manual planning

3 common challenges facing ‘Manual’ route delivery planning

Introduction

For Logistic Managers and Delivery Schedule Planners, organising and ensuring the delivery of goods from your warehouse to your customers, within agreed service levels, requires a well configured delivery schedule. But if you are like most businesses with a last mile distribution task, planning a multi-vehicle delivery operation with constraints and variables can become a mammoth task, especially when completed by ‘manual’ methods.

‘Manual’ Methods

By ‘manual’ methods, we mean planning delivery route schedules through traditional methods such as white boards, Excel spreadsheets, bundled sets of consignment notes and Google Maps. 


Read on to see the 3 reasons why ‘manual’ planning your last-mile delivery routes is hurting your business, and why you need Scopta’s Run and Route to improve your overall last-mile delivery planning.

1. Manual route planning is prone to human error and requires time!

‘Manual’ planning methods through spreadsheets and mapping tools require a lot of time and effort to do correctly, to ensure all your deliveries are accounted for. But when you have deadlines on when delivery schedules are ready for your fleet, how can you ensure the accuracy and efficiency of your plans? 

The complexity of a last mile delivery task increases significantly with only a few constraints such as cargo / vehicle compatibility or constrained delivery windows.  Even a very experienced planner can’t manually calculate a highly optimised schedule that satisfies all customer requirements.

Having to go back and forth between Google Maps and delivery lists, while creating a spreadsheet increases the chances of making mistakes that could prove costly. Manual planning or ‘planning by hand’ is complex and prone to human error. This can result in inefficient routes, increased delivery time and cost and worse – losing customers because of late or missed deliveries. 


Even with a great manual planner on your staff, there is significant key personnel risk when all of the required knowledge is invested in one to two people, rather than systematised in a scheduling application.

2. Manual route planning is inefficient and expensive

We’ve seen how ‘manual’ delivery route planning is a notoriously difficult task and puts at risk your ability to meet customer SLAs.  The second issue is the cost and inefficiency that manual planning can drive into your distribution function.  

As a direct result ‘manual’ planning can impact your bottom line through poor route planning and mismanagement of resources such as:

  • Increased capital investment due to operating a larger transport fleet than required;
  • Increased labour costs due to drivers travelling longer distances and working longer hours, and 
  • Increased fleet operating costs

Why settle for a competent delivery schedule, when you can have an optimised delivery schedule, that meets your requirements and can see your team save time and reduce operational costs?

3. Managing growth and have the ability to scale is difficult with ‘manual’ route planning

One major challenge with ‘manually’ route planning is dealing with change and scale. For example, as your business takes an upward trajectory, so too does your demand. Being able to successfully manage growth by adding in more deliveries and locations ‘manually’ can place added pressure to an already lengthy and difficult process. The only real solution by way of your current ‘manual’ process, is simply putting in extra effort and time to correctly cater to new customers and businesses. 


Another challenge is being able to manually plan for last minute changes and added deliveries. This can take the form of specific road closures and re-planning delivery routes, delivery windows and changing availability from customers, and additional deliveries to name a few.

The ability to deal with adverse change is restricted and difficult through ‘manual’ planning. By not having an agile system it can lead to poor delivery schedules with inefficient delivery routes, not to mention the stress placed on Logistic Managers to add additional delivery locations and the additional pressure placed on Delivery Drivers to meet their deadlines.

Take the leap with Run and Route

Scopta Run and Route is an automated solution that can help you and your business deal with complexities of operating a last-mile delivery business and/or company. As described earlier, manually planning delivery route schedules raises many challenges around the significant amount of time and effort required to create a delivery schedule, the inefficiencies of manual planning and the difficulty of dealing with change and ability to grow and scale. 

Scopta Run and Route equips your business with a purpose built tool that simplifies the way you plan and organise your delivery fleet. Powered by an algorithmic engine, your Logistics Manager and Delivery Scheduler can plan schedules faster and with more accuracy, reducing the time spent planning and ensuring a compliant schedule.

Run and Route will also allow you to organise and distribute your resources more effectively, meaning that you can be assured that your Delivery Drivers are taking the most optimal set of routes, saving time and reducing operational costs. 

For more information around Scopta Run and Route or to start a free trial, get in touch with one of our team members today.

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Route planning

Lead the way with the right route planning tool for you and your business


Introduction

Navigating through last-mile delivery offerings can be a daunting task, as you figure out which route planning software tool is the most applicable for your team, your business operation needs and budget. When considering Scopta’s Run and Route planning software, there can be a range of important factors to consider, such as:

  • Finding the best tool to reduce your operational costs and improve your bottom line;
  • Purchasing the necessary functionality to streamline current business planning and supply chain management,
  • Identifying gaps within your current operations that could benefit from an automated software solution, as you seek to make technological advancements,
  • Selecting the correct route planning tool that has the capacity to deal with your business intricacies and complexities, such as delivery windows, drop off specifications and vehicle compatibility.

