The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

“If we desert the inner self to focus on the energy outside, it leaves a vacancy inside”              – Trudy Vesotsky

There is a dilemma that every software group I have worked with has faced and I have never seen anyone actually “solve it” in the grand sense although I have seen some really good ideas in action. It’s the idea of investing back into the work you do as a software group so that you can leverage this investment in the ability to continue to “do the work” for others.

Hence the reason for my blog title. The cobbler does amazing work for all of the paying customers wanting to buy shoes but never finds the time to put shoes on his own children’s feet or teach them to be a cobbler themselves.

Where does this often stem from?

In my experience, this perpetuates inside an organization in several different ways:

  • Fear to apply capacity by the leadership for something in which direct end profit is not seen or justification seems hard to communicate upward to these leaders without technobabble.
  • Guilt, on the side of the workers, who feel like they will never be granted the ability to do this so they either complain or burn the candle at both ends to make it happen in shadows.
  • Lack of focus or understanding of need. As Stephen Covey talks about in his works, sometimes we are “too busy picking up rocks to as what kind of rock we are looking for”.
  • Sometimes it is just culturally engrained (which is the toughest). It is just generally accepted (and often with great grumbling) that anything without direct tangible end stakeholder benefit is just less important.

I remember when I was a young IT professional and I was sitting with an assistant director of the company who had tasked me to thoroughly understand how their IT organization worked and look at improvement opportunities.

I posed the question “I have observed that any project that is related to the business receives a budget, people and focus but I cannot find where the same approach is made when approaching upgrades of tools, servers or your technology stack and training, why is that”? There reply was immediate without hesitation, “those things are the cost of doing business and therefore below the line and as they are internal in nature are more flexible than customer delivery”.

I paused for a moment. “So, if they are the ‘COST’ of doing business, why are we paying for them on a revolving payment plan? What I mean is if the core goal and mission is to deliver modern and innovative solutions to end stakeholders, how can the justification of making the things upon which support your competitive advantage in the market be something that is addressed in a “stop and start” manner to be superseded by other items without completion”?

And here it came … the death blow. “This is the way it’s always been. We cannot just take time to improve internally and not deliver things to the customer”. Discussion over.

I walked away from this discussion feeling really sad (and as a young professional, deflated and experiencing an early disillusionment) as this company had so many bright, excited people who were inspired to do the work they did. They wanted to do interesting things and support the business through bringing potentials of innovation. They were, instead, given the communication that we keep the factory running. We only think about making improvements when a production shutdown is going on. What this meant for them over time was they saw themselves get further and further behind and the climb to get current made the effort, the learning curve and possibly the investment so great that they would never receive the support they needed to make it happen. So, they grumbled, they left, or they resigned themselves to work with what they had to get the work done.

I tell this cautionary story as in reading it you may see similarities in the company you are in now. If you are and you are a leader in this organization. Affect change. Even the smallest changes you can do as seamlessly as possible to keep some cadence of improvement going. Don’t let the hill you pile up for yourself make it impossible to climb.

So what can we do about this?

Again, I do not have “the answer” as my organization struggles with this like others do. We have at least made a commitment to our culture and ourselves to keep visibility on this and push for these things without fear. Sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t.

Please do not misunderstand me in discussing this. I am not talking about the “junior level developer fascinated by every technology under the sun” sort of change. Not that you are in a constant pivot. But that if you are going to be in the business of software, you have to ensure that your tools and approach allows you to grow at a reasonable pace with the industry”.

You do not want to find yourself in a situation where the iPhone has been out for a decade telling your team, “we need to learn how to develop for mobile”. You might get there but it’s not likely that you are going to be competitive here. You probably missed your window. The same comes from jumping on tech early just to “get there” with no plan on  cultivating the approach or refining the skills. I cannot tell you how many government agencies (and companies that contracted to them) I saw build a native iOS mobile or Android app just to see it wither on the vine, never get updated or enhanced and die on the vine. Mobile App storefronts are littered with these types of applications. They wanted to be “first” so they could take advantage early for the trend but in hiring out the work, they created a dependency on a end vendor to update this platform and typically at a premium, which often meant that unless the app was getting mass attention, slowly stopped being paid to update and support.

Those cautions aside, have some seasoned technology professionals (CTO, architects, senior developers) in your organization that watch technology trends and “sticking patterns” of languages. Understand your regional technology market so that you can hire for technology you can support more readily or develop a good “gig based economy” model for models that work in conjunction with teams you are training on a new technology. Don’t think you can ever stop learning and growing. And as a result of that, keep your toolsets as current as reasonably possible so that you are riding closer with software trends and not trying to just race to catch up.

If you are in the business of software, and this applies even if you are a software group within a non software company, cultivate and advocate to the business leaders as a whole being reasonable about the investment they make in technology as a core support of the business. Don’t be silent while budgets are drawn and plans are made and let the needs of the very thing you do not be heard. Be certain, the “cost” of doing business in building software is in fact a cost. Do not let it become something to do when there is time.

Get creative.

One thing we can try (and that we do here) is to adjust capacity of people to try and free up time for focus on doing these types of things. This can often be more palatable for a business. The idea of losing 2-3 people for 1-2 weeks to focus on this thing is something that “feels” reasonable on face value. It’s about the impact of a vacation by an employee. You will be amazed at what people who are motivated to leap, with some small pre familiarization, can get done when freed up to focus on a task. Just try and keep things small, targeted and end goal based. Even if the goal is research of a technology, have an end goal in mind like a “go/no go” and recommendations for investment.

Outline the tangible benefit for the effort. Think about what the investment will ultimately do for the business. And it does not have to be only about technology. Maybe it will allow you to recruit better in the market space, maybe it will allow you to retain staff as they continue to grow, maybe it is an early investment in the direction a given technology is headed. And sometimes, just sometimes; it’s to ensure the business does not make a large scale investment technically that it will be dependent on a recurring vendor cost to support, maintain and update or the marketspace indicates that leveraging of this technology is actually less effective than the vendor indicates. But stay focused to work on it. Don’t shelf work each time more work comes in. If you continue to do this two potential situations can result a) the ramp up time to get back to where you left off multiplies each time you walk away or b) the direction you were headed becomes obsolete and therefore require starting over or abandoning the effort (which may not be costly but it does have a negative impact on those who have done the work).

Don’t let yourself keep building shoes for others and never attending to your own family.

Take a moment and pick one of these kids and build them some shoes!