It’s just a website, how hard can it be?

Funny how the same issues go round and round. We had a discussion last week about implementing a new feature. “It’s easy..” our designer declares. “It’ll take a couple of hours to code and it’ll be done!” Innovation is good, and everyone needs their products to move forward but it’s difficult to get it right when you don’t dig into the details.

A couple of years ago a startup I was working with wanted to build a new product for mobile phone book synchronization. It was ambitious and one of the execs had written up a sketchy list of requirements to turn the concept into a complete business including 2-way sync for any kind of mobile device, billing, carrier integration, helpdesk/call center access and more. Skeptical of their resolve to implement the entire thing I began a use-case analysis where we figured out each end-user, admin and system scenario in the list of requirements and assigned a HIGH, MEDIUM or LOW effort to each. After a day of planning and some optimistic estimates for implementation I was up to about 9 months – if everything went to plan. The exec was furious. There’s no way that estimate can be right he said and proceeded to grab a marker and draw the following diagram:

IMG_0232

“It’s a server!” he screamed, drawing a big black box. “And a database!!” he yelled, almost as an afterthought. “How can is possibly take 9 months!!” His face was getting redder and he’d almost destroyed the whiteboard by banging the pen into the surface. “It’s a fucking website!” he muttered as he stormed out, “we’ll get the Russians to do it.”

And true to his word, in a few days he had a team of off-shore developers, in Ukraine rather than Russia, ready to do the job for a fraction of the cost and yes, they could deliver in a month. And they didn’t need a spec – the two page requirements summary was enough. They were hard working skilled developers – they could cut code at a fantastic rate and worked very long hours. This was not the problem. The issue was that they were ignoring the fact that they knew their deliverable would not meet the expectations of the exec back in the UK. Surely he must understand that what he was asking was impossible? Due to their low rates they demanded part payment in advance and as there was no proper spec it would be very difficult to argue that they had not delivered the software outlined in the contract.

The outcome was as expected. The software was delivered after several months and was capable of some basic synchronization. It had a basic web interface for some of the user functions and integrated with some of the services. The architecture was reasonable but not well tested and the exec was disappointed yet unable to argue that the offshore team had not delivered what was contractually asked of them. I think the worst part is the opportunity cost though – by concentrating on this project they were ignoring other, perhaps more realistic, strategies.

So innovate, build fantastic services that delight your users – but be sure you spend the time to understand what you are getting into, especially on mobile, as the devil is most certainly in the detail.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. anyone i know Alex? ??

    Reply

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