The road less travelled


This interview was part of the Ergon Magazine SMART insights 2020. Order your free copy now ->

No product can be successful without ongoing development. Stand still and you will miss the boat. There are many paths and experience will often give you the right steer. But what if you have to strike out in a completely new, previously unimaginable, direction – where you are trying something unconventional with a view to achieving something entirely unheard-of?

How can you make sure you develop a product successfully?

We always have plenty of ideas. They come from observing the market and, of course, from our customers’ requests and requirements. It is often precisely these prompts that lead to other insights. That’s also how it went when we were developing the new technical REST interface, which a lot of customers had requested. We took advantage of this change and created a new and flexible method for authentication and self-registration using what are known as "flows"*. After that, it soon became clear that a matching Graphical User Interface (GUI) would also add massive value for all our customers.

Sounds like a larger-scale project.

Yes, that’s what our first cost estimate told us as well, thus, making it almost impossible to get it into the pipeline on time, in fact. But having our own GUI that can also interact with the technical interface requested by our clients was very important to us. This gave us the idea to take the road less travelled and to carry out the whole project in a slightly different way to what we were otherwise used to.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

In the normal run of things, product development of new features would require a certain amount of preparation in the form of workshops, discussions and planning. All this is extremely valuable but also means the whole thing takes longer. A new approach was required for this topic and we agreed within the team that a few of the processes that usually help us would be rejigged and/or bypassed for a certain period.

And you were the driving force behind it all?

Yes – with my expertise in single-page applications and Angular, I felt I was up to speed enough to push the whole thing along and to lay the foundations for the new GUI. We discussed it within the team, of course. They expressed their faith in me and so I swapped my workstation for the silence of my study for three weeks – always working to a number of rules that we had established together.

What were those rules?

Experience has shown that the “working in splendid isolation” approach generally has more cons than pros. You work on your own for months on end, eventually coming back with the perfect solution, at least as far as you are concerned. But there is a real risk that you’ll have been barking up the wrong tree, that you’ve lost your team completely or that you have trodden on some toes. So we were looking for a sort of middle way between complete isolation and everyone working at once. We continued to do code reviews and pairings, for example, so that the other Angular experts on the team could give feedback and track the changes. Certain workshops were nonetheless indispensable, of course, and indeed took place. The team was genuinely flexible and supported me wherever they could. I also continued to take part in the “daily stand-ups” to keep everyone up to speed and I invited everyone to weekly updates. The big challenge was, of course, to make haste while maintaining transparency.

Weren’t you scared that it would go wrong?

Yes, of course, but I had the support of the team and the department head – it wouldn’t have been possible without that. And the clear arrangements made with everyone concerned afforded a certain security. Even though I was going it alone, the team was always involved, knew what was going on and could have stepped in at any point. There was a certain amount of scepticism and people had reservations, of course, which was entirely justified. But there wasn’t anyone who thought it was a non-starter and it was clear to all that this was a calculated risk and an experiment. If it didn’t work, that was okay, too. What I found particularly impressive during this period was that my team was working without a team leader for three weeks but everything ran without a hitch. That would never have been possible in a large corporation. I think that is worth just as much as what I did – unconventional thinkers get all the attention but the people who quietly and reliably deliver perfect work, day in, day out, are no less valuable.

So it was worth it. What are you most proud of?

That it worked! The nicest moment was definitely when the whole team could jump on board with me and make use of it. Working from the customer’s request for a technical interface, we collaborated to create a solution that makes us much more flexible in our day-to-day operations. We have got significantly better at responding to special requests from customers and that makes the team very happy.

Your tip for avoiding getting stuck in the status quo?

I don’t think there’s a magic formula. The most important thing is your intrinsic personal motivation. You don’t do it for the money or to gain the approval of others, you see an opportunity to improve something and you believe you can do it. It is also incredibly helpful to talk to other people about it and seek a range of opinions. You then have to get out of your comfort zone at some point and make the leap from talking to doing.

This interview is part of the series "Lateral thinkers" in SMART insights 2020. You can find an overview with all interviews here.

*Flows briefly explained

(From Adrian Schneider, Senior Software Engineer Airlock IAM)

Flows make configurable, secure authentication possible. Only those who have followed the fixed steps in the correct order can log on. Which steps these might be can be flexibly configured. For Airlock, we decided to use a finite -state machine that uses clearly defined conditions, transitions and transition conditions to ensure that only valid access via the configured flow is possible. This technology is now also used for user self-registration and password retrieval.

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