Is your backlog a graveyard?

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If your backlog is not a graveyard then you may be short of ideas.
In my 20+ years of software, I’ve always had a backlog for software development. The list is full of ideas, customer requests, and defects. It fills faster than the team can implement and some items become aged and never resolved. I’ve come to realize that if I don’t have a list with aged items it’s probably because I don’t  have an open channel of incoming ideas and I’m no listening to my customers.

I used to stress over an overflowing backlog and it was a source of frustration. As I matured a bit with software development I realized it’s not realistic to completely solve the backlog queue. But it is realistic to improve processes to resolve the backlog items more efficiently. It’s not about an empty list but about what’s in the list and how the team is processing it.

After time, the priority of some backlog requests changes.
It’s like that shining new thing you want to buy. If you wait a week before making an impulse decision you often realize that you don’t really need that thing. Software is the same way. With the passing of time, some requests may no longer be relevant, or become less important as the business environment changes.

To keep the backlog manageable purge items periodically.
One inefficient process that I’ve found myself in over the years is continually prioritizing some backlog items that never get implemented. It’s the equivalent of re-work because the team rehashes the backlog item each time. Some backlog items are complicated and can take time to go over the relevant facts to determine a priority. At some point, the team needs to decide if the item should be returned to the backlog or purged.

Some possible purging methods:

  • Time based – After a certain time period in the backlog an item is removed.
  • No longer relevant – If the business purpose of the idea is no longer relevant.
  • Revenue expectations – If the backlog item does not meet a specified revenue threshold.
  • Non essential – If the backlog item is not required for contractual obligations or compliance of some external agent.

The backlog should be a primary input to your roadmap.
If I’m managing my backlog properly then I should see items removed and added regularly. A healthy backlog has both elimination of items and turnover. If I do this, then the items within the backlog list will be relevant to business needs and a primary input to the software roadmap.

No more resumes – welcome to your profile portal

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Everything has a time to end.
I consider the traditional resume to be a retired artifact of days in the past. I keep my professional profile “in the cloud” using the service from LinkedIn. It’s not that LinkedIn is the only way to do this, but it is a widely used location for such information and makes data more readily available for to me reference and others to see.

If someone asks for my resume, I can give them a copy of a traditional resume. But it’s really just a replica of my online professional profile. In fact, I used a LinkedIn Labs creation which takes the information in my profile and formats it in an accepted resume format. Putting it in PDF or Word document format allows it be stored, printed, or otherwise meet the criteria of some process. But why not just store a link?

The online profile is really a profile portal.
More important is that my online profile contains links to content I have created. It serves as a portal to other information about me; my blog, my twitter feed, a mind map repository, group members, forum answers, etc. These are all links to places giving anyone a more thorough look at who I really am. It’s more than a resume. It’s like an instant professional portfolio of work and it is immediately accessible.

Think about that. Resumes are known for stretching the truth. They can be embellished. But links to actual work, my thoughts, my writing, my creations aren’t in the resume. The profile portal is authentic, it’s transparent, it’s the real-deal.

That’s scary. What about privacy?
Privacy is certainly a big topic. Blogs, twitter, google profiles, even Facebook are all areas of public access and when people put information there it is to a degree accessible by some group of people. But remember, I’m talking about a professional profile here, not about details of what you and your family did last weekend. Keep your private life separate from your professional life within your content.

Why does it matter? Isn’t a resume just for job searches?
No. Don’t think resume, think online profile. This makes it possible to research prospective employee hires, clients, partners, etc. Profile portals contain information to help you research and transact business. Know who you are dealing with, from employees to suppliers. If your profile portal is short on linked information, then make a plan to build-it-up. It could make a difference in your next business deal or job search.

I’m always looking for new ideas and ways to leverage an online profile. Let me know your thoughts.

Public roads as a needs based service? It’s HOT

What’s a HOT lane?
High Occupancy Toll lanes (HOT) are popular with transit authority officials as a tactic to relieve congestion on our public roadways; at least that’s how it’s explained to the public. Just look at this growing list of toll roads. The concept is that a designated lane is equipped with electronic detection devices that can track a motorist’s movement in the lane. Whereas a traditional High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane is free for vehicles with more than one passenger, the HOT lanes require a toll for single or double occupant vehicles.

The selling proposition to the public is “guaranteed trip times.” By using variable tolls based on the amount of traffic in the lane, authorities can game the amount of cars in the lane and thus guarantee it continues to move above the speeds of the non toll lanes.  Planners say this gives everyone a chance to use the lane and a faster ride when they need it. Opponents say that it creates a lane for the wealthy (“Lexus lane”) and that they shouldn’t have to pay for a lane already paved with tax payer dollars.

Planners have inadvertently created a needs based service.
Let’s be honest. HOT lanes are creative way to raise revenue for the government piggy bank. It’s not a new tax per say because it’s an optional fee based on usage. I’m not against the government collecting money because I enjoy and benefit from many of the services it provides to me.

But what authorities have created with HOT lanes is a needs based service. I define a needs based service as something that people need to solve a problem in their lives at a specific point in time.  It’s something that people will pay a premium to receive to solve their problem quicker than they could otherwise.

