Managing Costs of a Software Project

Developing software is an extremely time consuming process, requiring long hours of uninterrupted focus on the technical task at hand. That coupled with constantly learning new technologies, analysing requirements, designing, documenting,  coding, debugging, testing, installing etc. makes software development a stressful and difficult job. But no matter how difficult the job, for certain types of people the process of imagining something and bringing it to life from nothing proves to be work that is incredibly rewarding and self satisfying. Most successful software developers that I’ve met over the years love coding and most cannot imagine doing anything else with their lives.

Before I started working as a software developer professionally, I  remember spending hours sitting at my computer for hours on end writing code just for fun, without any interruptions or any other worries. When I was done my code had no bugs whatsoever and by that measure the code was perfect. If I wanted to implement another feature, I would just start coding it right away. The only limits were my own imagination. However, after I started working as a software consultant for a few years I noticed a few things that would kill the joy of coding. It’s for these reasons that many developers end up changing careers or at the very best keep switching between jobs in the hope of finding a light at the end of tunnel i.e. bringing joy back into coding.

The truth is that if you want to enjoy your career in the real world, you cannot continue sticking your head in the sand and pretend that you’re just a coding geek, and ignore the business aspects. You may not enjoy getting involved in the business aspects of software, but as the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them” and believe me when I tell you that you definitely cannot beat the business people for the simply reason that they are pragmatic realists while most coding geeks are idealists with their heads in the cloud … or sand or whatever else geeky developers put their heads in. As George Carlin once said “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” Continuing on a path of avoiding business meetings will turn you into a disappointed and grumpy pessimist, ending up complaining to your grandkids over Christmas dinner about how unfair the world is. So you may as well join the business people and turn yourself into a pragmatic realist that somehow always seems to find a solution where others see only problems.

Here’s some advise for getting involved in the business side of things. It all starts with managing ongoing costs of projects. Firstly, every software project has three components that need to be managed and there isn’t a single business meeting in which these components are not brought up:

  • Money: in the real world, people need to put food on the table, bills need to be paid and companies need to make a profit otherwise they go out of business. For this reason every little thing needs to have a monetary value assigned to it. So if you have an idea for a feature you’d like to develop, you cannot just start coding it because someone needs to pay for your time and effort. Your customer/boss will only pay for you to do it if it provides an ROI (Return On Investment) to the company i.e. a financial benefit the company gets from having this feature/application developed. Therefore before you start coding, you first have to create a proposal, estimate costs, prepare an ROI analysis, present it to the customer and wait for approval. Depending on the costs, complexity of the project and other factors this process could take a week, a month, a year, or it might never get approved (probably because your proposal sucked).
  • Time: regardless of whether you’re billing by the hour or you’re getting paid a flat salary, your time is being paid for. Therefore any feature or app you are developing must have a time constraint assigned to it because time equals money. To make matters worse, there are deadlines imposed by the customer because they need it by a certain date. If that’s not bad enough, you’re competing with other software companies, and so in order to win a contract, you’ll then have your salesman promising the customer (on your behalf) that you will in fact delivery the finished software in half the time for a fraction of the money that other companies are offering it for. While you’re still standing there dealing with the shock and horror of the situation, the salesman will then turn around and spew out motivational quotes to you which he heard at some sales seminar that he went to last week … or maybe he’ll just quote Barack Obama by saying “Yes, we can!”.
  • People: the more people are involved in a project the more politics you can expect. That’s just a fact of life. The reason being that different types of people have different agendas with different incentives in their job. So once again, before you get to write any code, people need to agree on what this code needs to do and how it needs to do it, how long it’s going to take, what budget is going to be allocated to the project and who is going to handle which work. Going forward you can expect millions of emails, phone calls, conference calls and endless recurring meetings that will make want to pull your hair out … assuming you have any hair left to pull out. Throughout this process both functional and technical specifications need to be written up which essentially serve as contracts for what will be delivered as the finished software to the customer.

