Going Over the Fence


Software, we know, can be outsourced like sneakers, rubber balls, and helpdesks. That will put a damper on us in the career field of software configuration management. In the immortal words of the governor in Blazing Saddles, “We need to save our phony baloney jobs!” But what if we weren’t just managing software? What if we could apply the same principles to other products? Could we evolve into something more? Something bigger? Dare I say profitable?

As we stare off into the murky fog of the future, some shapes are readily visible. Lower salaries and reduced employment opportunities are not difficult to see as the economic world becomes flatter. Many of us ponder our own fates amidst the uncertainty. Will my company be next? My job? Does that mean I’ll have to move (again)? What about my spouse’s job? I have talents but can I use them in the era of the ‘global worker’ and still pay the bills? The thought of an SCM or IT union even flickers through the mind.

Certainly this has happened before. Occupations faded away as tradespeople sought different employment due to technological increases in efficiency. Software made it possible for robots to run the factory lines, process payrolls, and check you in at the airport. And still, the current unemployment rate is still below six percent. Given that the average worker spans 40 plus years, we know they went somewhere. Perhaps the unfortunate ones moved into IT. But the point is they found work. They still put food on the table.

So where do we go? How can we use the talents and skills garnered over years to prepare ourselves for this future? Perhaps our fate will not be in real estate or happy meals.

As an SCM, it really doesn’t matter to me what the product does. Various code I’ve managed has controlled televisions, processed mortgages, kept 401k accounts straight, run set top boxes for satellite dishes, sorted data for the Census Bureau, and many other things. In each case, I used some methodology and tool to keep track of my configuration items and changes. It didn’t matter what the code was either: embedded C, Visual Basic, J2EE, SQL; what mattered where the pieces. So why should we limit ourselves to software? I believe this kind of thinking has real merit in the current economic environment.

Two major contributors to a company’s economic stability are profitability and risk management. Companies need products that sell with enough margin or quantity to ensure continued operation. And they can’t do that without product consistency. They also need to reduce the liabilities that inherently come with serving the marketplace. We live in a litigious society that exposes the weak points in product delivery and operation.

I believe this is where we can transport our roots into healthy soil that is less likely to erode under us. Consider the following questions. In a law office, what’s the current version of the boilerplate for wills or pre-nuptials? In that architectural firm, which standard documentation is going out with the proposals? How do we make and control the organizational changes that those absurdly expensive business consultants suggested? There should probably be a change control process for that. We have six writers contributing to the text on this manual. How do we merge those pieces together?

There are probably tens of thousands of opportunities conceptually similar to what we do, going on around us. More than likely, they don’t occur at the scale of work we currently do. While it may not be cost effective to put in place all the things we take for granted in SCM, we can probably adjust the concepts to something that nets profitable gains. Should an ice cream store use a Change Control Board? That’s probably not viable for a single store. But perhaps at three or five stores, it becomes critical enough to weigh options within functional areas. There might be freezer room but not enough room on delivery trucks or retail space. Release management processes may warrant formalization to make sure advertising syncs up with availability. Certainly “build management” matters when customers are expecting consistent product across the stores. Issue and defect tracking have their place too.

Given the proclivity of this society to ensure each person gets their “fair” share, I venture to say that it may become feasible for businesses to learn the lessons so painfully gathered in our own journeys. As a consumer I demand that the 400 page user manual for my cell phone contain the pictures relevant to my model variant when I toss it in the back of the drawer.

Instead of several CMs working for a single organization, we’ll potentially find individuals supporting multiple organizations. A little version control with a law firm here, some release management for that architectural firm there. And what have we created? We’ve become our own mutual fund. Instead of all our eggs being in one employer’s basket where we have no control, we now have a number of eggs scattered in baskets of our choosing. We’ve increased our stability, supporting businesses that won’t be outsourced, and changed the dynamic of our own lives. If we can set it up right, we need only do the initial training and then be available for support and periodic update. Ideally, this is something we can start now while we’re still employed. We can allow the business to pick up at our own pace and use evenings and vacation to get the ball rolling.

But wait, isn’t that just business consulting? Sure, in some ways. I’m not suggesting we rewrite their whole business plan. That would get into all sorts of things we usually don’t have the training or inclination to prosecute. I submit that we could sell our skill set for just what it is, change control. Large and small, all businesses need change control. While business managers are busy chasing the latest management fad, the simple functions of change control are the core elements every company needs. Not only can we provide the process consulting, we can also provide the process support. We can manage the version control system in that law firm or the issue tracking system for a modest customer support group.

So what would it take to set ourselves up? There are thousands of books available for starting a business. Many of them are free at the local library. I won’t go into that level of detail but in giving this some thought, a number of items occur to me.

For starters, we would need to identify what skills we have for both process and tools. Then we would need to identify how those skills and tools could be cost effective for other businesses. That’s going to include a fair amount of trial and error. We may not know other businesses that well so we’re dependent on gaining access to the high and low levels where we can make a difference. But that doesn’t get us in the door yet.

We still need to give the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) to the prospective client. Why should they buy our processes or the tools we recommend? In short, we need to sell them. Some of us are in IT because we’re limited on the people-savvy side of things. But for many, those are crucial skills we already employ as contractors and consultants. As many communications and management gurus have taught, people generally operate out of self-interest. If we can keep our focus on the way our skills and tools benefit the customer, then we’ll do just fine. But we’re not going to be able to paint a pretty picture and show it to the client, expecting they’ll break out the checkbook. They are spending real money so it’s going to need to be a paint-by-numbers action. And we need to bear in mind that sometimes that those numbers won’t create a picture in our favor. Better to spend the time up front to identify best potential fits before we waste our time or the client’s.

Getting something like this off the ground won’t be easy. As mentioned before, it will probably take our own vacation time and off hours. We’d need to spend time with the client, going over our notes, and devising solutions. Implementation wouldn’t be much different than how we implement our process solutions now. We’ll have organizational resistance to change unless management really steps to the plate. So once we make the sale, it will be the same old thing, sans software.
We’re just using the knowledge we already possess. But perhaps, if enough of us can create a stir in the business community with this, we might just be able to extend the lease on our careers. Is it really so far fetched for this concept to be viable? Maybe. It could be the nonsensical ravings of an outsourced mind. Certainly the core nuggets of what we’ve been preaching are usable in all facets of business. And does it really cost us much to dip our toes in the pool? Isn’t it worth tossing out the grappling hook as we hurtle toward the abyss? Who knows what we’ll snag? This massive economic shift will not happen over night. We know the changes are coming. We know they won’t be pretty. Now is the time to take chances that are too expensive after the fall.

Randy Wagner is a Contributing Editor for CM Crossroads and VP of Technology Development with Taylor Bean & Whitaker in Ocala FL. His experience ranges from major financial institutions to multimedia multinationals to the Federal government. Working in small to large project efforts has given him a unique perspective on balancing the discipline of SCM and enterprise change management with the resources and willpower each organization brings to the table.
You can reach Randy by email at [email protected].

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.