Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are we there yet?

Do you remember that childhood trip to Disneyland? You know the one, long hours sitting in the backseat of your parent’s car. You’re hungry, tired, and your little your sister keeps crossing the invisible boundary onto your side of the seat.

Back before the iPod, portable DVD players, and Game Boy Advance (the Atari 2600 wasn’t exactly mobile), we traveled the country in the backs of our parent’s cars with only one weapon in our time tracking arsenal… “Are we there yet?” I could see the back of my mother’s shoulders tense up each time the question was asked, my father remained grim faced and just depressed the gas pedal a little harder.

Over the past two years of trying to get our new time clock software to market, I’ve replayed those scenes from my childhood more often than I care to admit. It started out innocent enough, telling our customers about all the cool new features coming with the new time clock (Sure, you’ll be able to have breakfast with Donald Duck!). I mean nothing satisfies me more than being able to tell people what they want to hear. “You’ll be able to create as many leave categories as you want!” “No problem, you’ll be able to setup as many different overtime rules as you need!” “The server will even run as a background service!” “That’s coming in the next release!” The list goes on and on.

After awhile I began to doubt that what I was telling customers was ever really going to happen. The director of engineering kept assuring me it was just a matter of a little more time. Management meetings allowed me to witness the unveiling of key components in our time clock software engineering cycle. What I didn’t realize was that every time I told a customer “Display Groups in the upcoming release will solve that problem for you” an engineer heard “Are we there yet?” Shoulders tensed up and the gas pedal of the engineering machine just seemed to push a little harder.

Nothing restores a ten year old’s faith in his parent’s ability to provide for his happiness than being welcomed into the Magic Kingdom by Goofy’s timeless grin. Ah, the wait is over. Life is once again in balance. Even a whiny little sister doesn’t seem so troublesome now. Marching through those gates makes you forget all the things you went through to get there. Mother looks much more relaxed, and even Father looks a little less grim.

The excitement has returned to the Redcort Software technical support team with the release of Virtual TimeClock ‘09. “You’ll soon be able to…” has turned into “Now you can... Let me show you how!” We’ve forgotten the endless hours spent testing time clock conversions, scrutinizing time card reports, and comparing timesheets.

Are we there yet? Oh yeah. Life in the realm of time tracking software is once again in balance.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jane, Stop this crazy thang!

Everyone at Redcort Software is relaxing a little more these days. When we shipped Virtual TimeClock '09 Release 2 on April 8, we all began to believe that we had successfully pulled back from the brink. Some back story (over a couple of posts) will help you to appreciate the journey.

As far back as 2003, we knew we had to stop the insanity of our engineering cycle. Like every other software publisher, we were going more than a little bonkers, often working around the clock and missing deadlines trying to crank out monolithic upgrades to our time clock software every 18-24 months.

Our 'periodic major upgrade' mode had created an overwhelming engineering schedule where everything had to be decided a year or more ahead of time. First we had to accurately determine what new features our customers would need two years from now. In addition we needed a crystal ball to tell us about the technical advances and changes in the next version of Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows operating systems. Add to the mix new state or federal rules that would be coming regarding time and attendance reporting, overtime, vacation, timecards and time tracking rules.

This volatile mix of planning and priorities became a certain recipe for an explosive development cycle for Virtual TimeClock. It was certain in the earliest stages of planning that the time clock software upgrade we were envisioning would morph, delay, and challenge us as we adapted real-time to a world that unfolded quite differently than our predictions.

In 2004 we realized the Internet could revolutionize our engineering cycle. In the same way that the Internet facilitated direct customer interaction and free time clock software downloads, it would also change our approach to software development. The wide spread adoption of high speed Internet meant that electronic distribution of software was now trivial for our customers. We could release software in incremental updates 2-3 times a year, allowing us to predict and plan for our customer's time clock software needs months rather than years in the future.

Indeed, Redcort Software became a much better place to work following the release our last major upgrade, Virtual TimeClock 5.0 in December 2004. After the huge 5.0 upgrade, we settled into a wonderful rhythm of incremental time clock software releases 2-3 times a year. We loved it and our customers loved it. In this period we shipped Virtual TimeClock updates as soon as a needed new feature was ready, when a government regulation took effect, or when we needed a compatibility update for a new OS release from Microsoft or Apple. Life was good in the land of Redcort Software! Our report writer was enhanced for customized timesheet and timecard reports. We added timecard entry auditing and a fully automated timeclock database backup system. Apple OS X 10.5 Leopard support and Microsoft Windows Vista compatibility was maintained as each OS was released.

By the middle of 2007 we faced a grim reality. As the effects of Apple's switch to Intel processors reached us in a practical way, we realized that we had a huge software development challenge ahead of us. Reluctantly, we found ourselves in the insanity of a major upgrade. The next Virtual TimeClock release would become our largest software upgrade in 10 years. By the end of 2008 we all started to wonder if the insanity of a major upgrade would indeed be temporary.

The release of Virtual TimeClock '09 marked the triumph of a successful major upgrade. Shipping Virtual TimeClock '09 Release 2 in April was the tangible proof we needed that life in the land of Redcort Sofware was indeed getting back to normal.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Time, why you punish me?

"Time, why you punish me?
Like a wave bashing into the shore
You wash away my dreams."
-- Hootie and the Blowfish.

On February 12 we released a major upgrade to our time clock software, christening it Virtual TimeClock '09. This release was by far our most significant upgrade since shipping the original Professional Edition of Virtual TimeClock back in the fall of 2000.

It seems strangely fitting for the February inauguration of our new blog to be posted in April. The prior two years of software development represent more work hours and personal sacrifices than any of us (or our patient families) would care to admit. As the month rolled by we often found consolation in our iTunes playlists. Darius Rucker's soulful "Time" was often played when yet another delay was forced upon us by our commitment to get this software release just right. Time punished me far too often over the blur that I now realize was the first half of my 48th year.

With the shipping of product and arrival of spring, our personal and professional lives are in a promising early bloom. In spite of difficult economic times, we're enjoying a fantastic reception to Virtual TimeClock '09.

I've been pleasantly surprised to note that the buzz around the office these days isn't so much about our wonderful new time clock software release or our shinny new web site. We're telling stories about how we use our creativity, skills and energy to create something that is helpful to others. This is an interesting side of Redcort Software that we haven’t shared before.

I'm hopeful this blog will allow us to chronicle how we change our products and, more importantly, how our products change us.