Friday, June 10, 2016

Software Process - A Retrospective

  In 1993 I was working at what was then called Wyatt Data Services (it was called Executive Compensation Services before that and called something else after that as the company was bought, sold, and rebranded even during the three years I worked there). I was given an assignment to work with marketing manager Bob Crane to allow his department to create custom invoices targeted to specific groups of customers. Bob was a bear of a man who was way ahead of his time in terms of using computers, mailing lists, and promotional materials. Bob would create mailing lists using different criteria and target the customers he wanted by running different lists of customers and merging or excluding one list against another as his purposes dictated to target the exact group he wanted. I stole that idea when I worked writing retail software and while other retail companies could export a list of customers meeting criteria, my customers could create lists of customers who bought shoes but never bought shoe laces or which customers purchased merchandise in the main retail store but never from the outlet center across town or even which customers bought both shoes and socks as well as any other conceivable combination. People thought my software’s customer management module was visionary which was pretty funny since Bob was the real visionary who had been using these concepts almost a decade earlier.

  I created a mechanism for Bob’s department to create custom invoices with offers for related products offered by our company. The custom invoices would be grouped to particular customer sets and mailed with specific promotional materials. Before and after printing each batch of invoices on the company laser printer (a rarity for 1993) a page with an ‘X’ from corner to corner was output to help the mailroom people separate the batches. Each batch also had a code that was printed on the invoice and a cover sheet showing the code, description, and counts for the batch.

  The software worked great and everyone was happy, even Bob who wasn’t especially easy to please. I had accepted a new job and had given my notice when Bob came to talk to me about the invoice program. He told me the mailroom was constantly mismatching the promotional materials with the groups of invoices and wondered if it was worth purchasing a laser printer with two trays so we could separate the batches with a different color paper that would be in the second tray. I told Bob that if the mailroom people couldn’t be bothered to look for the code on the invoice or the page with the giant ‘X’ they weren’t going to look for a different color paper. I said the answer wasn’t to get a new printer – the solution was to get new mailroom people. Bob laughed and said he was going to miss me when I left.

  Last year I wrote about the process of updating my website to allow for the parents whose children attend my youth tournaments the ability to register for the tournaments using a self-signup feature. In September the changes were put to the test and passed successfully although as with most software projects there were a few kinks to iron out. I ran seven tournaments through the school year and all but a handful of the players were signed up using the new method. This was great for me in that it cut down any misunderstandings about which session and sections someone was going to participate in and each entry didn't require my individual attention.

  I hoped that allowing players to see who had signed up would help boost attendance and also get more players to play in the rated section as opposed to the unrated section designed for the casual or beginning players. Neither of these things happened. My attendance was well within historical levels but that mostly due to a large number of players from one school club that came to three tournaments. I allowed players to play in the rated section for free for the first four tournaments and even then there were a few players who wanted to play in the beginner section even though they were well able to play in the rated section for more experienced players.

  Once I stopped allowing free entry to the rated section it was a 50-50 proposition as to whether I’d have enough players to have a rated section in the first place. I had been advertising for quite some time that if there weren’t at least four players I wouldn’t have a rated tournament so I was covered on that front. My last tournament of the year was in April. In the morning there were two players signed up for the rated section so I assumed I wasn’t going to have a rated tournament. There were two players that had played in previous rated tournaments but since their parents had signed them up for the unrated tournament I knew there wasn’t a misunderstanding.

  I had plenty of players for the unrated section and was checking them in when a player came to play in the rated section without pre-registering. Pre-registering is not a must for the tournament and I explained that I wasn’t going to have a rated tournament unless we had one more player sign up. The player and parent talked a bit and then left. A minute after they left another player came to play in the rated section also without pre-registering. Because the other player left I still didn’t have enough players for a rated tournament and just rolled the three players who wanted to play in the rated section into the unrated tournament.

  The tournament was great and everyone was good sports. I got more than a few questions about why I didn’t have a rated section to which I explained about needing four players to have a tournament. The parents whose children had played in previous rated tournaments said they would have had their kids sign up for the rated section but when they signed up for the tournament they saw there weren’t any players in the rated section so they signed up for the unrated tournament instead! Given the precedent of putting the rated players in the unrated section when there wasn’t enough players I think either the parents weren’t paying attention or maybe were trying to sound nice.

  My efforts to make it as easy as possible for parents to sign up for my youth tournaments and help boost participation in the rated tournaments by letting people see who had signed up didn’t get the bang for the buck I was hoping for because I forgot the point I was trying to make to Bob Crane nearly a quarter of a century ago. People are going to do what they are going to do and there isn’t much technology can do about it. Showing who is attending a tournament won’t include people who don’t sign up in advance and people who don’t want to play in the rated section aren’t going to do that either. Maybe Bob wasn’t the only visionary…