From services to products

Over the course of my career I’ve done a variety of consulting projects as both an employee and freelancer. I’ve helped found and run a small consulting team. And, through my experience leading engineering teams, some experience of designing products and platforms. I’ve been involved in a few discussions, particularly over the last 12 months or so, around how to generate repeatable products off the back of consulting engagements.

I wanted to jot down a few thoughts here based on my own experience and a bit of background reading. I don’t claim to have any special insight or expertise, but the topic is one that I’ve encountered time and again. And as I’m trying to write things down more frequently, I thought I’d share my perspective in the hope that it may be useful to someone wrestling with the same issues.

Please comment if you disagree with anything. I’m learning too.

What are Products and Services?

Lets start with some definitions.

A service is a a bespoke offering that typically involves a high-level of expertise. In a consulting business you’re usually selling people or a team who have a particular set of skills that are useful to another organisation. While the expertise and skills being offered are common across projects, the delivery is usually highly bespoke and tailored for the needs of the specific client.

The outcomes of an engagement are also likely to be highly bespoke as you’re delivering to a custom specification. Custom software development, specially designed training packages, and research projects are all examples of services.

A product is a packaged solution to a known problem. A product will be designed to meet a particular need and will usually be designed for a specific audience. Products are often, but not always, software. I’m ignoring manufacturing here.

Products can typically be rapidly delivered as they can be installed or delivered via a well-defined process. While a product may be tailored for a specific client they’re usually very well-defined. Product customisation is usually a service in its own right. As is product support.

The Service-Product Spectrum

I think its useful to think about services and products being at opposite ends of a spectrum.

At the service end of the spectrum your offerings are:

  • are highly manual, because you’re reliant on expert delivery
  • are difficult to scale, because you need to find the people with the skills and expertise which are otherwise in short supply
  • have low repeatability, because you’re inevitably dealing with bespoke engagements

At the product end of the spectrum your offerings are:

  • highly automated, because you’re delivering a software product or following a well defined delivery process
  • scalable, because you need fewer (or at least different) skills to deliver the product
  • highly repeatable, because each engagement is well defined, has clear life-cycle, etc.

Products are a distillation of expertise and skills.

Actually, there’s arguably a stage before service. Lets call those “capabilities” to borrow a phrase. These are skills and expertise that you have within your team but which you’ve not yet sold. I think it’s a common mistake to draw up lists of capabilities, rather than services or products.

The best way to test whether your internal capabilities are useful to others is to speak to as many potential customers as possible. And one of the best ways to develop new products is to undertake a number of bespoke engagements with those customers to understand where the opportunities lie for creating a repeatable solution. Many start-ups use consulting engagements as discovery tools.

Why Productise?

There are many obvious reasons why you’d start to productise a service:

  • to allow your business to scale. Consulting businesses can only scale with people, product businesses can scale to the web.
  • to make your engagements more repeatable, so that you can deliver a consistent quality of output
  • to distil learning and expertise in such a way as to support the training and development of junior staff, and grow the team
  • to ensure business continuity, so you’re less reliant on individual consultants
  • to reduce costs, by allowing more junior staff to contribute to some or all of an engagement. Check-lists, standard processes and internal review stages providing the appropriate quality controls
  • to focus on a specific market. Tailoring your service to a specific sector can help target your sales and marketing effort
  • to more easily measure impacts. Products solve problems and, when manifested as software, can be instrumented to collect metrics on usage and hopefully impacts.

Because they have a bounded scope, products are easier to optimise to maximise revenue or impacts. Or both.

A Product Check-list

By my definition above, a product will:

  1. solve a specific well-defined problem
  2. be targeted at a specific customer or audience
  3. be deliverable via a well-documented process, which may be partially or completely automated
  4. be deliverable within a well-defined time scale
  5. be priced according to a tried and tested pricing model

If you can’t meet at least the first three of these criteria then I’d argue that what you have is still a bespoke service. And if you’ve not sold it at all then all you have is a capability or at best an idea.

Products evolve from client engagements.

Approaches to Productisation

Some organisations will be using consulting engagements as a means to identify user needs and/or as a means to fund development of a software product or platform.

But developing a product doesn’t necessarily involve building software, although I think some form of automation is likely to be a component of a more repeatable, productised service.

You might start productising a service simply by documenting your last engagement. The next time you do a similar engagement you can base it on your previous most successful project. As you continue you’re likely to iterate on that process to start to distil it into a check-list or methodology. Ideally the process should start from pre-sales and run through to final delivery.

