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It's all about the information.

“So what does your company do?” 

Sounds easy enough to answer, right? Dig deeper, however, and it might be a lot tougher to answer. At least it was for me over the last 20 years I’ve been in business. Here’s a little timeline of how I answered that question as our company has grown and evolved: 

We make websites.”  

“We’re a website developer.” 

“We make websites, but also applications.” 

“We build websites and web applications that integrate with databases.” 

“We’re a web development company that builds mobile, desktop and custom applications.” 

“We’re a web development company that builds websites, mobile and custom application utilizing technologies such as DNN, SharePoint…” 

See where I’m going here? The longer I was in business, the longer my simple answer became. It also became more specific, which, conversely, made it much more difficult for people to understand… or care about. Not only was I putting people to sleep, but most importantly, the answer I was giving was no longer even accurate. 

That realization came about this last year when we hired Mark Stiles as our Director of Business Development and began developing a comprehensive sales program. As sales had always been a bit of an informal affair, the task of developing an actual sales program was completely foreign. But it forced us to take a long, hard look at what we were actually doing, at our strengths, and at what benefits we were delivering to our clients. 

The result? 

We learned that although we were referring to ourselves as a “website development company," just 35 percent of our actual work was website development. The lion's share of our work -- 65 percent -- was in application development. And even with the 35 percent of website development, a large portion involved integrating the website with applications. 

Were we no longer a website development company? Were we now an application development company? That would be the easy answer, but we saw that as a trap. If we went down that road, would we be saying in five years “We’re an application development company that specializes in building mobile applications for fill-in-the-blank?" We ran the risk of being right back where we started. 

Instead, through a combination of inside and outside “eyes," we took a broader look at our business. Websites. Mobile apps. Custom applications. As shiny and interesting as they might be, these are all just vehicles built for a higher purpose: capturing and delivering information. That information might be to drive new sales, to increase productivity, retain clients, train members, the list goes on. In the end, it’s all about the information

Looking at it from that high a level was, for us, transformative. It made it suddenly very easy to see what we truly do: we make information matter for our clients

The truth is, we’d actually been doing that very thing for years; we just didn’t see it. A classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. 

So what does your company do? Maybe it’s time to dust off the answer and see if it’s still relevant.

 

 


 

Drywall dust, cast iron tubs and Agile Development...

This summer my wife and I demolished a third of our house. As in, we tore-it-down-to-the-ground demolished. The goals? To rebuild that section of our little house situated on the banks of the Flat River in Lowell, Michigan with more windows facing the river, a higher ceiling in the bedroom, more closet space and the ability to move our washer and dryer to the main level should stairs ever pose a problem (we're not that old yet, but we plan ahead).

Like a similar project we did six years ago (small guest-room and office), my wife and I are doing all the finish work ourselves. We're also using some of the lessons learned at work to make smarter decisions at home, and vice versa. 

And surprisingly enough, there's a whole lotta Agile Development going on.

We didn't plan to apply the principles of Agile to our home project; it was more like it suddenly dawned on us that we had been doing it all along. 

Morgan vs ShowerWith that plan, our contractor did one- to two-week "sprints," including the tear-down, framing, electrical, etc. At the end of those sprints, he would provide a "deliverable" for us to evaluate and tweak as needed, such as a new window where one hadn't been planned, eliminating the reconstruction of a wall we thought looked better once it was removed, and hey, while we were at it, we decided to get rid of that cast-iron tub and its '80s tile surround (word to the wise: hire the bathtub out; cast iron is a bugger).

Our house was built around 1936 as a fishing cabin. Because of that, it was impossible to have predicted all the "gotchas" that might affect the project along the way. By doing it the Agile way, there was just enough time for a pause between sprints to assess our next move and add or eliminate (mostly eliminate) items from our budget to keep the project on track.

The end result: we're thrilled with the final "product". Strangely enough, a few things that least excited us in the beginning have ended up being the few things we love the most. The major thing learned was how key communication is throughout. Even going a week without an update from the project manager was cause for concern. Are we on time? On-budget? Why does our phone suddenly not work? When will we not have power temporarily? Hey... we have no gutters, so is that why we have standing water in the dining room?

A lot of what we've done at i2Integration in the past few months has been done with the goal of improving communication between our developers and our clients. Are we there yet? No. But we're working hard. Having been on the other side for an entire summer, I've been reminded just how crucial that is.


 

I Know What I Did This Summer

Pardon my blog blackout; It's been one crazy summer. 
 
In the space of six weeks, i2Integration doubled in size – we're talking staff and revenue. In a three-week period we hired three new rockstar developers, not an easy task when finding a single stellar developer is a once-a-year event at most. We also implemented a new project management system called Jira; and built Agile development into our production process.
 
