Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Any News? - Working With Third Parties

I Am A Rock

We programmers tend to be an independent bunch. Like a lone wolf, we often prefer our own company to that of others and like to work alone. It's been said that, "no man is an island." I have to agree (unless you happen to be Paul Simon). Even programmers need to interact with their coworkers, managers, other departments, and even third-party contacts to meet the day-to-day demands of their jobs.

While networking and politics may not come naturally to all developers, we're hardly worthy of our titles if we cannot find a way to communicate clearly and accurately. Programmers must express requirements, prerequisites, technical issues, and design ideas in ways that others can understand so that all players can do their jobs and assist us in completing our own work.

Have you ever found yourself in this situation? You're beginning to wrap up a project, but you notice a seemingly simple, yet annoying bug in the library you are working with. Being diligent, you follow up with the library provider to report the issue. You ask if this is a known issue. You ask if you're using their library correctly. You ask if there are any workarounds or alternative approaches they can suggest. You go ahead and make a note to yourself to revisit the problem once the provider has had time to review your questions. Fast forward a few weeks. You've cleaned and polished every other corner of your software, but you really need to address this one remaining issue before you can build a final software release. In the meantime, the only feedback you've received is that they're, "looking into it."

On Dependencies

A wise piece of advice for any project is, "eliminate the dependencies." Just as in the example above, making yourself dependent on someone else's assistance can be a very compromising position. Not being able to deliver a solution because you're waiting for someone else to act can be uncomfortable, awkward, and frustrating. If you can eliminate these dependencies, you may still run into roadblocks of your own, of course, but you will retain the power to work through them and implement a solution dictated by your own schedule and budget.

It's not really fair to say, "eliminate the dependencies", and leave it at that. For many developers, creating a dependency is not really a choice. Maybe your boss, team, or client is demanding a specific technical requirement. Maybe you can't afford any alternatives. Maybe, as is often the case for me, your work involves creating an interface between your own software and a third-party tool. In this case, if you eliminate the third-party tool, you eliminate the need for your own software entirely.

Now, before I go accusing anyone of wrongdoing, let's try the shoe on the other foot. The development team in charge of that third-party library has more than just one bug fix on their plate. They need to balance support and bug fixes against their company's need for revenue-generating new features and routine maintenance. They may have a significant collection of issues that go through a triage system, and your bug report hasn't yet make the cut. I'm sure there's several times when others were waiting on me to complete my fix before they could proceed. Any fingers I point here need to be pointing back at myself also.

Planning For Success

The key to managing the risks of creating project dependencies is to identify those dependencies and understand them. Do your best to perform a reasonable analysis of the risks (if possible). Try to understand the expected flow of communications between both parties. Manage expectations by discussing project timelines and turnaround times for both technical inquiries and potential bug fixes. Understand the implications for your project when you cannot get the other side to take quick action. Are there alternatives? What are they? Will they be just as risky? If the risks are too high, sometimes the only winning move is not to play. Don't allow yourself and your organization to be sucked into wasting resources on an endeavor that will never succeed.

One of the best ways to reduce delays due to third parties is to be prudent and up-front to find and report any issues. Fixing bugs takes time. The sooner a bug is reported, the sooner it will be fixed. Therefore, schedule any development and testing work dependent on third-party support at the earliest opportunity. As soon as an issue is discovered, take time to understand the problem in reasonable detail and communicate it as soon as possible. This will give everyone the most time to respond and allows you to proceed with other features until the bug can be resolved.

Once you have requested support from an outside party, follow up and keep in touch. Remember, the contact at the other end is a person too. Treat them with respect and professionalism. Keep your communications positive and inquisitive. Try not to accuse or pester. There are differing opinions on how frequently you should send messages, so I won't offer specific advice. Instead, I suggest you give your best effort to judge the tone of their replies to see if the other side has become annoyed. Never hesitate to follow up if a written deadline or estimate is missed. Your goal, again, is not to accuse, but to make sure you are fully informed and kept up to date.

If worst comes to worst, don't be afraid to escalate. Give your best effort to work through the default channels provided. If, however, you simply cannot get the answers you need, the time may come where you need to ascend the ladder of power. Do your best to do so as respectfully as possible. Ask your contact if there is an option to expedite or escalate the communication process. I have seen cases where two lower-rung employees went back and forth for weeks. A single brief phone call between two big wigs was all that was required to sort things out. Nobody wants to be disrespected and have someone go over their head. Reserve a power move like this as a last resort, but don't be afraid to pull the trigger if all other options have been exhausted.

The very last resort sometimes required implementing a heroic workaround. For this to work, you need to understand the third-party system well enough to automatically recognize the failure and wield the power to fix it through one or more additional steps. Rather than having the third-party implement a fix, you can choose to live with the existing bug, masking its existing by coding your own workaround fix. On a personal note, while this option is often the best business decision, it often feel like an enabler. We just let the bug continue to fester and bend over backwards to get past it rather than correcting it at its source.

Good Days And Bad Days

In my professional experience, I have worked with a fair number of third parties. Some have been eager and helpful. They are quick to respond and provide clear details needed to solve my problems. Others have been slow to respond and very terse and unclear in their replies. After working through a few issues with a contact, you will quickly develop an opinion of their competence. This can be used in further risk assessment. My advice is to go with your gut. So far, I have never once changed my opinion from that initial impression following subsequent communications.

What's your best or worst story of working with a third party? What went right and what went wrong? What would you do differently? Let me know in the comments.


Joshua Ganes