There’s already lots been written about lean product development, the importance of adding metrics (which can include measure product process). And also about the care you need to take about extrapolating the needs of early adopters to later customers. I already feel like I’m doing stating the obvious here when there’s a wealth of existing product development literature, so we’ll skip over that.

But I’ll also note that there’s (of course!) a lot of overlap between what I’m outlining here and the discovery phase of service design. The difference is really just in how you’re being funded.

I’d argue that taking an iterative approach is important even for freelancers or small consulting firms. Even if your end goal isn’t a software product. It’s how you get better at what you do. Retrospectives, ideally involving the client, are another useful technique to adopt from agile practices.

But productisation also takes effort. You can iterate in small steps to improve, but you need to build in the time to do that. Even a small amount of reflection and improvement will pay dividends later.

Open data and diabetes

In December my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It was a pretty rough time. Symptoms can start and escalate very quickly. Hyperglycaemia and ketoacidosis are no joke.

But luckily we have one of the best health services in the world. We’ve had amazing care, help and support. And, while we’re only 4 months into dealing with a life-long condition, we’re all doing well.

Diabetes sucks though.

I’m writing this post to reflect a little on the journey we’ve been on over the last few months from a professional rather than a personal perspective. Basically, the first weeks of becoming a diabetic or the parent of a diabetic, is a crash course in physiology, nutrition, and medical monitoring. You have to adapt to new routines for blood glucose monitoring, learn to give injections (and teach your child to do them), become good at book-keeping, plan for exercise, and remember to keep needles, lancets, monitors, emergency glucose and insulin with you at all times, whilst ensuring prescriptions are regularly filled.

Oh, and there’s a stupid amount of maths because you’ll need to start calculating how much carbohydrates are in all of your meals and inject accordingly. No meal unless you do your sums.

Good job we had that really great health service to support us (there’s data to prove it). And an amazing daughter who has taken it all in her stride.

Diabetics live a quantified life. Tightly regulating blood glucose levels means knowing exactly what you’re eating, and learning how your body reacts to different foods and levels of exercise. For example we’ve learnt the different ways that a regular school day versus school holidays effects my daughters metabolism. That we need to treat ahead for the hypoglycaemia that follows a few hours after some fun on the trampoline. And that certain foods (cereals, risotto) seem to affect insulin uptake.

So to manage the condition we need to know how many carbohydrates are in:

  • any pre-packaged food my daughter eats
  • any ingredients we use when cooking, so we can calculate a total portion size
  • in any snack or meal that we eat out

Food labeling is pretty good these days so the basic information is generally available. But its not always available on menus or in an easy to use format.

The book and app that diabetic teams recommend is called Carbs and Cals. I was a little horrified by it initially as its just a big picture book of different portion sizes of food. You’re encouraged to judge everything by eye or weight. It seemed imprecise to me but with hindsight its perfectly suited to those early stages of learning to live with diabetes. No hunting over packets to get the data you need: just look at a picture, a useful visualisation. Simple is best when you’re overwhelmed with so many other things.

Having tried calorie counting I wanted to try an app to more easily track foods and calculate recipes. My Fitness Pal, for example, is pretty easy to use and does bar-code scanning of many foods. There are others that are more directly targeted at diabetics.

The problem is that, as I’ve learnt from my calorie counting experiments, the data isn’t always accurate. Many apps fill their databases through crowd-sourcing. But recipes and portion sizes change continually. And people make mistakes when they enter data, or enter just the bits they’re interested in. Look-up any food on My Fitness Pal and you’ll find many duplicate entries. It makes me distrust the data because I’m concerned its not reliable. So for now we’re still reading packets.

Eating out is another adventure. There have been recent legislative changes to require restaurants to make more nutritional information available. If you search you may find information on a company website and can plan ahead. Sometimes its only available if you contact customer support. If you ask in a (chain) restaurant they may have it available in a ring-binder you can consult with the menu. This doesn’t make a great experience for anyone. Recently we’ve been told in a restaurant to just check online for the data (when we know it doesn’t exist), because they didn’t want to risk any liability by providing information directly. On another occasion we found that certain dishes – items from the childrens menu – weren’t included on the nutritional charts.

Basically, the information we want is:

  • often not available at all
  • available, but only if you know were to look or who to ask
  • potentially out of date, as it comes from non-authoritative sources
  • incomplete or inaccurate, even from the authoritative sources
  • not regularly updated
  • not in easy to use formats
  • available electronically, e.g. in an app, but without any clear provenance

The reality is that this type of nutritional and ingredient data is basically in the same state as government data was 6-7 years ago. It’s something that really needs to change.

Legislation can help encourage supermarkets and restaurants to make data available, but really its time for them to recognize that this is essential information for many people. All supermarkets, manufacturers and major chains will have this data already, there should be little effort required in making it public.

