Customer & Service Provider interface – the End of the Story

Customer & Service Provider interface … the End of the Story 

With the start of the-then-new job in October 2015 I started writing about my experience – and especially the shortfalls – in our customer and service provider relationship. It turned out to become a triptych. This is the final – the wrap-up.

To catch up you might want to read the first post: “Customer & Service Provider – Epic fails” and the second in this series: “Customer & Service Provider – silver lining on the horizon“.

You might ask yourself … why is that the end of the story? Improvements in processes usually don’t have an end. Well, let’s see.

The Modified Setting

In the meantime we upgraded from 2,5 software developer to even 3,5 software developers. Ambition behind is …

You might guess it? …

Come on …

YES! Right – on the first attempt.

Speed up the delivery of features. Our senior management is delighted by the achievements so far – however is far from being satisfied with the results, the outcome. Still, there is great belief that more people build more results. True! BUT we’re still having the issue of not well-defined requirements and still having long periods of wait for answers from our business leads.

On a daily basis we’re still in communication mode. Twice a week our project manager and the project manager of the service provider meet to exchange progress and start discussion on new topics. Again, communication proves to be a gold nugget!

The Now Situation

Missing product management – It became so obvious, so non-neglectable, so crystal-clear. Reason behind the low througput of our development cycle is not the lack of software developers – that’s a symptomatic solution. No, root cause is: we’re lacking a professional approach to manage our products – product management is missing. Usually, product management’s major duty is to define requirements on their products and harmonize the various needs and demands from all involved parties – customer, departments, management.

If we just had some people doing exactly this job. World would be much clearer!

  • Prioritization would be easier – since the product management would clearly include management in the overall prioritization process.
  • Definition of requirements would be clearer – only well-defined stories were handed over to our service provider.
  • Decision points would be clearer – product management is the definition point for detailed questions and processes.
  • Communication would be simpler – it’s simply clear whom to ask for guidance.
  • Development would be faster – no impediments any more … why should it be slow now?

In my last post, I raised a lot of points:

  • Multiple stakeholders talking to the service provider
  • No clear communication of priorities, requirements and goals
  • Fundamental changes in design after going live
  • Bad requirement quality
  • Silo thinking
  • Low quality – not well thought-out
  • No consistent prioritization

All of them – I really believe – all of them could be solved with the implementation of an organizational change – introduce product management.

So, you might ask yourself why is this the end of the story? Well, that’s an easy one. Despite my continued effort to convince my senior management about the absolute need to improve the organization by introducing a product management person (yes, one person!), I failed. “Too expensive”. I personally decided to quit.

Lesson learned?

I’m still convinced we changed a lot for the good in the customer / service provider interface. Agile patterns did a great difference for all of us. Furthermore, the service provider did invest in agile coaching (and architecture consultancy as well … not all is gold …) and showed great willingness to cooperate – to improve.

Go on, improve your interface. It’s well worth the effort! Ah, and don’t forget to secure your senior management’s backing in early stages 🙂

Customer & Service Provider – silver lining on the horizon

Customer & Service Provider interface … epic fails and how to overcome them

In a recent post I was talking about an interesting situation regarding the collaboration with our service provider (see http://www.agile-minds.com/customer-service-provider-epic-fails/). After some weeks I’d like to take a chance to draw some conclusions and report back some successes and learnings. I definitely see some silver lining on the horizon regarding the collaboration part – but also discovered some real black holes within our organisation. It’s always the same: process insufficiencies will always show up – latest – in the IT department …

The Modified Setting

Now in the development partnership with our service provider we pay for 2,5 software developers + 0,75 project management person. This means we added significant ressources to the aspect of project planning, communication and management.

Our project management person and the pendant at the service provider really met twice a week to discuss progress, issues and need for further planning on specific tasks. In addition to that it’s me and the general manager of the service provider meeting almost weekly to discuss issues and problems. This approach helped to improve the communication a lot. We’re now in a continuous dialog. Understanding of each other has raised enormously. A great step!

The New Situation

We are still not happy with the outcome – but the reasons have changed dramatically. Previously, we as an organization were not able to articulate our needs and get this information over to our service provider. We changed our communication paradigm and introduced the face-to-face communicaion twice a week. Now, the service provider has a ways better view of our requirements and is eager to start implementation. However, a lot of our stories lack quality from a subject matter view. How did we come to this point?

