Category Archives: software

30 tips for creating great software releases

If a film director is only as good as their last film, then I guess a software developer is only as good as their last software release. In more than 30 years of writing software professionally I have shipped my fair share of releases. For the last 13 years I have been shipping software as a solo developer. Here are a few things I have learned along the way. Some of them are specific to downloadable software, but some of them apply equally to SaaS products.

Use a version control system

I occasionally hear about software developers who don’t use a version control system. Instead they usually create some sort of janky system using dated copies of source folders or zip files. This send shivers down my spine. Don’t be that guy. A version control system should be an essential part of every professional software developer’s tool kit. It matters less which version control system you use. All the cool kids now use distributed version control systems, such as git. But I find that Subversion is fine for my requirements.

Tag each release in version control

This makes it easy to go back and compare any two releases. A bug appeared in the printing between v1.1.1 and v1.1.2? Go back and diff the source files related to printing and review all the changes.

Store your release binaries in version control

I store every binary I ship to customers in my version control system. Many people will tell you that you should only store the source in version control. Then you can use this to regenerate the binaries if you need to. This was sound advice back in the day when harddisks were small, networks were slow, version control systems were clunky (SourceSafe!) and developer environments didn’t change very frequently. But I don’t think it is valid advice now. Harddisks are as cheap as chips, networks are much faster and online updates mean your SDK, compiler or some other element of your toolchain is likely to be updated between your releases, making it impossible for you to recreate an identical release binary later on.

‘Test what you ship, ship what you test’

In an analog system (such as a bridge) a tiny change in the system will usually only cause a small change in the behaviour. In a discrete system (such as software) a change to a single bit can make the difference between a solid release and a showstopper bug. The Mariner I rocket was destroyed by a single missing hyphen in the code. So test the binaries that you plan to ship to the customer. And if you change a single bit in the release, re-test it. You probably don’t need to run all the tests again. But you certainly can’t assume that a small change won’t cause a big problem.

This issue often manifests itself when the developers test the debug version of their executable and then ship the release version. They then find that the two have  different behaviour, e.g. due to a compiler optimization, different memory layout or code inside an ASSERT.

Make each executable individually identifiable

As a corollary of the above, you need to be able to uniquely identify each executable. I do this by having a timestamp visible in the ‘About’ box (you can use __DATE__ and __TIME__ macros in C++ for this) and ensure that I rebuild this source file for every release.

Diff your release with the previous one

Do a quick diff of your new release files versus the previous ones. Have any of the files changed unexpectedly? Are any files missing?

Be more cautious as you get nearer the release

Try not to make major changes to your code or toolchain near a release. It is too risky and it means lots of extra testing. Sometimes it is better to ship a release with a minor bug than fix it near the release and risk causing a much worse problem that might not get detected in testing.

Test your release on a clean machine

Most of us have probably sent out a release that didn’t work on a customer’s machine due to a missing dynamic library. Oops. Make sure you test your release on a non-development machine. VMs are useful for this. Don’t expect customers to be very impressed when you tell them ‘It works on my machine‘.

Test on a representative range of platforms

At least run a smoke test on the oldest and most recent version of each operating system you support.

Automate the testing where you can

Use unit tests and test harnesses to automate testing where practical. For example I can build a command line version of the seating optimization engine for my table plan software and run it on hundreds of sample seating plans overnight, to test changes haven’t broken anything.

If you set up a continuous integration server you can build a release and test it daily or even every commit. You can then quickly spot issues as soon as they appear. This makes bug fixing a lot easier than trying to work out what went wrong weeks down the line.

But still do manual testing

Automated test won’t pick up everything, especially with graphical user interface issues. So you still need to do manual testing. I find it is very useful to see real-time path coverage data during testing, for which I use Coverage Validator.

Use third parties

You can’t properly test your own software or proof read your own documentation any more than you can tickle yourself. So try to get other people involved. I have found that it is sometimes useful to pay testing companies to do additional testing. But I always do this in addition to (not instead of) my own testing.

Your documentation is an important part of the release. So make sure you get it proof read by someone different to the person that wrote it.

Use your customers

Even two computers with the same hardware specifications and operating system can be set up with an almost infinite range of user options (e.g. screen resolutions, mouse and language settings) and third party software (e.g. anti-virus). Getting customers involved in beta testing means you can cover a much wider range of setups.

When I am putting out a major new release I invite customers to join a beta mailing list and email them each time there is a new version they can test. In the past I have offered free upgrades to the customers who found the most bugs.

