Fifty Shades of Success

When I was starting my first paid job (as a software developer) success definition was quite simple: deliver pre-defined scope in pre-defined time (budget) & make sure that bugs don't break the general usability (you can call it a loose quality criteria ;>).

A lot of things have changed since then:

  1. Industry has understood the idea of maintainability & Technical Debt -> plenty have added "serviceable, maintainable, extendable" to their success definition
  2. Agile has helped people to switch their way of thinking from project-oriented to product-oriented: industry has learned that not everything can be determined up-front & sometimes a successful product is an evolving product that is developed iteratively & success as such may be measured with tangible metrics related directly to the product
  3. Engineering has changed a lot as well - true technical excellence can easily "translate" into meaningful value (shorter delivery lifecycle, higher availability, etc.) -> hence achieving high-level of technical quality may be considered a success as well.
  4. In some cases you don't care much about absolute metrics / results, what really matters is your relative position against direct competition, leader(s), the market in general. To make it even more amusing, sometimes success stems not from actual position (based on objective criteria), but the perceived position (that is far more about hype, smart marketing & PR).

So, success may be about keeping to the plan, making good (prosperous) product, building & following the vision that corresponds to true business needs, top-notch technical quality, superb efficiency, pro bullshitting ;> , ...

... but what I told you that sometimes a project / endeavor that

  • has delivered 30% of assumed scope
  • was over-budget
  • provided hardly tangible results
  • increased technical debt due to flawed execution
  • had no marketing at all

... may be a far bigger & more meaningful success than one that has shined in any (or even all!) categories mentioned above? Yes, it's possible & it's all about THE PRICE you've paid for this brilliance & shine. And this price is not just about money ...

  1. Did you use badass, ruthless project managers to "herd" people in the iron grip of death march?
  2. Who has designed your solution? Did you use external experts to create world-class blueprint & did your people just follow the map outlined by someone else?
  3. What about your processes, organizational structure & culture - are these aligned with what has been created? Or did you just follow some "best practices", "industry standards", "market benchmarks" without thinking whether they fit you in particular?

In consequence - is it YOUR solution at all? YOUR people solution?

  • do you / they feel any ownership over it?
  • do you / they consider themselves responsible / accountable for that?
  • did you / they learn anything in the process of creating this solution or was everything forced on them w/o much explanation?
  • do you / they own (and feel empowered about) any kind of future vision / roadmap for this product?
  • is the continuity of smooth solution development possible at all? or was it one-time endeavor that still has to be taken over somehow?

My point (fortunately more & more people do notice it already) is that sometimes it's good to err & mistakes are the fair price for the learning you get due to them. Even if it means that you've added less factual business value, you've strengthened your basic foundation - you & your people ...

  • ... know they are capable of delivering on their own
  • ... have learned something
  • ... have taken responsibility for something end-to-end
  • ... participate directly in shaping the future of your organization

It doesn't mean that you should get complacent or fall into NIH (Not-Invented-Here) syndrome. You need to be realistic about your people skills, character (comfort zone & willingness to cross its borders, etc.), ambitions & "hunger for more" - sometimes getting additional support from outside is absolutely crucial. Use all the sources of knowledge & expertise wisely & extensively, but always hold the reins on your own - keep the decision making capability and self-reliance in-house. Don't make external help spoil you or exempt you from thinking on your own.

Yes, it may be a cliche, but once again - sometimes it's not the target, but the path (& what you've learned / encountered on your way) that is more important & valuable in the end.