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Successes and Failures in a Software Startup

At the 92nd SPIN meeting, Herve Bagalwa of HervNet talked about Successes and Failures in a Software Startup. He talked about his journey: his beliefs; the vision; the reality. He did this by discussing three case studies and the lessons that he learned from them. Below are my brief notes from his talk.

Herve start developing software about 5 years ago, mostly web sites, and did some free work to begin with, to help develop trust in his company. A friend told him about Agile and Scrum, and at first his reaction was "What's wrong with the way I write software?" The concepts of Scrum were blurry to begin with, but he started reading, learning, and doing implementing sprints.

He believes that education is the ultimate solution to the challenges faced in Africa, and he teaches at the eSkills Institute at the University of the Western Cape. The unit's goal is to put South Africa in a competitive space for IT. We have good infrastructure, but Kenya and Ghana seem to be leading.

The first case study he presented was Perk. The team was himself and two developers. He also acted as Scrum Master, which lead to some troubles: he couldn't always make standups because also had to run the business. They had no Product Owner and they had one week long sprints. One of the challenges of the project was communication. Herve said that he wished they had been more clear about their process, along the lines of: "This is how we work" and "This is what you will get."

The second case study was the 110% Green initiative of the Western Cape Government. For this project, Herve brought two junior developers on board. He found that there was a great learning experience for the junior developers, but that it was a large time drain on the senior developers: they had to work evenings and weekends to make up lost time. This project also had no Product Owner, and Herve said they would have been a valuable addition to the team: the PO would have communicated what the client valued, and decided what to show to the client, taking that extra pressure of the developers.

The third case study was about Prezence Digital. It was a big project, and they built it using an familiar framework. This was a problem given the short timeframe: they had to spend too much time learning the framework first. At one point, a short deadline was imposed for a story. The internet was down at work, Herve had no Internet at work, so he pulled an all-nighter at Long Street Cafe and still wasn't finished by the end. Herve maintains a relationship with the CEO, who meets him regularly for coffee and mentoring.

Herve finished off his talk with some conclusions and summary of the lessons learned.

  • Agile is a must in a software startup.
  • Context is important to get developers to do Agile; developers should know what the product is and does so that it's not just about the specification. "I'm not just writing Java: I'm making Perk."
  • Scrum relies heavily on good communication.

The talks was followed by some spirited debate around sprint length and the importance of a good Product Owner.