Having worked in technology for many years, I’ve come across numerous diverse opinions and positions on how best to make roadmap decisions on a software product. Well, in fact, I’ve come across a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Most people, I find, are quite full of opinions.
You might find this odd, but I actually get a lot of enjoyment out of listening to people’s opinions – regardless of the topic: politics, religion, food, music, the latest tablet, parenting, books, movies, sports and whatever else comes to mind. People can be quite interesting if you give them a chance to rant-on about any topic they feel passionate about. I don’t always agree with them, of course, but for the most part, it is interesting to listen.
Being in the business of delivering innovative technology solutions, the prioritization of new software features to build into a product is a very important aspect of our business. So listening to people has become a vital part of making those prioritizing decisions. Many in the technology world will however, strongly advise us to not listen to customers when it comes to setting the urgency of one feature over another. The thinking behind such a stance is that customers who are using the software on a day-to-day basis are only going to make suggestions/demands for features & fixes that will make their own little world a bit better. They’re not too concerned with long-term strategic planning. So, as the thinking goes, if we expend all our development resources on tiny items that will help a handful of people – but will have negligible effect on the broader customer base (both current and future) – our software product will effectively descend into stagnation and end up in that horrible state they call “Maintenance Mode”. Essentially, focusing the majority of efforts on minor tweaks & bug fixes with very little focus on greater innovation. Well, we obviously don’t want to stagnate or simply ‘maintain’ the status quo; however we can’t neglect the little things either. The little things really do count. We have to strike a careful balance between long-term strategy and immediate-term customer response.
Many software companies by contrast, are perfectly happy with their products being in a maintenance mode. In some respects, it’s desirable because moving to that state results in much lower effort, higher margins and lower risk – a cash cow. Software products that have moved into that state are usually the ones that have been around a long time and no longer need to rely on innovation to capture new customers and market-share – they can sit back and rely on brand awareness, history and an impressive client list to grow their business.
With the way the world is today, I believe this is a colossal mistake in the strategic planning of any technology company new or old. With the pace that technology is moving, it’s far too easy for a young innovative company to create a new software product that’s better, faster, cheaper, smarter, easier, and is backed by friendly faces that are eager to help. They’ll be able to out-maneuver the old goliaths who shuffle along with old-tech and old-ways and slogans like “Serving Construction businesses for 25 years”. Moving into that comfortable old maintenance mode seems like a natural progression for companies who have made their mark years ago and just want to cash in now; but in the world of technology, it carries far too much risk of getting left behind and being out-dated.
So, innovate or die, as some might say. There’s a demographic shift going on in every market segment; and construction, engineering & energy are no exceptions. There’s a shift in expectations out there of what software should do for you and how easy it should be to use. Everyone under 40 years old today grew up with computers & the internet. To that entire demographic, looking at software that was built back on a Windows 95 platform, will trigger a sinking feeling of dread, and they’ll run for the hills. Even if that software has had every feature & report imaginable packed into it over the past 20 years, if it hasn’t innovated new ways to deliver those features, it’ll just get lost on the modern user.
Okay, let’s get back to my discussion around new feature prioritization and the voice of the customer. For any innovative software company, it’s a tricky balancing act to blend the regular customer requests we get for minor tweaks & improvements, with the greater strategic moves that we see as having much broader impact on current and future customers and market segments. Like any company, we have to utilize our resources as efficiently as possible and truly make every dollar count, both for the short term and for the long term. It’s fair to say that we spend a good deal of time on the right balance: determining which changes and features get moved to the top and which get bumped to a later date. It is deep in our corporate culture and values to never stop innovating and never stop learning; so for us, stagnation is not an option. But at the same time, we can’t forget about the little things. I’ll say it again, those little things count. It’s a constant balancing act.
Now in saying all that, here’s the thing that makes it all even more interesting: our customers can often come up with the most amazing ideas. And by that, I don’t just mean, “Hey, that was a pretty good idea” (although we do get a number of those), I mean we often receive BIG ideas. Ideas that are incredibly well thought through and researched before presenting them to us. We are often blown-away by the effort and inspiration that is put into some of the feedback we get. Complex workflows with diagrams and user interface mock-ups, along with verbiage that discusses the greater market reach of the idea. Amazing isn’t it? We’re always inspired and humbled by the gems we get from very clever people out there doing the real work. Engineers, project managers, business owners, Accountants, etc. If our job is to build the technology to make their life better, faster, smarter, easier and more profitable; we’re happy to do it and that’s the thrill we get out of doing what we do. The Innovative Customer has to be one of the happiest surprises we’ve come across as a business.