Power plants and developers

Technology is the power utility service of most companies today; what type of power plant is running your company?  

A few weeks ago I was asked for my thoughts about a specific development team that I’d had some discussions with and the immediate thought that came to mind was: power plants. You see, late last year, I had done some coursework on energy finance, and my mind is currently focused on energy infrastructure. Power companies run cities; technology runs more companies today than not.

Development teams are the power utility service and if there is one thing you need to ask yourself as a CTO, a COO, a CEO is:

“What type of power plant keeps my company running?”

Does your development team resemble a coal plant?
My background is in finance and if you have spent any significant time in that industry, particularly in dealings with trusts, custodians, collateral, settlements, or market infrastructure, you quickly come to understand that it is old. And by old, I mean very old, like mainframe systems old. The backbone of finance is aging, both the systems, processes, and teams that support it. Fossilized in many ways.

How can you measure the degree of fossilization? Well, has your development team said things like:

  1. It’s not broke, so we’re not going to fix it.
  2. We haven’t touched that code in 20 years and we’re not going to start now.
  3. We’ll just add a few more (batch jobs, SQL queries, patches) on top and not refactor anything.

Well, you may have some fossilization going on. Thinking of this in terms of power plants, let’s not denigrate coal. Coal has been the bedrock of energy infrastructure and done a good job; but the entire industry is going the way of the Dodo.

If your development teams don’t change and catch up with the new world, be careful, your company may go the way of the Dodo, too.

What about those gas turbines?
In city infrastructure, when it comes to planning and demand management, there are two “types” of energy demand requirements: baseload and peak. Baseload is about your baseline energy usage: think about things that must run regardless of whether or not you are actively using them, like your refrigerator. Peak usage comes from things that may be cyclical or seasonal, like air conditioners during the summer, on hot days, and when you’re in the room.

Gas power plants are great for energy peaks. They can spin up quickly when your baseload generators don’t have enough juice for the demand; they can be shutdown quickly when the need is over. However, for all that flexibility, they can be hideously expensive, they use up a lot of fuel, and they are pollutants.

Some companies treat tech like it’s a light switch: they run super-lean development teams and the moment they get hit with new demand — a product that needs to be coded and moved to market quickly, a new regulation, or some other special need — they turn to the contracting market or to “superstar” developers or development teams. These are not cheap options.

Are you doing that? Keeping your development budget excessively lean and in crunch time burning a lot of cash? Are you not doing sufficient strategic planning to get a sense of when you need to push new products and keeping an eye on developing market events?

The more you do that, the more you will spend. If you’re smart about it, you can convert “peak” usage into “baseload” usage. No city runs its infrastructure on peak generators like gas; don’t drain your company coffers by running your business at peak prices.

What does it take to make my team go nuclear?
Nuclear is often a dirty word. Say it and people get visions of Chernobyl orFukushima, or they think of radioactive waste, dead plants, and cancer. None of these are ideal states.

However, that’s nuclear fission and there us much debate that nuclearfusion, if solved, will provide virtually unlimited power with limited radioactive waste and no greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s pretend that we already live in the future with clean nuclear fusion and if so, do you have a development team that is like that? Does or has your development team…

  1. Taken a bit of time to come together as a solid, cohesive team, but works well together with minimal friction?
  2. Have a clear purpose that they work steadily towards?
  3. Using and constantly taking in new technologies and fresh ideas?
  4. Stable and reliable, not just for the small things, but for the big projects as well?
  5. Exponential in their output because of all of the above?

Congratulations, if you can say the above, you may have a team that’s nuclear — and that’s the most powerful energy in the universe.

Working with what you have
The reality is that your technology teams are a mix of all sorts of types just like our energy infrastructure today: a little fossilized, a little sprinkling of hotshorts and super stars, and some well-oiled (pun intended!) machines that are producing at a clip that is exponential than what could be expected, and that’s never going to change. And you have other varieties that I haven’t discussed, but you know they are there, too.

The challenge is getting the mix right for what you need to do. In finance, there is a reason that those systems have lasted a long time: because they are reliable. In all industries, there is a reason you have to call in an expensive crack team: because you need to get the job done.

And if you have the forethought, time, and capital, there is a reason you slowly but purposefully grow a great technology utility: because they can provide you the unlimited power to grow and build a company that lasts.

Managing the mix = managing your success. Get it right or…

Burning power plant
Disaster.

Post originally published on Medium on April 11, 2016.

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