Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Maintain and extend or create something new - where do you want to be?

 One of my favorite questions when I work with software teams is this:  given a choice, would you rather work on existing systems in a support and maintenance role, or would you rather work on developing or implementing new systems with new technology?  The answers are always the same.

About 30% of the group I'll survey is comfortable with the existing systems and code and is happy extending it and maintaining it.  About 50% of the people surveyed will say they want to either build new systems or implement a new system.  There's almost always 20% who aren't sure.

When I was in software development, I always wanted to be working on the latest technology.  It often felt like working on a platform or programming language for too long would pigeon-hole me and my skills.  Of course, there are still demands for my rusy COBOL skills even today, since may mainframes still run on older technology.  

Some folks are comfortable with the things they know - the tech they've mastered - and they want to work with tools and technology that are familiar and comfortable.  Others want to try out new platforms or languages and have little interest in supporting, maintaining or extending what already exists.  This is a good thing - we need both people to maintain existing systems and technology AND people to explore and develop new platforms.

What this dichotomy fails to recognize is how rapidly the existing stuff becomes a commodity - no matter how comfortable you are with it, no matter how much expertise you have.  Except in pockets where companies or governments are simply unwilling to replace older technology (like COBOL), it is risky to bet your career or company on simply extending or maintaining current platforms.

The implication for innovation

So, why does it seem so different when we talk about creating new products or new services?  It's easy to see why technologists want to work on the new stuff - maintenance and support are boring and not overly challenging, and you can only hope to satisfy existing customers, never wow them.

People who develop or support products or services seem to have different characteristics.  In fact, I'd argue that the numbers are almost reversed.  Only 20% of the people I've worked with in large corporations want to risk working on new products and services.  At least 50% are confident in maintaining, extending and supporting existing products or services.  In this case, I'll attribute the remaining 30% to the "I don't know" category.  Far more people are focused on, and derive value from, extending and supporting existing products, than creating new products.

If you think about this for a second, this is really strange behavior.  Technology is for the most part a corporate COST - technology and IT don't drive revenue.  Therefore, even if new tech is sexy and interesting, there should be a greater risk of trying to work on new and emerging technology that can only represent a new cost to the business with the hope of achieving benefits later.  New products and services, on the other hand, have a short term cost but promise greater returns and increased revenue.  There should be more people betting on the future of new products and services, and willing to stake their careers on developing new products and services, but it simply isn't so.

Why the strange dichotomy?

There are several reasons for the strange dichotomy.

First, we all witness technological change, and see the benefits new technology introduces for society.  We are all capable witnesses to interpret just how much value new technology brings, and conversely we can see how quickly older technologies go out of fashion, and then out of support.  My recently acquired printer no longer has a driver for the latest Windows update.  Losing out on staying up to date on technology risks everything, even if technology has a significant cost and little impact on revenue.

Second, sticking with an existing product that drives revenue and profits, however, is almost always a safe bet,  Even a product that has declining sales and margin is still generating profits, and seems less risky than working on a new product or service that may not be accepted or perform well in the marketplace.

But this calculus is all wrong, because what seems safe (working on extending existing products) will become very risky as new competitors enter, new substitutions emerge.  Our corporate cultures have taught workers to value current, near term revenue and profits even when the medium term outlook is dire.  This is, of course, the fallacy of measuring a business in quarters rather than in years.

Jobs dictum

When Jobs recruited Scully to Apple, he reportedly asked if Scully wanted to sell sugar water or wanted to change the world.  I think this is a question all managers should ask themselves and their teams.  Do you want to maintain what exists, as it slowly declines, or do you want to grow something new?

Just as IT teams have "maintenance" teams and new project teams to focus on both aspects of IT, we increasingly need product "maintenance" teams to maintain and extend existing products and services, and a fully realized new product identification, development and launch team to bring new products and services to market faster.

Do you want to simply maintain and extend what exists, or do you want to be part of birthing something new and incredible?  We need to reframe the power and attractiveness of new product and service opportunity, definition, development and deployment.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:17 AM


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