This is not a technology story, it’s indeed a story about what it took to build a product that solves a painful business problem. In other words, a story about a journey towards a lofty destination using technology as a vehicle.
I spent a good part of my professional life working for product companies where innovation and solutioning are ingrained in the company culture. I have been that “bridge” between identifying a problem and creating a software solution for it. This is what motivates me, excites me, and in almost all occasions, has rewarded me and my company with success. Having said that, the fire keeps burning. Bitten by the “I want to do more” bug, I had a strong urge to push the envelope a little. I have been an expert ensconced in solving various complex business problems in the healthcare industry in the USA for almost two decades. It took a leap of faith to jump out of that comfort zone and get into a business arena whose nuances and intricacies were unknown, new, and different.
The challenges of a start-up and the thrill of building something new never get old. So, I left the comfort of my job and joined a new organization, Codifyd. Much smaller compared to some of my previous employers, I joined as the Chief Technology Officer, and thus, started an interesting journey!
Codifyd’s strategic vision is to create a great software product to bring the digital strategies of manufacturers and distributors together seamlessly by focusing on product content. Codifyd’s multi-decade long experience and arsenal of digital commerce and transformation solutions for B2B companies was already in place. What was needed was to build modern software solutions for the entire spectrum of product content management challenges.
A robust content syndication platform to help businesses share product content easily is a big part of the puzzle in the holistic problem statement. We decided to tackle that first. Hence, we built Codifyd Bridge.
This is where the story begins. I am not going to talk about the technology that went into building this platform. But instead, I would like to speak about the journey that my team-mates and I embarked upon to build a solution that would make huge strides in how manufacturers, distributors, and retailers acquire, transform, syndicate and publish product information. This would also lead them to the holy grail of business success – a combination of lower cost, increased efficiency, augmented accuracy, and enhanced sales.
Chapter 1 – Build The Army
My first challenge was to get the right people in place. I inherited a small bunch of extremely sharp architects and software engineers in our office headquarters Chicago, USA. However, the bulk of the team was supposed to be working out of our development center in Mumbai, India.
This meant looking for resources who not only had great development skills and talent but who also possessed excellent communication abilities. After all, communication is the key to make any relationship work, especially a long-distance one. Many rigorous interviews later, I had a rock star team of developers in place across three nations – USA, India, and Colombia. Our journey had just begun.
Chapter 2 – Organize the Modus Operandi
Getting the right team was just one piece of the puzzle. We knew what we wanted to do but we had to make sure that we went about it in an organized manner.
Also, we believed that it is important to achieve incremental progress on a frequent and continuous basis. This keeps the motivation going. It makes the final destination more clearly visible with each advancing step.
Timelines can only be maintained when you have the right processes in place. It is easy to sacrifice discipline in the zeal of innovation. An innate characteristic of the start-up culture is to abhor bureaucracy and embrace ultimate flexibility. But I strongly believe in the optimal balance between regulatory boundaries defined by the process, and the free-flowing maverick nature of innovation.
I established an Agile process that was agile enough to bend and revise itself as we went along. My prior experience as an Agile expert/teacher taught me that the main pitfall of Agile proponents is their lack of agility to mold the process to suit the organizational culture. What challenges did we navigate along this path?
- Behavior and expectation setting needed to change
- Communications had to be modified to be more pointed, objective and unequivocal
- Traditional methods of estimating had to be discarded
- Collaborative behavior between different roles was encouraged and this become the key to success
- Ownership and accountability traits had to be learned, practiced, and re-taught
- A ‘quality focused’ mindset needed to be hammered into the psyche of development
It took a while to get us all singing from the same hymn sheet. Just like any new team, we stumbled and fell, but we rose, changed, rectified and re-tried until we reached a state of equilibrium & autopilot.
Chapter 3 – Figure Out What To Do
Since I was leading this project, I automatically became the owner of the product vision – the overarching goal, the reason behind creating the product in the first place. Defining the core essence of the product, what its future state should look like, what ambitions it tried to fulfill and the problems it solved came as a part of the responsibility. So, why was this challenging?
The challenge came from my dearth of experience in the business terrain we played in. I had little inside working knowledge of supply chain, marketing, distribution or merchandising.
Finding the answers to “what” was my first task. The “why” and “how” followed.
So how did I go about figuring out what we should do and why?
