Corporate IT Can Learn a Lot From Web 2.0 Coders

Companies can cut costs and boost productivity by focusing more on their users.

On July 14, Yahoo's Flickr unit reported that the latest update to the photo-sharing Web site went live two days earlier with five changes made by two of its developers. The July 12 "deployment" was the 42nd new release in a week where 19 developers made 735 changes.

Such constant tweaking -- called a "perpetual beta" in the Web 2.0 world -- is common for companies like Flickr that build applications for a consumer market that's always in flux.

Quick, incremental updates, along with heavy user involvement, are key characteristics of an emerging software development paradigm championed by a new generation of Web 2.0 start-ups.

The new process, which some champions call "application development 2.0," contrasts markedly with the traditional corporate waterfall process that separates projects into several distinct phases, ranging from requirements to maintenance. Nonetheless, application development 2.0 could significantly cut development costs and improve software quality if managers and developers are willing to make some hard changes.

"Sometimes enterprise organizations tend to look at these [Web 2.0-focused] places and say they are not very disciplined," said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research. "That is not the case. They have built discipline into the process that allows them to be very reactive -- a [good] lesson for IT organizations."

Based on interviews with analysts and executives of Web 2.0 firms, Computerworld compiled a list of five ways that corporate IT managers can benefit from Web 2.0 development processes. Here they are:

1. Break the barrier between developers and end users, and involve users in quality assurance processes.

Wesabe, which runs a personal finance Web site, doesn't have a formal internal quality assurance group. Instead, the company relies on users and founder and CEO Marc Hedlund.

Wesabe's developers work with users to come up with new features, and then Hedlund tests them before rolling them out to Wesabe.com.

Hedlund said that before launching Wesabe two years ago, he studied many of the common development techniques put into place by Web 2.0 companies. He said he concluded that applications are inherently built better when developers are not insulated from the people who use their applications. Direct user complaints or compliments are far better motivators for developers than PowerPoint slides with bar charts representing user desires.

William Gribbons, director of the graduate program in human factors at Bentley College, said that large companies can benefit financially by using Web 2.0 techniques to develop applications for employees.

"Companies often think their [internal] applications are different because they're used by employees [who] are compensated for the pain and suffering they are enduring," he said. That pain and suffering, however, can lead to increases in training costs and employee turnover and cut productivity -- all a hit to the corporate bottom line.

Corporate development teams should focus on close interaction with internal users to gather requirements, and to create a controlled, systematic way to observe users interacting with prototypes, Gribbons suggested.

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Heather Havenstein

Computerworld

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