Don’t rely only on testing

I believe in a defence in depth approach to QA. Testing is just one element.

Automate the release process as much as you can

Typically a release process involves quite a few steps: building the executable, copying files, building the installer, adding a digital signature etc. Write a script to automate as much of this as possible. This saves time and reduces the likelihood of errors.

Use a checklist for everything else

There are typically lots of tasks that can’t be automated, such as writing release notes, updating the online FAQ, writing a newsletter etc. Create a comprehensive checklist that covers all these tasks and go through it every release. Whenever you make a mistake, add an item to the checklist to catch it next time. Here is a delightfully meta checklist for checklists.

Write release notes

Customers are entitled to know what changes are in a release before they decide whether to install it. So write some release notes describing the changes. Use screen captures and/or videos, where appropriate, to break up the text. Release notes can also be very useful for yourself later on.

Email customers whose issues you have fixed

Whenever I record a customer bug report or a feature request, I also record the email of the customer. I then email them when there is a release with a fix. It seems only polite when they have taken the effort to contact me. But it also encourages them to report bugs and suggest features in future. I will also let them access the release before I make it public, so they can let me know if there are any problems with the fix that I might not have spotted.

Don’t force people to upgrade

Don’t force customers to upgrade if I don’t want to. And don’t nag them every day if they don’t. A case in point is Skype. It has (predictably) turned from a great piece of software into a piece of crap now that Microsoft have purchased it. Every release is worst than the last. And, to add insult to injury, it just keeps bleating at me to upgrade and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn off the notifications.

Don’t promise ship dates

If you promise a ship date and you get your estimate wrong (which you will) then either:

  • You have ship software that isn’t finished; or
  • You miss your ship date

Neither are good. So don’t promise ship dates. I never do and it makes my life a lot less stressful.  It’s ready when it’s ready. I realize that some companies with investors, business partners and large marketing departments don’t have that luxury. I’m just glad that I am not them.

Inform existing customers of the release

There isn’t much point in putting out releases if no-one knows about them. By default my software checks an XML file on my server weekly and informs the customer if a new update is available. I also send out a newsletter with each software release. I generally get a spike in upgrades after each newsletter.

Don’t release too often

Creating a stable release is a lot of work, even if you manage to automate some of it. The more releases you do, the higher percentage of your time you will spend testing, proof reading and updating your website.

Adobe Acrobat seems to go through phases of nagging at me almost daily for updates. Do I think “Wow, I am so happy that those Adobe engineers keep putting out releases of their useful free software”? No. I hate them for it. If you have an early stage product with early-adopters, they may be ok with an update every few days. But most mainstream customers won’t thank you for it.

Don’t release too infrequently

Fixing a bug or usability issue doesn’t help the customer until you ship it. Also a product with very infrequent updates looks dead. The appropriate release frequency will vary with the type of product and how complex and mature it is.

Digitally sign your releases

Digital certificates are a rip-off. But unsigned software makes you look like an an amateur. I am wary of downloading any software that isn’t digitally signed. Apple now prevents you downloading unsigned software by default.  Signing is just an extra line in your build script. It is a bit tedious getting a digital certificate though, so get one that lasts several years.

Check your binaries against major anti-virus software

Over zealous anti-virus software can be a real headache for developers of downloadable software. So it is worth checking if your release is likely to get flagged. You can do this using free online resource virustotal.com. If you are flagged, contact the vendor and ask them to whitelist you.

‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’

Beware second system effect. If you wait for perfection, then you will never ship anything. As long as this release is a significant improvement on the last release, then it is good enough to ship.

Pace yourself

Creating a release is exhausting. Even maths, physics and software prodigy Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica says so:

I’ve led a few dozen major software releases in my life. And one might think that by now I’d have got to the point where doing a software release would just be a calm and straightforward process. But it never is. Perhaps it’s because we’re always trying to do majorly new and innovative things. Or perhaps it’s just the nature of such projects. But I’ve found that to get the project done to the quality level I want always requires a remarkable degree of personal intensity. Yes, at least in the case of our company, there are always extremely talented people working on the project. But somehow there are always things to do that nobody expected, and it takes a lot of energy, focus and pushing to get them all together.

So look after yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise and eat healthily. Also things may be at their most intense straight after the release with promotion, support, bug fixing etc. So it may be a good idea to take a day or two off before you send the release out.

Don’t release anything just before you go away

There is always a chance a new release is going to mess things up. If you are a one-man band like me, you really don’t want to make a software release just before you go away on holiday or to a conference. Wait until you get back!

