Nona Blog

Software Development Fears: #2 Knowledge, culture and integration

In the second round of our CEO/CCO conversations around outsourced development, Mike talks to Carl about the knowledge gap between partners, and the cultural aspects of integrating with different businesses.

Mike: I imagine working with specialists could make you feel like you are on the back foot. Did you ever feel like you didn’t know enough about tech to make informed decisions regarding the direction of an outsourced project, or to evaluate advice coming from a partner?

Carl: I feel like that now! (laughs) But yes, all the time.

Mike: How did you deal with that knowledge gap?

Carl: By admitting I didn’t know anything. I feel like that gave a high degree of responsibility and accountability to my partners, which, because they were the right partners, enabled and empowered them to thrive. In every case, great work followed. Ego is usually the death of anything great and this is why choosing the right partner is so important, because you need to feel safe enough to be honest about the knowledge gaps.

Mike: How important is a cultural fit between companies, or teams from different companies?

Carl: Some people will say it’s very important. To me, it depends on the depth and complexity of the project or relationship. We can build you an API in a day or two and off you go; in that case, whether we are culturally compatible is moot. But if that relationship requires us to build software that is critical to your business, we’re going to have to see eye to eye on a few more things. The other consideration is that when you’re working on a significant software project you spend a lot of time in conversation with your partner; very often in the same physical space. This is where culture becomes very important. Simply put, we want to enjoy spending time with the people we work with.

Mike: What was it like working closely with a team from another company, and with people who weren’t co-located?

Carl: Fine, because I always stressed the communication aspect. Everyone knew what was expected, the parameters were clear, and we talked a lot. Mistakes always happen. But clear and predictable communication means we can correct quickly, learn, and then get on with things.

Mike: What measures did you take to ensure the success of the relationship?

Carl: Establish trust early, and communicate openly, honestly and often, no matter what. I can’t stress the communication bit enough. Humans are emotional animals, and they need to feel heard. Just talking to someone doesn’t mean you’re communicating. Constructing clear lines of communication and jumping on static in the system immediately builds trust; when people trust each other, they communicate more often and more honestly. So enable that self-reinforcing circle. Great technology is available for this, but even though tech can enable better communication, just setting up a Slack channel and having Zoom meetings from coffee shops isn’t going to cut it. Humanise the team dynamic early, and the circle will establish itself.

Mike: The word ‘trust’ gets thrown around a lot. What for you defines a relationship with a high degree of trust?

Carl: People trust each other when the relationship doesn’t produce unnecessary stress. Yes, we’re all focused on the deadline and we all want to produce something amazing. Yes, mistakes happen. But if we can minimise the downside of any mistakes and learn quickly, and if we’re all pulling in the same direction openly and honestly, no one should dread a meeting. I’ve seen account managers crying and project managers quit, and most of the time, that ill feeling has very little to do with what is actually happening and much more to do with how it’s happening. So I suppose, once again, that it comes down to how you communicate and whether both parties feel like they’re in it together.

Mike: What causes a promising relationship to go bad?

Carl: A lack of transparency and trust, and bad communication. Business relationships are like any other relationship.

Mike: A common theme running through our discussions is the unwieldiness of large organisations. Why do you think the partnership model is so important, and how does a good partner enable a larger company?

Carl: The short answer is that larger companies are hamstrung by an inability to keep up with technology, and not being able to attract or retain core scarce skills. The longer answer involves other factors like procedural inertia, and an unwillingness to admit that there are better ways to do things than the way they’ve been done for the last 50 years. All other things being equal, a good partner simply enables good work to be done fast. If you can maintain a cadence of innovation and delivery, you are much better equipped to keep up with or even lead a highly competitive market.

Carl Thomen

Carl Thomen

Carl holds a PhD in technology research, and is the ex-Head of Digital at Old Mutual Finance. Coming from a lecturing and research background, Carl got involved in digital marketing and engagement, working on the agency side and freelancing for clients all over the world prior to going corporate. Carl is passionate about education, and consults to African EdTech businesses on growth methodologies through the Injini incubator; he is also an Allan Gray Orbis Foundation mentor. Carl's role at NONA is to find the right partners, and bring digital business experience to the table, ensuring we build the best products possible together and effectively take them to market.

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