August 29, 2011

Real Valley Stories: Should Working Faster be Penalized?

Editor's Note: Part 5 in an irregular series of stories from my 12 years in Silicon Valley. Part 4 talked about how I once nearly quit over ugly URLs. This week, debating speed and quality versus budgets.

With more than a decade embedded in the Valley, I've led and participated in more than my fair share of product launches and website redesigns. Over time, as is common, one finds vendors they work extremely well with, who can consistently deliver high quality work quickly, as if the two of you are in lockstep. Back in 2001, as I switched jobs, I immediately signed up my favorite web designer as a vendor at my new company.

Our initial task - to launch a new website in 30 days at a price less than a third of the existing firm's proposal, was met ahead of schedule, and for the next several years, I had his firm on speed dial for projects big and small. Unfortunately, this relationship was put in jeopardy thanks to one of the frequent management changes at the company, and one day I unexpectedly found myself challenged by my new boss over the costs of a project I had assumed was executed exactly to scope.

In 2003, as the company had grown, our website had gotten increasingly complex, and one of the to-do items assigned me was to rearchitect our partners page. Once a simple array of logos and one-paragraph descriptions, it had grown unwieldy and ugly. I proposed we engage our web design firm to make a proposal and recode the page in its entirety. As was customary, they provided a quote well within our budget, I made a purchase order, and the two of us got to work. Within two days, we had agreed on a design, and two days after that, the final code was delivered and pushed to production. I was pleased, and moved on to the next task.

The following week, as I sat down for my regular one on one with my boss, and reviewed the project, I was challenged on how quickly it had been completed. Coming from a Big Five consulting background, they had come to expect that dollar allotments were closely tied to how long it took to complete a project, and the longer the project took to complete, the more we should have spent. As she admonished me, saying that I should spend the company's money as if it were my own, I responded that I had, in selecting the best quality work, combined with a fast delivery schedule.

As I responded, I asked if we should charge more for computers and servers that did jobs less quickly, or that cars that drove faster than others should actually be worth less. I was incredulous that a quality job done quickly would actually be devalued over a more meandering, less direct approach. Obviously, my response was not the manager's favorite, and I had to work very carefully with the same vendors and others going forward - needing to directly tie the number of hours on a project to the purchase order amount and a practically arbitrary assigned dollar per hour value. It drove me nuts.

The debate to me clearly marked the divide between a fast-moving and flexible startup culture versus a stodgy corporate view, where process was practically as important as the destination. The debate surprised me and disappointed me, but also taught to know the aspects of a project important to other decision makers that could impact me or our business positively or negatively. As for the vendor? I continued work with him for another six years, well after that manager had since left. They didn't work out.