I read with some interest a NY Times piece about the parallel stories of two companies working on a COVID vaccine – Pfizer and Moderna. It caught my eye because I knew a little bit about Moderna – they’re a very small company playing in a very big game. I figured they were hoping to use a vaccine success as their launchpad to the big time. The parallels between vaccine development and testing and the nature of most custom work, whether it’s programming, building a custom home, etc are fascinating.
There’s a quote in the story about Moderna’s technology that identified the key to going after the virus (the spike protein, apparently) within two days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, which follows:
That’s from January. The comments about this process reminded me so much of custom work. Specifically, of showing a customer the mockup of an application or website that maybe took a day or so to develop. Mockups don’t take long because they don’t do much. They’re just a visual example that proposes a look for the real software / webpage. The idea is to get feedback from your customer *before* doing a ton of work.
Mockups are everywhere
It’s not terribly different from the 3D mock ups that you can create if you remodel or build homes. There’s architectural design software that’s simply amazing in that respect. The realism is impressive. I remember seeing it a few years ago. You could design a house in 3D including landscaping. Once done, you could visually “walk” through the design and get a feel how it would look – all in very realistic 3D. While impressive, it was still nothing more than a mockup. Like mockups in other industries, it looked real, but it didn’t do anything.
The parallel isn’t exactly like Moderna situation but it’s similar. Here’s how: once you identify what you have to build – in detail – and you get agreement on it, the hard part is done.
I don’t mean that building whatever you mocked up doesn’t require a lot of work, technology, raw materials, time, communication, know-how, etc. It does. Even so, the work to figure out what you needed to build in the first place, can be most difficult. Getting consensus on an on-budget design that everyone agrees on – and it’s actually what’s needed – can be rather difficult.
Many times a project is doomed from the outset because there wasn’t enough communication to describe what was wanted and why, what the possible solutions look like, and what solution makes the most sense for the situation. What ends up getting built is what we thought someone wanted, only to find out both sides made too many assumptions and failed to ask enough questions. Mockups are great for reducing these problems.
New school design
What Moderna did in two days is flat out amazing, particularly when you compare it to how it was done in the past. Old school methods of building vaccines were in some cases done by getting people sick and studying the reactions in the sick peoples’ bodies. From those reactions, scientists, doctors, chemists and others eventually came up with a vaccine. Today, much of that work happens in a computer. That’s an oversimplification medically, biochemically, and probably in other ways – but you get the idea.
Some of you may remember the SETI project from years ago. After you installed their software, it would download and process a small amount of the radio telescope data collected by the Arecibo observatory – yes, the one in Puerto Rico that suffered damage resulting in it being permanently taken offline. SETI’s software would process the data and send it back to the SETI system, which would use whatever processing your computer had done to figure out if that data was valuable.
Early this year, I stumbled across similar project for medical study called Folding@Home. Folding@Home is working on protein folding analysis for COVID and other diseases. I read somewhere that some of the data processed by this project helped produce some portion of the vaccine solution – but I don’t know the details. This happened thanks to a large number of people all over the globe letting their computer do these computations and analysis in the background. As a group, these computers served someone as an equivalent to a medical supercomputer. That’s important to this work because supercomputers are rare, in demand, and really expensive.
Before I digress further, let’s explore how expectation gaps appear.
So if Moderna’s software figured out the spike protein after two days of work in January 2020, you might be thinking “Gee, it’s November, why don’t we have a vaccine yet?”
It’s a reasonable question and it brings the discussion back to our mockup discussion.
By identifying the shape that a vaccine has to match, they’ve done a very important piece of work. It’s a mockup of part of the work of producing a vaccine (yes, a sizable oversimplification).
Once you have a vaccine, it has to be tested, including time-consuming human trials. That process is often where the work doesn’t pass muster. Once it’s been tested, accepted by the FDA, and probably other work I haven’t mentioned, then you have to manufacture millions of doses. That requires sourcing raw materials – some of which may be expensive, time-consuming to make, etc.
You have to figure out the logistics of delivering it and administering it to millions. That takes money, people, logistics, systems, and time, but that’s not the point.
Communication is essential
What fascinated me about it was the gap in expectations between the reality of the work and what we (the general public) expect.
Anyone who has done custom work learns very early on that if you don’t manage the expectations gap, you’re in trouble. I suppose it’s a good thing that Moderna’s successful protein work didn’t make it into the news in early January since they didn’t yet have a vaccine. They simply had the protein match. Some who knew of this success had expectations for a quick solution, not realizing that the process had just begun – thus creating an expectations gap.
Despite the fact that the typical multiple year process of figuring out what to build had been reduced to two days thanks to years of effort, testing, and trials on other diseases, plenty of work remained.