Fix screwups ASAP

We all make mistakes from time to time. I recently put out a release of my card planning software, Hyper Plan, that crashed on start-up on some older versions of macOS. Oops. But I got out a release with a fix as soon as I could.

Treat yourself after a release

Releases are hard work. A successful release deserves a treat!


Anything I missed?

 

 

Chrome SSL certificate issue

The issue

Google have decided to “deprecate Chrome’s trust in the Symantec certificate authority (including Symantec-owned brands like Thawte, VeriSign, Equifax, GeoTrust, and RapidSSL)“. This comes after “Symantec had entrusted several organizations with the ability to issue certificates without the appropriate or necessary oversight”.

What does that mean for me?

If you are affected by this then your website SSL certificate won’t work for Chrome version 70 or later and visitors are going to see an ugly warning like the one below.

ssl error

Not good! The first beta of Chrome 70 is expected in September.

How do I know if I am affected?

  • Start Chrome.
  • Navigate to the https version of your website.
  • Go to Developer tools (View>Developer>Developer tools from the menu bar) and look at the Console.
  • If you see something like the below, then you are affected.

ssl cert

My https://www.perfecttableplan.com website was affected (it uses a Geotrust SSL certificate provided by my ISP, 1&1). But my https://www.hyperplan.com website was not affected (which uses a Godaddy SSL certificate).

On my Windows development machine Eset anti-virus seems to override the SSL certificate used by Chrome, so the console message did not appear. But it did appear in Chrome on my Mac. So you probably want to check from more than one computer.

What can I do about it?

Get your certificate re-issued. This was fairly straightforward with my hosting provider 1&1.

Final thoughts

As an owner of a small software business I spend too much time dealing with annoying crap like this. Symantec, I have always hated your bloated software. But now you officially suck.

Also, is it any wonder digital certificates are such a rip-off when one company is allowed to own so much of the market?

 

Getting Qt 5.9 working on Windows (eventually)

I have had Qt 5.5 and 5.6 installed on my development machines for some time. Now that I have purchased a new Mac development box (an iMac with a lickably beautiful 27″ screen) I thought it was a good time to update to a more recent version of Qt. I went for Qt 5.9, rather than Qt 5.10, as 5.9 has been designated as an LTS (long term support) release. Upgrading turned into a real chore. I am quickly writing it up here in the hope that it helps someone else, and as a reminder to myself a few years down the line.

I like to build Qt from source. Because then I know it was built using the same compiler, headers, SDK etc as I am using to build my product. And I have more control over how Qt is configured. Also I can patch the source and rebuild it, if I need to. But I have had problems building Qt on Mac before. So I decided to install the pre-built binaries on my new Mac. I installed the latest version of XCode and then the Q5.9.4 binaries. This was a couple of big downloads, but it all went pretty smoothly.

I successfully built Qt 5.5 from source on my Windows machine previously, so I decided to try that for Qt 5.9. I have Visual Studio 2010 installed. This isn’t supported for Qt 5.9.4, so I downloaded Visual Studio 2017. I unzipped the Qt source into C:\Qt\5.9.4, ran ‘x86 native tools command prompt for VS 2017’, made sure Python and Perl were in the path and then:

cd C:\Qt\5.9.4

set QTDIR=C:\Qt\5.9.4\qtbase

set PATH=%QTDIR%\bin;%PATH%

configure -opensource -confirm-license -opengl desktop -nomake tests -nomake examples -no-plugin-manifests -debug-and-release -platform win32-msvc -verbose

nmake

Note that you are told by the nmake script to do nmake install at the end of this. But it tells you somewhere in the Qt Windows documentation not to do this, unless you have set the prefix argument (confusing, I know)

The build failed part way through making qtwebengine. Something to do with a path being too long for Perl or Python (I forget). It seems to be a known problem. Odd as the root path was just C:\Qt\5.9.4. I don’t need qtwebengine at present, so I deleted everything and tried again with -skip qtwebengine:

configure -opensource -confirm-license -opengl desktop -skip qtwebengine -nomake tests -nomake examples -no-plugin-manifests -debug-and-release -platform win32-msvc -verbose

nmake

It seemed to complete ok this time. But using this version of Qt to build Hyper Plan I got an error:

Unknown module(s) in QT:svg

On further examination the SVG DLL  had been built, but hadn’t been copied to the C:\Qt\5.9.4\qtbase\bin folder. Similarly for a lot of the other Qt DLLs. I couldn’t find any obvious reason for this looking through logs, Stackoverflow and Googling. I could possibly do without the SVG functionality, but I wasn’t sure what else was broken. So I decided to give up on bulding from source on Windows as well.

