We had a reasonable turnout for meeting 5, with Tom, Miquel, Graeme and Adrian there (along with me of course). The book in question was the electronic book “Getting Real” by 37signals. We were slightly concerned that since we didn’t have copies of paper books to advertise ourselves as the Oxtremists that newcomers might not spot us. However Adrian managed to find us quite easily so that fear proved unfounded.
Graeme kicked of proceedings by talking about the way the book has no references to other books or websites other than 37signals’ own. He said that the first half of the book read like “XP Explained” by Kent Beck while the second half was like “Blog Marketing” by Jeremy Wright. Adrian thought that perhaps Graeme was being a little unfair in suggesting that they were ripping off other people’s ideas. He pointed out that they explicitly say that these ideas are not all their own and that some of these may have evolved in parallel to traditional Agile in much the same way that XP developed in parallel to Lean. Adrian went on to point out some of the ideas are either different or orthogonal to those espoused by XP advocates. As examples he mentioned the emphasis on basing designs around the user interface and the suggestion of having “alone time” to get on with development.
There was then some general discussion about the narrow focus of the book on their particular business, a small company writing standalone web applications. Adrian suggested that it should really be considered as a case study rather than anything else. Graeme thought it was refreshing to see the ideas of Agile development explained entirely through web development whereas most of the books in this sphere tend to be from a more traditional IT angle with examples usually in Java. Adrian agreed and said that this was because Agile was generally a reaction against waterfall-style development in large bureaucratic organisations. He thought that the ideas of doing less could be applied more widely though. I pointed out that they suggest leaving the difficult problems to other people and focus instead on solving the easier ones well, but that if everyone did this and wrote simple webapps who would write the operating systems and databases for these things to run on?
Adrian also mentioned that he liked the way it took the whole process from end-to-end, starting with deciding what application to build and ending up with maintaining it months and years down the line. This is an emphasis you rarely get in these books. Also the avoidance of splitting development from support. Tom chipped in and said that in previous jobs he was very glad not to have to deal with the support calls as part of the time this was helping people who didn’t even know how to use a web browser. Adrian agreed that at a certain scale the small percentage of idiots will still be a lot of people, but that there is a danger sometimes of becoming cut off from the end users.
We then moved on to talk about one or two places where the book appears to contradict itself. I pointed out that the sections “Wing It” and “Can you handle it?” are only ten pages apart. In the first they seem to suggest not worrying about potential problems and in the second they ask if you’re going to be able to cope with running this application. I suppose the first is about not trying to avoid every possible problem whereas the second is about ensuring you can do what you say you will do. Graeme mentioned that they talk about not getting side tracked by what your competitors do, but later say that you should keep up with what they are up to.
Adrian pointed out that they don’t mention that before being a products company, 37signals was actually a usability and design consultancy. This explains why usability and user interface is so core to their philosophy. I said that I found the usability sections the most interesting probably because it is the area I know least about. Adrian said that some of the things they talk about are very web specific such as the “3 state solution” where you consider a page in its regular, empty and error states.
There was further discussion about things that were missing. Graeme suggested the financing of their business was mentioned only briefly and Tom said that they didn’t really talk about how to price your application. I pointed out that they said that you should compete on a completely different axis to the rest of the competition. If everyone else competes on price then forget the price and compete on usability instead. Graeme mentioned how there were retail websites that undercut Amazon by a penny or so. But that when you looked at the site you generally decided to pay the penny to feel that little bit more secure.
Tom pointed out that in the area of marketing they are once again focussed on their line of business. He suggested that using blogs for marketing would not last and that people would see that it was just viral marketing and move on. Adrian said he thought that if your product was crap then trying to market it through blogs would be like putting lipstick on a pig. On the other hand, if someone you respected gave a good review then you might be more inclined to give it a try. Graeme said that if you handle criticism of your product on a blog well you can turn a critic into an evangelist. The discussion moved on to blogs and other areas at this point and I stopped taking notes.
If I’ve missed anything or misrepresented anyone, please add comments below!