Multiple stakeholders talking to the service provider – We only have one person talking about new requirements – our project manager. He’s responsible to collect requirements in-house and communicate them back to our service provider. This works quite good. We’ve setup internal bi-weekly calls to collect and prioritize requirements. We’ve had our first quarterly face-to-face meeting where we started to build and organize the company backlog.

No clear communication of priorities, requirements and goals – Flag it as solved with the previous point.

Fundamental changes in design after going live – This is still an ongoing topic. But it’s a question of educating our internal people. Since we’ve one single person doing the communication towards the service provider it’s one of his duties to explain people that if there’s a change in requirements after going live we’ll treat this change as a new requirement – and this needs to get prioritized and implemented. Education.

The New Symptoms

No progress over all – Nope. Having progress. Or eager to go on. But …

Bad requirement quality – This was not transparent so far. But it came up when we introduced the new way of working. It became clearer and clearer that our subject matter experts – the stakeholder – didn’t exactly know what they wanted – not even at the point when they were talking to the service provider. Or they knew what they wanted – but didn’t consider the other business units in the design phase.

The Idea … did work out so far

The two aspects I’ve decided to implement

  • Setting up a stable and reliable single face of contact on working level
  • Introducing basic agile principles to get to stable requirements

worked out smoothly so far. As usual the introduction of agile aspects increased transparency of involved processes and especially the quality of the different artifacts a lot. And new issues turned up.

Quality of Requirements

As said previously the introduction of agile principles – well, I’d say of new communication patterns – produced process insufficiencies of our own organization.

Silo thinking – our business is separated in different business units. The different units have their own targets and try hard to reach them. There is no competition between the units – but everybody takes care of their own business. Two of the business units eventually use the same instance of the student information system. Especially between those units we have a lot of cases where e.g. the layout of the exam certificates differs, rule sets for course acceptance differ, specializations of courses differ and so on. Small differences – which might be needed … or not – which have a big, big impact on implementation capacities. It’s a difference to create different rule sets for courses – double the implementation work. And why? Ah, the business stakeholder didn’t have time to discuss their individual needs and combine them into mutual needs.

Low quality – not well thought-out – Another point we found is the quality and depth of the various business requirements. A lot of our business requirements arrive at our project manager at a stage where it says “We need a proper implementation of …”. Well, what does “proper” mean? Many times we experience developers from the service provider receiving last-minute changes – still. That’s one of the focus points for future improvements.

No consistent prioritization – Our exec management wants to review the implementation prioritization. Fair enough. We’ve agreed on having a call/meeting every second month. In this call we’ll run through the company backlog and listen carefully to what exec management sees as top priorities. In parallel we have our working calls with the business stakeholder every second week. Together, I believe, we’ll arrive at a prioritization which puts most important topics first.

My biggest learning out of this so far?

No matter how big the issue – start introducing agile patterns. Here especially the communication, company backlog and the face-to-face meeting helped a lot to unveil the real issues behind the “bad customer / service provider” interface.

The nice part about the agile pattern is the transparency. It automatically points you to the real pain points – through transparency.

Stay tuned and read on – to be continued.

Customer & Service Provider – Epic fails

Customer & Service Provider interface … epic fails and how to overcome them

Just recently I decided to change positions – moving away from a CTO role with a whole development department attached towards a CTO role with all software development tasks being outsourced to a service provider / product company. And I felt like being in a time-warp … not into the bright new and shiny future – no … directly into middle age – the darkest version of it.

See why – and how I plan to maneuver all of us out of this.

The Setting

The product company is very specialized on delivering a specific product aiming at university campus management software. We’re paying 2,5 developers to work full-time on our product branch – we call it a development partnership.

The product company develops in PHP, does deployments with puppet – however utilizes a full tomcat environment and PostgreSQL as database. They claim to work in an agile manner … and utilize JIRA (yeah!). Peeking into their JIRA unveils a per-person-association-to-tasks (well …). Visiting the development team produces clean white walls, no empty bottles or cans around, no architecture diagram scribbles, and no nothing. Suspect environment for full-heart agile developers. But let’s see.

