The Sync: Alexei Miller & Allan Wellenstein Discuss How to Plan for the Unknown When Designing a Software System
In this episode, Alexei Miller, Managing Director at DataArt, continues his conversation about designing software systems with Allan Wellenstein, the founder and leader of Solution Design at DataArt. They discuss how projects can start and progress in the times of uncertainties and how to think about a business case, even though so much is always unknown about the future.
Alexei Miller: We're on with Alan Wellenstein – the founder and the leader of DataArt’s Solution Design Practice. And Alan agreed to share with us his observations of how projects can start and progress in strange times like this. Thanks, Alan, for giving us a few minutes.
Alan Wellenstein: Of course, thanks for having me.
A.M.: So in this crisis world that we're all living in, the first instinct that all of us have is to just freeze in space, not do anything, see how the situation develops, don't spend any money and so on. In business “not doing anything” is a luxury that we cannot really afford, although sometimes it feels like the only thing that we can do, it's very rarely the right thing to do. So in your observation, clients who need to do things, they have to deal with this uncertainty, how to plan a new project, how to think about the business case, even though so much is unknown about the future. What do you see in conversations with your clients, how do people approach this and what kind of advice are you giving them?
A.W.: I would say largely the cases that we're seeing in the practice now fall into two buckets. We have some clients who have very urgent tactical needs as a result of seeing their demand either crash or, in some cases, go up beyond what they're able to deal with, and they need to very quickly do things.
Here is where the expertise in the solution design group which is all based on ideation, innovating, quickly prototyping, testing hypotheses, is quite useful because we can come in, analyze what the problem is, quickly get aligned with their stakeholders and then test various approaches very very rapidly of how we might be able to help them. So it's sort of this like Innovation lab, sort of product accelerator to help those clients who find themselves pretty urgently needing to make changes. The other type of clients is the type of clients that we've traditionally served in the past that has a transformation. And those themselves fall into two buckets.
They see their need to modernize, and they see that the competitors, especially startups around them, are much more nimble and starting to eat their lunch. And those fall into two buckets: some, where they are capitalized well enough and they're able to invest through this in which case they're actually in a great position because they can use this time to invest in the future for when they come out of this. And then we have the other side where they know they need this transformation, but unfortunately, they're struggling and are in a cost-cutting reduction, so other than providing advice and helping, we're a little bit more limited.
What I'd say is I haven't actually seen the needs that companies are facing change in the time of COVID. The needs of what everyone is shooting for now- business agility is probably the best term. How do we shorten the time between someone having a great idea for how we can help a client and getting that into production. That hasn't changed, it's not going to change after COVID, the things that those companies needed to do before COVID are the same things that they need to do now. And they are not just technical, they are as much about changing their legacy processes and getting their organization used to what it means to be an agile organization. And we have a number of clients who we’re working with, who are fortunate enough with their cash position to be able to invest through this, and others who unfortunately aren't so lucky.
A.M.: It seems like if there is anything on the positive side of this crisis, it's that it has demonstrated the importance of a shift towards new generation digital services, serving one client via digital channels, making sure that the experience that is delivered by other devices is not inferior to anything they would get in the physical space, bank branch or in the office of some kind. So I think it's reasonable to expect that companies in a position to invest will invest, if anything, even more aggressively in developing those digital services. Do you see the same thing?
A.W.: Yeah, absolutely. I don't think that the recognition of the need to move towards digital more customer-centric, less friction, more efficiency has changed, but the urgency surely has. Before COVID the urgency was “wow we see these startups coming into our space and they're starting to behave in this way that if we don't catch up we're going to have a problem” and now post-COVID especially with so many business transactions moving to an online space, companies who haven't made that shift yet are under intense pressure to do it quickly.
