Shipping like there’s no tomorrow

The concept of shipping as per Seth Godin is a beautiful thing. In essence it relates to the idea of getting something out (i.e. “creative output”; a “product”) without the need to achieve perfection before getting that something out. Ship, get feedback, improve; then ship again, get more feedback, and improve once more. Do this again, and again, and again.

In my role as an analyst, I create a lot of data products that many people use. Things like sales reports; spreadsheet tools and models; and data analyses. Not being one to stick with the status quo, I’m always looking for ways to improve the stuff I create (better interfaces, new metrics,  distribution methods, and more).

In such experimentation (which seeking improvement invariably entails) there’s always a risk that something will go wrong: calculation errors (especially common in complex spreadsheets of which aim is “simple for the user; complex for the developer if need be”); interface usability issues (I tend to work on a large screen that not everybody has or uses); software-compatibility (I use Excel 2013 as I need to know what’s “out there”; which sometimes proves problematic when I use a 2013-only function that 2010-users can’t use); well, the list runs long.

And I’ve had my fair share of failed “improvements” (the latest affecting a couple of very senior management, with my experimentation with Excel Pivot Slicers — very cool stuff by the way — breaking a couple of vital sales reports on their Macs*).

But without having taken these risks, without having shipped, there would be no way that I could be doing as much as I currently do, no way that I could have done as much as I have done. If I had listened to my fears and resisted stepping into the unknown; if I had thought to myself, “let’s not rock the boat, let’s stick with what we know works”, I would be a miserable little automaton working in a far less colourful sales operations environment. And many sales people would still be working with the tools they had in 2013.

Shipping like I do now, though, didn’t come overnight. At the start, I had to push the envelope a little by a little, testing the waters to see just how far I could go. Every little success inspired me further, and built up the all-too-important goodwill that proved useful whenever I messed up;  while every misstep gave me insight into how “open to failure” the environment in which I worked in was (I’ve got very accepting colleagues I must say).

It wasn’t always easy though. Still isn’t. Doubt is a constant companion. I remember once spending three weeks thinking and experimenting with a myriad of ways to capture and report sales targets, a job that I’d been tasked to do.

I was looking for a way that was as intuitive and as “smart” as possible. I must have found at least a hundred ways of how it shouldn’t be done. As the deadline approached, I started feeling like I was being too ambitious, and couldn’t help shaking off the feeling that it had all been wasted time. Maybe it doesn’t have to do all that I wanted it to do.

But I stopped myself. There was still time. “Let’s try,” I told myself, “and let’s ship.” And I did just that.

I shipped an initial “prototype” version, ran it past my boss. It was a rough-and-dirty version, but it showed the concept well. I further developed it, and shipped it past sales management. I showed them screenshots. I did a demo.

What they didn’t realise was that the demo focused on the 10% of what worked; there were plenty of bugs, plenty of things that I hadn’t managed to work out. The actual product was still days away (maybe weeks) from being completed, but I sold them the story, and they bought it. They were excited.

But I certainly wasn’t. I was worried. Worried as hell.

But there was no turning back now. I’d demonstrated what the cool new tool could do (more like what it should do, really). I had no choice. I needed to complete this.

Due over the next few days, I worked like a cow suffering from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (i.e. “mad cow disease”, geddit?) coding and re-coding; testing and re-testing. Eventually some of the most major issues that I had encountered I managed to solve. I shipped again, on the deadline, with 80% of what I had envisioned included.

And boy were they were happy (most of them, anyway). Which made me very happy.

Oh, and the other 20%? Repackaged as “future optimisations”. Which, yes, I eventually did ship too.

* I’m happy to announce that we eventually found a workaround, which appeased the Mac users. The Pivot Slicers remain and prove to be an extremely valuable addition to our reporting arsenal.

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Donn

My name is Donn, and you’ll find me working at the intersection of business and information technology, constantly looking for ways to apply IT to business and life to make things better. I’m a big fan of data analysis and its subsequent communication. It always gives me a thrill extracting meaning out of data through analysis, and figuring out the best way to present the findings for maximum impact!

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