You would think that people would be aware of all the above, but most people, especially inexperienced or non-technical stakeholders, somehow still believe that software projects are purely about just writing code. They either fail to foresee all the above mentioned factors or they simply choose to stick their heads in the sand and not learn from past mistakes. So they typically end up quoting purely for the time required to write the code, thereby setting up unrealistic expectations with the customers. On the customers’ end, it goes without saying that most customers are not software people and therefore never expect to pay for anything other than the time required to write code.

When these naive people inevitably run into these problems they throw their toys out the cot, arguments ensue which lead to meltdowns and they just generally become stressed out and unhappy with life. Many of the software companies then end up going out of business because of failed projects or loss of money due to time that was never billed for.

In order to to survive in this industry and avoid projects going pear shaped, you have to start managing expectations. Expectations translate into managing money, time and people and it all starts with the first quote to the customer. A million questions will arise when doing the first quote on a project. Here are some examples:

  • “Should we quote for emails, phone calls, meetings and other project management related work?”
  • “What if the customer refuses to pay for anything other than purely coding time?”
  • “Should we then just act like a charity and give that work away for free?”
  • “What percentage of the project do we spend doing project management versus time spent developing software?”
  • “What if unexpected things go wrong and the costs go up?”
  • “What if the customer keeps changing their requirements resulting in scope creep?”
  • “Should we then quote for requirements analysis and documentation work?”
  • “Will our competitors be cheaper than us because they’re not quoting for all the above?”
  • “What if our competitors undercut us by deliberately underestimating the time and effort required and oversimplifying the customers’ requirements?” This happens on a regular basis by the way. Many sales people do this because they know that once they get started on a project the customer will not be able to simply turn back if the project ends up costing more than what was originally quoted for. This approach is like the drug dealer sales approach i.e. the first one’s free, after that we’ll nail you.
  • “If that happens, will the customer be experienced enough to realise that they’re being played by our competitors and that in the long term it will eventually cost them more than they bargained for?”
  • “Should we then preempt the competitors’ tactics and deliberately under quote just so we can get the deal i.e. should we stoop to our competitors’ level?”

These are all difficult and valid questions to ask yourself before quoting on a project. What I can tell you though, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that if you’re only charging for purely coding time, your company will inevitable go out of business. The reason being that in my experience at least 50% of the work required on most projects excludes coding time.

So what is the best way to quote and bill then?

