E Pluribus Unum — Out of many deliverables, one story [Meeting Recap]

Summary: At our November 2017 meeting, Tom Goering gave a status-to-date perspective on his company’s development of what was envisioned as a world-class Decision Support Management System that would expand its customer base. What happened when the massive team faced the realities of collaboration, resourcing and delivering? Read on…

To understand Tom’s journey, one needs to understand that FICO (aka Fair Isaac Corporation) is more than a credit score company. It is also “a pioneer in the groundbreaking use of Big Data and mathematical algorithms to predict consumer behavior,” predictions that it sells mostly to banks, insurance companies, credit card companies and others weighing whether to take a risk on potential borrowers. What technical communicator wouldn’t be interested in a gig that deals with Big Data and behavior science?

Tom works at FICO as an Information architect, user advocate, and content developer. In early 2017 his company began work on Decision Management Suite, an initiative to unify six legacy product lines and make them available on the cloud, along with tools for banks and other users to develop custom solutions. A big part of the planned initiative was support deliverables that would educate and increase engagement with both current and potential product users. Tom’s team managed developing the documentation, help and training systems — which included designing several custom showcase applications.

One interesting sample application he spoke about was not geared toward the finance industry. Instead, it provided decision-support tools for an imaginary electric utility coping with its own issues, such as bad weather, the supply grid and so on. After all, as Tom explained, the decision-support tools are essentially generic and can be deployed with any large and complex dataset.

In his presentation, Tom described the difficulty of collaborating with hundreds of contributors in dozens of roles offering thousands of opinions about how to implement the Suite’s many components and delivery channels. Ironically, it was difficult for the teams to manage their own decisions and behavior. Consensus often fell short to achieve full implementation of the planned documentation portal, an online community, FICO University, embedded Pendo tutorials and production of educational videos on YouTube. The project also bogged down due to resource shortages and product ownership issues. By mid-year, starry-eyed enthusiasm had faded to disappointment and frustration. And yes, Tom admits, widespread cynicism.

During Tom’s talk, incisive questions from around the EBSTC dinner table yielded further insights, commiseration and lively discussion. After hearing this classic story of trying to herd cats, it was a relief to see his live tour of Suite components already available on the FICO site.

Tom’s advice to a tech-pubs team facing a similar uncharted voyage is threefold. First, don’t let the project start until VP-level support is guaranteed, and that means not just approval for the project but willingness to keep it at the top of the list. Second, don’t try to build Rome in a day; chunk up the work and start on the parts where you know what the outcome should be, and add components only as they become clearly defined. And third, don’t sandbag your budget predictions; nothing scares a manager away from completing a project like spending more money than anticipated.

Here is the link to E Pluribus Unum: Out of many [deliverables], one [story] by Tom Goering.