Really! – Have you seen this new stuff?
Systems are not like any other purchase. You can go to a tailor today and he will do almost the identical things that a tailor did for Julius Caesar. You can call an architect and his approach will differ little from that of Hiram Abif apart from the time taken to produce drawings. When it comes to systems though, it is more like medicine. Patients differ, you only hear what they tell you and you don’t really understand anything you have not personally experienced, you have to tease it out using your instinct and experience and play the numbers game.
There are techniques for flushing out the problems and verifying them and for getting the medicine accepted, but ultimately every doctor likes to deal with life threatening situations. If he succeeds for whatever reason, he’s a hero and if not, well, he did his best.
Apart from a lucky few, most of us in the software industry have to earn a living by delivering value in the real world through cost savings, or competitive advantage and that’s a tall order.
It calls for a mixture of calculated risk taking and good fall back positions and it requires an insight that combines real understanding of the business domain with leading edge technological ability. It doesn’t matter whether this is done by a committee or a genius as long as it gets done.
The requirements challenge
So how do you meet a businessperson, listen to his/her needs and six, nine or thirty six months later get a well done, thank you response?
There isn’t a really good answer to this. If it is six months, you are in with a chance. If it is nine you are still in there, at thirty six, the likelihood is that before you deliver this, a much better solution will have been invented, or the problem will have been replaced by a new one.
There is a considerable number of methodologies out there, most of them geared up to coax you into paying for expensive training courses and few aimed at really bridging the divide between what a business needs and what technology can deliver with reasonable reliability. A methodology that really works has to be able to understand business needs, translate it into process and match this with the best possible technical solution.
Defining the problem
This is not as simple as it sounds. If you read my business case blogs, you will probably remember the way I recommend tying corporate objectives in a direct and accountable way to the benefits delivered by the business case. That makes perfect sense of course, because a good business sets a plan and then works to deliver on it.
There are other scenarios however that need to be taken into account, this example will hopefully help to illustrate the point.
Suppose we approach an Amazon tribe still living in the traditional way, tell them that we would like to give them some gifts and ask them about the problems they would most like to solve and the things that might give them the most satisfaction. Problems and exciters. The likelihood is that having seen bright steel machetes amongst the crew, they might suggest a steel spear to make fishing more productive. We might then suggest that rather than give them a spear, we can give them a monofilament net. This way they can catch enough for the whole tribe in an hour instead of having to fish all day. Here we have seen a classic example of the two cardinal sins of analysis:
1. Asking a question that the object of the question can’t possibly be expected to answer well.
2. Answering with a solution rather than a problem.
The interviewee in this example can’t be expected to know how to manage this process, so the entire responsibility lies with the interviewer. By the way, that includes the many occasions when the interviewee believes she knows exactly what she wants and is driving.
The responsibility of the analyst extends to making sure that the interviewee has explored and understood the problem and has a sufficient understanding of it and of the desired outcomes to start either designing or verifying the solution.
I include verifying here, because an increasing number of business people believe themselves to be tech wizards and arrive with fait-accomplis and a budget wanting a technically trained fellow to make her vision happen. In these cases, instead of designing a solution, the analyst goes through a process of verifying the problem, the requirements and the solution. If these three don’t match and the sponsor doesn’t see it then it is up to the individual analyst’s conscience and professional integrity as to what he/she should do next.
In this part we have talked about three key issues:
1. The unique challenge facing a systems professional in getting to the real problem before starting on the solution.
2. Educating the client about possibilities in order to truly understand what the problem is.
3. Tempering the part time inventor with a little pragmatism without dampening his/her enthusiasm.