Written By: Lawrence Waugh, Founder at Calavista
I’ve written before that most people who are looking for a software development firm to deliver code for them tend to really care about 3 things. Those things are:
3) Speed of delivery
There’s no surprise there – those are the things we all care a lot about in most purchases. No one wants to overpay, buy inferior goods, or wait interminably (or maybe indefinitely) for most anything they buy. I’ve written previously about ways to minimize cost (spoiler alert: Fixed Fee is not your friend). In this post, I want to focus on quality.
How can you be sure the company you engage will deliver high-quality code at whatever price you’re paying them?
The good news is that it’s easier to tell than you may think.
Don’t believe the hype
The first thing to realize is that any company can say anything they want about themselves. It doesn’t matter how nice their website looks – that’s the work of the marketing group and has nothing to do with how well they actually write code. They can speak eloquently and say all the right things. That’s the talent of their salespeople. You may even speak to some of their engineers and think they’re brilliant – and maybe they are. But “brilliance” doesn’t necessarily translate into superior software delivery. Software projects fail over 70% of the time (according to the benchmark 2015 Standish Group Chaos Report) and very rarely do you hear that blamed on the poor quality of the developers. “Well, yes we were late, but what did you expect? All of our developers are below average in skill…,” said no development manager, ever.
There’s only one thing that matters when judging the likelihood of receiving a quality software product on time and on budget: the company’s history of delivering quality software on time and on budget.
Nothing that they say about themselves matter. The only thing that matters is what their past customers say about them. So, ask around.
There are references and then there are references
Well, that’s obvious – asking a prospective vendor for references is de rigueur. Typically, the company will provide 2, or maybe 3, customers for you to speak with. That seems right, right? I mean, how many calls do you really want to make?
It’s not enough. Not nearly.
Every company has 2 or 3 go-to customers that will say nice things about them. So, they get used a lot. Perhaps there are relationships involved that transcend work, or maybe they’ve just made those customers particularly happy. Regardless, even a small, new company can usually come up with a few people for you to talk to.
But think for a minute what that means.
Have they only had 2 customers? Or have they had dozens, but only made 2 of them happy enough to be a reference? In either case, is that someone you want to do business with?
A company that serves, say, 10 customers a year, and has been around for 5 years, will have had about 50 customers. Hopefully, a substantial fraction of those 50 would be happy with the work they did. So then why would they only offer you 2 people to talk to? Or 3? Or 5?
Ask them for 10. Or 12. Or 15. If they can’t provide you with that many, ask “Why not?” Have they not had 10 customers? Or have they not made 10 customers happy? It’s one or the other.
Regardless, if they can’t give you 10 or 15 references, ask them for a list of customers — a complete list, not just a few. Then – after you have the list, not before – ask them for the name of the person they worked for at each of those customers. There had to be someone responsible for the project. If they say that the person is no longer with the company, that’s OK – get their name anyway. Then look those people up on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever. Reach out to them and ask about their experience with the company.
You only need a few minutes of conversation to understand how the project went, how the company delivered. Most people will be happy to spend 5 minutes with you on the phone – whether their experience was good or bad. Don’t stop with one – call and talk to at least 5. In about an hour, you can talk to 10 of their customers. You’ll be surprised at the things you hear and then you’ll know the truth – or at least you will have an idea of the quality of work you should expect.
If delivering the project on schedule and on budget is important to you, is it worth an hour of conversations? It is the only way you’ll know the truth. Everything else is just hype.
Calavista claims that over the past 2 decades, we have completed over 100 projects, and delivered well over 90% of them on time and on budget. If that’s true, then there should be scores of customers who are happy with our work, and who should be glad to speak to a prospect.
There are. So, we lead with that. The first thing we’ll do when a prospect indicates serious interest is to give them a list of recent customers who will speak to them about us. To keep relevance, we typically limit that list to customers we’ve worked with in the past 3 years. That list typically has about 20 names on it from maybe 15 companies.
This just seems obvious to us. If you are looking at a company that will not (or cannot) provide this kind of list, you probably really need to understand why.
When you’re looking to spend a large sum of money on a software project, you need to do your homework. It may take a few hours – maybe even a day or two. But in the scheme of things, what’s the cost of that compared to the cost of a failed project?
And finally – once you’ve settled on a company to work with, and you complete the project (or don’t, God forbid) – be open to someone reaching out to you on LinkedIn. Be honest and objective. Because someone may be betting their career on your candor.