I download the Qt 5.9.4 binaries for Visual Studio 2017. This seemed to go ok, but then I discovered that I could only build a 64-bit application from these. No 32-bit version was available for Visual Studio 2017. Many of my customers are still on 32 bit versions of Windows. So I need to be able to ship my product as a 32 bit executable + DLLs[1].

So I uninstalled Visual Studio 2017 and installed Visual Studio 2015. I then got an error message about Visual Studio 2017 redistributables that I hadn’t uninstalled. So I had to uninstall those and run a repair install on Visual Studio 2015. That seemed to work ok. So then I download the 32-bit Qt 5.9.4 binaries for Visual Studio 2015. I had to download these into a different top level folder (C:\Qtb), so as not to risk wiping existing Qt installs that I had previously managed to build from source.

Eventually I managed to build Hyper Plan and PerfectTablePlan on Mac and Windows. What a palaver though! Qt is an amazing framework and I am very grateful for everyone who works on it. But I wish they would make it a bit easier to install and upgrade! Has anyone actually managed to get Qt 5.9 built from source on Windows?

[1] I don’t bother shipping a 64-bit executable on Windows as the 32-bit executable works fine on 64-bit versions of Windows (my software doesn’t require excessive amounts of memory). I only ship a 64-bit executable on macOS as almost no-one uses 32-bit versions of macOS now.

Tracking your sales pipeline

The purpose of marketing is to generate prospects. People who are interested in your product and might buy it. The purpose of sales is to try to convert these prospects into customers. The key difference between these activities is that marketing is one-to-many and sales is one-to-one. Each sales prospect is going to have different questions depending on their requirements, timescales and budgets.

For low cost products there is generally very little selling. You simply can’t afford to spend significant amounts of time engaging with someone who may or may not buy a product with a $30 lifetime value. But for higher price products (typically B2B), sales becomes more important. Sales activities might take the form of answering questions by email or phone, video conferences, quotes, online demonstrations and perhaps even site visits.

Many of my customers purchase from my website without any active selling. But organizations who wish to buy more expensive licences typically have questions about licensing, pricing, functionality, upgrading etc before purchasing. I characterise the stages of selling to these companies as:

  • Enquiry – Someone has expressed an interest in one of my products and typically has questions about functionality, licensing and/or pricing. Initial contact is usually by email.
  • Qualification – I answer the prospect’s questions. If my product isn’t a good fit for their requirements I let them know, as I don’t want to waste my time or theirs or end up with unhappy customers.
  • Quoted – If the prospect looks like a good fit and is still interested I send them a quote.
  • Verbal agreement – The prospect expresses an interest in buying the product. There may be some negotiation over number of licenses, discounts, payment methods, tax etc.
  • Won/Lost/Cold – I either win or lose the sale, or the prospect stops responding (goes cold).

This step-by-step process is known as a ‘sales pipeline’ or ‘sales funnel’.  Different companies use different terminology and a high-value enterprise sale would probably have more stages. But the process is the same in principal – your marketing (SEO, PPC, word of mouth etc) feeds people into the pipeline at one end and a certain proportion will drop out at each stage. Some will end up as customers.

You can take a very ‘hands-off’ approach to sales and only respond to communications that the prospect initiates. But this is not going to get you the best conversion rate from prospect to customer. People are busy and have lots of conflicting demands on their time. One of your response emails might get lost. Their initial contact might leave the company. It seems a pity to let a prospect slip away, just because you can’t be bothered to send a few follow-up emails.

I don’t really want to do a 30 minute online demo if I think I am only going to sell $50 of software (unless I think the feedback might be particularly valuable). But the more a sale is likely to be worth, the more effort I am prepared to put into it. I have found that I can make a pretty good guess at how much a sale is likely to be worth based on the organization they belong to and the initial questions they ask. And these guesses becomes more accurate as they travel along the pipeline.

Note that I am not trying to cajole or pressure the prospect into buying. I am simply trying to provide them with the information they need so they can make the right choice. If I don’t hear anything for a while I will email them something along the lines of:

Did you make a decision regarding purchasing ? Please let us know if you need any further information. We would be happy to call if you would prefer to discuss it on the phone.