The Situation

We are not happy with the performance of the service provider. Why? They don’t deliver on time, in quality and make promises all the time. Hmmm. After few visits and talking in-house and the service provider the situation became clearer to me.

Multiple stakeholders talking to the service provider – We had multiple parties of our business units talking to various people at the service provider. All of us spoke with different voices and everything was super-important. In the end not the feature with highest business impact made it live – it was the one of the person shouting loudest…

No clear communication of priorities, requirements and goals – In our discussions with the various people at the service provider we were not able to communicate a clear order of priorities nor were the requirements defined – not talking about documented or clear – and goals of the implementation tasks were sometimes not even clear to our internal stakeholders.

Fundamental changes in design after going live – I think that’s a real classic: The whole implementation is done, the product change is live and the stakeholder suddenly realizes that the color coding of a logo needed to change. So, the stakeholders didn’t even realize that changes in the live product are the most costly changes – compared to those done on powerpoint or photoshop level right in the beginning.

The Symptoms

No progress over all – Having not communicated a goal, a strategy or anything with a guiding function it’s no wonder there is no felt progress in the cooperation with our service provider. Sure, everybody was giving his/her best and we were moving. But nobody was satisfied at all. We didn’t get what we wanted and the service provider felt bashed at every move they made.

Communication went really personal – I personally attended the at-the-time two-weekly phone call with our service provider. We had the CEO, 3 business unit leads, one project manager and another 3 subject matter experts on the call – together with one of the managing directors of the service provider. As usually, I learnt afterwards, the call ended in real bad communication on a personal level. There was no common sense, every word was political, no commitment to anything – it was protect my a** everywhere.

The Idea

This needed to end. So, after my first week I had a meeting with the board of the service provider. Board means two people – the founder and investors. I presented them with an idea to improve the situation. At the core of the idea there were two main principles:

  • Setting up a stable and reliable single face of contact on working level
  • Introducing basic agile principles to get to stable requirements

They bought into this approach and we agreed to set this up.

Stable and reliable single face of contact on working level – I made my project manager to spend 80% of his time to manage the interface to our service provider. The service provider put 40% of a person into this task.

The two of them meet twice a week. Idea behind is to get closer communication flowing. The sooner we know about problems, the faster we can solve them. Anything not clear? Any issue to solve? Too less resources? Whatever. On Tuesday, they meet to discuss the current stories in implementation and issues. Furthermore, they discuss future stories to get feedback on expected implementation issues and too less specific requirements. On Friday, they meet to discuss the same topics and in addition I and the managing director meet to discuss and decide on topics to be resolved.

Internally, we made clear that it’s my person and the project manager who speaks to the service provider – nobody else. NOBODY! This is the only way to remove distracting conversations on non-important topics and puzzling requirements. Not to talk about setting other priorities on tasks. This all happens when the internal stakeholder have direct access to the service provider. Now, the project manager collects the user stories and requirements. We meet on a frequent basis – at least once a week, usually every day – and exchange our knowledge on user stories.

Introducing basic agile principles to get to stable requirements – Obviously, we had XLS-sheets of various formats and contents. All of them full with requirements and sorted to various priorities. We kindly removed all of them and started our Company Backlog.

We agreed with the service provider to have sprints of 2 weeks. The service provider still does releases on a 4 week basis – but we work in 2 week sprints. This allows us to communicate delays of features in terms of 2 weeks instead of month. “Well, it didn’t make it into this sprint – we will put it into the next sprint. This starts in 2 weeks.”

The Company Backlog is now organized in JIRA. We attach all relevant information to the user stories and hand them over to our service provider. Unfortunately, we couldn’t agree on using the same JIRA instance. Initially, I thought to use a Company Backlog view where we organize the next sprint which is then handed over to development and they start associating tasks to the user stories.

The daily standup is a bi-weekly get-together of the relevant people and starts to work out pretty good. During these meetings the two of them do a kind of backlog grooming and discuss the next stories to be implemented.

So, to summarize. Agile elements are:

  • The Company Backlog
  • The Product Owner (on our side – still named project manager)
  • The Scrum Master (on service provider side – also named project manager)
  • Sprints of two weeks duration
  • Backlog grooming
  • Planning 1

Does it work? Well, I’m sure it will be an improvement after all. Is it optimal? Let’s see!