A.M.: What about a shift to the cloud? Do you see a lot of your clients find sort of new appreciation for cloud as this essential component of making sure your systems are resilient? Whereas there used to be a time where the cloud was primarily an economic consideration, then there was a wave of concern about security, and now I think this crisis has added a whole dimension of resiliency and not being dependent on any physical space for workers or for your infrastructure for continuous operation. Are you seeing a spike in conversations about the cloud among your clients?
A.W.: Yeah, absolutely. And it's interesting too, it's not just like you said the efficiency of the cloud from a cost and performance perspective, but also with work from home it's putting a lot of pressure on corporate VPNs which become the choke point. They thought they were leveraging the cloud, but with everyone working from home and now coming through a choke point of a corporate VPN, they're recognizing that they still have work to do in terms of really taking advantage of what the cloud has to offer.
A.M.: Has your approach to designing systems changed at all? Meaning you use the design system to operate in what is a, quote on quote, a normal set of circumstances, where you could forecast with relative certainty, what kind of user base you'll have, what kind of load parameters, what kind of security infrastructure. And now, the universe is showing us that all of these assumptions are at the very least incomplete and may be completely wrong. And so it seems like when designing a new project, or program or system, you have to consider a whole bunch of things that you could not even conceive of before. Is there an element of this dealing with uncertainty from this perspective?
A.W.: Yeah, not so much in terms of how it's changed our approach, but how it's changed the conversation. I'm finding that I'm spending a lot less time convincing clients that they need to plan for the unknown and plan for the uncertainty ahead of them. And the message about really investing as much in the process of how they design and build software as the specific architecture of what they're building. Now when I make a point that “we can all make certain assumptions of what tomorrow's going to look like, but the people who win in business are the people who are incredibly nimble and can change when demand changes”. That conversation now goes a lot differently; people sort of intrinsically understand how important it is to focus as much on their process as the specifics of what they're building.
A.M.: On the subject of endurance or how enduring those systems will be in the future. I remember when I was studying the business 20 years ago, you have a conversation with a new client, and you plan for whatever you are creating together with them to last five, maybe ten years it was a long-term investment. Now increasingly over the last few years, we're advising clients to shorten their horizons a lot more and plan for systems to be replaced, or at least modernized much more frequently. Sometimes I've heard of projects being built only to be rebuilt in a couple of years down the road. This changes the mindset entirely. Do you think this crisis or everything else that's going on around us will further compress these timelines? The notion of durability it seems changes before our eyes.
A.W.: I don't know if I necessarily agree that it's shortening the time between when you build and rebuild a system. I think that the players, who have been immensely successful in using technology to unlock opportunities. The thing that they've gotten right is the process. Is the recognition that actually they're never done it's not correct to think of when are we have done with this process and when is it time to build the new one, but rather to focus on the processes within their organization across departments of how ideas are prioritized, how they make it into the backlog and to focus as much on the velocity of their organization, the process by which these ideas more and more become unlocked.
This is the thing that I'm seeing shifting is that enterprises in particular with very siloed departments where it used to be three-four years ago, it’s not at all uncommon for us to work with one department and then say “oh I know it makes sense to integrate with that but boy that's so difficult to work with those people!”. Organizations are really starting to see how much that's going to get in their way for what all of their startup competitors are doing, and organizations are starting to see a lot of value with getting the dance correct between the various departments. So that you're not building something and then you're done, but you're building something, and you're focusing on the process by which you're building it and changing it and changing it and changing it and changing it.
A.M.: Alright, this is great. Alan, last but not least, any prediction on when you and I can physically sit in the same room and do a client workshop? What’s your take on timing?
A.W.: I read a sobering article over the weekend that suggests maybe one or two people sitting in a room together is going to be within a few months, but larger groupings of people unfortunately maybe sometime in the future. But as somebody who doesn't love traveling, it's not the worst thing in the world that people get used to being productive remotely.
A.M.: All right, well, the world keeps working and keeps developing, and thanks for some time and your thoughts. Good luck!
A.W.: My pleasure, thank you so much. Take care, Alexei.