Developers/Coders: Please Just Let Me Help

Do you build websites or do other development work for a living? If so, I’m your customer. And I have a request:

Please let me help you do your job well.

I’m a business owner. I don’t literally own my own business, but I’ve been the primary business stakeholder for quite a lot of development projects in my time. And in the process, I’ve learned a lot about technology — or, at least, the technology involved in the sorts of things I do. Websites, for example. I can’t write code (in fact, I’m even pretty bad at basic HTML). But I have a pretty good idea what the possibilities of technology are. I also keep my eyes open, looking for good ideas wherever I see them.

What that means is that I have ideas. I don’t walk into a development project blind; I walk in with some pretty solid ideas of what I want the outcome to look like. That doesn’t mean I’m not open to suggestions, and it doesn’t mean that my mind can’t be changed. I don’t know everything, and I’m well aware of it. I’m also open to compromise; so if something is going to take a whole lot of effort, and threaten to delay or derail my project, I’m going to stop asking for it if it isn’t really critical.

But that means you have to talk to me. And first, you have to listen to me. As a non-techie who’s well-versed in the technology systems that apply to my business, here’s what I really want from you:

  • I want you to ask me what it is I’m looking to do.
  • I want you to listen to the details of what I’m asking for and be careful to build exactly what I want.
  • If you think there’s a better way to do something, I want you to suggest that to me, explain the benefits of your way of thinking, and answer any questions I have about it. I want you to have a conversation with me, knowing that I ultimately will be the one who makes the decision. (And by the way, if I don’t go with your suggestion in the end, I will happily explain to you my reasons.)
  • I want you to show me what you’re building at critical junctures during the development, to make sure you’re going down the right path.
  • I want you to ask me how I want to handle anything that I haven’t already made clear. I really don’t want you to make assumptions about what I want.
  • I want you to think of me as your partner in the project. In return, I will think of you the same way.

What I don’t want is to ever have to relive the following situation: I was managing my first-ever website redesign, for a magazine that housed many years of article archives online. When the developers turned over the website for testing a couple of weeks before the scheduled site launch, the site search didn’t appear to work. It wouldn’t return any of the magazine’s archived articles, even if we searched on the title or a sentence from the article. But amazingly…

When I reported that to the developers, they told me it wasn’t a bug; it was the way they had set up the site search. The developers had made an assumption that this magazine would NOT want its articles included in the search index. (Don’t even ask me why; to this day, I cannot fathom their thinking). And they didn’t think this was worth asking me about. Seriously? This was a major decision about the functionality of my magazine’s website, and they didn’t even bother to ask?

Please take that as a cautionary tale. I hope you don’t ever make an assumption as glaringly wrong as that one in any project you ever work on. But if you do, it’s not because I didn’t warn you. I’ll say it again: Ask your business stakeholders what they want built, how they want the system to work; and ask them to test what you’ve done and check your work at every possible point during the project.

If they don’t engage fully in the project — if they don’t answer your questions and do that testing — the results will be their own fault. They’ll have no one to blame but themselves. And the good news is, you’ll be able to show that you tried to ask them these questions and get their guidance when it mattered.

Remember: If I’m the business stakeholder; I’m the one who’s going to get called on the carpet if what’s built isn’t really what was needed. I’m also the one who’s going to have to answer for delays and cost overruns. I’m your customer. And I want to be your partner. Please let me do that.

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