Monday, October 07, 2013

The importance of productivity ...

As I get into the final phases of development before the first release of my smart shelf solution, I am focusing a lot on usability and productivity features.  Outside of elite software development circles, these intangibles are still little understood and highly undervalued in the IT world.  Such features are always hard to elucidate to potential customers because they’re immaterial (not easily written into a feature list) and can usually only be perceived after the fact (ie… after using them).

When I say productivity what does that mean?  Well, there is the dictionary definition of it, but let me give you an example:

Many years ago I got the opportunity to work for a new start-up ran by some real math geniuses at JetBrains.  When I was asked to come on, it was a small team just releasing the 2nd version of their now industry famous and unbelievably awesome Java IDE IntelliJIDEA.  These guys were the first to put refactoring features into a Java IDE and not only that, made it quick and easy to use.  Developers (their niche market) saw the value immediately and sales quickly took off.  A simple refactor like “rename” immediately saved 10s of minutes if not hours of manual (and error prone) work renaming items in your code.  You could now fire up the “rename” refactor with a push of a button, and all (for example, class names) within the entire project would be renamed to whatever you chose (error free).  Seems simple in retrospect, but it was a huge time saver at the time, and companies were willing to pay for such features.   Here’s why:

Let’s say you pay a developer 80,000 USD per year to program for you. He works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 4 weeks a month – an average of 20 days per month.  That yearly salary roughly translates into 6,666 USD per month, 333 USD per day, 42 USD per hour, .70 cents per minute.  This new feature saves 15 minutes per day.  Time = Money, so around 10 USD per day of developer time (ie… more work completed in the same amount of time).  Now, basic math: 10 USD per day = 50 USD per week = 208 USD per month = 2500 USD per year.  The software license cost was 500 USD.  That’s 2000 USD in increased productivity or programming value for that 1 developer.

And of course, that wasn’t the only feature (the tool had way more, with much larger productivity savings, but general time savings per day with the new tool was probably around 1 hour a day total).  Other elite programmers understood it immediately and had their bosses buy it; in companies where there was no budget, or worse, somebody who did not understand productivity was in charge of finances (which is usually the case), many programmers bought the software with their own money!

Then came the competition.  As our software added these productivity features, other vendors started to add them as well.  In this market, our competitors were open source software Eclipse (funded by IBM) and NetBeans (funded by Sun Microsystems).  Backed by billion dollar corporations, the foundations running these open source variants offered their software FREE, with features rivaling IntelliJ IDEA – maybe always 1 or 2 steps behind, but basically great value for the money (free!).  But you know what, although on a 2 dimensional feature list, they could compete with similar features, they still could not compete on the productivity side.  Their “rename” feature might work just as well, but to use it, you had to take your hand off of the keyboard, click around on the mouse, and basically go thru 4-5 steps to invoke this feature.  With IntelliJ IDEA, you needed just one press of a button (superior usability).  To this day, JetBrains is around, making a ton of software variants for different platforms and languages (all of them born out of IntelliJ IDEA) and always keeping 1-step ahead on productive features against their rivals.

That’s what tools you buy for your company should do.  If they complicate things, then they really do not have much productivity value.  Having played with many of the leading ERP system variants and their modules (SAP, Ariba, ex-People Soft now Oracle, Salesforce, and even smaller system), some of them are just horrible to use.  Slow, complex menus, nothing intuitive about them when using them … they’re not productivity inducing at all and even add some initial complexity to the organization (usually requiring expensive trainings, consulting for refinement, etc….).  Such systems shouldn’t be that way, but they are.  And they rule the logistics world.

However, knowing the above ... how can one sell “productivity” to a potential customer if the customer is unwilling to try something new, or due to the size of the company at hand, it’s simply impossible to rollout and demo a new product in their environment?  This is a problem I’m looking to answer.  And it’s a question supply-chain related companies need to figure out as well.  Being dominated by slow-moving, expensive 800-pound gorillas isn’t doing their organization (or the industry!) any justice, they need to internally think of ways they can “test” disruptor like chasm crossing solutions at the same time, to keep their current vendors honest and innovating.  Stay tuned! :-)

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