A brief exploration of the radical differences in contract software engineering quotes.

Software companies are everywhere these days. If you add in the number of freelancers on contractor sites, craigslist, or the guy your friend knows, they are like grains of sand on the beaches. And they all get the same question every day: “How much would it cost to build an app?”

This is a question that has been addressed on a thousand blog posts, mainly by frustrated engineering firms who struggle to understand how people can ask such a question. They give answers like, “How long is a piece of string?” or “How much does a house cost to build?” These examples are designed to show that the cost of something custom varies wildly based on what the specification is. This, however, is only the most surface level answer to that question. The real cost multiplier, and the hardest part to explain and quantify, is quality.

Quality of development is not simply a measure of your experience (e.g., How nice were your agency’s offices? Did they perform frequent check-ins? Did you feel good about the process? etc.). I’m talking about the actual quality of the code itself – not just the final product’s look-and-feel.

If you are paying a lot of money (relatively speaking) for a custom built application, it should be obvious that it was made with a thoughtful user experience and appropriate graphic design, while not throwing errors or leading to dead ends. Right? Unfortunately no. Even though this should be the bare minimum, getting the basics handled correctly is rare in my experience. As sad as that is, these signs of quality are something that you can shop for. You should be able to see examples of your potential agencies’ previous work or of your freelancer’s portfolio. But you need to test them in real life, as if you were a real user, before committing. Do not believe anything you see in a PowerPoint presentation.

The biggest difference in software design company prices is the quality you don’t see. These are the tougher to articulate items. What I’m talking about here is the commitment to engineering best practices and processes, the quality of the code, and the thinking behind that code.

A decent developer can build many of the same applications that a great developer can – especially your typical business software system. It might even take the two teams the same amount of time to complete the same project. And the apps might be indistinguishable when they launch. Great code, a real belief in process and best practices, and solid team management is not as apparent in the first iteration of a product, but it becomes glaringly obvious in later releases.

As a product matures, new features are added, interactions with other systems are required, and user bases grow in size. These three fundamental points are rarely considered by your average development firm or freelancer.

When you add new features to a piece of software, you will often need to change the database structure or the APIs of the original design. These can result in large scale, breaking changes; meaning updates will break previous versions of the application. This type of work often requires huge time commitments to testing the new versions, providing triggers and fail-safes for existing users, and of course writing all new code. Top class developers on the other hand design their systems from the get go to be extensible. They plan multiple API versions from day one, have contingencies in place for breaking changes at inception. They may have already built your system to be multilingual (even though it is only launching in one language) because they know it would be a huge undertaking to add on later. They will take into account accessibility standards, security, and data optimization.

The ability to interact with systems outside of the application’s native environment is another frequently overlooked engineering problem. Abstracting your APIs with middleware might take an extra day or two at the beginning of your design process, but it might save you months of work down the line when you want to change out a data provider. Documenting the process as you go along, explaining to future developers how this should work, is easy when you’re building it. It becomes a huge task of reverse engineering if you have to do it a year later.

Finally, we should talk about scalability. A well-designed system will have architectural structures in place that are designed to expand or to leverage scalable hardware systems, while balancing the long-term costs of growing. A lesser development firm will have a “cross that bridge when we come to it” attitude or will throw expensive additional monthly hardware costs at a problem that could have easily been avoided in the design process.

Conclusion

The problem with picking a software engineering firm is that they are not going to bore you with the details of their documentation process in the sales pitch. I haven’t even touched on things like automated testing of code, good relationships with distribution partners, well qualified project managers, and penetration testing as a standard practice. The problem is that almost no one is going to include these invisible quality requirements into a specification they put out for bid. Yet, these are the strongest determining factors in the long-term success of any software project. I promise.

Your options are to have a really solid technical lead on your team to evaluate the work being done or to pick a company that does go into these details in their sales pitch. You should be aware that doing things the right way is going to cost more up front, but it will save you double or even triple the time in the future if you do it the wrong way.

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

A Simple Communication Framework

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

Why a Framework?

The single most important thing that we do at work is communicating with other people. It’s generally how we are able to come up with ideas and execute them in ways that a single person could not.

It does seem that this whole “talking to each other” thing can get complicated. “Miscommunication” seems to be the number one excuse for something getting messed up in a knowledge worker environment. There are a whole host of reasons why this is the case. But one of the easiest ways to combat the lack of retention, the lack of comprehension, or simple miscommunications is to start with the way that we express ourselves.

At Sourcetoad, we use an adapted communications framework that has made life a lot easier for everyone involved. We have set up some basic rules for communication that are easy to remember, and we use keywords so that people receiving the information can context switch into the receiving framework mode. In other words, when people incite the framework, everyone changes their mental stance and prepares to communicate.

An Adapted Simple Model

This framework has been adapted from an amalgamation of numerous other frameworks. It takes a lot from military communication tactics (where being understood can be the difference between life and death) and a number of other popular communication frameworks. This is just the simplest way that we’ve been able to express it. It has been hacked together from too many sources to cite, but it is still simple enough to work well for us.

