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31 May 2011

The MA2 story 1: why we bet the farm

By Andrew Clifford

Sometimes you need to make big decisions to take a product forward.

Over the past few weeks I have outlined the advantages of general-purpose applications that can deliver multiple solutions. I now want to tell the story of how we accidentally created one.

My company, Metrici, provides solutions for assessment and analysis. Our main product, Metrici Advisor, is a web-based service for running assessments and analysing the results. We initially used Metrici Advisor to assess IT systems. However, we designed the product to deal with any types of assessment, and it has also been used for other requirements, such as information security assessments and employee reviews.

Over the years, we recognised some weaknesses in Metrici Advisor. The user interface is designed for use by consultants, and is too hard for casual users. Although new solutions can be configured using only a browser, it is too difficult. There is inadequate support for representing the structure of the things that are to be assessed, such as organisations, or IT architecture. It has no support for assessment processes, for example telling you how far through a data collection exercise you are. Some functions are inconsistently implemented. For example version control is available for the definition of assessments, but not for the assessment data itself.

We needed to fix these problems. A number of factors influenced us.

  • A conventional approach, in which we added to Metrici Advisor to deal with each weakness, would be expensive and time-consuming. It would make the product larger and more complicated, which risks making it harder to use. As a small company, it would be hard for us to create and support and even larger tool.
  • Assessment and consultancy solutions require a lot of information to be set up about the data you want to gather, its structure, and how it should be analysed. An assessment tool needs to deal with metadata very flexibly.
  • Our personal backgrounds are in data warehousing and systems integration. We are used to dealing with data in an abstract way, setting up data structures and processes that can deal with any data.
  • We also have a background in development tools, and have spent years looking at more efficient ways of delivering IT solutions, such as general-purpose data structures, automated user interface layouts, and the like.

Given our personal backgrounds, the requirements, and commercial realities, we decided to explore whether we should completely replace the core data structures and processing of Metrici Advisor. We were not thinking of building a totally general-purpose application, but a much more flexible engine for delivering any type of assessment and analysis solution.

From earlier work, we thought that one possible approach would be to combine the real data and metadata into the same structure, and maintain both through the same user interface. We put together a proof of concept, to see if we could build this and whether it would work. We could, and it did.

After a lot of thought, we took the plunge. We bet the farm and decided to use the new structure as the basis for the next version of Metrici Advisor, MA2.

Next week I will explain how we got on: burnt-out, friendless and broke.

Next: The MA2 story 2: burnt-out, friendless and broke

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