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gnat (29)

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Journal of gnat (29)

Thursday April 11, 2002
04:54 AM


[ #4110 ]
My uncle has been reading various books on software business management, and passed on some advice from one of them. "Run your business as though you were going to franchise it." Think of McDonalds--it's not great food, but it's exactly the same no matter where you are.

This is because everybody at McDonalds knows their job (in theory). The processes and roles are assigned and taught, so that you don't need the best chefs of Europe to cook or the finest MBAs to manage.

But who wants a software company that's like McDonalds? Most people, the argument goes, do not like variability. They want to know what they're getting, to know that when you promise something you'll deliver it. Every time. Then they'll keep coming back with their requests and changes, and won't jump ship to someone else.

This doesn't mean that there's no room for creativity. In software there has to be. But it means that your business processes (requirements, estimation, coding, testing, billing, rollout) are all standardized and do not lower the quality of your work.

In some ways, I guess this reflects the idea that when someone hires you to write software, they're not just buying the final product they're buying the experience. My local entertainment powerhouse, SheepWorld, knows this. You don't just get to see a couple of sheep, a dog, and a human. You get an authentic Kiwi farmer with his laconic sense of humour and natural sense of theater. You get a show.

Similarly with software, a customer buys not just lines of code but the process of acquiring them. If they have a good time, are treated well, and feel like they got what they asked for, they'll come back. And if they get the same happy experience, they'll come back again.

My uncle's example was a hair cutting place he went to. The first time he got a 40 year old guy who talked and joked as he cut, and my uncle had a great time. The next time he got a 25 year old woman who was silent as she cut. He tried again, and got a 30 year old man who sang along to the radio as he cut. There was no fourth time.

Personally, I'm trying to get on top of editing and come up with a process that makes it franchisable. In theory this is the publishing company's job, but O'Reilly has been very organic about the whole process. Editors have almost complete free reign in how they go from idea to final manuscript, and so there are no training manuals for new editors.

I've been picking it up as I go, but my goal is to be able to turn the entire process into a pipeline. Every step (feasibility, contract, development, tech reviews, marketing reports) should have a standard process I can follow. I lose time and hair, not to mention lower the quality of my authors' experience and possibly the books, by having to reinvent everything anew each time.

I can't tell you how enormously stressful it is to be at the bottom of this huge learning curve. Thanks to the recession and the loss of several coworkers, I now think of books in terms of jobs. "If this one is a stinker, how many people's salaries have I just wasted?" And every time something a book slips its deadline, I wonder about the costs of slippage--book buyers from the major outlets have fixed budgets and buy for a certain window, and if a book slips they cancel their order and it can be months before they can reorder from another month's budget. Did I just lose someone their job because I didn't get the illustrations to the graphic designer in time?

Getting editing to the point where it can be franchised means that I'll stop making my authors miserable, I'll stop making ME miserable, and I'll hopefully be able to get more and better books out. A nice dream, now all I need is a lifetime to make it happen :-)


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  • While McDonalds may be run like a well-oiled machine, it's an example of a well-run organization, but not a great training ground on how to manage.

    Think about the Army. We tend to glorify what we the military in times of war: take this hill and defend it from the enemy, or infiltrate enemy lines and destroy that outpost. brian points out that in general, the Army isn't like that at all. It's about being given a job, doing exactly that job and nothing else: drive this convoy four miles down the road. Kn

  • MacDonald's is a horrid metaphor. Notably:

    MacDonald's involves no novelty whatsoever. Little training is needed and there /is/ no learning curve, because the steps are completely simple, and can be followed every single time to produce identical results; and the process involves no artifacts of thought or design. In short, nothing there is hard -- nor anything that a fairly evolved illiterate (and in fact alingual) chimp couldn't be trained to do. Moreover, the labour is repetitive, and there's a huge

    • I wasn't implying that there was no creative side to editing. But when it comes to identifying structural flaws in a manuscript, or confusing explanatory language, you're right--that's stuff that isn't automatable.

      But a book should take the same rough path each time, from first gleam in the eye through to finished product on the shelf. Authors need to be told things at certain times. Marketing needs to be notified at certain times. The production needs to be scheduled at a certain time. Reviewers nee

      • Out of interest (mostly my gf's interest), how does one become an editor? It's not something I tend to see ads for in the paper.
          ---ict / Spoon
        • Most of the O'Reilly editors followed one of two routes: write a lot for O'Reilly, or be an editor at another publishing company first. That doesn't really help, I know :-)

          Right now I think it's quite difficult to become an editor at a publishing company. The book industry, and the technical book industry in particular, took a major gutpunch when the Internet stock game blew over. Consequently there are many former employees of publishing houses kicking around looking for jobs.

          O'Reilly's also a littl