As you work through the finer details of other route planning software providers, understand Scopta’s Run and Route and take a look through our customer profiles to see which one best aligns with you and your business.


Customer Type Summary

Customer ProfilePain Points and Challenges
General ManagerReducing operational costs Managing day to day to operations
Vice President of Logistics and PlanningMeeting customer demand and ensuring a safe and smooth operation Supply chain management and refining processes
Digital Transformation ManagerImproving business processes through AI solutions Simplifying and streamlining procedures
Delivery Schedule PlannerCreating a efficient delivery schedule that meets customer demand

Are you a General Manager?


Scopta’s Run and Route’s first customer profile describes General Managers of medium to large sized LPG Gas Distributors (1000+ employees). They hold a management position within the organisation – and are charged with overseeing the day to day service and deliveries of their distribution centre. With broad industry experience and academic qualifications, this GM drives strategy and performance across his business in revenue growth, cost reduction, operational efficiency and customer experience

As business and demand continues to grow so does the business’s costs; mindful of their bottom line and an eye into the future, they seek for alternative options that can aid the delivery scheduling team in being able to meet their customers’ needs by making deliveries on time and on demand, and reducing the man hours spent on creating schedules through old hand method ways like excel and google maps.


Does this sound familiar? If so, our Run and Route tool helps solve the above challenges by creating an optimal and efficient set of routes, reducing drivers’ travel distance and accelerating the delivery process.

Are you a Vice President of Logistics and Planning?

Aligned closely with the General Manager, Scopta’s Run and Route next profile holds an executive role within the company and leads the logistics and planning functions. Tasked with ensuring the quality, efficiency and scalability of the supply chain, the Vice President of Logistics and Planning is constantly looking for systems, processes and technical solutions to gain and maintain competitive advantage

Overseeing the supply chain processes of a large distribution centre of a goods company, they take a great deal of interest in business processes and delivery outcomes and performance, with a desire to stay at the forefront of the industry. Taking a measured approach to how best to improve the service and delivery of their goods, they are on the constant lookout for solutions that can streamline the planning of delivery schedules and achieve efficient and cost effective planning

Open to technology advancement, they see the implementation of a route planning software program as a great advantage for route planning for more efficient delivery schedules. 
Does this sound familiar? If so, our Run and Route tool helps solve the above challenges by being market leaders in route optimisation, and being a functional and agile tool that simplifies the way you plan and deal with last minute adjustments.

Are you a Digital Transformation Officer?

With an eye to the future and a strong understanding of current business operations, our next profile looks to advance the company through digitalisation and with the integration of  artificial intelligence. As a key decision maker with a background in information technology, they are motivated by efficiency and productivity, constantly looking to refine and improve streamlining supply chain processes. With a view to automating and digitising where possible, the Digital Transformation Officer sees potential to improve the last-mile delivery planning process, which currently involves a mixture of data sources, manual processes, online mapping tools and excel spreadsheets.  This results in labour intensive processes, a lack of optimisation, barriers to scalability and key personnel risk. 

The Digital Transformation Officer plays a vital role in the continual refinement of these practices, looking to streamline their processes through optimisation as they look for the best route planning software for their business requirements. 


Does this sound familiar? If so, our Run and Route tool helps solve the above challenges through automated route planning solutions. Streamline the way your team plan and organise their trucking fleet, with a single tool containing all the functionality your team needs to deal with your business requirements.

Are you a Delivery Scheduler Planner?

Last but not least, the Delivery Scheduler. They have the critical role of planning the routes and delivery schedules for their 20+ trucking fleet. Equipped with nothing more than a spreadsheet, an online map and vast experience (perhaps having been a delivery driver themselves), they spend the better part of their week organising delivery schedules. 

Motivated by meeting customers’ demand and ensuring deliveries are completed, there are many variables and barriers that they face. Dealing with the complexities of considering delivery windows, driver availability, infrastructure and truck requirements and specific load types, all while making sure delivery schedules are ready by the first delivery is a time-consuming and extremely difficult task when completed by hand. 

Perhaps a route planning software tool could help?

Does this sound familiar? If so, our Run and Route tool helps solve the above challenges through its powerful optimisation engine. Be enabled to do more with a centralised system that deals with complex scenarios and variables, ensuring that you produce not only an error free delivery schedule but an efficient and cost effective set of routes.

Speak to our team now based on your above persona

If any of the following profiles or challenges resonate with you and your business, please reach out to one of our team members to discuss how Scopta Run and Route can assist, using the below contact form. 


With a strong understanding of the constraints and challenges last mile delivery and route planning entail, the team behind Scopta Run and Route are dedicated to working along side you to improve your business processes and route planning through automation and optimisation.

