There's a new movement rumbling around Red Gate Towers - the Lean Startup. At its core is the idea that you don't have to be in a company with single-digit employees to be an entrepreneur; you simply have to (being blunt) not know what you should be doing. Specifically, you accept that you don't know everything you need to know in order to create a useful, successful & profitable product.
This is something that Red Gate has had problems with in the past; we've created products that weren't aimed at the correct market, or didn't solve the problem the user had (although they solved the problem we thought the users had, or the problem the users thought they had). As a result, these products weren't as successful as they could have been.
The ideas at the core of the Lean Startup help to combat this tendency to build large, well-engineered products that solve the wrong problem. You need to actually test your hypotheses about what the users and the market needs, rather than just running a project based on those untested assumptions. Furthermore, these tests need to be done as fast as possible (on the order of a week) so that, if necessary, you can change the direction of the project without wasting effort going down a dead end. Over time, as more tests are done and more hypotheses are confirmed or refuted, the project moves towards something that solves users' actual problems.
However, re-aligning the development teams that operate within Red Gate along these lines does itself have some issues; we've got very good at doing large, monolithic releases, with a feature set decided well in advance. Currently it takes about 2 weeks to do install & release testing before a release; this is clearly not practicable for a team doing weekly, or even daily releases. There's also many infrastructure issues to be solved; in our source control, build system, release mechanism, support pages & documentation, licensing system, update system, and download pages. All these need modifications to allow the fast releases necessary for each experiment.
Not only do we have to change our infrastructure, we have to change our mindset. Doing daily releases means each release won't get nearly as much testing as 'standard' releases. As a team, we have to be prepared that there will be releases that have bugs and issues with them; not only do we have to be prepared to change direction with every experiment we do, but we have to be ready to fix any bugs that are reported very quickly as well.
The SmartAssembly team is spearheading this move towards leanness within the company, using Feature Usage Reporting (FUR). We think this is a cracking feature that will really help developers learn how people use their products, but we need to confirm this hypothesis. So, over the next few weeks, we'll be running a variety of experiments on SmartAssembly to either confirm or refute our hypotheses concerning how people use SmartAssembly and apply FUR to their own products.
In the rest of this series, I'll be documenting how the experiments we perform get on, and our experiences with applying the Lean Startup model to a mature product like SmartAssembly.
Cross posted from Simple Talk.