- Sheer hard work, hours of research and study
- Ample support from the more experienced folks within Codifyd accelerated my education and comprehension of the business
- Direct customer engagement went a long way to understand the users’ point of view. We began talking a lot to our clients who apprised us with their pain points
- Researching the competitive landscape was another eye-opener that not only told me what was important to do but also what the market needed and did not have. This gave us priceless insights into potential easy wins.
All these inputs were a bit overwhelming at first. But organization and clarity of priorities helped me build a mental picture of the product, and how we were to go about building it step by step.
Chapter 4 – One Head Many Hats
This development phase was as exciting as it could be. My team and I had the freedom to unshackle ourselves from the stifling structure and boundaries imposed in the highly regulated and restrictive operational processes of large organizations. Yet we imposed our own guidelines and boundaries defined by our common sense and intelligence.
It was okay for us to step outside the guide rails of the process as long as we knew how to come back to it, or how to modify the guide rails to suit pragmatism.
We were not afraid to take risks. The key adjective was “acceptable” in front of “risk”. Once again, common sense dictated our decision-making process with accountability and quality embedded in our work habits.
I may be the CTO of the company, but this phase saw me wearing many hats. On certain days I was the business analyst for the product, on other days I was the user experience and user interface designer. Sometimes I was the database designer or engineer, sometimes I became an architect discussing how REST web services and micro services should be implemented. Many a time I helped the QA team think through all possible testing scenarios. I also got my hands wet with actual coding.
Things couldn’t have been more dramatic and exciting. There never was a dull moment to lull in.
Chapter 5 – Proof Is In The Pudding
Software building is not just about design, coding, and testing. It is also about documenting, building training materials, project management, cost control, messaging for marketing, pre-sales activities and more.
Once a customer is signed, the additional tasks include devising implementation methods, fixing production bugs, mitigating performance bottlenecks, managing enhancement requests and expectations, and more.
There’s a saying ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’. While we planned and anticipated scenarios, we of course, could not think of everything. The challenge then shifted towards balancing the efforts of new development with customer commitments and dousing production fires.
This is where I set up the Customer Success and DevOps team. Their role was crucial to our overall success – enabling us to divide and conquer the multitude of tasks and asks which were being thrown at us.
The Bridge software is a mission-critical piece of the puzzle in our customers’ ecosystem. Production support had to be efficient and effective; reliability needed to be akin to flipping the switch and expecting the lights to turn on; responsiveness had to be prompt and decisive.
Needless to say, we struggled. But we continued to move ahead. Incidents of frustration initially far out-numbered incidents of joy. The tide did turn though. A disciplined, motivated, and strong team helped flip the success to frustration ratio. Our customers morphed from being unhappy to ambivalent to satisfied to delighted.
People are generally most excited about the building process of the software, not so much about the ‘deploy-run-maintain’ part of it. But the fruits of labor come only after customers start using the product. Once cannot be naďve and ignore this not-so-sexy aspect of product development. We were smart. Hence, our crawl-walk-run journey has and is progressing in the right direction.
Chapter 6 – Amazing Journey Continues
We have a software product in place that we are proud of as being the best in class. Codifyd Bridge solves some of the major data syndication challenges of our customers, is easy to use, is well-designed with a strong UX focus. It automates the way our customers share, onboard, and syndicate product information.
Codifyd Bridge is designed to help our customers solve their complex channel management problems with expert product data management. It helps our customers eliminate guesswork and errors and improves content quality. It enables our manufacturer/supplier clients to provide customized content to their sales channels. It enables our distributor/retailer clients to gather disparate content from suppliers and transform all into a cohesive offering. All this leads to tangible, measurable benefits, both operationally and financially, for our customers.
We created a real impact. As the sales started rolling in, it became clear that we had a winner. Late last year, Bridge made its way into a Forrester report “Now Tech: Product Information Distribution Services (PIDS), Q4 2018 – Forrester’s Overview Of 23 Product Information Distribution Service Providers”. To me, this is a great validation of both our vision and our execution.
Our journey has not ended. As I mentioned earlier, Bridge solves one part of the holistic problem statement in product content. We are just like a mountaineer climbing one peak after another in our endeavor to scale Everest – which is the holistic software platform. That is what we are focusing on now. It is amazing how our experience with Bridge has given us a head start as we embark on building the holistic platform solution to “Amaze the World”!
– Pratik Chakraborty, Chief Technology Officer, Codifyd Inc