Run and Route Contact Form

Changing the landscape of Route Optimisation

Introduction

Getting from point A to point B is a simple enough task to be completed on most devices, through various different apps and software. But what happens when you have to get from point A to point B and now point C with consideration of other factors like availability windows and route preference? Scopta have developed Run and Route a route optimisation software that deals with the complexities of vehicle and delivery routing.

Read on to discover Run and Route and how it is changing route optimisation and vehicle routing.

Scenario

Barry is the Operations Manager at a warehouse depot for a biscuit company and is in charge of the planning and organising of the distribution of goods sold across Sydney. Barry is tasked with delivering 400 orders to be delivered between 20 trucks, exactly 20 orders per truck. For the last 10 years Barry has used a combination of Excel and Google Maps to figure out their delivery routes. He plans his delivery schedule a week in advance, and spends a large portion of the week carefully mapping out delivery routes. Barry is restricted by both time and cost, trying to figure out the fastest and most efficient route.

Planning out a delivery schedule by hand is notoriously difficult and time consuming, not to mention subject to human error. Manually working between Excel and Google Maps to find the best delivery order is inefficient and also raises challenges such as the Travelling Salesman Problem or TSP, which is simply finding the best order in which to visit a set of locations. Through traditional methods of Excel and Google Maps it won’t tell you the best way to order those stops to give you the overall shortest or fastest route but instead show you the quickest route from point A to point B. Now say you throw in point C and point D? An extra level of complexity is added with additional locations. How is Barry to know which location to begin with and the order to complete the rest of his deliveries?

With Run and Route, Barry will have a centralised solution that will allow him to input information about his locations and trucks, and automatically configure the fastest and most cost effective delivery routing schedule. Traditionally, Barry might have begun his route at point A, followed by point B, C and D in that order. By inputting this data in Run and Route, Run and Route will determine the optimal delivery schedule that would show that this particular truck should begin his delivery route at point C, then point A, then point D and finishing at point B. 

Another challenge Barry and other Operations Managers face is creating a schedule that considers delivery time windows and customer availability. Factoring customer availability and time windows is a crucial and important aspect of determining the optimal routes for a fleet of delivery vehicles. For example one shop in Bondi has a strict 2 hour delivery window between 5:00am and 7:00 am, while another customer in Redfern is a bit more flexible and is open for deliveries from 6:00 am to 12:00 am. Manually working through these intricacies one truck at a time not only requires an incredible amount of thought and time, the level of complexity dramatically increases with scale

run and route

Solution

Run and Route is Scopta’s Vehicle Routing offering, designed to simplify the planning process for last-mile delivery. It is useful for businesses with multiple vehicles that each perform multiple deliveries per day. Run and Route can help your business cut variable costs and improve your customer service. Remain efficient and competitive with a quality Vehicle Routing Solver that simplifies the role of your Operations Manager and the way you plan and schedule your deliveries. Be confident and assured with the quality and accuracy of your schedules with Run and Routes powerful engine.

Want to know more? Speak to a team member today and find out how Scopta Run and Route can automate your vehicle routing.

Run and Route Contact Form

Creating team friendly rosters and the benefits for everyone

Introduction

Creating rosters can be a complex task.  This is especially the case for difficult large workforces with a range of  employee preferences, combinations of full time, part time and casual team members, the need to adhere with EBA rules, fatigue, skills and competence requirements , meeting or exceeding customer service levels while always operating efficiently and controlling costs.  Clearly, producing a ‘good’ roster is more than making sure there is the right number of staff for the right amount of work. 

So, on top of all of this what does a team friendly roster look like and what are the benefits to employers and employees? 

A Friendly Roster

An example of what makes a team friendly roster.

Sarah is the Workforce Planner for the local hospital Emergency Department. She is tasked with organising and preparing the Doctors rosters which she does a month in advance for a 2 week working period. The roster parameters require each Doctor to work a specific amount of ‘unsocial’ hours covering morning, afternoon and night shifts.  Sarah always  does her best to consider the Doctors preferences for specific days off some of which are always the case and some are new requests each period for example to get a mid week night away to see Hamilton in Sydney or an afternoon off for the school swimming carnival.  

Sarah completes the roster by hand creating a compliant roster with all shifts covered and accommodating as many preferences as possible in as fair a manner as she can. However, is it always a ‘good’ roster from everyone’s perspective?

While a ‘good’ roster will vary from business to business and even with respect to  each employee depending on their individual circumstance, one aspect of ‘good’ roster from an employee perspective can be defined as being fair and equitable – team friendly. For example, while Sarah may have created a functional roster that ensures the ED department meets the service level requirements, Dr Brown might have worked the past 4 Saturdays in some capacity impacting on his ability to watch his children’s sports while another team member may have worked an equal amount of hours but more night shifts than other team members.  Although on the surface the roster was compliant and functional, it is not considered a team friendly roster given the unfairness and lack of equality amongst employees. 