If they reply that they aren’t interested or don’t reply after 2 or 3 emails from me, then I stop chasing them. No need to be an asshole about it.

I’m confident that I could increase my conversion rate by following up prospects by phone, instead of emailing them (most B2B prospects include contact details in their sig or are easy enough to Google). But that isn’t something I can summon up enthusiasm for, so I don’t do it. If I was less secure financially, I would be on the phone a lot more.

The issue is then, how to track the various sales prospects so you can follow them up as appropriate? Initially I just tracked sales by having a ‘prospects’ folder in my email client. I would put email from prospects in this folder. Occasionally I would go through the folder and email prospects who hadn’t replied in the last few weeks. If they didn’t reply to a few emails I would move them out of the ‘prospects’ folder. It wasn’t very efficient and there were all sorts of questions I couldn’t easily get answers to, including:

  • What stage was each prospect at?
  • How long was it since I last contacted a prospect?
  • Was there anyone I needed to follow up today?
  • How many prospects were there at each stage in the pipeline? What did I think those prospects might be worth?
  • How were the sales divided into industry sectors (e.g. businesses vs charities vs government)?
  • What proportion of sales was I winning and losing?
  • How did the sales breakdown between new customers and upgrades? Direct sales and resellers?

But it just so happens that my own Hyper Plan product is excellent as sales pipeline software.

I now add a card into Hyper Plan for each prospect that I think might realistically purchase $200 of software or more.

sales pipeline software crm

Store any data about your prospects in custom fields.

I can then very easily slice and dice the data in any number of different ways. For example:

sales pipeline software

Active prospects are automatically arranged by sales pipeline stage and coloured by estimated value. Won/Lost/Cold cards are hidden by a filter. The card with the red highlight is overdue a follow-up call.

sales pipeline visualization

Active prospects are automatically arranged by when we last contacted them (column), when they last responded (row) and coloured by sales pipeline stage.

sales pipeline chart software

Charting the number of prospects at each stage of the sales pipeline.

Sales pipeline statistics software

Charting the number of prospects at each stage of the pipeline, by sector.

This has given me a lot more insight into how I am doing at sales and made me a lot more organized at following up prospects.

A few random things I have learnt about sales over 13 years of running my own software business:

  • Some organizations will buy on the same day they first contact you. Other may take years. Generally the bigger and more famous the organization and the bigger the order, the longer it takes.
  • Organizations sometimes ask for changes to my licensing agreement. I always refuse as it just isn’t worth the expense and stress of getting a lawyer involved. They usually buy anyway.
  • Don’t give additional discounts to ‘value subtracted resellers’. It almost certainly won’t make any difference to whether they purchase or not.
  • Sometimes it is quicker and more effective to talk on the phone, rather than sending lots of emails. But I will generally ask if it is ok by email, before calling.
  • Trying to get video conferencing to work so you can demo your product can be a real headache. Every organization seems to have a different preferred video conferencing solution.
  • Once you are confident your product is the right one for a prospect ask for the sale (‘close’). ‘Would you like to talk about licensing?’ is a not-to-pushy way to move the conversation onto money.
  • You don’t have to be dishonest or pushy. Just give prospects the information so they can make the right decision.
  • Prospects generally won’t tell you that they aren’t interested. They just stop replying to emails.

Hyper Plan is available for Windows and Mac. The Home edition, which has everything you need for sales pipeline tracking, is just $40. Download the free trial and start tracking your sales pipeline.

Deciding what features to implement

This is a guest post from roving software entrepreneur, Steve McLeod.

Each feature you add to your software product takes time to implement, adds ongoing complexity, and is hard to get rid of later. So you need to choose wisely when adding new features.

Here are some tips on choosing which features to implement.

Does your product really need new features?

This question might be surprising, but it is an important one to ask yourself. A software product is never completely finished. There is always scope for improvement. This makes it hard to know when to stop working on it.

If your product is mature and has stable revenue, there might not be much opportunity to increase sales. Adding new features would please some customers, but would not be a good use of your time.

Products that should be considered “done” can still have a large backlog. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your product will only be done once all existing feature requests are done.

Your product might have great potential to grow, but not by adding new features. Perhaps you need to improve your sales and marketing efforts. Don’t use your feature request backlog as an excuse to neglect the other important parts of running your product.

It’s okay to ignore your backlog

Feature request backlogs seem to never shrink. Implementing improvements leads to even more feature requests.

Looking at your backlog can be overwhelming. You’ll see feature requests that are years old. There are others that you intended to implement, but never did. It is okay to ignore these.

