5 minutes with a Managing Consultant
5 minutes with… our Managing Consultant Johannes! He gives us a deeper insight into project work at 4Soft and his everyday life.
How long have you been working at 4Soft and how did you start?
I joined 4Soft as an IT consultant / software engineer in the summer of 2006, directly after completing my computer science studies at TUM. The first years were characterized by very different projects with topics such as “enterprise-wide business data modeling”, the collaboration on rough & business conception projects, but also the independent development of components based on various technologies.
What is your function at 4Soft?
From 2011 to 2020, I was responsible for a business unit. Since 2020, I have been responsible for Business Development, where I deal with the question of which topics are particularly interesting for us in terms of content and technology, and how we can position them strategically on the market. At the same time, however, I continue to work on various projects in terms of content.
What do you mean by a business unit?
We are a project company and the business units are our central organizational units for successfully carrying out our projects. The business units are home to our employees and teams are formed to carry out the projects. As a business unit manager you are responsible for your employees on the one hand and for the successful execution of the projects on the other hand.
Personnel and project responsibility, isn’t that a contradiction?
No, we believe that, especially in IT, you can only achieve exceptional project results with satisfied employees and harmonized teams. IT projects can only be carried out successfully if you know each individual employee well, promote them in a targeted manner and deploy them according to their abilities.
You said at the beginning that you also work on projects in terms of content?
Yes, after 15 years I would only enjoy my job half as much if I didn’t still have the opportunity to work on “real” customer projects in addition to my internal management activities. So it’s not unusual for me to set up an architecture for a complex project, coach a junior developer in Spring Boot, or occasionally give an internal talk on topics like assertj, GitLab CI/CD, or Hugo.
What kind of projects do you do?
As a company, we create custom solutions based on the individual needs of our clients. A partner once aptly described this as “boutique software”. This means that our projects always move in two dimensions: in the customer’s specialist area and in the technologies required or suitable for this. Our core business is business applications in the facets necessary today, such as databases (SQL & NOSQL), various backend and cloud technologies, web front-ends and mobile apps. Hardware-related programming or embedded software is not part of our business model.
Keyword “technologies”, how can you think of it? Is there a 4Soft standard technology stack?
Basically, the choice of technologies used is strongly influenced by our customers or the individual project, i.e. by non-functional requirements, existing blue prints, individual requirements in the project or similar. Ultimately, we want to use the best individual solution in each project situation. In addition, our systems must of course be able to be integrated into our customer’s infrastructure and operated there. This alone means that all our projects usually have individual components in the technology stack. Nevertheless, there are of course also focal points and trends.
Can you give us some examples?
One focus is on projects based on the low-code platform cplace. This comes from collaboration Factory, a Munich-based startup with which we have had a partnership for some time. These projects are usually a combination of customizing within the framework of the platform and the addition of individually developed components for specific use cases or interface connections.
The second focus is currently certainly individual developments based on Java and Spring Boot as well as various cloud technologies in the backend, in combination with modern UI frameworks such as React, Angular or Vaadin in the frontend.
You just mentioned a second dimension?
Yes, the professionalism in which our customer operates. In order to offer real added value with software, you really have to understand the problems to be solved. In our projects, we don’t develop software according to prefabricated specifications. Instead, we work together with the customer to translate his world and his wishes into a coherent software solution. To be able to do this, it is always necessary to meet the customer in his area of expertise. This is one of the things that makes this job so appealing to me. Even if you know your tools of the trade as an IT professional inside out, the customer’s expertise always offers new surprises and you always gain a little insight into the most diverse industries and specialist areas.
Do you have a specialization?
Vehicle electrical systems. Shortly after the start of my professional career, I “slipped into” this multifaceted topic and it hasn’t let me go. I don’t exclusively do “wiring harness projects”, but over the years the topic has definitely accompanied me in many different projects. Overall, I think it’s safe to say that engineering disciplines are closer to me than, say, FinTech topics. However, such a deep technical specialization as mine is rather the exception. The bottom line is that our core competence is IT; we don’t have to be subject matter experts, but we always have to remain curious, open to new things, and ask the right questions.
