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Good Bye, Spec! Hello Direct Contact with Customers!

It’s been years since I’ve reviewed or wrote a classical specification document. I don’t hear the demand for these documents from engineers anymore, or anyone belabor 30-50 pages of market and functional requirements. So, what’s changed?  Why aren’t people still focused on creating these very important artifacts?

For one, the tools for software development and design have evolved, eliminating a lot of steps and possibly some job functions. I remember coding in the late 90s.  The project I was working involved using C++ and MFC to create a client server system for home loan servicing. In order to create every screen, there was a lot of work that needed to be done – creating the C++ classes, laying out the dialogs, writing stored procedures, etc.  Once completed, getting customer feedback required the business analysts and executives to travel to the customer site and show the software on their machines, or install it off a CD.  It was during this time that the cost of a mistake and the turnaround for feedback could set an entire project back a few days, or even weeks.

Today, I watch my teams execute and it’s a whole different world!  Sometimes they are on a WebEx with a prospective customer adjusting the style sheets and re-rendering the pages on the fly. Writing a document about how a page should look is sometimes a longer process than actually making the page look that way. Chrome developer tools now allow you to render the final product on the screen and make some adjustments in real time. For a lot of technology stacks like Node.js, Ruby and Python, re-compilation is not necessary, and the re-deployment involves just a copy of the files to the demo location.

As a result, I see a lot more engineers take customer meetings. Going through an intermediary to reproduce a bug or get feedback creates the need to translate the message into words, then into documentation, and then back out again.  Of course, there is still support and account management available so the customers aren’t just dialing engineer’s cell phones, however, there is a whole set of activities that seems to have now been eliminated.

This has big implications on the software development world. Think about it - what about the army of product managers, program managers and business analysts?  A big portion of the job required with spec writing seems to have shrunk from fifty pages down to about five. Some have moved into other activities such as analyzing customer usage data, doing competitive analysis, working on market penetration plans. Some long spec writers are still trying to stay relevant, but often times look silly because by the time they are done writing their detailed specification, the engineer already has a working prototype and no one needs to read the spec anymore.

The second relevant change is the importance of soft skills within software development.  All of a sudden the ability to work with people has increased in value dramatically, especially if most of the engineering organization can now do a customer visit, or get on a conference call. Just one loose cannon on your staff will break the culture and patterns. The asshole programmers can only survive in a world where there is a buffer between them and the customers.
Going forward, I expect the tools and methodologies to keep evolving to deliver more customer value faster, resulting in two priorities for everyone – more focus on the value and speed.

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