Don’t feel that the entire backlog consists of promises that must be kept. Some requests are no longer relevant. Some are from customers who no longer need your product. Some are simply not worth the substantial effort.

Keep your grand vision in mind

Prefer to implement highly requested features. But before you do, make sure each feature fits your long-term plans. Ask yourself:

  • who is your ideal customer? Is the feature relevant to them? For example, your enterprise customers might be asking for “single sign-on”, whereas you are more interested in working with small businesses.
  • will this be an ongoing cost- and time-sink? For example, a particular feature could require HIPAA (a US health industry regulation) compliance, while you have no interest in the extra workload and costs of HIPAA compliance.
  • does this proposed feature agree with your marketing angle?

Each new feature has ongoing costs

Remember that each additional feature comes with ongoing costs in support and complexity. Each new feature is an additional place for bugs to hide, adding to your future workload. Take these future costs into account when deciding if a feature should be added.

Features interact with each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even one additional checkbox in a settings panel can lead to ongoing confusion.

Be wary in particular of features that require integration with third party products. For example, many a product owner was burned when Twitter turned off some parts of their public API. Another example is my own experience adding support for connecting to customers’ email inboxes. I then found myself supporting not just my own product’s problems, but those caused by customers’ email service provider.

Sales-blockers are high priority

Not all feature requests are equal. Requests for feature A might come only from long time customers of your product, while feature B is requested only by your trial customers. It sounds ruthless, but you should prioritise the feature requested by trial customers.

When running a business, you do need to care for financial concerns. Take into consideration that:

  • A trial customer is likely to report a showstopper (for them). When you implement features requested by several trial customers, you are likely to increase revenue.
  • An existing customer is likely to report an inconvenience. You probably won’t lose the customer by delaying the improvement they asked for.
  • You need new customers to keep your business healthy.

It is important, of course, to care for existing customers. Don’t take this as an argument to ignore existing customers altogether in favour of potential customers.

Identifying and fixing sales blockers as a matter of priority is especially important for new products. It takes time to find the right balance of features a new product needs to meet the demands of the market.

Prefer the easy things, but not always

Let’s say you are deciding which of two features to implement next. Both feature A and feature B have been requested dozens of times. Feature A will take a week’s worth of work, and feature B will take a month’s work. Which one do you do?

Feature A, right? Maybe not.

Feature A is usually the correct choice. But you’ll be repeating this scenario over and over. Your product will gradually gain many relatively trivial features, while never getting the important features you need to create a compelling product.

Sometimes you need to do the hard work to add the features that are difficult to implement.

Listen to your customers…

Your customers are a great source of ideas for improvements to your product. As they use your product they discover what’s missing and what’s poorly implemented.

Therefore make it exceedingly easy for your customers to get suggestions to you. Consider adding a “Suggest an Improvement” link to your support page and to your help menu, if applicable. This makes it clear to your customers that you are actively seeking suggestions. My experience has been that customers notice these links and use them.

A “Suggest an Improvement” link can be as simple as a “mailto” link. A basic dialog or web form also works well. If you are seeking inspiration on how to do this, look at the “Report an Issue” form linked from the Google Chrome’s Help menu.

Another way to get customer suggestions is by asking them via a survey. This is okay, but it requires people to imagine back to when they last used your product. Us humans tend to be pretty poor at recalling things. It is much better to encourage customers to send suggestions as they encounter difficulties, while it is foremost in their mind.

I found collecting and organizing feedback for my own product, Poker Copilot, to be a pain. So I launched a new product to help manage feature requests. It allows your customers to suggest and upvote improvements for your product.

…and not your competitors

You’ve probably already heard that you should “listen to your customers, not your competitors.” I’m repeating it, because forgetting this can be deadly to your business.

Feature-envy leads us to believe we have to add every feature our competitors offer. Like regular envy, it is best to ignore it.

When your competitor announces a new feature, it can be demoralising. You feel you are falling behind and unable to compete. If the feature looks impressive, you’ll be tempted to add it to your product as soon as you can.

But wait. Have any of your customers actually requested this feature that your competitor added? If not, it is probably because it is not all that useful to your customers.

Your competitor might eventually regret adding that feature, as it turns out that only a small but demanding percentage of their customers use it. By not adding it, you could be giving yourself an advantage.

I’ve discovered that customers often learn about the good features my competitors have. They then tell me that they want these features. Only then do I start considering adding them.

Small tweaks versus major features

I just recommended listening to customers. But be careful of only using customer requests as a source for improvements.

