Business Tech: Same Difference
Ask most successful business owners and you'll find that they attribute part of their success to doing things differently. They will tell you that they offer a special view on service, a unique sales proposition, or significant value-add to their process; something that sets them apart.
Our experience as consumers tells us a different story. While we all have our view on certain companies being exceptional — Microsoft, Apple, and Google have enthusiastic consumers for example — we usually see most of the businesses we deal with, personally and professionally, as close to interchangeable. There are slight preferences in many cases but we don't see huge differences.
Of course, everyone see categories of business as different. Few people would argue that your accounting firm and your pet groomer are interchangeable. For the purposes of this article, however, they are.
Most businesses are based on CSP - Cost Sharing Propositions. Hiring a full-time accountant (or becoming an accountant) is too expensive. Sharing one accountant among two dozen clients provides that accountant with a living without laying the expense on any one client. My younger daughter, Dani, is part of a group which does dog walking and house sitting. Hiring a house sitter for only the days you will be away is CSP. My sister is in catering, where she creates and orchestrates large, elegant parties. Hiring her for the weddings and other notable events which occur over your entire life makes more sense than having her on payroll during the years between your two daughters' weddings.
While industries are different, and businesses within industries are different from each other, CSP is the point of commonality that most of them share. The practical question is: Why does do we care?
In developing software, as a consultant or employee, we can take the most specific approach: The Acme Corporation needs software for people who make the left-hand gloves on Tuesdays between seven and noon. Ideally, while accounting for the specifics, we also want to lift our heads up and try to see farther. Making software that helps people make any sort of glove, on any of the seven possible days — morning, noon, or night — will still let us target Acme's need. Additionally, as their needs change, our software will be more adaptable.
This is perspective. Looking up from the specifics and seeing the wider potential for our applications is how we move from writing custom software to writing verticals (software tailored to an industry) or writing horizontals (software tailored toward a functional set of activities, like inventory or customer service).
CSP is the next logical step: Moving from a vertical model or horizontal model to a more universal model. The core argument for CSP is that while gold and lead are different, they are the same because they are made of atoms.
For application software houses, focusing on the problem of gloves instead of left-handed Tuesday gloves is inherent in the approach. If they are particularly attentive, they will understand the points of commonality between glove manufacture and other clothing manufacture. This is the CSP path, go from specific, to general, to hyper-general.
Growth and Death
While the Supreme Court may have indicated that corporations are people, I disagree. However, they do share the attributes of growth and death. This is where CSP comes in, as a help with the former and a hindrance to the latter.
I'll make the broad assumption that we all want the people who pay us to be able to keep paying us. Whether we are in business for ourselves and those people are the customers, or we are employed and those people are the bosses, their success helps us. What defines success? In a capitalist endeavor like business it is measured in growth and money.
Larger, more diverse, audiences for your product or service increase the ability to expand. A product that only has one customer is harder to make profitable. The more customers, the more opportunities to make a profit. CSP is a viewpoint that helps you generalize what you do.
Those who know me know that I used to be a senior executive in a half billion dollar clothing company. The division I was initially employed by made belts, ties, and suspenders. Our divisional software was working so well that the pitch was made to move the entire company to our platform. While only half the company ended up moving, it was still a daunting challenge.
We could have looked at the problem and — rightly — said that belts have one size, ties have no sizes, so our software should not be used for shirts which have two sizes (collar and sleeve measurements). We could have pointed out how ties and belts are singular products (one unit is one unit) but suits are mutlipart products (one unit is a roll-up bill of materials of other finished parts, like pants and jackets). We didn't. We took a CSP view and found the common points. By isolating the differences, we solved the problems.
I won't tell you I was the hero of this story because I wasn't. I contributed, I cheered others on, and I helped where I could. It worked because the entire team accepted the idea that it could and should work.
I recently helped someone with their resume. Their understanding of the differences between their current job and the job they wanted got in their way. Being less well informed, I suffered no such problem. Instead, I looked at the job description, looked at their resume, and drew parallels.
As technical people, we live in the details, the minutiae, the weeds. Sometimes taking the ten-thousand-foot view helps us see more clearly. Her resume, our view of the company we work for, both of them can benefit from an occasional step back. You may discover a brand new place where we fit in.