Friday, November 2, 2007

A REAL Onsite Customer

I'm currently working on a project that is using an agile process to manage development. We use most of the XP practices, but are mising what I would consider the most important one: an onsite customer. Though our customer is a manager, and the final decision-maker, she doesn't participate directly in the daily development activities. Instead, she sends a proxy.

This works out great about 75% of the time, but doesn't work so well the other 25%, when we need a tough question answered quickly. And that often introduces some long waiting. Here are a couple of examples.

Last Friday, the manager had her proxy call a meeting with the developers to discuss a featuer we had just completed. She wanted to improve the flow of the feature, and make sure that it was as easy as possible for the users. We got together with the proxy, brainstormed, offered ideas and estimated the different steps. He then went back to her, she had some other ideas, and some questions. So he came back to us and .....

All this going back and forth was costing precious time. We are still answering questions and going over ideas, though we never really meet with our customer. There are several problems with this approach. Information is lost, intent is misunderstood with each link in the chain, and delays are introduced. And this happens both ways. The proxy is an intelligent guy, but all the intelligence in the world doesn't help here. Its the nature of communication, similar to the game we played in grade school, where we each whispered something to the next person, and what came out of the chain is not what went in. Extra energy is expended going back and forth. It would be much more convenient, and direct, to be talking directly to the decision-maker.

Contrast this to what happened yesterday. We were discussing a feature that the developers thought must be included, but the manager thought wasn't necessary. Of course, she sent the proxy to discuss this with us. However, we didn't feel she had a strong argument, and she didn't think we had a strong argument. By chance, one of our teammates saw her walking by, and we asked her to explain her point. Then we explained our. We were quickly able to come up with some options that would meet her requirements and our own. I walked out of this meeting energized and excited about our application. We were going to deliver a valuable feature that met the needs of our users, and our developers, and we were able to get to that point very quickly.

All modern books preach the need for an onsite customer. This experience of two extremes solidified the idea in my mind. Your team can definitely work more effectively with an onsite customer. Not a proxy, nor a proxy to the proxy, but the real decision-maker, in the trenches with your team, day in and day out.

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