema to enjoy the latest blockbuster movie.  Early on, I discovered that my coders, like myself, love Science Fiction movies.  On that special Thursday at 2 pm, I closed the firm, and we all went to see one of the Star Wars’ new movies.  At the time we were about 40 in the whole company.  Proudly, I told my brother, the co-founder of the firm and our CFO, “How about that; here we are enjoying ourselves in a growing firm.” He said, “Great! Do you know how much this is costing?” Sure, I said, “$200. I paid for all the tickets myself.” “No, he said, “about $25,000, that is the combined effect of all our billable resources being idle for 4 hours on a prime billing day.”  Oh, how right he was.  So, I told him, we’ll move it to Fridays for the 7 pm show, but I get to invite their families too.  To his credit he said yes.  And for years I’ve greeted spouses to thank them for lending us their spouses in the long hours of work, their kids, where I would tell them their mom or dad was an awesome professional and they would have a great future too if they studied and worked hard, and even grandmothers, to thank them for the superb job they did in helping to raise such a fine person.  In honesty, that is a vital part of the rhythm of our success and, perhaps, my favorite thing to do.
  • Like any SCRUM shop, there are sprints, backlogs to groom, products to produce, and stakeholders to please.  Scrum Masters influence their teams, backlogs are filled, sprints are executed, retrospectives are held, and lessons are learned and taught. That is a topic for another day, but it certainly is part of the symphony of the concurrent melodies playing in various rooms and abroad, and if you are still, you can listen to the music it creates.  Most of the time it is pleasing.  Sometimes, oops, a violin is out of tune.  No one needs to tell him to stop; a few are there immediately to help, others stand-in, or play a bit louder to take up the slack.

There’s more detail, but this is, as they say, the gist of it.  Coding is a hard business, very competitive and fast.  It’s not for everyone. If you are fueled by a desire to succeed and if you seek to join a team of vibrant professionals who are on the same wavelength as you, perhaps you can join our fraternity.  If you are a buyer or user who needs exceptional resources to assist you in conceiving, building, and launching a powerful new app, mobile ready, with necessary ties to vital back end systems, perhaps some of the executives, architects, analysts, and coders that make up the symphony I’ve described above are the team you are looking for.  I highly recommend them.  They are capable and fearless leaders of change.