  • Wrong sales approach: Under quote and over bill i.e. the drug dealer sales approach. As mentioned above, most inexperienced sales people will under quote and over bill in this manner and most inexperienced customers will accept these quotes, which unfortunately perpetuates these bad practices i.e. people learning from bad examples. This approach is equivalent to over promising and under delivering in terms of costing. There are all sorts of other problems which this approach can create:
    • By quoting for purely coding work and/or cutting the budget, you are cutting the time on the project, thereby putting unnecessary pressure on the developers who will end up taking shortcuts in their code, resulting in massive amounts of technical dept being accrued. In the long run, the project will end up costing way more anyway. Hence I say that you would be putting yourself and/or other developers under unnecessary pressure.
    • It goes without saying that taking shortcuts leads to lower quality code being produced and the software being filled with bugs.
    • Due to the low quality code and over-budget costs, your reputation will end up being tarnished in process. So even if you end up finishing the project successfully, that very same customer will most likely never call you again for the next project.
    • In the end it really comes down to the customer getting what they pay for. That being the reason for many internal and enterprise products only being as good as they need to be i.e. sales people undercutting competitors, underestimating requirements and customers being cheap and shortsighted.
  • Right sales approach: Over quote and under bill: it’s always difficult to estimate the costs and timelines of a project. For this reason and all the reasons mentioned above, I have found the best strategy to be as follows:
    • Sales meetings: During your first sales meeting/s with the customer, get a sense of the their requirements. You don’t need to get into too many details about every custom single business rule and how exactly each feature will be developed. The reason being that the customer is not paying for these sales meetings. Hence you don’t want to spend too much time doing the analysis and design work before any payments have been made or approvals have been granted i.e. you do not want to work for free. Furthermore, it can often happen that you’ll go through a long and rigorous analysis phase, designing and fully documenting a proposed solution only later to find out that the customer took your design to a competitor and ended up paying them for only their coding time. You may or may not be surprised to know that this in fact happens quite often. If you do this enough times your company will end up going out of business. The purpose of the sales meetings should only be to:
      • Sales Pitch: Pitch yours and the company’s services to the customer. The main aim of your first sales meeting should simply be to prove your competence and skills to the customer.
      • Requirements Overview: get an overview of their requirements for the software they’re looking to develop. Don’t get bogged down into specifics. The specifics should be left up to the analysis phase when the customer is actually paying for your time.
      • Proposal: put together a proposal for the solution you plan on implementing. This proposal should not be a functional and especially not a technical specification. There should be no mention of specific features or technical details of how the software will be developed.
        • Technical Information: from a technical perspective it should only provide an overview of the technologies (hardware, frameworks, SDKs and programming languages) you plan on utilising to provide the solution. You can  provide them with generic architecture diagrams, but don’t spend too much time creating custom diagrams that are specific to their business.
        • Solution Benefits: you should mention the benefits of implementing such a solution. This could be an increase in productivity, accuracy, automation etc.
        • Costing: this is the tough part that most people get wrong. Only through experience will it become easier to prepare costing estimates.
          • Development Costs: firstly, you need to think of the time required to develop the software by breaking down the tasks. If you’re using XP and Agile, these could be your stories or whatever you like to call them. If you’ve done similar projects in the past it will be easy to make an estimate. However for features that you’ve never implemented before, I would advise you to always be conservative i.e. think about the time required for research, testing debugging etc. If you’re not the one developing the software, this process will be become even more difficult in which case you will need to speak to the developers and get estimates from them.
            • Developer Confidence: Keep in mind that you cannot just take the developers’ estimates at face value. The reason being that some developers provide optimistic estimates, while others provide pessimistic estimates and this is based on their confidence, which may or may not necessarily have anything to do with their actual skill level. Confident developers typically tend to under estimate the time and effort required for coding, while under confident developers will overestimate time and effort.
            • Code Sloppiness: Some developers can be incredible quick to write code but they code can be sloppy. For such developers, you need to add buffer time for them to go back to refactor and debug etc. Others are perfectionists and take really long to code, but when their work is done it’s actually done. Therefore, you need to take all of this into account on the overall costing.
            • Buffer Time: Once you’ve come up with a fair estimate, it is best to always add a further buffer by multiplying the estimated hours with a factor. This factor is something of gut feeling you get through experience. For example, suppose a developer gives you an estimate of 10 days of development, you could then multiply that by 1.5, thereby your estimate to the customer being 15 days. The reason for this buffer is to take into account unexpected issues that can and do always pop up. Some may say that allocating extra time encourages procrastination, but I think that’s non-sense because it is the project manager’s job to check on up progress and ensure that people are meeting their timelines.
            • Do not quote on details: when quoting for development work, do not make the mistake of separating and displaying costs for every little coding task e.g. do not quote for each and every single button that they want on a form. Instead group the costs together and have only one or two development line items on the quote. The reasoning behind this is because you do not want the customer interrogating you about every single line item e.g. “Why would it take 8 hours to develop a single button.” The purpose of not quoting on details is not to be dishonest about the costs, but rather to avoid having technical debates with a customer that isn’t technical i.e. the customer has no idea how much work goes behind implementing the logic of that specific button and therefore to the customer it just looks like a simple button, while there could be 2000 lines of code behind that button for it to do what it’s supposed to do.
          • Project Management Costs: think about all the time that will be spent on the phone, writing emails, in meetings and driving around to those meetings. You must also take into account the kind of people the customers are when making this estimate. If your customers are professionals that know exactly what they want and they themselves plan ahead, then the project management costs can be reduced. However, you will have customers that know very little about software projects, are unprofessional, will constantly change their minds about what they want and the goal posts and timelines will constantly change. For unprofessional customers, I’d advise you to increase the project management costs substantially because you’re going to be doing a lot of baby sitting.
