Industry best practice as expressed in software

23Mar20

TL;DR

Best practice gets encoded into industry leading software (and that happens more quickly with SaaS applications). So if you’re not using the latest software, or if you’re customising it, then you’re almost certainly divergent from best practices, which slows things down, makes it harder to hire and train people, and creates technology debt.

Background

Marc Andreessen told us that software is eating the world, and this post is mostly about how that has played out.

As computers replaced paper based processes it was natural for mature organisations with well established processes to imprint their process onto the new technology. In the early days everything was genesis and then custom build (per Wardley map stages of evolution), but over time the software for many things have become products and then utilities.

Standard products and utilities need to serve many different customers, so they naturally become the embodiment of best practice processes. If you’re doing something different (customisation) then you’re moving backwards in terms of evolution, and just plain doing it wrong in the eyes of anybody who’s been exposed to the latest and greatest.

An example

I first saw this in the mid noughts when I was working at a large bank. We had a highly customised version of Peoplesoft, which had all of our special processes for doing stuff. The cost of moving those customisations with each version upgrade had been deemed to be too much; and then after many years we found ourselves on a burning platform – our Peoplesoft was about to run out of support, and a forced change was upon us.

It’s at this stage that the HR leadership did something very brave and smart. We moved to the latest version of Peoplesoft and didn’t customise it at all. Instead we changed every HR process in the whole company to be the vanilla way that Peoplesoft did things. It was a bit of a wrench going through the transition, but on the other side we had much better processes. And HR could hire anybody that knew Peoplesoft and they didn’t have to spend months learning our customisations. And new employees didn’t have to get used to our wonky ways of doing things, stuff worked much the same as wherever they’d been before.

Best of all Peoplesoft upgrades henceforth were going to be a breeze – no customisations meant no costly work to re-implement them each time.

SaaS turbocharges the phenomenon

Because SaaS vendors iterate more quickly than traditional enterprise software vendors. The SaaS release cycle is every 3-6 months rather than every 1-2 years, so they’re learning from their customers faster, and responding to regulatory and other forms of environment change more quickly.

SaaS consumption also tends to be a forced march. Customers might be able to choose when they upgrade (within a given window), but not if they upgrade – there’s no option to get stranded on an old version that ultimately goes out of support.

Kubernetes for those who want to stay on premises

SaaS is great, but many companies have fears and legitimate concerns over the security, privacy and compliance issues around running a part of their business on other people’s computers. That looks like being solved by having Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) package their stuff for deployment on Kubernetes, which potentially provides many of the same operational benefits of SaaS, just without the other people’s computers bit.

I first saw this happening with the IT Operations Management (ITOM) suite from Microfocus, where (under the leadership of Tom Goguen) they were able to switch from a traditional enterprise software release cycle that brought with it substantial upheaval for upgrades, to a much more agile process internally, running into quarterly released onto a Kubernetes substrate (and Kubernetes then took care of much of the upgrade process, along with other operational imperatives like scaling and capacity management).

Conclusion

Wardley is way ahead of me here, if you customise then all you can expect is (old) emerging practices, which will be behind the best practices that come from utility services. I did however want to specifically call this out, as there’s an implication that everybody gets lifted by a rising tide, and the evolution from custom to utility. But that only happens if you’re not anchored to the past – you need to let yourself go with that tide.



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