A Guide to Defining Business Objectives

It can be said that in the world of the actual developer when the client or boss stops complaining and critiquing, the developer was automated to the point of being redundant. Basically, if no one is complaining, the developer is out of work.

Everyone wants a flying car, even when the job involves ingestion. However, there is a fine line in a business between a business requirement and idealism or ignorance. This is especially true when reporting to a boss whose technical competence and knowledge is less than stellar. So what rules have I discovered that will keep you employed? How do you avoid going to far off track when creating SCRUM tasks? Read on.

This article is an opinion piece on defining objectives and, to some extent, building the infrastructure required for a project.

Defining Core Objectives

All actual rules should be tightly cropped to the actual end client’s needs. This means being social with the end user. The first thing to do should be to find the most pessimistic person in the office and the person who will be using your product most. They may be the same people. Strike up a nice conversation with them. Get to know them  and then start asking questions about what they absolutely need. If there are multiple people in the office interacting directly with your end product, work from the most pessimistic and necessary to the least, establishing an absolute core of necessity.

By default, your boss will usually be the most optimistic person in the office. They are often less knowledgeable of the technical requirements and often of technology in general. Your goal is to temper their expectations to something reasonable. I have found this to be true of business partners as well.  You should understand what they want as they will provide a small set of absolute requirements but also keep in mind that if they can squeeze gold from water, they will.

If you find yourself limiting your objectives, use memos and presentations to make sure that you are providing a solid line of reasoning for why something cannot be done. Learn the IEEE standards for documentation and get familiar with Microsoft Office or Libre Office. Always offer a solution and state what would be needed to actually accomplish an objective and why it may be infeasible. In doing so, you may find a compromise or a solution. Offer them as alternatives. Do not be overly technical with the less technical.

My line of work requires providing relatively sensitive information in bulk at speed with a fair degree of normalization and quality. Basically, I am developing and building a large distributed ingestion and ETL engine with unique requirements that do not fit existing tools. This process has been a wreck as I was new to development coming in, given a largely inappropriate set of technology, ignored, and asked to build a Netflix style stack from the hulk of Geo Cities.

Defining business requirements was the first task I struggled with. Competing and even conflicting interests came from everywhere. My boss wanted and to a large degree wants an auto-scaling system with a great degree of statistical prediction on top of a massive number of sources from just one person. My co-workers, clients in the most strict sense, want normalization, de-duplication, anomaly detection,  and a large number of enhancements on top of a high degree of speed. No one seemed to grasp the technical requirements but everyone had an idea of what they needed.

In solving this mess, I found that my most valuable resource was the end user who was both most pessimistic of what we could deliver and had less technical skill than hoped for.  She is extremely bright and quite amazing, so bringing her up to speed was a simple task. However, she was very vague about what she wanted. In this case, I was able to discern requirements from my bosses optimism and a set of questions posed to her. As she also creates the tickets stemming from issues in the system, she indirectly defines our objectives as well.

Available Technology

The availability of technology will determine how much you can do. Your company will often try to provide less than the required amount of technology. Use your standards based documentation, cost models, and business writing to jockey for more. If you are under-respected, find someone who has clout and push them to act on your behalf.

As a junior employee several years ago, I found myself needing to push for basic technologies. My boss wanted me to use Pentaho for highly concurrent yet state based networking tasks on large documents ranging from HTML to PDF. In addition to this, he wanted automation and a tool that could scale easily. Pentaho was a poor tool choice. Worse, I had no server access. It took one year before I was able to start leaning on a more senior employee to lobby for more leniency and after another year and a half, servers. It took another year before I had appropriate access. If I was not developing a company, one that now has clients, I would have quit. The important take away, get to know your senior employees and use them on your behalf when you need to. Bribes can be paid in donuts where I work.

Promise Appropriately, Deliver With Quality

Some organizations require under-promising and over-delivering. These tend to be large organizations with performance review systems in desperate need of an overhaul. If you find yourself in such a situation, lobby to change the system. A solid set of reasoning goes a long way.

Most of us are in a position to promise an appropriate number of features with improvements over time. If you use SCRUM, this model fits perfectly. Devise your tasks around this model. Know who is on your team and promise an appropriate unit of work. Sales targets are built around what you can deliver. They are kept on your quality and  the ease of handling your product. Do not deliver to little, you will be fired but don’t define so much as to raise exuberance to an unsatisfiable level.

In my ingestion job, promises are made based on quality and quantity. I use the SCRUM model to refine our promises. Knowing my new co-worker’s capacity, fairly dismal, and my own, swamped with creating the tool, I can temper our tasks to meet business goals. Over time, we are able to include more business requirements on top of the number of sources being output and improving existing tools.

Hire Talent

If you are in the position of being able to hire people to expand on what you can achieve,  I do not recommend telling your boss an entry level position will suffice as they will then find someone with no skill. Also, push to be in the loop on the hiring process. The right person can make or break a project. My current co-worker is stuck re-running old tasks as he had no knowledge of our required tools and concepts despite my memo to my boss. Over time, he will get better but, with little skill, that may be too long. Sometimes the most difficult higher ups are those who are nice at heart but ignorant in practice.

Tickets

Your core requirements are not the ten commandments. You are not defining a society and universal morals but a more organic project. Requirements and objectives will change over time. The best thing you can do is to establish a ticket system, choose a solid system as changing to a different tool later is difficult. Patterns from these tickets will create new tools, define more requirements, and help you to better define your process.

In finding an appropriate system, ask:

  • Do I need an API that can interact with my or my clients tools?
  • Do I need SCRUM and Kanban capabilities on top of ticketing?
  • How hard is it to communicate with the client or end user?

At my work, I implemented a manual SCRUM board for certain tasks which had a positive impact on my overwhelmed co-worker who found JIRA cumbersome and full of lag. It is. We use JIRA for bug reporting and associated Kanban capabilities.

Cost

Cost is that lurking issue many will ignore. You need to document cost and use it to explain the feasibility of an objective. When possible create statistical tools that you can use to predict the burden on profitability and justify decisions. Money is the most powerful reasoning tool you have.

Conclusion

This opinion piece reviewed my lessons for entry level software developers looking to learn how to define business objectives. Overall, my advice is to:

  • Define core objectives starting with the most important and pessimistic users
  • Dive into your bosses core requirements and use their optimism to define the icing on the cake
  • Build on your objectives and requirements over time
  • Be involved in your bosses decisions
  • Define an appropriate number of objectives that allow you to deliver quality work (you will build on your past work over time)
  • Communicate and use an appropriate project management framework
  • Track costs and build statistical tools
  • Learn IEEE standards based documentation such as Software Design Documents and Database Design Documents, get familiar with business writing
  • Make sure you hire the right people

 

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