Learning the business
Text and photos "A software designer"
The second category of learning is substance knowledge, that is, understanding the business in which the new product or service will be used. In order to build a functional and high-quality product, you need to know the business like the back of your hand. Typically, a customer who is buying a software product has a profound understanding of their own business, but no software expertise. Conversely, software professionals have the ability to produce software, but don’t understand the business.
Transferring this substance knowledge from the customer to the software expert is an obstacle to the success of a software project, and the more complex the problem field (that is, the area in which the software is being developed), the larger the obstacle it poses. However, skilled professionals can transfer substance knowledge even in the most difficult of problem fields, and software designers commonly end up understanding the business better than the customers themselves.
I’m now in my third year with the fire control team, but I can’t say that I understand the business well enough yet. It’s difficult to sit behind a keyboard and build software when you never get to see the conditions, equipment, users or operating methods for which your software is supposed to provide a solution. That makes learning even more complicated. You can see individual pieces of the puzzle by reading documents and listening to more experienced colleagues, but you never get the whole picture. It’s as if you’re looking at images without a background, without any context.
September 2020: After years of asking, it finally happened. I would eventually be getting an introduction to the field conditions for fire control. The entire fire control team would be visiting the artillery school to watch them work, ask questions and see the equipment. We would be joined by both experienced fire control veterans and newcomers.
October 2020: A whole day was reserved for our visit, and we had already been prepped with a several-hour theory section. The day was divided into several sections, in which we got to watch the various uses of indirect fire with our own eyes: conscripts, equipment and fleets in actual operations. We were also given detailed information about how indirect fire works as part of the bigger picture, and what role our software plays in the huge package that is fire control.
I spent the whole day asking question after question. The more I asked about something, the more questions arose. Even my more experienced colleagues learned plenty of new things that day. Misconceptions that have lasted years were corrected. I spent the entire car journey home discussing the day’s events with a colleague, and I had the feeling that I could still spend another few days asking more questions.
The entire fire control team thought it had been a very successful visit. We came back equipped with a whole new understanding of how things are done, why they are done that way, what needs our products will meet in the overall scheme of things, what users think of our products, and how we could better meet their needs in the future.
The visit also had an important additional benefit: an excellent team outing that boosted motivation and team spirit. Our work can sometimes be a bit of a grind, as we never get to see our solutions working in practice. We spend years building something, but don’t necessarily get to see any concrete results at all for weeks or even months. Although I consider myself to be a professional who always gets the job done, when I’m sitting behind my keyboard on a dark October morning, I often have to motivate myself by remembering that I’m doing an important job even if its importance is not always evident. This learning journey gave me a concrete reminder of my work’s significance. And the customer’s representatives in particular did not let us forget the importance of our work, which for some reason brought to mind a line from a famous 90s movie:
”We use words like ’honor’, ’code’, ’loyalty’. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something.”
So in the future, on those dark October mornings, I will try to remember that it’s an honour to be doing important work and that we have a duty to do it to the best of our ability, because everything needs to function properly. Thanks to the artillery school for an excellent learning experience. We were able to transfer a great deal of substance knowledge to ourselves during that visit, which will definitely help us to do the right things better and faster – and with even more enthusiasm.