Opinion Post 5 mins Rob Sandbach When to Say ‘No’ to Out-of-Scope Custom Work You’ve built a great platform that solves a real problem for your customers. You’ve deployed your platform into multiple organisations and started to carve a you-shaped hole in your target market. You have your regular clients that you want to keep happy. Then, a star client asks you to do more work, to build an ancillary project or app. Sure, this sounds like the type of problem we all should have. But should you take it on or not? First, let’s discuss what you should be focusing on, to help us understand when saying “no” is the right answer.What your team should be focused on Before we talk about what you shouldn’t do, let’s keep it positive with what you should be — and probably already are — focusing on. A Great Product: You probably build your platform or service really well. You solve x customer pain with y. You do that with z, which is the hardware, software, hosting and code that you need to get it done. You are a product company and your product is great, but could always be improved. Core Competencies: What drives your success? There are core competencies that your team shares. By now you’ve identified what those are and you’ve poured that into delivering a tool that gained traction with your enterprise customers. And because you’ve built a studied roadmap, you know if there are any competencies lacking and have made sure to recruit great engineers that fit that need and your company culture. Continual Improvement: Based on constant customer feedback, you are continuously improving your platform. You have a well-thought out roadmap and it’s your job to make sure your team is motivated to deliver it. You leverage daily standups, retrospectives and other agile rituals to make sure both are on track. Increasing Velocity: Then it’s your job to find ways to increase your roadmap velocity. That’s the goal for the leader of a platform development team. It’s not about being distracted by new side projects, or custom client requests. It’s about working through the roadmap and keeping focus and expertise on the core platform. A Positive Work Environment: Never forget that while your job is to manage velocity and deliver the roadmap, it’s also to make sure you are creating a positive, psychologically safe work environment. Besides being the right thing to do, a positive workplace culture is the fastest way to impact productivity. When and why to say 'no' to custom work So what about that extra, way outside-of-scope project your star customer is begging you for? In most cases, you should protect your team by saying “no” — here’s why: 1) Distraction Building that slick custom web portal or branded app would certainly make your client happier. Plus your dev team is excited to play around with the new shiny-shiny. But it’s also a distraction. It’s certainly not in that roadmap you’re working so hard to deliver for the CEO and this isn’t something that any other clients are asking for — just one very key client. It’s also not in your wheelhouse. It focuses on a different user base. Maybe it uses skills, competencies or languages you don’t currently have on your team so you’d have to recruit for it. There’s a risk you wouldn’t be delivering what they are looking for. They may not be pleased with it or you. So you very well could be wasting CAPEX and time on something frankly your team shouldn’t be building. 2) Project Management Issues The project management of custom software is very different from that of a platform. For the latter, you know what your team can accomplish in a story. Custom is inherently made-to-order and less predictable. You have to work to meet specific brand guidelines and less predictable client expectations. This all makes for a less predictable project that sees your scope creeping out of bounds. Even if you properly define and document the added project, you end up spending more time away from your core platform on something that doesn’t even contribute to it. And since this is a stand-alone project it usually means tighter resource management. You’re not only managing divergent projects but divergent teams. 3) Team Restructuring This is often a project that takes away team members from their core platform work. This handful of developers do eventually become fluent in this new bespoke software, which means they will be taken away every time your client wants something added to it. Who will support it once it’s built? And then what will you do if they leave your team? But… But that favorite client is asking for it! Or even worse, your sales team has already sold it! How ever could you say no? Well, because it’s your job as tech leadership. After all, you’re already being pulled in several directions. You have a roadmap of features that clients are asking for and upper management expects you to deliver. And there are always bugs to fix and improvements to be made on current code. It’s your job to steer the ship. Sure there may be a very rare, yet very valid reason to stop everything and pivot focus for a bit. We’ve seen companies do this to help support production, treatment and track and trace during this pandemic. That’s awesome. And sometimes it’s all-hands-on-deck because there’s a (hopefully also extremely rare) black swan event. But outside such exceptional circumstances, it’s your job as CTO to focus your team on delivering what they do best. And to deliver it faster. Taking on a custom project means managing double the roadmaps backlogs. When you split your focus, you run the risk of design shortcuts that result in more technical debt. But it is possible to say ‘no’ in a way that will continue to delight your favorite clients. How to deliver your 'no' — and offer an alternative solution The key is to say no in a productive way that moves your relationship forward, not backwards. Before you say no, first start by clarifying what they need — or why they need it. Maybe it’s not something they need right now or really not a priority. There may be a small tweak to your system you can make that solves their real need. Then be honest, highlighting what your team is really good at. Remark how you don’t want to distract from delivering that roadmap they are privy to and that you want to make improvements and fix bugs faster for them. Make sure they find you reasonable — and warm! — in your rejection. Offer them an alternative to you building that bespoke project that is not within your focus. You can suggest another team within your larger organization that’s dedicated to custom projects, or you can recommend a respected third-party agency like Indiespring. In the end, you maintain your focus while our work increases stickiness in your platform and further builds on your trusted relationship with your client. By working with a strategic partner, you can offer your clients a team dedicated to custom development. From strategic input in the design and scoping phase, to tightly managed delivery and ongoing maintenance and support, your partner can take the pain away from your team and let you focus on your core priorities. An example in action This is how it worked with our friends at IMS. Their focus and success comes from building an enterprise-grade B2B platform that revolutionises how businesses — both insurance companies and fleet management — track drivers. Telematics’ in-vehicle black boxes and platform help make the road safer. But the distributed infrastructure, safety and security requirements mean that they can only release quarterly. When one of Telematics’ big car insurance customers wanted them to build a B2C app that helps incentivize good drivers, this was out of roadmap scope and far from the team’s competencies. They could’ve wasted time and money hiring and managing a new team to deal with a very different use case and infrastructure, but instead they hired Indiespring. These are simply not things a platform company should have to worry about. In order to successfully grow your business, you’ve got to just focus on what you’re good at. It’s simpler said than done, but it has to be done. If you want to discuss how we can take on the burden of these “out of scope” requests that your clients want and will add value to them, then please get in touch and we can discuss what the next steps could look like.