How did we double in size? It was kind of the perfect storm. We landed some nationally known new accounts, and some existing projects that had been slowly ramping up over months (and in one case, over a year) were suddenly ready to rock and roll. And a couple clients, who originally contracted with other firms, called us in to rescue their projects. Big fun.
 
A bit about Jira and Agile: Jira manages everything from code to project and issue tracking. It's become the preferred system for the state of Michigan, and it's also excellent for managing Agile development projects. A year ago one of our clients turned us onto Jira, which just goes to show how much our clients can teach us.
 
Agile is a development methodology where you work in what are called sprints. Here's a link to an article where we talked a bit about it. Agile has been great for us. It's streamlined production and allows us to focus on a particular project and client in short, dedicated bursts and to schedule work better. 
 
The summer's flurry of activity wasn't without its difficulties, and believe me, everyone in our office felt the bumps. But we made it through. This has forced us, in a good way, to become smarter in our development process and allowed us to turn around work much faster than we had been able to in the past. We're expecting even more growth, and now we have the people and the infrastructure to meet that demand.
 
The great thing is that because of Jira and Agile, our new staff were able to hit the ground running within their first week, something that would not have happened before this summer's streamlining process.
 
In 1999, i2Integration was essentially a one-man company when I landed Sparrow Health System. I knew at that moment that everything had just changed. This summer, I have had that feeling again. We have all the pieces in place – the methodologies, the systems and the staff – to turn around more consistent work, faster. For those who felt the bumps yet trusted this process and stuck with us, welcome to a new era.


 

Agile and Scrum walk into a bar…

I’m a big fan of the show “Silicon Valley” on HBO. It’s well-written, funny and very likely the only show you’ll ever see where Agile development methodology and scrum management framework are used as comedic devices.

 

Yep, it’s geek humor. But the joke also points out (to both the technical and non-technical) how using Agile and Scrum turns a chaotic and disorganized development project into a streamlined, efficient and effective way to get things done. For that reason, I’m also a big fan of Agile development and Scrum.

 

So, what is Agile development and Scrum?

Perhaps the best way to describe them is to first say what they are not. In a traditional (what is a “waterfall”) project methodology, the flow of the project goes something like this:

 

Requirements analysis… then Design… then Code… then Integration… then Test… then Deploy.

 

In large projects, the waterfall method can be difficult as essentially you’re building the entire product/website, etc. in the hope that you have gathered every requirement and anticipated every pitfall beforehand. That’s not only difficult with some projects, it may be entirely impossible.

 

Agile and Scrum looks at the project differently. Rather than building the entire project before putting it out there for review, with Agile and Scrum, you develop the project collaboratively during intensive "sprints" of work. Each sprint is designed to release a finished version of the project. From there you analyze, review, adapt and plan for the next sprint for the next version project release. Keep in mind that the project can be a web application, a website, a mobile app, etc.

 

So, why use Agile and Scrum?

If this sounds familiar: “Yep, that’s how we thought it’s supposed to work, but now that I actually see it… we can’t do it that way.”

 

With traditional development methodologies, that fact might not be discovered until the very end of the overall project and will surely result in big changes, big additional costs and loss of time. With Agile and Scrum, those questions are touched on immediately during each development “sprint” and then adjusted to accordingly.

 

In the end, Agile and Scrum can save vast amounts of time, budget and reduce project risk, not to mention produce a far superior end product.

 

Who knew they could also be funny?

 


 

 What are you running at home?

When it comes to hiring the best technology people, this simple question during the interview process has served me far better over the last 20 years than any HR test or hiring qualification system. Why? Because how a candidate answers this question instantly tells me whether they are simply looking for a job, or if technology is a lifestyle for them.

 

If it’s a lifestyle, if they live and breathe technology, they will tell me exactly what they are running at home:

 

“At home? Well, I built my own server that’s running IIS and SQL for a .NET application I’m building. Oh, and then there’s the Linux server I set up to run DNS. Did you mean that kind of thing?”

 

Yes it is. That’s exactly the candidate I’m looking for.

 

I say this because it’s surprising how many candidates come out of college looking for a technology job, yet have done nothing on their own to stand out.

 

My advice: build something! It doesn’t even have to be new and different. Find an application you like and build your own, simplified version. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve told candidates that I’ve hired people on the spot who have had no employment history, simply based on the (awesome, killer) sample code they’ve done outside of school. These are the self-starters. These are the people who live for this stuff.

 

And these are the people who will be invested enough in their passion to bring my company ideas and opportunities, and in turn, create their own opportunities.

 

Over 10 years ago, it was one of my staff – one of my self-starters, who said, “Hey John, you really need to look at this application called DNN.” Today, DNN is a large part of what we do for companies all across the country, and we've come so far because our team thrives on finding out how things work and how they can modify it to work better, faster, stronger and in ways our clients need.

 

Those are the people who work at i2Integration. Those are the people I'm looking to hire more of. And those are the people you want building your web applications.

 


 

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