The Cliché: “our Customers Are
the Most important Thing”
This cliché has that important veneer
of truth. Certainly, few companies can
continue in business if their customers
desert them, and in the business of software delivering usable knowledge to a
customer is the ultimate goal. There is
ample evidence that software developers
do not routinely think from the customer’s perspective. But simply exhorting
people to think of something important
is hardly an industrial-strength business practice. Perhaps software organizations should consider building truly
customer-centric development capabilities? Of course, that would be more difficult to do than just firing off a cliché.
You need me (the cliché-er) to remind
you (the cliché-ee) that we do, in fact,
have customers, because left to your
own devices, you software engineers
would only develop what you want to:
specifically the easy stuff or the “cool”
stuff. Besides, software developers really think they are the most important
˲ There are many “customers” for
a system. While the paying customers are undoubtedly the “most important,” the people who test, install, support, or maintain the system are also
˲ The value in a system is the extent
to which it makes knowledge accessible and usable. The extensibility of
this knowledge—how we can build on
it to service future customers—is also
very important. In fact, this aspect of
building systems is driving the entirely
appropriate focus on systems architecture and scalability we see in modern
development. Few end-user customers
are sophisticated enough to specifically request such features as scalability,
but it is important nonetheless.
We could even argue that building
the capability of an organization is
more important than any particular
customer, since it leads to the ability
of the company to satisfy many more
customers in the future.
The Cliché: “our People Are
the Most important Thing”
Few clichés have more power to gen-
The real value in
software is on the
road less traveled,
but we cannot
travel this road
that means diverging
from the path.
erate a skeptical and cynical response
in its listeners than this one. There
are many companies, executives, and
managers who do truly believe in the
people who work for them and, as far
as they can, do look out for the interests of their employees. But we have
probably all experienced the inflated
rhetoric that sometimes passes for
statements of worth and concern
from executives. Its cliché-ness is not
so much in the statement as in the
sometimes transparent attempt at
control it communicates. Most of us
are quite sensitive to being manipulated like this, especially if it is done
in a way that is so obvious that it also
insults our intelligence.
You (the cliché-ees) unforgivably suspect us (the cliché-ers) of wanting to
manipulate you into something against
your best interests. We are hurt by this
lack of trust. Therefore we hope that
by assuring you of our true concern for
your well-being, our genuine respect
for you as individuals, and our earnest
desire to not have you think that we are
trying to manipulate you, you will become easier to manipulate.
˲ If people really are the most important resource, does the company
actually provide them with what they
need to do the job?
˲ In the business of software, people
are not the most important resource,
they are the only resource. Software de-
velopment is a knowledge acquisition
activity and the only thing that can acquire knowledge is a person. Optimizing this resource requires dealing with
Rules of engagement
As clear as this is, sometimes it needs
to be restated. A company I once
worked with adopted a set of “Rules of
Engagement” intended to govern the
behavior of all employees. Heading
the list was “the customer is the most
important thing.” One visionary company executive turned this around. He
restated the imperatives as:
1. The most important thing is to
build our employees’ capability.
2. The second most important thing
is to build our capability to repeatedly
do imperative 1.
3. The next most important thing is
to deliver value to the customer.
I remember the alarm this caused,
since it reversed the published order
of the Rules of Engagement, but the
executive was correct.
People Are the Most
The company executive reasoned that
unless you have good people working well, you simply cannot provide
value to the customer. Unless you can
repeatedly build and maintain your
peoples’ capability, you may provide
value to the customer once, but won’t
be able to repeat it. And if you cannot
repeat your success, you will fail your
This executive knew you won’t work
smarter or do it right even the second
or third time unless the people working
in development have what they need.
And you cannot act as if quality is the
most important thing or the customer
is the most important thing unless you
first act as if your people are the most
important thing. In articulating and
enacting this visionary paradigm shift
in their core competencies, this executive was walking the walk, going the extra mile, giving it 110%, and thinking
outside of the box.
But in this case it wasn’t a cliché
and that made all the difference.
Phillip G. Armour ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior
consultant at Corvus International Inc,. Deer Park, IL.
Copyright held by author.