By their very nature, software business executives are focused outward on their markets, customers, prospects, and competitors — and rightly so. Now that the coronavirus has changed the shape of our world and increased the level of uncertainty in all directions, that sentiment has never been more true.

One of my mentors once told me that running a business is all about “finding, minding, and grinding.” In other words:

  • Finding new customers
  • Minding existing customers
  • Grinding out solutions that deliver on your value prop

But just when you’ve gotten a firm handle on a sales and marketing strategy that will drive growth and figured out how to keep existing customers in the fold, you suddenly realize you don’t really have a firm grasp on R&D.

Maybe it didn’t matter so much before, because your products were sticky; revenue was solid, thanks to a handful of cash cow customers; and you always thought you could fix things later.

But now you start to remember all the missed dates, blown budgets, and broken promises that you somehow managed to live with. You have smart people and have adopted an agile process. And as for technology, sure, a lot of it was older, but your team keeps trying new things, so how bad could it be?

For too many software business leaders, looking inward toward R&D is like staring into a black hole. It elicits fear and seems to eat up everything you throw at it: resources, cash, time. But regardless of the level of your investment, your returns remain meager and uncertain as measured by deliverables that create value for customers or light up net new revenue.

So, let’s demystify software R&D and get your team started toward grinding out value — so you can get back to finding and minding prospects and customers.

The illustration above shows the essential components of any software R&D team: people, process, and technology, wrapped by technical leadership.

We’ll dive into each of these elements in detail in later posts in this series. But for now, let’s start off by clearing up some common misconceptions:

  1. A superhero won’t save you. There’s a tendency to think that all you need is a hero developer or “architect” who can do what your current team can’t. This is a myth perpetuated by software developers themselves. Look closely at these faux superheroes, and too often you’ll find they make a dazzling impression by fixing problems they themselves created — or should have prevented in the first place.
  2. A new process won’t save you. Agility is a crucial attribute of any effective software development process. But don’t think that implementing Scrum, using points, and getting religious about JIRA will automatically reduce risk and increase velocity. For too many companies, going Agile simply means they’re making it up as they go along.
  3. The next new technology, tool, or platform won’t save you. .NET vs. Java; Blazor vs. HTML5; low-code vs. producer platforms; CDC vs NIH. Don’t get suckered by the next big thing, the quintessential NextGen. Remember Silverlight? Me neither.

Regardless of the people, processes, or technology, by far the single biggest gap we see in software R&D is that of technical leadership.

Notice I didn’t say “management.” I mean actual, mature technical leadership.

An effective technical leader brings maturity into software R&D. They mentor your people and assign them tasks aligned with their natural abilities. This in turn helps to build trust and respect among your team.

A technical leader takes control of the process and helps build a culture that uses it to instill a sense of ownership and accountability. They stabilize technical debt and choose sustainable, long-life tooling, platforms, and technologies that reduce risk, increase velocity, and accelerate innovation.

But perhaps most importantly, a skilled technical leader can communicate effectively with you. He has the innate ability to take your ideas and vision and translate them into achievable, predictable deliverables.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When you combine committed people, a pragmatic process, and useful technology, then wrap all three with effective, mature leadership, you can:

  • Free yourself to focus on sales, marketing, service, and support
  • De-risk and accelerate software development
  • More efficiently deploy capital
  • Drive net new recurring revenue
  • Bring structure, flexibility, and efficiency to software R&D

I’ll be diving deeper into each of these facets of software R&D in subsequent posts.

Until then, if you found this post useful, please download our one-page Tech 360 Assessment worksheet here and fill it out. It will help you develop a clearer picture of your own R&D organization, assets, challenges, and potential.