Quick & dirty vs gold-plated – that is the question for IT developers

Quick & dirty vs gold-plated – that is the question for IT developers

17 May 2019
Project management
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What’s best – quick & dirty development or fine tuning every minor detail. In general, it’s all a question of timing and risk management. To understand the principles and outcomes of these two seemingly totally opposite approaches, Nicolas Deverge, the founder of TeamMood and a fervent supporter of the Lean Startup methodology and Bernard Blanc, Nuclear Development Director at Assystem, give their divergent points of view.

Going quick & dirty to create a system for measuring wellbeing at work

Based on iterative design and experimentation, Lean Startup is a methodology used for launching products that’s focused on satisfying customer demand. It requires minimum initial investment. Once a market opportunity has been identified, the original idea is developed up to a “minimum viable project” stage, with sufficient basic features to allow for subsequent market testing. The product is then improved and honed iteratively, factoring in user feedback, with the developers deciding whether to “pivot or persevere”, until a full (but not necessarily final) version is created.

Having helped many startups and innovation departments in large French corporations to implement the Lean Startup methodology, Nicolas wanted carry out real-life experiments himself. He had so many ideas he didn’t know which to choose. In the end he opted to draw on his agility coaching experience and came up with the idea for an online mood board to measure employees’ wellbeing at work. So he created a landing page, used Google Docs to get the e-mail addresses of anyone interested in the project, and discovered that people seemed to like the idea. Nicolas then interviewed some of those people, who confirmed they were interested in the system he was thinking about. So the market opportunity was identified. But that didn’t mean he was going to give up everything without having a product to sell. He started working on the project in parallel with his day-job. Devoting 2 to 3 hours’ development time a week, it took him 8 to 10 months to come up with an initial usable tool, which he intends to continue to develop iteratively through user feedback. As far as Nicolas is concerned, “TeamMood would never have existed without Lean Startup. If I’d gone down the gold-plated route it would have put too many barriers in my path and I would never have taken the first step.”

Gold-plated development – essential for complex projects like ITER

Conversely, in some cases, tests, controls and fine-tuning are not only a good idea but an absolute necessity. The railway, aerospace and, of course, nuclear, sectors have strict safety and process control requirements, as Bernard well knows for the major programmes he’s responsible for.

One example is ITER, the international programme to build a nuclear fusion reactor for use in a power plant (unlike current nuclear power plants that are based on fission). This project – which is a world first and is being led by some 35 countries – was made possible thanks to unique global scientific co-operation, with the pooling of the skills and expertise of each country participating both financially and technically in building a plant on a totally new scale. This shared approach will enable the participating countries (Europe, India, South Korea, China, Japan, the USA and Russia) to each develop their own industrial fabric and therefore be able to build and operate their own ITER once the prototype is completed. The aim of this game-changing project is to revolutionise the future of energy production for humanity and it even opens up new avenues for space exploration. But we’re going to have to wait until the next century before we see a nuclear fusion reactor operating on a truly industrial scale. We’re a long way from the quick & dirty deployment described by Nicolas.

According to Bernard, the construction phase of the buildings (Europe’s contribution-in-kind to the project) requires skills that are quite common in the engineering industry: feasibility studies, project management, materials resistance assessments, electrical engineering etc. But what makes it different is the size of the equipment involved (several dozen metres high) and the assembly precision needed (to the nearest millimetre or even less). “That’s why a gold-plated approach is essential – because of the size of the equipment combined with the precision of the assembly.”

However, given the radically innovative nature of the project, each country is moving forward by trial and error in their particular domain “We’re moving forward a bit in start-up mode with some things completely under control but others not quite yet.”

Uncertainty is necessary for creativity and innovation

For Nicolas, the real advantage of the “quick & dirty” approach he used for creating TeamMood is the low outlay required for launching a project. “The market is continually evolving. I’m not in my customers’ heads and I don’t know exactly what they want. By using Lean Startup I was able to get my project off the ground quickly without having to invest too much time or money. That meant it didn’t matter if I got it wrong as I didn’t have much to lose. I started to really get involved in the project when I saw there was real demand for it.”

“Conversely, I saw that quite a few of my former customers tended to go big before testing their projects out on their target audience. When you invest so much time and money in a project, no one wants to admit it’s a failure. Rather than “quick & dirty”, I’d call it a “test & learn” approach. A culture of learning and accepting failure is crucial for innovation.”

This means that even for projects where there can be no risks, such as ITER, as soon as there’s a degree of uncertainty it’s impossible to plan everything in advance. “When the agreement between the ITER project’s various partners was signed in 2005 many aspects were still uncertain. The project involves pushing the boundaries of our knowledge of materials and inventing new techniques and technologies. For an engineer working on ITER, it’s a unique project in terms of contributing to the future of humankind.

To sum up, haven’t we always needed uncertainty and trial and error to drive creativity and innovation, whether on a scale of a few weeks or months or several decades? A prime example is the beginning of space exploration, when no-one was sure they’d be successful but just the launch of the programme fuelled a giant technological leap forward for all the countries involved.

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Bernard Blanc

Nuclear Development Director Assystem

Nicolas Deverge

Founder TeamMood

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