Dear Customer: The Truth About IT Projects

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Summary:
In this personal and direct letter to customers, Allan Kelly pulls no punches and explains why IT projects don't always pan out for all of the parties involved.

Dear Customer,

I think it’s time we in the IT industry come clean about how we charge you, why our bills are sometimes a bit higher than you might expect, and why so many IT projects result in disappointment. The truth is that when we start an IT project, we don’t know how much time and effort it will take to complete. Consequently, we don’t know how much it will cost. This may not be a message you like to hear, particularly since you are absolutely certain you know what you want.

Herein lies another truth, which I’ll try to put as politely as I can. You are, after all, a customer, and, really, I shouldn’t offend you. You know the saying “The customer is always right”? The thing is, you don’t know what you want. You may know in general terms, but the devil is in the details—and the more details you try to give us beforehand, the more likely your desires are to change. Each time you give us more detail, you are offering more hostages to fortune.

Software engineering expert Capers Jones believes the things you want (“requirements,” as we like to call them) change 2 percent per month. Personally, I'm surprised that number is so low!

Just to complicate matters, the world is uncertain. Things change, and companies go out of business. Remember Enron? Remember Lehman Brothers? Customer tastes change. Remember Cabbage Patch Kids? Fashion changes, governments change, and competitors do their best to make life hard. So, really, even if you do know absolutely what you want when you first speak to us, it is unlikely that it will stay the same for very long.

I'm afraid to say that there are people in the IT industry who will take advantage of this situation. They will smile and agree with you when you tell them what you want, right up to the point when you sign. From then on, it’s a different story; they know that changes are inevitable, and they plan to make a healthy profit from change requests and late additions at your expense.

While I'm being honest, it is true we sometimes goldplate things. You might not need a data warehouse for your online retailer on day one. Yes, some of our engineers like to do more than what is needed, and yes, we have vested interest in getting things added so we can charge you more.

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About the author

Allan Kelly's picture Allan Kelly

Allan Kelly has held just about every job in the software world, from system admin to development manager by way of programmer and product manager.  Today he works helping teams adopt and deepen Agile practices, and writing far too much.  He specialises in working with software product companies and aligning products and processes with company strategy.

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