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Maturity Model for Software Startups

April 13, 2016

Software companies begin life at CMM Level One, and some of them die there. You may not be familiar with the Capability Maturity Model, but you will always remember your time at Level One. This is where the developers code all night because you need that next feature, to keep paying the rent. This is where you release new code and then spend all day patching it, in production.

How many users do you suppose we’ll drop, if we reboot it right now?

On the other hand, it is possible to have too much process control. I was at a Level Four company once where we had to three-bid a project to plan and initiate a second project that would develop the software. The chart below, from Ron Patton’s book, shows the levels as stair steps.

21fig05

The model contemplates an otherwise stable company that has weak processes only for software. In a startup, all processes are weak and resources are limited. To be successful, processes must mature in step with revenue. In this article, I’ll illustrate holistic process maturity with some examples.

At Level One, you have limited HR capability, and therefore no diversity training or compliance. You have no benefits, no vacation policy, no travel policy, and no expense audits. Your exposure to liability is huge, for everything from “constructive termination” to respondeat superior.

The reason for Brad’s separation from the company is a private matter which I am not at liberty to discuss.

I looked into this, and found that there is indeed a maturity model for HR. The first step, in my experience, is to crib an employee manual and make everyone sign that they have read it. At least then you can disclaim any actions that go against the boilerplate in the manual. You might also invest in an employment law poster.

At Level One, you also have no marketing function. The sales people roll their own presentation materials, talk tracks, and brand message. The first step is to hire a dedicated “marketing person,” to do sales support and organize your booth at NADA. Actual marketing comes later.

Entrepreneurs are good at tracking their sales and market share. People I work with look forward to their first thousand dealers, a public dealer group, or a big agency. Celebrate each milestone by notching up your process maturity.

I would say that you should be out of Level One (for software) after eighteen months. If you are already taking distributions, while the business depends on “heroes and luck,” then you are gambling. Raise some capital, hire a good manager, and get it fixed. My earlier article, Sales-Driven Development, describes what I feel is a reasonable level of process maturity for a young software company.

Baby Steps

I will close this post with a few pointers for leaving Level One. Basic stuff. Most readers should be able to skip this list.

  • Create a maintenance window and stick to it. Only move code to production at 6:00 AM on Wednesday. If anything goes wrong, people are in the office. It’s also not Saturday, our peak volume day. If you are constantly having “emergencies” that can’t wait until Wednesday, you need to look at that.
  • Implement a code control system with a rollback capability. If the latest build has a problem, at 6:10 AM on Wednesday, you do not start debugging. You push the rollback button.
  • Set up a reliable QA environment, and sync it with the production database. I don’t know how many times I have heard that the build worked in QA but some new data was encountered in production, and it crashed the site.
  • Create a division of labor, such that the developers stop fussing with the servers. Developers love to fuss with  infrastructure, which is not their skill set.  At all.  Hire a professional, or rent one from your cloud service provider.
  • Implement a work order tracking system. Planning at Level One is a “pushdown stack,” which means that yesterday’s panic is still simmering when it is superseded by today’s panic. Start by writing commitment dates on a bulletin board, so that everyone has visibility into the backlog.
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