The Business Need: Integrate Multiple Web Offerings into a Single SaaS Portal
This client is a provider of PR software and services, including media monitoring, media list building, press release distribution, and media analysis. They provide analysis of content used in other media such as TV, newspapers, magazine articles, and related media. These analyses allow their clients to determine where the content delivers the most value in terms of PR and marketing. They also identify target groups for PR and related activities. Their customers include public relations agencies, corporations, government agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations throughout the world.
The client had recently bought a number of companies engaged in related business in these areas. Their desire was to consolidate the offerings of these acquisitions and replace five existing web products with a single SaaS platform. This proposed product suite was to also allow them to combine the functionalities of their media monitoring, media list building, press release distribution, and media analysis, allowing them to provide a single point of contact for customers to interface with their products both domestically and globally. The client knew they wanted to reduce multiple software platforms down to one software platform, believing this would help reduce support costs. The new platform would not only allow for feature parity with the legacy systems, but would also provide many new feature enhancements, allowing them to close the gap on their competition. However, they had no idea how they were going to accomplish this goal.
By providing a single customer portal and a single point of contact, and by presenting the customer with a single bill, the client was hoping to reshape the way their customer interactions were conducted and integrate data in ways that were not available in their previous offerings. The client wanted this single platform designed with multi-language support and distributed architecture that would allow it to be leveraged for global deployment. They also had an eye on beefing up their market share, as a competing company had started up a few years before. That company had grown and expanded, and now was starting to threaten the client’s business by taking away market share. They wanted to regain their market share by finding a solution that would allow them to outperform their rival’s services. The product management group was having difficulty defining what the project actually was and what goals it was intended to accomplish. The client uses a Microsoft .NET architecture and was looking for a partner who would work with them in a project-style engagement, both of which fit perfectly into Geneca’s core competencies. Geneca was invited to advise them on how to accomplish their desired goals and define criteria for success.
The Requirements Challenge
The major challenge was that the business unit was not aligned on how the project should be integrated between the products, and the company could not agree on the priorities in the project roadmap. With no clear vision for the product functionality from product management, the IT department felt it was being set up to fail, as requirements and direction kept changing. On their part, the business unit felt that IT did not understand the business requirements and was not delivering on their vision, not understanding why some parts were more critical to the project than others. They felt they were being forced to settle on functionality based on technical constraints. This was complicated by another stakeholder group that was involved in the middle ground between the business and IT units. Partway into the project, product management was reorganized and a new product manager was put in place, and this manager had a much clearer vision of what was needed for the product, which helped in shaping the requirements. Ironically, Geneca was initially engaged because the client believed that Geneca would find a data warehousing solution for them. Data warehousing is not one of Geneca’s services, but it quickly became apparent that a data warehousing solution was not the answer to the client’s problems. On working with the client and reaching an understanding of what they were trying to accomplish, Geneca determined that what was needed was a well-designed, flexible transactional data model. Moreover, the client was insisting that development be done by distributed development teams, one in Chicago and the other a contracting firm in Moldova. While there are some good developers in Moldova, the problem was that the Moldovan developers had no concept of PR or media analysis. Being a newly capitalist society, the developers were not familiar with the concept of advertising and how it interacts with public relations and the media. Additionally, there were challenges in working with greatly differing time zones, as well as in project methodology, work structure, and QA and development standards. There was no formal process in place for estimation and project planning. Because of this, the client had unrealistic expectations for cost, believing that by offshoring they could bring the project in for around $3 million. Geneca predicted that the final cost would be more in line with a $6 million figure. Indeed, the project’s final cost was around $5.8 million.
The Geneca Solution
Geneca worked with the client’s chief architect on a pilot program to show what was possible. During this engagement, it was determined that a well-designed flexible transactional data model was what was needed, and the project moved forward on that basis. This engagement occurred before the development of Geneca’s Getting PredictableSM best practices, although a similar process was used to develop the project requirements. Because the client’s requirements process was not defined, Geneca worked with the client to form a process for estimation, based on metrics from the team’s previous deliverables, and developed a consistent scale for defining the level of effort for a given task. This allowed for more accurate estimation and more reliable planning and allowed business and IT to create a mutually agreed-upon definition of success. Geneca helped facilitate moving the requirements definition out of the business unit and made it one of the functions of the delivery team. This shift helped make it more consistent with the requirements, as well as allowing for more efficient communication between the developers and the analysts. Geneca also worked to determine where the development process was not functioning as well as it could and developed solutions to increase effectiveness. As mentioned above, the main challenge was working with an offshore development team who had a poorly defined context for PR and how all the functions of PR and advertising worked (e.g., they did not fully understand what problem the business was trying to solve, which therefore made communication more difficult). Ultimately only non-critical and QA work was delivered to the offshore team. This helped not only increase the productivity, communication, and efficiency of the team, but helped to quell issues around accountability for the quality of the work being done. Geneca also worked with the client team to provide training on .NET, SQL server, query writing, and performance testing and tuning. The product was developed and launched despite the challenges, because a clear focus for the functionality had been developed, which could then be communicated to the development team. The client gained the desired competitive advantage in the fields of PR research, PR communication distribution, PR monitoring, and analytics. The product is now being considered for worldwide deployment, due to its ability to handle multiple languages.
The Rewards: The Value of the Upfront Requirements Effort
Without a definition of requirements and success being developed early in the project, the development team would have been left to flounder, unable to determine what was needed. Due to the cultural differences between the U.S. and Moldava, roles were shifted to accommodate what could actually be implemented by the outsourced team, and development efforts were able to proceed. By the end of the engagement, a better definition of project requirements allowed the project development to proceed in a more efficient manner, and project costs came in slightly under the original cost projection. The SaaS product launch allowed the company to use the product’s PR research, PR communication distribution, PR monitoring, and analytics functionality to provide their clients with a 360-degree view of their PR and marketing data across all product offerings. Only a year after deployment, the software platform had been nominated for three CODIE software awards (from the Software and Information Industry Association): Best On-Demand Platform, Best Vertical Market Business Content Solution, and Best Online News Service, and was the winner in the Best Online News Service category.