The Framework

Our framework has only four key pieces:

  • Intent
  • Context
  • A sketch of the desired outcome
  • A sketch of a strategy to get to that outcome

These four items can be placed in various orders, but typically they start with intent and end with a strategy.

Intent

Stating your intent, or at least clearly knowing what your intent is, is the most powerful part of this framework. Understanding your own intent in everything is extremely powerful, but that’s another blog post. Conversations that do not have a well-understood intent are just “chats.” They’re not the type of communication that will solve any problem.

Stating your intent at the beginning of a conversation does two very important things:

  1. It switches the receiver’s brain into “communications framework mode.” It allows the other person to understand that you are about to use the framework.
  2. Stating your intent allows the person to whom you are speaking with to know why you are talking. If I don’t know what you want right at the beginning, we’re probably not going to have a fruitful conversation.

Context

Context is the backstory or history that your receiver may need to fully understand the conversation. Telling the person you’re talking to about the players involved, what previous conversations touched on, or what the stakes are can be extremely useful.

The three main questions you should ask yourself when giving context are:

  • What are we talking about?
  • What do you need to know about this?
  • Have I told you everything you need to know?

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure your receiver knows you are using the framework:

  • “For a little background…”
  • “For context…”

Sketch Desired Outcome (End State)

After you’ve laid out your intentions and the context the receiver needs, it’s time to actually tell them what you want. This involves explaining your vision of the outcomes, or the “end state.”

An outcome or end state might be as complicated as: “I think what I want is for the company to open a new line of business, complete with staff and warehousing. I also think we’re going to need to custom build an entire logistics software system over the next few years.”

Or it could be as simple as: “What I would like is that at the end of this conversation, we set up a time to have a formal meeting about it with the team.”

You need to be flexible here because even though you might know what type of outcome you are looking for, you need to leave room for the solution to include new ideas from your audience. That’s why we call it a “sketch.”

When saying this bit out loud, you can use the following trigger phrases to make sure the receiver can envision what you want to happen:

  • “What I see happening…”
  • “My desired outcome is…”

Sketch a Strategy

You know what you want (intent), the receiver knows what you want (end state), and they have the backstory (context) to understand what you’re talking about — we can now move on to action.

In this phase, we outline a possible method of getting to that end state I mentioned earlier. This is up for discussion, of course. The person you’re speaking with is not required to follow your sketch. Rather, this phase invites them to build a strategy with you to accomplish the desired outcome.

The person you’re speaking with might have a much better idea of how to get there than you do, especially since they now understand your intentions and what the end goal is. So keep an open mind, and enjoy the brainstorming.

When describing the strategy you envision, Use triggers like:

  • “A rough strategy we could take is…”
  • “A path I see is…”
  • “I’d suggest x as the next steps. What do you think?”

Example 1

Intention: I want a dashboard to show the ten most important KPIs for our internal product. I want the team to manage the build-out and timing to balance client needs. I’m prepared to invest about 100 hours for the MVP.

Context: Hi Joe, some quick context: I would like for the team to build a dashboard that provides a brief overview of the system – I want this to show the variety of features for sales calls and to be useful for current clients.

Outcome: My desired end state is I get a demo-able dashboard on our test instance within the next four months. It should have 70% of the functionality shown in the mockups.

Strategy: I think the rough path to getting there is for you and Jane to meet and work out which features are doable in the next four months while balancing client requests. Then you can create tickets for the segments and decide how flexible the dashboard could be. Let’s get together for a review and approval meeting when that’s done. After that, we can start handing out the tickets to the team.

Example 2

Intention: I want to get James to switch the DNS servers for a client.

Context: Hey James, for some context, Martin asked me to help him with their new mail server. They’re going to be setting this up on their side with Office365. I’m not sure what is required 100%, though.

Outcome: I would like to send Martin an email with the steps he needs to take to prepare for the switchover and the dates when we plan on doing it. If we have any questions for him, I’d like to include those in the email by the end of the day tomorrow.

Strategy: My strategy here is that I will follow your advice and guidance to the letter because I’m not the expert.

Recap

If you are talking to someone at work, they might not actually be paying attention. Having a communications framework with key phrases and trigger words can make a huge impact on changing the mindset of the sender and the receiver. When both parties know that information is going to be transmitted in a certain way, retention and accuracy rates are way higher.

At Sourcetoad, we use the trigger words and key phrases below to help change our thinking, speaking, and listening modes:

  • Intent
    • “My intention is…”
    • “What I’m looking to do is…”
    • “What I want is…”
  • Context
    • “For some context…”
    • “A little background…”
  • Sketch of my desired outcome
    • “The outcome I’m looking for is…”
    • “When this is all done, I’d like to see…”
  • Sketch of a strategy to get there
    • “I think a rough path to get here is…”
    • “The strategy I imagine is…”

That’s it! It’s a very simple yet powerful tool to help improve communication. You can alter this plan or invent your own, but the key is that both parties know the rules. The idea that people can switch between a conversation and “communication” is life-changing – but it requires training on both sides.