“Aiming for the release by March.” Proceeding the 4skills course project with high conscious of the due date
Q: Takahashi-san and Kawazu-san joined the company as fresh graduates, but I heard Matsuda-san and Ogawa-san joined the company after some work experiences at other companies. Is that right?
Matsuda: I used to be involved with the development of products for B2B as an engineer. However, I thought I wanted to get involved with B2C products as well, and I also wanted to deal with other than just developing a product as an engineer; I wanted to make products considering “what sort of services are wanted by users”. That’s why I started working for this company in July, 2018.
Matsuda: And then, I got assigned to be the product manager of 4skills course which was planning to be released in March, 2019 lol. I asked engineers to develop it after organizing “things we have to do” and “the minimum requirements we have to meet” with the business-side.
Ogawa: I was a part of this project as a designer from an early stage. I used to work as an art director and/or a designer at a production company, but at a production company, your job is done at the moment you submit the design. It was very difficult to know how my design was regarded afterwards, or if my design was effective. Therefore, I thought I wanted to work for a company which had its own product so that I could polish the service of the company I work for. This is the reason why I joined this company in September, 2017.
Ogawa: In this project, on the top of my conventional role to think about the wireframe, I also made various plans for and discussed how we could realize the UI which would solve the issues we and the content team were facing. For example, “how to encourage a high school student to keep trying slightly more difficult questions.” and so on. Because we design our products internally rather than send them to outsourcers, I think we would like to be a design team that understands our products and services. I would also like ourselves to focus on designing an appropriate UI after considering what we would like to commit.
Ogawa: One of the most challenging issues for us was the fact we had a very strict time limit; we needed to start selling 4skills course by March when teachers decide teaching materials for the next school year. Even though StudySapuri ENGLISH had already been used at schools, we were more used to StudySapuri ENGLISH for adults such as preparation course for TOEIC, and used to be able to set promotion any time of the year. I think it had been a while since I had to work with a tight schedule last time.
Matsuda: Yes, that’s right. The demand for keeping the date of release was really strong. Therefore, I decided to change the points of view, and tried to find ways to compromise such as “this function needs to be altered like this” or “in theory, it should be like this, but in reality, we have to put up with that” etc.
Developed a generic training program to deal with unfixed contents
Matsuda: Usually, we start developing after the contents have been fixed. However, the biggest issue of 4skills project was the fact that we kept discussing what sort of contents we should include until the very last minute. What I appreciate the engineers most is they have understood our request of “please prepare for generic training so that we can deal with whatever the contents would be to a certain extent”, and they proceeded with implementation.
Ogawa: Yes, that really saved us. We managed to release it on time thanks to this.
Matsuda: To tell you the truth, we changed the contents just before the release. However, the engineers had prepared with anticipation, and that made the whole thing really easier. I summarized the requests from the business-side and discussed them with the team, but I also regret that I might have given them vague requests rather than a fixed one. Did you find it hard to deal with?
Kawazu: Of course, having fixed requests such as “there will always be a photo in this training.” etc. is mentally easier for us and it will take us less time to implement. However, when there are some parts that have not been fixed, I think it’s a chance for us to show our capabilities as engineers by designing the methods for implementation to keep us going instead of blocking the whole area. We surely had to do some extra work by designing training which will or will not accommodate a photo or sound. Despite that, I have to say I am glad we have been able to support the decision of contents until the very last minute.
Matsuda: We shared information about the connection with the client-side and also the server-side, and discussed actively such as “we should prioritize the opinions of the server-side here”, “we should prioritize the client-side there” and so on. For example, when we received a request to insert a several-pixel worth space, we included fine details into our discussion, like if the view area should be covered by the client-side or the server-side. As a result, I think we have made a generic product nicely.
We shared an accurate situation by asking questions promptly at a “daily scrum”
Q: How did you proceed with the project after the engineers had joined?
Matsuda: After the engineers have joined the project, it was like a “daily scrum” every day; every one of us, including those joining online, participated in a meeting and asked any questions they had. The number of participants was so large and sometimes some people had to listen to things that were not really their business. I think that can be improved, but I really appreciate the place to ask whatever the team members have been in doubt with.
Kawazu: While many engineers prefer to work from home from time to time so that they can reduce unnecessary communication and improve their productivity, I have realized we have not had a chance to talk to everyone every day to my surprise. Therefore, this experience has helped us realize that the “daily scrum” has its merits because we no longer have to proceed with questions in mind or there is less disagreement in our understanding.
Takahashi: At that time, the number of the server team was increasing rapidly. Although it was reassuring to have more team members, many did not have knowledge of the existing codes, designs and domains. Therefore, I think it was very good for us because we had opportunities to explain them verbally. However, at the same time, when we were discussing the domain, some members without the knowledge could not follow the conversation. I think that keeping that balance was a difficult part.
Matsuda: I am still doing the daily scrum with different projects after the 4skills course. I once stopped doing it for a while, we talked about it and decided to start it again. But, we are thinking out the way so that we do not have too much unnecessary discussion with a large number of people.
Matsuda: I joined this project right after joining the company, so I did not really know what other people felt about things, at what sort of speed the development proceeded and many other things for better or worse. That’s why I frequently made places for communication, including the daily scrum, so that I can listen to honest opinions of engineers. “how long will this actually take?” “for 15 days? I thought around the same, too.” “Yeah, I agree.” and so on and so on. By talking to them closely, I managed to refine our schedule. I am really glad about the result.