I’ve wondered whether this type of data ought to be considered as part of the UK National Information Infrastructure. It could be collected as part of the remit of the Food Standards Agency. Having a national source would help remove ambiguity around how data has been aggregated.

Whether you’re calorie or carb counting, open data can make an important difference. Its about giving people the information they need to live healthy lives.

Getting that learning fix

I’ve been doing some domain-modelling with an arts organisation recently. The domain model that we’re working on will help underpin a new version of their website.

We gathered some domain experts across the business and ran some workshops to start capturing how they think about their domain, what they do, what the outputs are, etc.

Data modelling isn’t something that most people do. The process of trying to build a model of the world is, to varying degrees, new to them. Just as understanding the nuances of different types of art events and curating exhibitions is new to me.

So there’s been an element of me teaching them about what I do — the geeky stuff — alongside them teaching me about what they do. By coming to more of a shared understanding we can collectively get more from the exercise.

I love that process.

I love learning stuff, particularly in domains that are very different to the one in which I often operate. You don’t often get chance to sit with a bunch of domain experts and hear them discuss what they do at great length.

I also love that light-bulb moment when you can see people suddenly get what you’re teaching them. Its like you can actually see them levelling up in front of your eyes.

(I’ve been trying to rationalise what, on the surface, seems to be too very divergent interests: a love of teaching & a love of coding; whatever the reason, it probably explains why I keep doing different roles).

I then got to thinking about how so many of the events that run these days are largely domain based: domain experts talking to each other. Not people teaching each other new things, maybe in wildly different domains. I guess Ignite events might be closest, but I’ve never been to one. They also seem like they’re highly structured and involve calls to action rather than teaching and knowledge sharing, but I might be wrong.

So what kind of events am I missing? Where can I get my learning fix, or is there scope for a new type of “geek” event?

Leaving Talis

Earlier today I hit the publish buttons on the blog posts announcing the shutdown of Kasabi and the end of Talis’s semantic web activities. Neither of those were easy to write.

My time at Talis — which will have been four years in September — has been a fantastic experience. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented people on a wide range of projects. The culture and outlook at Talis was like no other company I’ve worked for; it’s a real pleasure to have been part of that. I’ve learnt an massive amount in so many different areas.

I’d argue that Talis more than any other company has worked incredibly hard to promote and support work around the Semantic Web and Linked Data. And I’m really proud of that. Despite increasing — but still slow — adoption, the decision was made that there was only so much more that could be done, and that it was time for Talis to focus elsewhere. Over the next few weeks I’ll be winding up Talis Systems’ activities in that area, and working with existing customers on continuity plans.

This year has been very difficult, on a number of levels. On the whole I’m now glad that I can focus on the future with a fresh outlook.

In the short term I’m considering freelance opportunities. If you’re interested in talking about that, then please get in touch. My profile is on LinkedIn and I’m available for work from 1st August.

If you need help with a Linked Data or Open Data project or product, then get in touch. Over the past few years I’ve done everything from data processing through to modelling, product & technical strategy, and even training.

Longer term, I want to take some time to think about the kind of work that I enjoy doing. I love building products, particularly those that are heavily data-driven. I want to build something around Open Data. Beyond that I’m not yet sure.

If you have something that you think I could help with, then I’d love to hear from you.

Pastures New

Its been 9.5 years since I first started working for Ingenta. Over those years I’ve been presented with some fantastic opportunities and worked on some great projects with great people.
From a technical perspective I’ve developed a deep appreciation for hypertext, web architecture, XML, and semantic web technologies. I’ve spent the last 18 months or so creating a publishing platform that has semantic web technologies at its core. This is something I’m particularly proud of as we’re putting these technologies into production use. Our early experiences are that their flexibility is really going to pay-off when it comes to building next generation publishing and research tools. Meeting the changing requirements for researchers and scientists means really embracing semantic web concepts like linked, open data. So I’m confident that this platform is going to serve the company well in the future.
But I also decided that its time for me to move on and explore other opportunities. While my role has always been varied and changing, I decided it was time to do something different, in a role that would let me continue to work with semantic web technologies.
So I’m happy to say that from 1st September I’m going to be joining Talis as Programme Manager for the Talis Platform. I’ve been really impressed with what Talis have achieved over the past few years: they’ve got a real strategic vision and a hugely talented team. I’m excited to be joining them to work on developing the Talis Platform and help them deliver on their vision for the future. Its a natural step forward from what I’ve been working on for the last few years.
But first, time to relax with my family before getting my teeth into the new role. Exciting times ahead!