Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lessons learned from the farm.

My Dad has often recounted to me the story of a neighboring farmer. The neighbor ran a dairy where they milked Jersey cows. It was a very profitable operation. Not only was it ran well, it was clean and in good order, meaning that the barns were in good repair and that the fence rows were not grown up with briers, weeds, or trees.

The neighbor sent his son to a University were the son majored in agriculture. Upon his graduation and return to the farm the son started applying the lessons he learned at the University. The son took the savings from the farm's years of profit and increased the size of the operation. One of the changes was the adding of a Harvestore "big blue" silo. Trust me, these silos are expensive. The son ran the operation and soon was broke and had to sell out.

Now the son is working at the state government level in the Department of Agriculture.

My Dad is amazed that someone who took control of a "gem" of a dairy operation and ran it into the ground is qualified to make agriculture decisions at the state level.

In my opinion the man is not qualified.

When I remember this story it causes me to think about software development and a couple of similarities I have seen.

The first is that I have seen directors and executives run companies into the ground and then in mass those "people" go to another company and do it all over again. This scenario is not exclusive to dairy farms and software development. I know that using such derisive terms as "ran into the ground" poison the well and since I do not know all of the reasons for the company failures and thus this is an invalid argument based on an appeal to consequences of belief. Nevertheless I have seen people advance in the same business sector even though previously they were involved in significant failures in that same sector.

The second thing that the dairy farm story reminds me is that "just because it was taught at the University doesn't mean it will work!". I loved my education at Brigham Young University. The professors there taught me well. However, I knew the dairy farm story before I went to the University and I knew that I would have to carefully apply the lessons from school to my career.

So, some advice for my friends. When someone else has an idea on how you should run your business figure out if that someone makes a living doing what you do. The University Professor teaching agriculture makes his money through the University and not through farming. The Professor's teachings may be right and applicable and they may not be applicable. The onus or burden of proof falls upon you.

One might conclude that my Father's farm is not progressive because he doesn't follow the latest suggestions from the Universities, feed salesmen, or machinery salesmen. This is not so. My Dad has often told me of how his father had them using a mule to plow the fields. My Dad and his younger Brother decided that if they were going to run the farm and make any money doing it that they would need a tractor. So the two brothers bought a tractor and some implements to use with that tractor.

My Father would go to different parts of the U.S.A. and see what farmers where doing there. I remember when we had traveled through the Mid-West and we had seen the hay balers that make a large round bale. My Dad ordered one and our farm was the first in the area to use the new technology by several years.

My Father also rejected many ideas that he saw adopted. One of which was to place all of the cattle into a confined area to limit the cattle's movement and to put in large silos and conveyor systems. Our neighbors did so. To pay for the silos and such they added more cows to the heard. Even though our neighbors had an operation valued in the millions of dollars my Dad's farm made more profit, was less stressful on the cattle because the cows stilled roamed in their pasture, costs less in operations because the cattle are healthier, etc.

My Father rejected the recommendation of the Agriculture representatives to give the cows a shot of hormones, known as BST, to the cattle. The cost of the hormones was not the reason he rejected this idea. The idea of giving the cows a shot, and trust me the needle to give a cow a shot is large and it hurts the cow, and making the cows nervous and even mean was not worth it. Also, it was not something he wanted in his milk and so he figured you wouldn't want it in yours (even though they claimed that the hormone can not end up in the milk). The shots, the confinement, and other issues of a large "modern" dairy reduces the life of a cow from over 10 years to less than 7 years. The costs of raising or buying replacement cattle is tremendous.

My Father values the living conditions of his cattle over making a profit. My Father has learned that having a bigger business does not mean you have a more profitable business. My Father has learned that salesmen are motivated to sell their product and can spin quite the story of reasons why you should use their product. My Father does not define success by short term profits alone.

For those that have stuck with me on this post you may be asking what does this have to do with software development. To me it has plenty and if it hasn't been clear then please post some comments and I will try to help you understand.

Remember, you are probably smarter than you think you are and those you think are really smart may not be as smart as you think! Think for yourself. Know what is important to you and if you don't know what is important you will eventually learn what is important.

When someone is trying to sell you something that will make you money here's a little test for them:

If someone says that by adopting the new Lissom Software Development Methodology you will increase your productivity by 20%, then ask them to put it into writing and if it doesn't deliver they will give you your money back!

When they refuse to offer you a money back guarantee ask them to stop with the hype and spin and ask them to work with you so that you can see if their methodology addresses real problems that you are experiencing.

You know the problems you face even though you might not recognize the root cause of the problems and you might not know all of the possible ways to address the problem. That is where getting help and ideas from others internally or externally can be useful.

Just some thoughts.

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