Q&A: The author of 'Shipping Greatness' talks about how to build and launch great apps

by David Needle

October 10 2012

"As a developer you have to know when an update is ready," says Shipping Greatness author Chris Vander Mey.
"As a developer you have to know when an update is ready," says Shipping Greatness author Chris Vander Mey.

How do you ship a great app? What lessons can be learned from the success of companies like Google and Amazon?

These are some of the key questions author Chris Vander Mey (a veteran of both Google & Amazon who’s now running his own startup) addresses in his new book Shipping Greatness. He discussed these topics and more with TabTimes. 

What gave you the idea for the book?
The short answer is that when I got started in the tech industry, there were a whole bunch of things I didn’t know I had to learn. Some things I adjusted for and found processes that worked for me. I also inherited a lot of lessons from others that I wanted to share in this book.

There are a lot of people and startups trying to hit it big in Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Part of the challenge is discovery because there are so many apps. What advise would you give to them?
I'm going to say as an individual developer who started working on my own app after Google that I learned you have to follow a lot of the same processes even if you’re a startup.

For example?
Like with the user interface. I hadn’t done the wireframes because I thought as a startup I could just throw the stuff up there and it will be fine. But no, that doesn’t work. I had to go back to stencils. There are wireframes in the book I recommend to help that process along.

In an earlier era, shipping software meant a physical product and updates happened annually if even that frequently. So what does ‘shipping’ greatness mean today in an age of extended beta software and frequent online updates and iterations?
“You’re absolutely right, particularly in the tablet market. New hardware keeps shipping and leapfrogging what used to be an annual cycle and software has to keep up. There’s an extremely rapid pace of deployment of tablet software.

Both Google Play and the Apple Store have this ability to push updates. As a developer you have to know things like “Is this update ready?” “What should be counted as an update?” And “How do I deal with updates if things go awry?” 

It sounds like the answers could vary depending on the situation.
You need to understand testing cycles and whether you’re moving too slow. There’s also the question of when to ship. If you’re making things better for the user keep working, but there’s a time you have to realize it’s time to ship, just do it.

You can always make improvements though, right?
Right. Is the app ever completely baked? No. But there’s an aphorism I heard at Amazon that’s instructive, ‘Ship the software you have, not the software you want.’

You can spend a long time developing the perfect product, but you’ll never have a perfect app or a bug free product. Eric Schmidt at Google said ‘velocity matters’ and I think he’s right.

In the book you draw on your experience at Amazon and Google, but are there any other companies perhaps much smaller that are doing things right?
In general, one of the things you learn and see is that everyone can think small and operate like a small company. And if you can do that you’ll be successful. Avoid going through a lot of approval processes.

If you only have $500 on the credit card that might be enough for an engineer to buy a profiling tool to get the product done so just go ahead and expense it for him. That’s what you would do as CEO of a large company.

There is also great benefit to working in small teams -- that attracts the best people. Not everyone is a doer. In big companies some people are good at politics, but politics is death in a small organizations, there’s no bandwidth for it, it doesn’t work.

I think one of the things Google does best is having small teams with very little management.

I have to ask since you worked at Amazon and follow the tablet industry, what do you think of what Amazon is doing?
I’m a heavy Kindle user. The original Kindle was successful because is started with the idea of 'How do we make the reading experience great for users?' And Amazon came up with a device you have to recharge as little as possible, a display that looks as good as paper and other features like Whisperync that’s fantastic.

The current Kindle FIre and Kindle Fire HD experiences are a little different. I don’t know who will win the tablet war, but I appreciate that Amazon is trying to make the experience inexpensive, with great audio and innovations like the X-Ray for Movies feature. Amazon is digging deep into its technical pocket. 

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(App development issues such as choosing between off-the-shelf versus custom and native versus web will be among the topics discussed at the TabletBiz conference and expo in New York November 27). 

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