What does the typical 4Soft project look like?
When you’re a service provider doing custom software projects, one thing is for sure: “The typical 4Soft project doesn’t exist!”. If you look back at our project history, you will find everything there: from a small simple converter developed in 10 days to a central business-critical system that has been in productive use for 15 years. From a one-person concept project that never made it to implementation due to the financial crisis, to a large development project on which more than five of our developers work simultaneously over several years. From the technological and functional “proof-of-concept” prototype to the indispensable working tool for hundreds of users worldwide.
I think the best way to get an idea of the “typical 4Soft project” is to ask the question “What kind of projects do we want?”. We would like to see projects where we meet the customer at eye level at an early stage. Projects where we can actively participate in the choice of the solution and where it is not “just” about “implementing” the finished concept. We want projects that are of such a size and duration that we can work on them with real teamwork and the customer is part of the team. The underlying business problem is so challenging that there is no off-the-shelf solution, and our project result offers real added value for the users. And last-but-not-least, the challenges in such a dream project should be such that you have to keep breaking new technical ground and constantly expand your own horizons.
In practice, of course, not every project always meets all the points, but this is the basic characteristic we are looking for and projects that do not meet this pattern at all, we usually do not accept.
How does a project work at 4Soft?
Since we often start working with our customers in early phases, there is usually a short concept phase at the beginning. In this phase, however, it is not about creating a complete specification with all details as in the classic waterfall, but rather it is important to develop a common idea of the solution; to define essential framework conditions and to identify potential risks. In these phases, we often already work with UI prototypes in order to gain a clearer understanding together with the users, or create a proof of concept for core aspects in order to eliminate technical uncertainties and feasibility risks.
What happens next?
In the actual implementation, we now work in all projects according to an adapted agile procedure. It is particularly important for us not only to have a “shippable product” at the end of a sprint, but also to ensure that it is actually shipped, i.e., that it is actually tested by the user. This is the only way to obtain valuable feedback at an early stage; one of the central advantages of agile procedures.
You talked about an “adapted agile approach”, what do you mean by that?
Every project and customer situation is different. For example, you need appropriate mechanisms to be able to proceed agilely in the project itself, even if the customer is still more classically oriented in its permitted contract models, for example. Conversely, individual requirements may also arise if the customer already uses an agile project organization itself. The important thing here is not to proceed dogmatically, but to do what is appropriate for the situation at hand.
When is a project over?
As a rule, we hand over our software “turnkey”. This means that while we continue to support the introduction of the software, the actual transition management and continued operation is the responsibility of our customers. However, there are also projects which, due to maintenance and continuous further development, accompany you again and again over the years.
What is the collaboration model with your customers in the project, how often are you on site?
In general, we try to reduce travel to a necessary minimum. Due to Corona, travel was virtually zero last year and it remains to be seen how sustainable this has influenced the working mode in the industry for the future. In our opinion, the substantive project work, i.e. the actual software development or writing of a concept, should take place in a working environment that is as undisturbed and productive as possible. The design of our office space and the flexible option for mobile working from home are geared to this. In our experience, being “onsite” at the customer’s premises in open-plan offices for these activities is anything but conducive to good work results.
Conversely, it is often much more efficient for the creative and cooperative development of complex topics and concepts to be able to draw together on a whiteboard in a room than to hold video conferences lasting several hours. In practice, this means that a significant part of the project work is done without traveling, and that individual employees, as well as the entire team, are sometimes on-site with the customer for specific workshops and at certain project milestones.
What makes 4Soft different from the competition?
Most people think in solution-oriented terms, which is why our customers often already have a concrete solution idea when they come to us. Not simply “blindly” implementing this, but interpreting it as a different way of describing the problem, taking a step back together with the customer, recognizing the actual need, and then choosing an appropriate solution - that’s how we see ourselves, and behind it is the inherent desire to really understand what drives our customers.