Why Web Developers Are Efficiency Gurus, Illuminating Opportunities in Business and the Marketplace

Photo adapted from “Spotlight” by Blondinrikard Fröberg (Flickr, Creative Commons).

What really excites most people about the web is subversion. Any time technology steps in to undermine the status quo, there’s a brouhaha — especially within a macro, industry-wide context. The cab industry can’t stand Uber and Lyft, the hotel industry isn’t pleased with AirBnB, etc.

On the micro level, this sort of thing happens far more commonly. Any time an employee is displaced by a machine or a department is replaced by the latest and greatest cloud-based SaaS offering, it’s a similar scenario.

Aside from the controversies and ethical considerations involved in this sea change, one thing is undeniable — the pattern at the core of natural tech-entrepreneurial thinking. Tech entrepreneurs have identified ways to utilize technology to get more done with less effort, or less cost.

Why It Happens

We do this because, as part of the business world, we witness long-running, legacy business practices and processes that could be improved or streamlined, if only the client (or the market) knew in the first place that a better way existed.

Granted, some of these ways are quite obvious. For example, I once worked at a company in which, whenever HR wanted to send a memo, they would do the following:

  1. HR would type up the memo using MS Word and print it in their office in color. Note that we’re talking about a routine, internal memo, likely stating something on the order of “Please note that the office will close at 3:00 p.m. on Friday in observance of the holiday weekend.”
  2. They’d then then take the color printout across the office to the leased Xerox machine where they could then copy it to a high-res color PDF file and have it emailed back to them.
  3. Next, they’d create an email and attach the PDF. Often, the email would contain its own introductory text, some repetitive info about what’s in the attached PDF, and quite often a few additional details not in the PDF. In this case, imagine an accompanying email something like: “See attached announcement about our early closing on Friday. If you’re the last person out of the office, please remember to lock the door!”
  4. They’d finally send this email out to the entire company, requiring each employee to then have to download, open, and read the (in this case) one-sentence document — the net effect of which could have been realized in under 1 minute had they simply opened an email and typed the message as plain text.

Hopefully, all of the above (aside from the solution) sounds ridiculous to you. But, in addition, consider the following points that show not only one instance of wasted time, but also how this snowballs into further problems down the line:

  • Upon receiving such a memo, most employees would first download the PDF file onto their local hard drives and then view it on their screens. They would also likely retain the original email instead of deleting it. So, this results in one copy stored in the email cache (e.g., the Outlook file that most corporate users have), and one on the local hard drive of the employee computer and/or within that employee’s space on a shared office server. Keep in mind that we’re talking about a color scan, which could be at least a meg or two in size.
  • Ergo, for each one- or two-sentence memo HR churned out, you now have *two* 2-meg PDF files multiplied by the total number of employees it was sent to, plus a few additional copies here and there, such as within the Xerox machine’s server folder and various HR folders (as well as who knows how many paper copies that various parties may have printed out for whatever reason). All of this amounts, in the case of just ONE such memo, to considerable redundant bloat on the server, not to mention the copies sitting in individual email boxes in perpetuity, most of which would then get backed up by the company’s file backup system, a process that (not surprisingly to the IT staff) seems to take increasingly longer to complete each time.

While this particular story should seem quite obviously wrong to most people, what isn’t obvious to most people would be the subtler types of efficiency opportunities lingering out there within individual businesses and on a much more broad scale in the marketplace.

On the business side, I wish I could magically go into all companies one at a time to do these improvements as a career, bypassing all of the convincing and cost-benefiting that is required to ever get the green light. If so, I could be a millionaire many times over and all of the companies could stop wasting time and money on an ongoing basis. That would be a win-win, in my book (especially the part about my becoming wealthy).

Why Web Developers Are Good At This

Many of the ways in which companies can leverage technology for efficiency involve readily accessible web-based technologies such as database apps that run off of a server and email tools that servers have built-in. Web servers can intake data from customers via a web site or app, or from employees via an intranet, massage and store that data, and then spit it back out to screens or customers or employees anytime. It’s tough to encapsulate everything possible in every situation, but that’s a broad summation, and is in fact how most SaaS services work.

Two Reasons Why Companies Do Not Pursue Efficiency Updates

First, management. Management tends not to look at larger pictures in making such considerations. If something historically takes 10 minutes that could take 1 minute, that’s often a below-the-radar type enhancement. If everyone’s job is getting done at the moment, and the company is essentially profitable, then there often isn’t a driver for pursuing efficiency, even if the extra time gained could be used in some other way.

Also myopic is a tendency to focus on a balance sheet at a given time versus long-term bottom-line profitability. If a $100k repair can save a company $1 million in the long run, there are companies who still would not make the repair, as they view it as a hefty, up-front, $100k expense rather than $900k in ongoing new revenue. (Such things generally *do* require a bit of front-loaded expense to implement.) If such an opportunity is intentionally not pursued, then it could be indicative of another type of problem (e.g., extenuating circumstances, perceived risk, owner preference for the status quo, fear of upsetting or displacing people, or possibly even simple bad management).

Next, advisors. Hopefully, the previous point about viewing that repair as a $100k expense struck many people as wrong at a gut level. While that certainly does happen, though, another common reason companies do not pursue such things comes down to their partnerships with various advisors. A good IT partner, for example, should identify things like this, as should a good web development company. But, even if they do, they don’t always do a good job communicating the business case.

So, in the end, there’s a magic, two-fold relationship — one in which (1) the management or owner actively welcomes such efficiency suggestions and (2) the various partners and vendors are the kind to bring them to light. This alone cannot guarantee profitability, of course. But, assuming all else is good, such efforts can and do usually raise the bottom line.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com.