Your customers tend to ask for incremental improvements. Customers are more likely to ask for an additional option in a drop-down menu than they are for a innovative new way to view their data.

If you rely on customer suggestions alone, you’ll never get the innovative new features that can make your product something much grander.

Make sure you balance your customer-contributed requests with your own innovative improvements.

Beware of preferring “pet” features

I just argued in favour of choosing innovative improvements. However this comes with a warning. Innovation can be used to justify poor choices. When you are in charge of decisions for your product, you are in danger of choosing improvements that you find interesting instead of those that have a strong business case.

Be careful. You could spend months working on a feature that is not very helpful to your business.

This is the type of feature that only one customer requested, but because it sounds more interesting to you than anything else in your massive backlog of feature requests, you immediately start working on it.

My own experience with this: I added scripting to a product even though no-one had asked for it and my target customer was not the type of person who would be interested in custom scripting. When I announced the scripting feature, not a single person seemed to use it. I eventually got rid of it.

How do you decide?

The tips I’ve offered you in this article come from my own experience. Do you have tips of your own for deciding which features to implement? If so, please add them in the comments below. I’d love to read them!

Steve McLeod runs a small software company in Barcelona, Spain. His products are Poker Copilot, a desktop analytics app for online poker players, and Feature Upvote, a web app that allows your customers to openly suggest and upvote features they want to see in your product.

Flying in a f**king jet

In January of this year I got to fulfill my long-time ambition of flying in a fast jet (that’s me in the picture above). I got a lot of questions from friends and family about it. So I thought I would write about it here, in case anyone else is interested.

What was the plane?

An Aero L-39 Albatros advanced jet trainer. Developed in Czechoslovakia, it is the most widely used jet trainer in the world and similar in size and performance to the Hawk used by the Red Arrows. Maximum speed Mach 0.8. This particular plane was apparently ex-Ukrainian Air Force. To my untrained eye, it looked it in excellent condition. The picture below is of the actual aircraft on the day.

albatros

Where did you do it?

At fighterjets.nz in Tauranga, New Zealand, while on holiday.

What happened before the flight?

The first scheduled date was cancelled due to low cloud. We rescheduled to a few days later and the weather was beautiful.

I was kitted out in a flight suit, helmet and a small life jacket (!). I was then given a briefing by my pilot, JC, a serving Air Zealand Airlines long-haul pilot and ex New Zealand Air Force pilot. When I was asked what sort of flight I wanted, I opted for ‘Top Gun’ (aerobatic). There doesn’t seem to be much point in getting into a fast jet and then going sightseeing.

As I have a history of detached retina, and accompanying eye surgery, it was decided that we would only do positive G manoeuvres (where the blood flows away from your head, e.g. a turn with the cockpit on the inside), no negative G manoeuvres (where the blood flows into your head, e.g. a turn with the cockpit on the outside).

I was helped into the back seat of the plane (it is a bit of a climb), strapped in and attached to the intercom. As mine was the first flight of the day we did various checks before take-off, including powering the engine up and down. We then got clearance from air traffic control and off we went.

What happened during the flight?

We flew out over the sea and did a succession of rolls, turns and loops. I have been in various small aircraft before (propeller driven planes, gliders, helicopters and a gyrocopter), but this felt quite different to all of those. Much more powerful and responsive. It was also the first time I have been upside down in aircraft. Looking up at the earth is a very surreal experience.

it was a beautiful day in a beautiful part of New Zealand and the views were stunning (pretty much all of New Zealand is beautiful). I couldn’t see the pilot at all because of his seat, but he kept telling me what was going on and checking I was ok via the 2 way intercom. I guess he was pretty keen to ensure that I didn’t panic or redecorate the inside of the cockpit.

At one point I looked down at some small white shapes flying below. I thought they were seagulls. But then I realized they were other aircraft.

At the end we did a low pass over the town before landing.

How did you feel afterwards?

Exhilarated. Tired. Relieved.

What about the G forces?

We got up to +4G in the loops. When you do a positive G manoeuvre the blood tries to drain out of your head. This can cause a loss of consciousness. I had been briefed to do the ‘Anti G Straining Manoeuvre’ during turns and loops, to reduce the chance of passing out. It is pretty much like straining to do a tricky poo (but hopefully without the actual pooing). You can see a video of someone doing AGSM under +9G of acceleration here:

I didn’t feel the G force much on my torso, which was tightly strapped down, but my arms felt incredibly heavy if I tried to move them during the loops. I did feel a little light headed at one point and my hands tingled. But I tried to be conscientious with my AGSMs and I didn’t feel close to passing out.

