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Jan Barkhed

Published on 5 December 2023

Swim or sink

Most software projects are 90% complete 90% of the time. The shared belief amongst project members is that there are only a few bugs to correct, a bit of documentation to write, and some minor functionality to implement and everything can be released on the communicated deadline. Time and again, project managers have heard these words, and they still pretend they believe it. In reality, this yucky phase can make up half the project. More digging surfaces more problems; functionality that should have been implemented long ago but is somehow missing or doesn’t work as expected. Tests have passed with flying colours, but the software doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, and this is discovered only weeks from a looming deadline. Demands have been misunderstood or ignored because they were too complicated to build. Should the software be released with known defects, or should the release date be pushed again? Quality assurance isn’t trivial, experienced developers know it’s largely a tale of broken promises and futile expectations. Serious software projects are an existential battle, it’s sink or swim time for everyone involved.

Nothing is as humiliating as developing a product of your own, every founder knows that. Still, startup founders are told again and again how they shouldn’t fall in love with their own work. To endure all crap and setbacks along the way, founders must love the work they do. It’s wrong to assume they don’t get sick of the state things can be in, but founders only quit when they run out of money or lose their health. Work-life balance have a place in their life too.

Managers hire developers who they think can deliver. They don’t hire developers with a big mouth, who constantly embarrass them by not delivering. It’s a dream to hire a mute, attentive, and obedient developer – but these marvels hardly exist. Everyone has good and bad sides, the question is if the project can handle their idiosyncrasies.The number one priority is to deliver excellent software.

The pandemics brought a new reality to U.S. tech. According to reports, 48% of laid-off tech workers in 2022 were between 30 and 40 years old; the average employee had 12 years of experience. Since tech companies only hire developers in their 20s and 30s, there aren’t that many to terminate above that. Experience isn’t valued much in the tech world, the technology is in constant flux and projects must pay attention to the importance of learning. People in the creative world, either it’s marketing or tech, have a lifetime of about ten years. Many try out programming for two to three years and decide it’s not for them, it’s too much mental pressure, and they want a position where they don’t have to deliver that often. These positions exists, but when pursuing excellence, the strain is everywhere, especially in small companies. Software projects are nothing but death marches.

Some in tech champions the thought of frequent deliveries and abandoning work that don’t show immediate traction. Commercial results must be achieved in as short time as three months. Throwing spaghetti against the wall is a metaphor for product-market fit, a worthless expression that symbolises demands not yet uncovered. Spaghetti against the wall is an approach that still needs validation. While there is an infinite number of customers in the B2C market, who are willing to try out ludicrous ideas, the B2B market isn’t that forgiving. A proven business model is to build something that already exists, but cheaper and a lot better, and to invent more fanciful products only when the company has a brand and a profitable business. For these companies, the challenge is to transform an existing business that doesn’t bear fruit into something the world doesn’t know it yearns for yet.

Few companies will invest in new technology their competitors don’t show an interest in. The products and services they sell should have an USP, but development processes and tools are a carbon copy of their largest competitors. It brings conformity that results in nothing but decline in the whole industry. Tech founders who are successful know how wrong markets can be and how unconventional thinking can give them the upper hand.

Making customers aware of their latent needs aren’t easy. Twitter launched again and again without taking off, then it was suddenly discovered. Microsoft developed Windows 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, with no buyers in line. Persistence and few available alternatives led to Windows 3.1, which sold 8 million copies in six months. According to legend, Windows 1.0 had five project managers in succession, the last one Steve Ballmer. It was swim or sink time for Microsoft.