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On Collabnet and blame culture

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Collaborative development is increasingly popular but perhaps a hosted services model helps it really work.

It's not often you see a software development product endorsed by a world-famous physicist, especially a dead one, but it's a feat Collabnet appears to have pulled off. Perhaps we shouldn't laugh: Albert's soundbites are a lot more interesting than the average CEO can manage.

We are talking about a little red book called “Software Development According ² Einstein” and, for example, Einstein's remark “insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” certainly describes the way some people react to failure in developing systems. You know, "we wrote a system spec and froze changes before we cut any code and then it wasn't what the users wanted by the time they got it - so next time we'll produce an even longer system spec and accept absolutely no changes at all...".

On the other hand Collabnet is on rockier ground when it claims that Einstein “would likely have been amazed by how fast so many things happen” these days. He may well have been amazed that, with so much computing power and knowledge available, so little has changed fundamentally over the last 60 years in the way we work - read Vanevar Bush's Memex article from 60 years ago or Fred Brooks' Mythical Man Month from 30 years ago and wonder why they can still make inspirational reading today.

Perhaps Collabnet should stick to its own guru, Brian Behlendorf, founder and CTO, who was pretty impressive when we met him for supper recently. As the man behind Apache, he has some strong development credentials. He apparently sees his job as being to "get out of the way when good work is being done" – something that many managers could take to heart.

We also met Collabnet's “secret weapon": Roy Woodfine, principal collaboration consultant, who mentors customers through the cultural changes associated with developing software collaboratively. In essence, increased transparency, which is a core part of successful collaborative environments, is worrying, because sharing information and looking for ways to improve things can make the people responsible for the status quo open to blame.

It's necessary to have a key sponsor - with the vision and determination to get things done, and Collabnet is proud of selling its approach to the BT CIO, Alnoor Ramji, who certainly has vision and determination - and will need all of it to transform IT in BT.

Do no wrong, do no right

But in our experience such dynamic sponsors sometimes introduce a blame culture – where the evangelists for the new order can do no wrong and those struggling with keeping the business status quo going can do no right.

You need to reward people not only for finding improvements but also actively demonstrate that mistakes will only be punished if they're repeats of old mistakes or if you don't learn from them. Investing in a “collaboration mentor” can be a good way to demonstrate a company's real commitment to its people, to transparency-driven development and to a learning culture.

But what is left to distinguish Collabnet when established Application Lifecycle Development companies such as Borland are adding collaboration tools to their suites (e.g. JBuilder) and are even embracing Open Source (Eclipse)? Well, you could argue that its background in Apache, a real distributed development project, gives it an edge stil lover people adding collaboration to existing suites;

In a report sponsored by Collabnet, Melissa Webster of IDC makes the point that, “distributed teams need their automated tools to help them bridge the cultural, time and geographical barriers they face - she talks of fostering a sense of community and teamwork, which, we think, involves more than just technology. Even so, whatever the increasing collaboration, it does seem that Collabnet may do this rather well.

All the same, perhaps its real USP is its “hosted services” model. Collabnet Enterprise Edition 3.0 is available as a hosted solution on Sun Solaris or Red Hat Linux, exploiting MySQL for data persistence and the Apache Webserver for scalability.

This means that the initial investment barrier is low, as there no need to buy hardware and software before you can get started. And, perhaps more importantly, there is no barrier to dropping the product if it doesn't deliver, as there are no licences or hardware you're still paying fo.

All application development tool vendors claim to put their customers' needs first, but Collabnet really does rise or fall by its success at doing this – it is just as easy for it to lose its customers as to acquire them, and this should make its customers feel rather comfortable.... ®

David Norfolk is the author of IT Governance, published by Thorogood. More details here.

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