Move slow and fix things

Kate Simpson explains why digital solutions only begin to get interesting once the end users get their hands on them

Move slow and fix things
Kate Simpson

Technology breaks. It requires care, repair and maintenance. In our innovation-obsessed race for the shiny and the new (following Silicon Valley’s mantra of “move fast and break things”), we forget that everything we buy or build today will eventually decay and break down without regular maintenance. Our legacy systems, currently held together with spit and glue, were once all filled with optimism and hope, too.

A 2019 Harvard Business Review article argues that the race to “put products into consumers’ hands as fast as possible, without regard for the merit of — and rationale for — offline systems of governance . . . is increasingly untenable.” The minimum viable product paradigm has infected our system and product development, and in its wake made extensibility and maintainability much more important.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about an enterprise-wide solution or an innovative new tool for a specific set of lawyers; buying technology today means taking the whole lifetime into account. That’s not only today’s capital costs but also calculating the “total cost of ownership” to keep the technology useful, usable and engaging.

Our calculations should now include:

  • the internal resources dedicated to make it work within our tech stack, plus those who keep the whole thing up and running;
  • the regular, standard patches and upgrades as directed by vendors;
  • extending existing functions or adding new functions, as required by lawyers to make the tech work and be adopted internally;
  • the underlying data and information governance required to realize the pretty benefits you were sold, as well as the continual cleanup to unclog the smooth running of a system;
  • the training and development of internal best practices and support guides to operationalize the product;
  • the professional services and guidance of a project team required for a product launch and rollout to run smoothly.

We can capture all these extra considerations under the useful umbrella of “maintenance.” This is the constantly evolving world of (legal) tech.

Services delivered today by digital systems are never “done.” Nothing is shipped as “finished” (and for SaaS vendors, that’s one of the biggest benefits of the model). This “artificial distinction between development and maintenance” has been around since the early 1980s with Meir Lehman’s laws of software evolution that includes this gem: “As an evolving program is continually changed, its complexity, reflecting deteriorating structure, increases unless work is done to maintain or reduce it.”

In my little world, the life of these digital solutions only begins to get interesting once the end users get their hands on them. Internal product management teams, which I’ve written about before in this magazine, get to do the fascinating job of trying to roll out a new tool for lawyers. This is the point at which the tool may indeed get used as the designers and developers imagined, but it’s also the point at which it might pivot, particularly if a lawyer reimagines the tool and uses it in a completely different way. And it’s also the point at which we might demand configurations and new features that will extend its use or integrate it into personal workflows. The challenge for vendors is to take this co-creation delivery model with their customers and bake it into their road maps.

Vendor pricing and licensing models need to reflect this reality better, to collect the different real-life-use cases from their customers and share them with the community and to build deep flexibility of features and functionality into their configuration setup. This then allows for a bunch of different flavours to be blended into the very sauce of the product. It would recognize that our law firms are different and that the practices of our lawyers do not follow a single, standard process (even if we wish that weren’t so).

NPR’s Freakonomics Radio show had an edition specifically on the role of the maintainers — the unsung heroes who keep our technology running and relevant to those who use it. That’s both sides of the vendor/customer divide, too. One study suggests that programmers spend 70 per cent of their time maintaining code versus writing new apps with new code. Tweaking old code, old products or old precedents to create the new is the reality on the ground for most of us, and we should celebrate that.

Actually, making this stuff work internally is the job of the heroes, whether it’s the data clean-up involved to get business intelligence platforms or any kind of AI working, digging deep into the user interface to make a tool intuitive to the mental models of your lawyers or comprehensive system and regression testing to get any kind of application working within your firm’s tech stack (or just the Word ribbon of any modern law firm). I could go on: It takes a village.

This is what needs baking into our IT budgets, ensuring we can recruit the real game-changers internally: those who will take the vanilla product filled with machine-learning magic, topped with AI sprinkles and make it work in the real world. They’re the ones working with lawyers and watching how it gets used; those pushing for improvements, fixes and new features for greater adoption. They’re also the ones that will ensure that the shiny new toy doesn’t end up on the scrapheap of technologies that are barely held together with “spit, glue and maybe even chewing gum.”

#bringbackboring

Kate Simpson is national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP. She leads a team of KM specialists in delivering practice tools and resources that leverage the firm’s intellectual capital. Opinions expressed are her own.

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