          • Analysis Costs: this is the time required for you to sit in workshops and meetings to discuss and finalise requirements and write up documentation. This time needs to be paid for because at least a third of your project will involve analysis work. It is for this reason that you should never make the mistake of starting the analysis phase before presenting the proposal and getting the customer’s go-ahead on the project.
        • ROI Analysis: finally once you’ve come up with a final number for the costing of a project, you then need to sell it against a value you’re providing to the customer’s business i.e. you need to give your customer a financial reason to spend the money on doing the project. Simply listing reasons is not going to cut it. Your motivation for doing the project needs to be have financials attached to it and that is typically the ROI (Return On Investment) calculation. In most cases, customers will already know why they want the software implemented, that being the reason why they called you in to take on the project. However, that may not always be the case, especially in cases when you are the one approaching them. In such cases you need to show the customer that doing the project will be an investment in their business and like any investment it must have a return/payback in a certain amount of time. So for example, if the project costs will be $100 000, you need to show the customer that the software will reduce costs in other areas of their business thereby enabling them to save X amount of money every month.  Those savings will amount to the total investment in a certain amount of time and that will be your final ROI payback period. Going forward the customer will continue to save for as long as they continue using your solution. In other words, the purpose of an ROI calculation is to establish a win-win deal with the customer whereby you earn money from the project implementation and the customer wins even more in savings over time. Selling based on ROI is the most difficult kind of sale you can make because you will need to have a thorough understanding of the customer’s business in order to put together an ROI calculation. However this kind of sale is also the most rewarding because instead of selling based on billable hours, you’re selling based on the value your software solution provides. It always helps if you are already familiar with the specific industry that the customer is in. If not, then you will be required to do a lot of research into the industry. Either way you will need to ask the customer a multitude of questions regarding their business before you can understand how to solve their problems and cut their costs.
      • Project inception: once you’ve presented the proposal to the customer you can expect to have a few backwards and forwards rounds of meetings and discussions about the proposal. Do not make the mistake of starting a project without the go-ahead from the customer. If it is a new customer that you’ve never dealt with in the past, I would advise you get a formal approval in written form from the customer. This can take the form of a PO (Purchase Order) or otherwise some sort of a signed contract.
      • Analysis and Specification Documents: it is only at this stage once you’ve gotten the go-ahead from the customer that you can start working. However, it is still not time to start coding just yet.
        • Project Plan: First and foremost you need to put a project plan together. The project plan will consist of the timelines of when each project deliverable (feature/work) will be completed and which resources (people) will be working on those deliverables. Both you and the customer need to agree on the project plan and the timelines need to be in line/comparable to the project costing in your proposal.
        • Functional and/or Technical Specifications: included in the project plan should be time allocated for analysis work and writing up the functional and/or technical specification. This phase of the project will involve having workshops and meetings to discuss the requirements of the software. Throughout this process, you will document the requirements in a formal specification document.  Many developers will say that documentation is a waste of time, but in the business world these documents will essentially server two purposes:
          • Contract for work required: The specifications will serve as a contract for what the customer can expect of the software. No more and no less than what is specified in the document will be delivered to the customer for the agreed upon price. It is for this reason that many software companies only quote the customer after the analysis phase, because they will say that they cannot quote for the project without fully understanding all the project requirements in detail. However, remember that I mentioned that in the costing process you should always add a buffer i.e. allocate extra budget and time for unexpected costs. This buffer that you added in your costing should cover any unexpected work that is being requested during the analysis phase and it will also protect you from doing the analysis phase at the risk of not getting paid for this work.
          • Mitigating scope creep: without a specification in place, the customer can continue asking for changes and you will end up spending way more time on the project than you initially anticipated all the while the customer is getting all this additional work for free.
      • Billing:  Many software companies bill only at the end of the project with an agreement in place that the customer only pays once the project has been completed and the solution has been implemented and tested. This is a huge mistake. The reason being that the customer will be under the impression that the project costs you presented in the proposal are a flat fee and in such a scenario the customer will not take into account the accruing costs of changing requirements, calling you in for additional meetings etc. All of that can land you in a mountain of scope creep costing your company ridiculous amounts of money. Hence it is important to:
        • Bill actual hours not estimated hours:  It is crucial to make the customer understand that the costing you did in the proposal are only estimated costs and that they will be billed the actual hours worked instead of these estimated hours. This clearly tells the customer that it will not be a flat fee for the project, but instead can change based on changes in the requirements. If you added a buffer to the budget (over estimated costs) in your proposal, the customer will end up being pleasantly surprised when the costs of the project are less than the estimated costs. However, if the customer continuously asks for changes throughout the project even after the specification document has been agreed on, these changes will be handled as CCRs (Change Control Requests) which fall outside the scope of the initial specification. The CCRs must be paid for and given enough of these CCRs the total cost of the project will end up going over the initial costing in the proposal. Having these mechanisms in place will encourage the customer to think twice before asking for changes to the initial agreement and will protect you against scope creep.
        • Bill in cycles: Bill the customer for the hours worked in continuous cycles e.g. monthly or even every two weeks. The developers and other resources on the project will then have to keep track of their hours worked and ensure that the costs are not going over budget. If the costs do end up running over budget, either because your initial estimation in the proposal was wrong or because of CCRs, the customer must be alerted of it and approval must be gotten from the customer before continuing with the project.

