Don’t be an 11th-hour tool

Why you shouldn’t build other people’s products without being involved early on in the process.

I kicked off Helpful Human as a dev shop late 2013 with Nick Glenn (who is now a co-founder) as the first full-time employee.

At the time, we’d take on anything anyone needed done, no matter how small the job—with the exception of the illegal or morally ambiguous. I recently checked our books, and we did a fat $5,000 revenue in January 2014. Stacks on stacks! (In other words, we were very hungry.)

But our habit of taking anything from anyone has yielded some interesting and helpful lessons. The most important being that, as a team responsible for building the product, if you’re not involved in the project early on, it’s going to be painful.

Historically, we’ve been called in when it’s time to ‘build the thing.’ At this point, the strategy has already been locked down, designs made and ‘tested,’ it’s the 11th hour, and the client is saying to whoever will listen, “For the love of Pete, we just need to get this thing built and launched!”

So we’d assemble our team and go to work. We were a blunt hammer suitable for knocking things into place even when the pieces didn’t fit.

Me, every two weeks or so.

Do this, and get ready to fail.

If you want to learn why IT projects historically fail at such a high rate, start a dev shop and specialize in app development—building from strategy and product design in which you took no part. You will get a first-hand look at how poor requirements analysis and bad client expectation management will plunge everyone involved into a semi-polite cage fight with startling frequency. (Or you can read a bunch of these articles and take their word for it.)

Some of our clients have their act together; failure isn’t a universal reality. But our ‘pain percentage’ eerily mirrors that of the industry at large — about 70% of all projects seem like slow motion train wrecks.

Realities of building a product you didn’t help define.

If you’re brought into a project in the final stages, some harsh realities will come your way.

  • The client/decider hasn’t clearly defined their business requirements — or they don’t know how to.
  • A non-technical designer made a very handsome thing…that can’t be built on time or within budget. (But the client has already signed off on everything.)
  • Oops, that pesky non-negotiable third-party integration can’t support everything else that depends on it!
  • There is a vast chasm betwixt the client’s expected outcome and the effort required to get there, and you’ve been given nothing but a paper airplane, some cotton candy, and a box of popsicle sticks to bridge the divide.
  • And so on and so forth.

And if you’re one of that special breed that prefers to say, “Yep, no problem. No issues here, we can do it!” knowing full well that ‘this way madness lies’ but, “Dang son, at least we won the work! We’ll figure this all out later”, then you need to submit yourself to a public spanking in full view of a large crowd of your peers. (It should probably be live-streamed as well.)

But you’re not one of those people, so you lovingly, carefully, diplomatically raise your hand from the back of the room and say, “Uh…if I may humbly suggest, we revisit the basis of, um…well, everything before we kick this off?”

(I’ve found that this is typically a distinctive moment.)

Good on you, fight that good fight, and help those companies that depend on your ability to bring life to their aspirations!

But please stop lying to yourself.

Right now, stop believing that you can be successful making things in an off-the-cuff manner for ill-prepared (but well-meaning) folks. This isn’t just a project management problem; this is an issue of the whole process needing a reconfiguration.

You must move from being an 11th-hour tool to being a critical part of the strategy to avoid the pain that you and the client will otherwise face.

I have three suggestions for you.

This is not a robust, prescriptive list that’ll guarantee success. But if this advice doesn’t get you on the right path, I’ll buy you a deconstructed espresso at Slate next time you’re in Seattle. (A clever excuse for me to drink more hipster coffee.)

  1. Develop your design thinking
    It’s not just the craft of design; it’s the process of which you are part of designing the everything of the user experience. This includes the offline and the online aspects as well as the justification for starting anything at all. You ask questions that most often start with “Why…” and say things like, “What problem does this solve?” People are going to love you!
  2. Fall in love with process
    The best thing about having a ‘way’ of doing things is that you have a ‘way’ of doing things. Being able to say, “This is our process…” early in the relationship (especially before contracts are signed) will go quite far in letting your prospective customer know that this is not a free-for-all and that they are subject to your way of doing business. You can also iterate your process as you discover what does or doesn’t work in delivering exceptional value — not something possible with a scattershot approach. At Helpful Human, we have a pre-sales process, a new engagement discovery process, and an agile-esque product development process.
  3. Move up the value chain
    You need to get closer to the origin of the work if you want to avoid being an afterthought. If you believe that you can influence strategic choices that will lead to product success, it’s time to start clawing your way to the top. This means that you are in strategy discussions with C-Level folks and contributing very early in the product development life-cycle. You might even have to hang out with branding or naming professionals! (*gasp*)

Here, take a look at this high-tech chart I drew for you to illustrate my point:

You’ll notice that even though there is less time required, the decision-making/strategy phase yields more money per hour while the largest percentage of the work (implementation) yields lower rates. That’s ok; there are many hours for the implementers of the world to share.

But this article isn’t about getting a higher rate through moving up the value chain; it’s about recognizing where good and bad decisions are authored and being there to contribute your expertise for the sake of a successful launch. As the wisest of sages, Elizabeth Miervaldis, teaches us, you must first decide where you want to be and then “go to there”.

Some money where our mouth is.

Although one should never put money in their mouth (Mom said it was so00 dirty), this is what we have done and are continuing to do—out of necessity and not for a glory-grab. More and more often we are being asked to get involved earlier, offer more strategy, and contribute our point of our along with our technical and design expertise.

I believe this is the best possible way to serve society with our skills, help others bring their initiatives to life, and avoid the inevitable pain of digital product failure. I invite you to join me in this good mission and stop being such a tool.