Martin Fowler has an interesting post up called Utility vs Strategic Dichotomy. The point he’s making is that there are essentially two kinds of software projects, which he names utility and strategic, and that they need to be treated entirely different in the way you staff and run them.
Utility projects, he defines, are the ones that provide functions that are often necessary and crucial to run the business, but not a differentiating factor in competition with other companies.
A classic example of a utility IT project is payroll, everyone needs it, but it’s something that most people want to ‘just work’
Then he delivers hammer blow number one.
“Another consequence is that only a few projects are strategic. The 80/20 rule applies, except it may be more like 95/5.”
What Martin Fowler is saying is that a vast majority of us are doing work that is of no strategic importance to the business we support. I’m sure this statement cuts a wound in many developer’s and project manager’s self images, mine included. But I’m with Martin on this one. It’s time our sector gets its feet back on the ground and we start to realize that we’re here to support the business. Not the other way around.
Hammer blow number two.
Another way the dichotomy makes its influence felt is the role of agile methods. Most agilists tend to come from a strategic mindset, and the flexibility and rapid time-to-market that characterizes agile is crucial for strategic projects. For utility projects, however, the advantages of agile don’t matter that much.
I have a little harder swallowing this one. That the agile movement doesn’t “matter that much” while developing utility systems doesn’t ring true to me. Yes, time to customer is not as critical as in strategic projects, but that doesn’t mean that building the right system isn’t important to utility projects as well. And the agile values will help reducing cost and risk in any project, be it utility or strategic.