Keeping all of the above in mind, here’s a summary of golden rules to follow in order to manage the costs of a project.

  1. Always over quote and under bill instead of under quote and over bill.
  2. Do not get into too many details in the sales cycle i.e. when drawing up the proposal and estimating the costs of the project.
  3. Bill actual hours worked instead of estimated hours: Explain to customers that the quote is purely an estimation and that they will be billed actual hours worked rather than estimated hours. Explain to them that if there are no change requests, they can most likely expect the total cost to be less than the estimated cost in the initial proposal.
  4. Never work for free: aside from the sales meetings, proposal and costing, no other work should be done for free without formal approval from the customer. Even after the project has started, any change requests must be paid for.

Will desktop/native apps eventually die off and be replaced by web applications?

To assume that one day all apps will be web apps, is to assume that anything worthwhile doing on your device has to be online. There are plenty of apps out there that don’t need a network connection. Why would anyone pay for a network connection and be reliant on it, just so that they can use a calculator app?
To assume that one day all apps will be web apps, is to assume that ALL consumers across the world will never want to own and control the apps they’re using i.e. using web apps implies being constantly dependent on someone in the cloud keeping servers up and running, and renting the apps you’re using. Most people prefer owning the products/objects they use e.g. houses, cars, bicycles, clothes etc. Can you imagine a world where you don’t own anything but instead rent everything?

As a software developer myself, I feel that a lot of the offered “solutions” and trends set out by tech companies lack empathy for the consumers/users e.g. just because a web application is easier for a tech company to deploy and maintain, it doesn’t mean that it offers the best user experience.

How do you become an indispensable programmer?

As a programmer, your work will mostly be split up between either maintenance and feature development. It is up to you to decide which of the two you prefer to spend more time on. If you write bad code, you will end up spending the majority of your time doing bug fixing. If you write good code, you will spend the majority of your time developing new features … and no, you will not run out of features to develop because there will always be room for improvement and it is human nature for people to always strive for bigger and better and more efficient. People who write bad code, are forever stuck doing maintenance and support and never move on to bigger and better features and opportunities. So people who write bad code are doing themeselves a disservice in the long term.