Here are some common examples:

  • Overnight shipping – You know, when you forget that valentine’s present for your significant other and need it sent out yesterday.
  • Gift wrapping – For when you want to send a special gift to someone who is not with you. Having it gift wrapped when it arrives adds a nice touch.
  • Custom logos on business products – You can certainly buy the products without your brand or affiliation. Adding the logo is something you’ll pay extra to receive.

Now we have variable based toll lanes that are available, at a price, to save commuters a few minutes while getting from point A to point B.  When you are late for an appointment or meeting and can’t wait through the usual traffic jam it becomes a solution to a need.

Is it wrong to repurpose a public road as a toll lane?
Toll roads aren’t new. They’re all over the country. Does it matter if a road was built with the agreement that a toll fund would pay for the construction versus a road that is converted to tolls after it’s built with general tax dollars? Is it right to for taxpayers to pay twice to receive the benefits of a government service? These are great questions and worthy of healthy debate.

You may have guessed that my commute is impacted by a HOT lane.
I’m noodling these thoughts because I’m watching and using a HOT lane each day during my commute to work.  I have not paid to use the lane yet, and most of my fellow commuters have not either. In fact what’s happened is that the general purpose lanes have more traffic and the HOT lanes are generally empty. The lack of vehicles in the HOT lane was so far under estimates that officials quickly reduced the amount of the toll in an effort to get more commuters in the lane.

Is this the answer to large congestion problems? Not from what I’ve observed. Many people refuse to use pay the toll to enter the HOT lanes out of principal that it doesn’t have equal access to everyone.  As a result, the lanes and have created new traffic issues on surface streets as commuters look to avoid the backup in the general purpose lanes on the interstate. Bottom line is that the lanes may be helping the few, but they’ve made the commute longer for most people.

As a marketer, I love the idea of needs based services.
What marketer doesn’t like premium services? They are highly profitable. Customers respect and value needs based services also. They use it when they need it and are willing (maybe not happy about it) to pay extra to get it.

But a HOT lane is having a tough time gaining the acceptance from most of the public. I wonder if the negative reaction from many people is because the idea is new and represents change? If the lane was built with the purpose of functioning as a HOT lane from the outset and funded by the tolls would it thought of differently? Will negative perception to the lane fade with time?

Transit authority planners continue to push this idea as a solution for transit issues. Since the majority of public reaction is negative, someone needs to ask if there is a better way. But with a revenue stream attached to them, HOT lanes will be a difficult thing for transit authorities to let go.

Our definition of ‘normal’ for transportation options may be changing before our eyes. What do you think?

What manufacturing can teach IT and finance

Manufacturing is about consistent output.

Steady manufacturing is about consistent output at regular intervals. The Ford Motor Company is the classic case study for an assembly line process and mass production.  Think about the big idea for what Henry Ford accomplished. The assembly line reduced the labor hours required to produce a vehicle and increased the number of vehicles that could be produced in a given time period. The assembly line started a consistent output of units. It was incremental output, one car at a time.

The analysis of manufacturing involves incremental costs and margins.

If you studied business or economics in school you’ll remember that the marginal cost of a product is the change in total cost when one more unit is produced (incremental unit). The contribution margin is the profit when one more unit of a product is sold. The contribution margin is used with break-even analysis to determine the point at which costs are equal to revenue. In the world of manufacturing, which may deal with thousands to millions of units, the break-analysis is an essential equation. It’s an analysis that gets down to single incremental units.

Why I like incremental programming.

I like the concept of agile software development because it focuses on incremental improvements to software. Agile focuses on delivering one feature at a time, rather than looking at software as a project with a variable number of features. That sounds like a manufacturing machine or an assembly line. Agile programming aims to create a steady flow of output instead of an output flow determined by project scope (variable).

What are some advantages of an incremental approach?

  • More predictable delivery dates. Smaller scope makes delivery of releases easier to control and predict. There are less moving parts. What’s ready to be delivered is released and what is not ready waits until the next delivery date.
  • Easier to manage scope. Bloated projects can have huge scope lists and are often difficult to manage. It takes more paper work, longer meetings, and more coordination of changing items.
  • Reduced risk. With large project scopes the team is “all in”. Then scope is managed by a “change control” process which takes paperwork and meetings. With incremental features the team is only at risk of missing that single feature rather than putting a group of features (in a project) at risk if there are delays.
  • Flexible decision making. With smaller work units and quicker delivery dates, business leaders can make decisions and shift direction as business needs dictate. If you are half way through a large project and have to abandon it because of shifting business priorities then none of the items in that project are delivered to stakeholders. All of the effort spent is wasted.

So why is it so hard to get out of the big project mentality?

Habits. Training. Finance rules for capitalizing labor. Budgets. Tradition. “Best practices”. The reasons go on-and-on.  If we think about our software delivery process like an assembly line then why would we accept periods of inactivity where the machine spits out nothing? If manufacturing had periods where the machines didn’t produce output they would get shutdown. I don’t think the break even analysis would be favorable.

Simple is as simple does. Think and act incrementally.