Matsuda: First, I prioritized requirements from the business-side, and handed the chosen amount of tasks to the engineers, thinking they should be able to finish by the due date. Their speed was far beyond my expectations. Not only they finished well before the due date, I realized we did not need two teams we originally had, so I reduced our engineers to one team. The reason why we managed to release it earlier than planned, was simply thanks to their overwhelming development capabilities.
Prioritization and communicating each other were main factors of the success of this project
Q: I heard 4skill course was released earlier than originally planned. How did you do that?
Matsuda: Oh, I think that was all thanks to the engineers’ superb development capabilities.
Ogawa: I think Matsuda-san’s way of dealing with the project was also great. Of course, we couldn’t have done without the engineers’ tremendous efforts, but I think judging priorities properly was another main factor.
Takahashi: Previously, development projects were similar to waterfalls; requests from the business-side came falling directly to the engineers. We would just go ahead with the development without communicating properly about priorities and backgrounds, and we would normally become really tight on schedule in most situations. However, Matsuda-san stood between the business-side and engineers and coordinated many things. Therefore, we were able to work in a more flexible environment. That really was a big difference.
Kawazu: Previously, we did not really know how strong the demand from the business-side was, or how necessary the demand was specifically. Therefore, we used to think “we have to do this and we have to do that” when developing. With Matuda-san, someone who stands up between us, we have found out that there are alternative plans, and that made us feel secure.
Takahashi: I think we need a person who is in charge of managing priorities.
Ogawa: Matsuda-san’s strength is while he is a product manager, he also has had experiences as an engineer. He has skills to deal with both roles and he can also understand both sides.
Kawazu: Totally agree. To be able to discuss with names of tables naturally is not something we can usually experience.
Matuda: Oh, thanks a lot lol. I feel sorry for telling vague requirements in this project, but we managed to do partial scrum development by getting information such as “we can do this”, “if we keep doing this, we won’t make it to the due date.” right from the early stage. Even though this was a very difficult project, every one of the engineers understood it and cooperated. I just have to thank them.
Matsuda: I also would like to thank Ogawa-san for acting flexibly. Normally, we would ask engineers to develop a prototype first, and use that for the sales activities. However, the design team took over, and they made something like a prototype using the design data. They were wonderfully flexible.
Ogawa: As I became a member of the project at the beginning, I always felt the necessity of the prototype. I knew it needed a lot of energy to connect each screen and function to make a prototype, but I always wanted to do something to support the sales team. Besides, we needed one anyway, so I decided to make one.
Ogawa: I was helped by Kawazu-san’s ideas in that sense. For example, we needed to do something about the small input area of the Android UI, but we did not know what to do. Then, he came up with an idea and said “why don’t you try this one?” There are cases we need more than just design to get on. We were really grateful for suggestions from engineers such as “we can do this, and I think this is more user-friendly.”
Kawazu: Oh, did I do that? You know what? Honestly, I don’t remember it; it’s already half a year ago now lol.
Matsuda: I think we are spoiled by the engineers, to tell you the truth. I call it “a mischievous proposal”, but when we had a rough idea and said “we want to do something like this” to the engineers, they would clearly tell us if that idea was applicable or not, and would make things they could do. I think this is a great part of having an in-house development team.
Appreciating “the culture where we can frankly exchange our opinions”
Q: Considering the experiences in this project, what would you like to value the most in the future projects?
Matsuda: With StudySapuri ENGLISH, as a product, has graduated the 0 to 1 phase, and is about to enter the 10 to 100 phase, in my personal opinion, it is really important to be able to expand without any distortion. When developing 4skills, I bore in mind this product should be provided as a social significance which cannot be converted into the monetary value, and I aimed to develop something that can also be used in the following products. I think we made almost nothing that can only be used in the 4skills course.
Matsuda: I think to be able to experience the phase that accelerates from 10 to 100 is quite rare. Considering how to succeed in such an interesting phase, I think it is important to have a culture in which we can clearly say “it’s wrong” to something wrong, and “I think that is not necessary” to something unnecessary. Even when our organization has grown to a big one, I would like to keep this sense of speed that is really a venture-company like.
Kawazu: To me, to be able to work with fun lol.
Matsuda: Yes, I agree. I think the enjoyable atmosphere where you can do things you want to do is really valuable. If everyone’s active cooperation decreased, and we could no longer do what we wanted to do, I think the things would be not as good.
Kawazu: I am actually having fun now, and I also think I have been able to feel fulfilment while working. There are many other projects apart from the 4skills course. In each project, I think everyone is facing challenges as an engineer, and I believe I have been able to do the same.
Takahashi: I am currently engaged with the company-wide infrastructure. Looking back at the 4skills project, I think the good part is we have solved issues by actively discussing without being uncomfortable. I would like to be able to discuss without hesitation among engineers and/or between engineers and the business side so that we can go ahead with the project.
Ogawa: We already have an environment where engineers, product managers, and the business-side can exchange honest opinions such as “if we change this part like that, wouldn’t it be easier to use for teachers and students?”, “won’t it lead to a learning outcome if we do this?” and so one. We have a really secure structure for designers, and we also have easy-to-talk engineers who realize our ideas. I hope our working environment will continue to be like this.
* The business (including business name and business description), people and titles introduced in the article are those at the time of the interview. It may be different at this time.