As for becoming indispensable; in my experience it’s impossible to be 100% indispensable, but there are things you can do to become more needed and being needed is not binary (needed or not), but rather something on a scale e.g. needed from 1 – 10. Replacing a programmer/employee always has a cost associated with it in terms of recruitment costs as well as knowledge transfer costs (time and material spent learning the existing code base and technology) . With that said, it all comes down to money for the employer/customer, who will ask themeselves “what is easier, replacing the programmer or carrying on paying him/her”? The answer to that question will determine how needed you are.

Becoming needed is only one aspect, while becoming useful is another. In many ways, striving to become needed will make you less useful and vice versa. For example, the easiest way to become more needed is to become more specialized. The problem with specialising though is that you have less to fall back on if the technology you’ve specialised in becomes irrelevant.

Become needed: specialize by setting yourself apart from the rest.

  • Stay away from mainstream technologies and companies: the more popular a technology is the more programmers/experts there are in the market for that specific technology. This obviously means that you will have more competiton. More competiton means greater supply in the market, which means lower prices/salaries for those programmers. When there are 1000 programmers like you lining up at the employer’s door, it becomes easy to replace you.
  • Focus on either leading edge or trailing edge technologies for the same reasons as above i.e. there are few that dig into and risk learning a leading edge technology. The same applies to legacy technologies where there is a shortage of skilled people. Nobody wants to learn legacy technologies because it’s not cool. Don’t try to be cool, instead try to be needed.
  • Find a niche market/product: there may be mainstream development stacks/technologies being implemented in niche markets/products, but there will always be small details that are learnt only through experience in that specific market. New comers will therefore have a tougher time getting up to speed.
  • Learn proprietary technologies: in other words learn technologies that other people cannot learn by simply browsing the internet or picking up a book at the local book store. These are technologies that can only be learnt from your company sending you on those courses etc. Once again this will set you apart from the rest.
  • N.B. with all of the above said, keep in mind that there is a tradeoff to specializing. The more you specialize the more needed you are, but the less usefull you become i.e. you may know a technology better than anyone else in the country, but if you can’t do anything else you are not that usefull.

Become useful: generalize by being able to do as many different jobs as possible. See the big picture by understanding the big picture as well as the details: most people focus on either the details (lines of code) or the design/strategy. You don’t have to be an expert at everything, but the wider you spread your view the better.

  • Business Logic: Even more importantly, understand the business rules of the software you’re developing. Any programmer with equivalent technical skills as you can take over your code immediately. However, learning the business rules of the software takes a huge amount of time and if there is limited documentation it makes it almost impossible for someone else to take over an intricate software product.
  • Design: Learn the design of the software, in terms of how all the components fit together to make up the entire system i.e. the web application, database, clients, services etc. As with the above point, anybody can come in and undertand a specific function in your code, but understanding the overall design of the software is incredibly difficult if there is limited documentation or limited knowledge transfer.
  • Sales: Learn and get involved in the sales/business aspect of your company, in terms of what it takes to sell the product and what the customers are looking for. Once again any other programmer can come in and take over some code, but being part of the sales cycle makes your more needed as well as more useful.

What is the difference between the different roles in software development e.g. Programmer, Developer/Consultant, Engineer & Architect?

In order to not get bogged down in technical aspects of the software industry I’ll use an analogy: to keep it simple, let’s compare the software creation process to that of creating a dining room table and the people required to design and build it:

  • Programmer: this is a basically the apprentice in many ways, the person who knows how to varnish wood, drill holes, use a measuring tape and even a Vernier caliper. However someone needs to provide guidance to him on how to build a table. A supervisor needs to tell him the length of the wood to cut, what screws to use and where to drill into the wood. At the end of the day he will have been able to create a table with his own two hands, but he is not able to do this without guidance and supervision. In the software world this is the guy that knows one or more programming languages and can apply them to write a function or a class but he cannot envision and create an entire application from beginning to end without supervision. Given enough time and hard work he will progress to becoming a Software Developer/Engineer/Architect.Software Developer/Consultant: suppose you want to have a custom dining room table built for your home. As a non-technical person you have an idea of what you’d like the finished table to look like but you don’t know how to build it yourself. So you go out and find someone who can build a custom table from scratch according to your specific requirements i.e. you tell the guy more or less how big your room is and the length of the table, the number of chairs you’d like to make space for etc. The Software Developer is the person that can build a custom application according to a customer’s requirements. Due to him being in charge of the development of the software, he does have some creative freedom but ultimately he needs to make the customer happy by following a specific customer’s requirements.

Software Engineer: now suppose that you’re the owner of a company that designs and manufactures furniture. This is a completely different ball game now because you’re no longer trying to satisfy a single customer’s needs but rather and entire market in your entire country perhaps. So instead of getting a single table designed and built you’re looking at getting thousands of tables built. To get the job done you will need a person with a whole new set of skills that go beyond the Software Developer’s abilities. Software Engineering principles need to be applied to the problem. These include design patterns and principles. The Software Engineer has a broader view thinking further ahead asking questions regarding scaling and re-usability. When creating thousands of tables one needs to think about creating an attractive product that will not just please one customer, but that many will love. This person also thinks about which materials are cost effective and the durability. It’s all good and well to create one table, but this person also thinks about how to duplicate the design over and over at ease so that each copy looks exactly the same as the next one and is of the same quality. The Software Engineer is the person that designs and develops software that will be sold to not only one person but many.

On the surface the Software Developer may seem very similar to a Software Engineer, but in my opinion of the main differences between the two is their personalities or the circumstances which are imposed on them i.e. it’s not so much about technical abilities. The Software Developer is typically a shortcut kind or person that looks for quick fixes and accrues a lot of technical dept. This is in part due to the rigid time and budget constraints that Software Developers work under because they bill by the hour. Moreover, when you’re developing a product and billing by the hour, that product will only be as good as it needs to be i.e. “do we really need this feature, how much is it going to cost, can we find a quick workaround for that problem by not spending more time and money etc.”.

Lastly, a Software Developer typically works on multiple projects at the same time, meaning that their focus is scattered and their priorities change from day to day. A lack of focus and prioritization results in lower quality products being developed. A Software Engineer on the other hand typically works on a single project at a time and gets allocated a larger budget without having to clock hours. A larger budget also allows for more time to focus in strategy and design of the product instead of just working without thinking i.e. running around like headless chickens.

Software Architect: continuing with our analogy, the furniture company will not only have a single dining room as a product, but many different types of products. This requires a technical person to oversee the design and creation of every single product which brings about a whole extra set of challenges. This person needs to think about reusability e.g. can we use the design of table A when we’re working on table B by perhaps tweaking it a bit? This person may also be responsible for thinking about overall costs e.g. or which wood suppliers should we use to create the best/cheapest products etc. The Software Architect is the person that thinks about all the products that are being engineered and asks themselves how these products fit into the big picture of the company. In very large companies that have very large products a Software Architect may be assigned to oversee only a single product and engineers could be assigned to components of the large products.

To summarize; the difference between all these people is the scope of their view and responsibilities in the process of designing and developing of software. Of course there are many other titles (especially managerial ones) in this industry but I chose to focus only on the very technical ones.

How do I know if I like my career as a software developer/engineer?