First US Polio case: 1894. Polio vaccine approved: 1960.
They felt they’d have a vaccine in 18 months vs. four years, the recent best case for vaccine development. A reminder: It took 76 years to get a polio vaccine. Science has improved and our expectations have kept pace.
That’s the lesson those who do custom work must learn from this. We have to be careful to manage expectations because it’s so easy for the customer to see very early on what looks like a finished product but isn’t – because we want to get feedback from them.
Whether it’s a house design, software, a website, or whatever – there’s a lot of work required to get from that mockup, to something that only works on the programmer’s machine and nowhere else (aka “WOMM” – works on my machine), to a point where it works on every computer, browser, mobile device or whatever.
This gap is “significant”, kind of like the gap that can be created when a home builder gets the foundation poured, framing done and the roof on. All of a sudden it looks like a house. Get windows and the front door on and it starts to look like a real house – but it’s only been a couple of months. Why does the rest take so long? If your expectations aren’t set properly, conflict is coming.
Avoiding the expectations gap
Why? Because the first 80% looks like everything and the second 80% is hard to see from the curb. A house may not be wired, plumbed, sheet rocked, painted, etc. The builder may be waiting on various tags / permits. It may lack cabinets, appliances, flooring, fixtures, etc. It may not be cleaned up or landscaped.
Some of these things are hard to see from the street, where it doesn’t look much different from the day the roof was finished. It’s similar to me showing you an app on my machine, where it works in the environment I work in every day – where it’s easy to make it work.
It’s critical when doing custom work to make sure that you explain what people are seeing and what’s left. Part of doing that (and not catching a lot of grief) involves your expertise in knowing what it takes to get from point A to point B because until you know the expectation gap may also be in your head. This gap is a good way to assess the expertise of someone that you’re planning to hire.
The house in the hills
Back in the 90s, we built a custom home – architect and all. When we interviewed the builder, who came with good references, he set expectations for us from the outset. He said “All the references had projects that went pretty well. But I should tell you, every 10 or 20 projects we have one that seems to the homeowner like a complete disaster. It will feel like everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. It turns out fine in the end. Most times we can control those things, but sometimes we can’t. Between the weather, people, suppliers, subcontractors, and everyone else that’s involved – there’s a lot of moving parts and opportunity for things to go wrong. What you need to know is that I will take care of these things if that happens.”
At the time, I appreciated the warning, but didn’t think much about it. We never think the gap is going to get us.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened. We had maybe eight or ten things go wrong that seemed like a disaster at the time. Halfway through framing, the builder said “The way the architect designed this staircase… it didn’t go anywhere. The only way to build it so you could walk upstairs was to make some adjustments.” He simply took care of it.
A concrete truck got stuck in the backyard, slid down the slope of our lot and jammed itself against a tree on the neighbor’s lot (which fortunately didn’t have a house on it yet). They had to call another concrete truck to pull first one out. Meanwhile, the concrete was getting hotter and hotter, meaning it was going difficult to spread once it was poured.
Filling the expectations gap
That night I stop by the house after work and find guys in the dark working hard trying to spread the concrete before it sets. I can tell by how hard they’re working that it’s already decided to set and they’re doing their best to make it work. They ended up having to pour another small layer to smooth everything out. Other things happened, but it didn’t matter because a) he set the expectation and b) he took care of it. While the problems were annoying, the builder did what he said he’d do. He filled the expectations gap.
Years later I ran into a real estate agent who had a similar expectation gap filler. She had a checklist for the refrigerator when she listed your house. She said “Here’s a list of things that may go wrong between now and the time your home sale closes. Some are normal, some are crazy. If they happen, I will let you know and I will take care of it.”
She set the expectation and filled the gap appropriately. That’s really all customers want. When they hire you to do a custom job, they want it taken care of. Whether the work is selling your house, building software, or a tax return, customers simply want a professional to finish the job and handle whatever problems arise.
The good news is that this is a fairly easy situation to improve. You already know all the things that can go wrong. You’ve dealt with 99% of them. Why not document them? Present them to your customers in a way that turns them into a way to show you’ve got experience and expertise on your side. Make sure they know what your response will be.
Don’t fear putting them in writing – not so much as a guarantee, but as a “We’ve got your back.” Remember, they’re coming to you for a result, not for the mess between point a and point b.
You might be worried that your competitors will copy what you do in this area. The rare one might, but most won’t. It’s surprising how many things you can do for your customers right out in the open where your competitors can see them – and they’ll simply watch. Some will attempt them and find them too much work. Don’t worry about your competitors. Worry about your customers.
So… how are you filling the expectations gap for your customers? How can you bridge that gap and give your customers more confidence that they’ll be well cared for?