Did you feel sick?

I was starting to suffer a bit on the last couple of manoeuvres. In retrospect I probably should have asked him to go easier on me towards the end, rather than trying to tough it out. But thankfully I didn’t need the sick bag provided (‘do a Clarkson’).

Did you get a G-suit?

No. They are made to measure, so the pilot got one, but I didn’t. On balance, it was more important that he didn’t black out.

Did you get a go on the controls?

No. The plane was dual controls, but I was under strict instructions not to touch anything. I have had a go at the controls in a glider, but a jet is too high performance for a rookie.

What was the view like out of the canopy?

Amazing. I couldn’t see directly ahead because of the pilots seat, but otherwise the visibility was excellent. Comparable to what you can see from a glider.

Did you take a camera?

No. You probably wouldn’t be able to hold onto it during the manoeuvres. If you dropped it, then it could have bounced around inside the cockpit and possibly got wedged somewhere disastrous (e.g. under a foot pedal). However there was GoPro in the cockpit and they sent me a high quality video of the flight a few days later as a memento. The image above is taken from the video.

Was there an ejection seat or parachute?

The plane has ejections seats, but New Zealand civil aviation rules required them to be deactivated. The pilot told me that bailing out with a parachute was complicated and impractical for people who weren’t experienced pilots. So we didn’t have parachutes either. We would both be landing in the plane, whatever happened. In the unlikely event of loss of engine power, we would probably have enough height and speed to glide back to the airport. If not, we would probably head for a beach.

Were you scared?

I was a bit apprehensive on the morning. But I wasn’t going to back out on a long-time ambition. Especially as there was no refund for cancelling on the day. Also I was reassured by having a very experienced pilot and the fact that his safety was intimately linked to mine.

Was it loud?

It wasn’t very loud from inside the cockpit. Partly due to me wearing a helmet and the cockpit pressurization might have also made a difference. My family said it was pretty loud from where they were standing though.

Did they play the theme music to Top Gun?

Sadly not.

How long were you in the air for?

I think something around 25 minutes. That was enough!

What were the takeoff and landing like?

Surprisingly smooth.

How much did it cost?

Somewhere around (cough) $2,500 US. That is a lot of money (although an order of magnitude cheaper than flying a Mig-25). But I prefer to spend my money on experiences, rather than things, and I have a very understanding wife. I am probably still going to be banging on about ‘that time I flew in a fast jet’ when I am in a nursing home.

Would you recommend it?

Yes. If you have got a strong stomach and the sufficient bank balance, it is a pretty amazing experience. However flying in a glider is also pretty amazing and much cheaper (your local gliding club will probably take you up on a flight for around $100). So I recommend trying that first.

l39-jet

Second 2 photos by Claire Brice. Post title inspired by Andrey Butov.

Volunteering Your IT Skills

There is a lot to be said for running a small software business (just me, with my wife doing some of the admin). For a start it gives me a great deal of flexibility, which I used to spend 2 months travelling abroad with my family last year. It is also low in stress, as I don’t have any employees to manage (my wife manages herself!). But even with some consulting work, going to the occasional conference and running some face-to-face training courses, I was starting to feel a little bit isolated after 13 years working mostly on my own. At that time the news was full of heart-rending stories of the suffering of refugees trying to flee war and repression. I don’t like the way the world is heading at present and wanted to do something to help these people in whatever small way I could. So I started volunteering at a charity for refugees and asylum seekers in my home town.

I initially tried to avoid doing computer things for the charity. But it quickly became clear that my IT skills were much more useful to them than anything else I could offer. Consequently I have been sorting out various IT issues, teaching people basic IT skills and have built them a simple CRM and reporting system, based on Airtable. Replacing the previous paper system with an electronic one is saving the staff and volunteers a lot of busy-work, which frees up their time to do more useful things. It is also giving the charity a lot more insight into how they are doing. And it has got me out from office and meeting some really great people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Win-win. Sometimes I feel spread a bit thin with my various work, charity and personal commitments (which is partly why the blog has been a bit quiet recently) but overall I am very glad I started volunteering.

So, if you are feeling a bit isolated, consider volunteering for a local charity. I suspect many small charities are desperate for volunteers with IT skills. Even if you are a programmer with quite specialist skills (like me), it is easy to forget that you are still an IT systems god compared with 99% of the population.