From time to time you may question whether getting into a software career was the right thing to do and whether or not you still enjoy it. It is normal to feel like that at least once in your career, perhaps you will feel like that several times throughout your career. If you’re at the beginning of your career it’s even more normal to feel like. One of the following reasons could be the causes for the way you feel:

  1. Preoccupied: if you’re not completely focused on your work you will never be passionate about it and therefore will not like what you do. It could be:
    1. Other problems in your personal life completely unrelated to your career. Identify what these problems are, get them resolved and push them out of your way. Once you’ve cleared your mind, see if you then feel differently about software engineering and your career.
    2. Other interests/hobbies that are distracting you and pulling you in a different direction. Ask yourself if those other interests are worth it. Can you make a living out of those other interests? Be honest with yourself whether you can balance both your hobbies and your career. If you can’t, then drop your hobbies, get them out your way, focus on your career and then see if you feel differently.
  2. Not being good at what you do: a person only starts enjoying what they do when they’re good at it. If you’re not particularly good at what you do then you won’t be passionate about it. There could be a few reasons of that:
    1. Beginning of your career: obviously if you’re at the beginning of your career you’re probably not going to be good at what you do (relative to your co-workers) and therefore not enjoy your work. In a case like this you need to stop comparing yourself to others that know more than you and start comparing yourself to yourself i.e. am I a better person and more skilled today than I was yesterday? Put in an effort to improve yourself everyday. If you do this, your skills and self esteem will slowly start to improve day-by-day. Before you know it you will be like the rest of your colleagues and other people will start looking up to you, but it takes time and perseverance.
    2. Lack of talent: this is a difficult realisation to come to and to accept if that’s the case. It’s possible that perhaps you don’t have a knack for it. If that’s the case, then no amount of effort and work will make you good enough to get you to the point where you start enjoying what you do. You might feel horrible for a short while about having failed at your attempts, but the good news is that you can stop feeling miserable about your futile attempts and start working towards something that you are talented at. Try your hand at other things to find out what your other talents, then get a direction in your life and stick to it.
  3. The wrong work environment: this could be one of two things:
    1. Assholes: as the saying goes (it might have been Freud or the Twitter user Notorious d.e.b that came up with it) , “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” Being surrounded by those kinds of people can act as a drain on your self esteem and therefore if you lose confidence you will lose the ability to produce good work and be passionate about your work. It could be constant criticism or passive aggressive behaviour from co-workers or a horrible manager etc. If that’s the situation you’re in, then get out and find another job with people you can relate to, then see if you feel differently about your career.
    2. Mismanagement: it could be that you have a terrible boss who doesn’t know how to manage people and you find yourself in the middle of chaos everyday. It’s normal to go through stressful times and chaos, but if it’s ongoing it means that people and projects are mismanaged. In this scenario, see if you can correct any mismanagement by you managing yourself and your projects. If that’s not possible, then the same advice applies: get out and find another job before you give up on your career.

Product vs Customer vs Profit

My personal philosophy is that in the software business there are three things that need to be focused on and their priority should be as follows:

Product and its source code: the features of the product and its quality determine how happy you make your customers. If your customer is happy he will purchase the product, which in turn means you have a profitable business. So one should always listen to the customer’s needs. Conversely, the product being yours means you as the founder know more about the product than anybody else, meaning you’re the boss of your own product. Therefore if a customer submits a feature request, it is just that, a “feature request” – not a direct order by the customer i.e. it is up to you as the founder of the product to decide whether the feature will be implemented or not and when it will be implemented because that feature or your prioritization of the feature could negatively impact another customer. That is why I believe the product should be prioritized ahead of the customer, which in the grand scheme of things will prove to be beneficial for both you and all the end customers even if you upset one or two customers along the way.

Customer: always prioritize the customer’s needs over making a quick buck by ripping them off: Many amateur sales people do a “hit & run” with a customer. However I feel that the best sales people have empathy for customers providing them with good deals… but not too much empathy that one gives things away for free or too cheaply.

Profit: personally I believe that money is just a by-product of one’s work and success. Focus on the work; do the work for the work itself because you enjoy it and you have a vision. This in turn will result in the money being made. If you’re going to run the comrades marathon, there is no way you are going to run all those kilometers if your only goal is to win the race so you can get a prize. With that mentality you will quit as soon as you realize you’re not in the lead. Instead if you run for the sake of running because you enjoy it, then you will finish the race and you will feel satisfied with yourself … that’s intrinsic motivation.