Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why Software Product Delivey is not Identical to a Car Delivery?

I happened to sit in one of the project review meeting where client raised a question on software delivery expecting it to be used in production on the day of delivery by the vendor. He went ahead and started comparing it with a use case of a customer driving off a car upon taking delivery. I know all the project managers out there will jump in to say that don't compare apple with orange. On the one hand, yes, software development is unique and cannot be compared with production of a tangible product. On the other hand, attempts are being made by various standards organizations in helping the industry achieve a high maturity process capability and thus deliver production quality software consistently.

Software product vendors selling or licensing software products can however be compared to Car manufacturers. Take for example, Microsoft Office product suite, one can just go and buy it off the shelf and use it, just like driving off a car. This is possible for product vendors because, the product vendors over a period acquire enormous amount of knowledge on the targeted product domain and in turn subjecting it through as many cycles of testing before announcing its readiness.

A typical car from concept to production may take atleast few years and it would be in the order of around 3 to 6 years. During this period, the product undergoes various cycles of tests, which include crash test, drivability on the road conditions of the target market, etc. Similarly, software product vendors do conceptualize the product idea and then work on it over a period. The vendors are attempting to achieve a faster time to market, but by adopting newer product development methodologies. The one that works best is to identify the smallest piece of the software that can meet certain specific use cases and then build on top of it over a period of time.

In case of a software product, it is the vendor's responsibility to subject the product through various tests in production like environments before getting it out to customers. The tests include alpha and beta tests, where in interested end users are engaged to use it in production environments and collect the feedback on various aspects and the developers working on it to have all those critical issues addressed. Achieving a zero defect state may not be a possibility and vendors take balanced approach as to whether wait until all the identified issues be addressed or reach out to the market with certain known issues, which can be addressed in subsequent product releases.

But it is a different approach when it comes to bespoken software projects. The major challenges with the bespoken software projects that differentiates from software products include:

  1. It is the Client who specifies the requirement. Though the vendor might facilitate documenting the requirements, it is the customer who formally agrees as to what need to be produced.
  2. Lack of understanding and agreement on the non functional requirements, which are not documented in most cases.
  3. The vendor might not be an expert in the target domain area. Though the vendor has expertise in the domain area, it is the customer's need that is final and not the vendor's understanding of the requirement.
  4. The ever changing requirements. By the time, the vendor delivers the software, the requirements as agreed by the client would have undergone change due to various reasons.
  5. It is difficult to unambiguously understand the requirements as the project progresses through various phases involving humans with varying abilities.
  6. There are dependencies with various pre-existing or emerging software and hardware environments in the production environments of the client.
  7. The client has the roles and responsibility to assume to make the project successful. However, it is for the vendor to ensure that the client understands their role and responsibility throughout project life cycle.

Another point to consider for this discussion is what constitutes delivery. A well written SoW (Statement of Work) clearly lists down the acceptance criteria, which when met would constitute acceptance of the delivery by the client. For a given requirements, no two vendors would build an identical solution. That's due to the tools, technologies out there for use and the varying intellectual abilities of those involved in building the software. It is important as to what the client wants, than how the vendor delivers the solution. For this reason, the client shall assume the responsibility of performing an user acceptance tests. Some times, the delivery of a software might mean implementation in production environment, which might involve data migration, appropriately configuring various pre-existing software and / or hardware.

In the end, it is all about managing the expectations of the client. It is not just setting at the start, but needs to be appropriately managed throughout the project life cycle.

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