In addition, there may be team members who prefer to work weekends, others who prefer nights, some who only work 3 days a week and still others who might be spouses and who cannot work at the same times as their partners – so that someone is home with junior.  

Further, the roster needs to consider patterns of work – moving from morning to afternoon and onto night shifts with then a number of days break.

This gets complex quickly!

A team friendly roster will consider all of these different preferences and requirements and provide shifts which are equitable and fair in providing each team member with the same proportion of night or weekend shifts (unless of course they prefer these) and evenly meets as many of their time off requests as possible.

Benefits

Adopting a team friendly roster has many  benefits to both employees and employers. These include:

Better work-life balance 

Your workforce will be made up of a range of different people with different interests and commitments outside of work. Commitments such as family, study, and sport for example. A study conducted by Gallup Reports found that 53% of employees said that an improved work-life balance was important to them. With a fair and equitable roster these other commitments and interests will be accommodated to the fullest extent possible, making work rosters more manageable and providing employees enjoy an improved work-life balance. 

Staff retention 

Improve staff retention with a balanced roster that is considerate of staff preferences and importantly fair and equitable across the team. There are many factors that contribute to employees leaving, such as career advancement, pay and benefits but also the nature of the rosters they are repeatedly asked to work. Employees have shown to be happier when they are able to balance both work and life commitments and are treated fairly  resulting in employees desire to stay in that job. This is especially important when retaining skilled staff or staff with experience that is hard to come by. By ensuring rosters are fair and equitable across all employees you will reduce conflict and ensure no employees feel stuck with the ‘unsocial’ shifts. 

Biarri Workforce provides open and flexible rules and preference capture functionality so hard or soft constraints and preferences can be considered in the roster creation and the powerful roster optimisation engine in Biarri Workforce allows the Sarah the workforce planner to set the roster objectives and generate team friendly rosters automatically in a matter of minutes.

By using Biarri Workforce, you will be able to improve work-life balance for your team members and ensure your roster is fair and equitable

Speak with a consultant today and see how Biarri Workforce can improve the way your business coordinates your human workforce. Whether you are currently rostering manually or looking for a more accommodating solution, the team behind Biarri Workforce are dedicated to making Biarri Workforce work for you. 

Workforce Contact Form

Biarri Workforce New Feature: Updated Shift Swaps

At Biarri we understand the challenges that Workforce Planners and employees face when rosters are published. We understand that circumstances outside of work may change and affect the ability for an employee to complete a shift, conversely, Workforce Planners’ and Managers’ pain point of finding a replacement to cover a shift or reconfiguring the roster to suit. 

We have listened, and Biarri is excited to introduce the new enhanced Shift Swap feature on our Biarri Workforce Mobile App.

Created out of necessity, employees can now more simply either Swap Shifts or Offer Shifts to other available employees.

When swapping a shift, we’ve removed the stress of trying to identify which employees are available. Instructed by the rules engine, the Biarri Workforce App generates a list of compatible  employees to cover a shift. These compatible employees comply with rules defined in the Admin Tab, ensuring employees are compliant with skills & qualifications, fatigue and availability rules. 

See a step-by-step walkthrough of how simple swapping shifts has become.

 

Read more
Sales forecasting tool

Sales Forecasting Tool to Plan Accurately With Some Simple AI

Throughout my career I’ve worked with salespeople, as a salesman, and in roles supporting sales activities. Sales is one of the most important functions of a business as without sales, you have no business, no matter how great your product or service is. 

Sales is the fuel for any business to survive and thrive and this makes planning and forecasting sales one of the most important activities a business does.

That’s why running a business without effective and accurate sales forecasting is a bit like flying a plane without a fuel gauge. Of course, an accurate fuel gauge is not necessary or sufficient for generating or maintaining lift – the Wright brothers got away without one. But there’s a reason why modern planes have them – it gives pilots access to data to make the flight decisions to get from A to B. 

So how are you flying your venture?

Probably the same as most other businesses. 

You gather your sales team and ask them, ”how many sales will we have this year?” 

In the best case scenario, they review last year’s sales and make a guess based on gut feeling and intuition (which is not always wrong). 

Commonly enough though, a misalignment of incentives and company sales culture can manifest as a mismatch between targets (optimised for remuneration incentives) and forecasts (optimised for accuracy).

We can do better. 

And to do this we need to use data. But why is data so important?

According to the Professor of Digital Practice at QUT, Mal Thatcher, the 21st century will be the century where,

“By the middle of the century the only tangible asset on an organisation’s balance sheet will be data”

and this is true for your sales too.

To give you and your business a competitive advantage, we at Biarri have developed a simple, easy-to-use Excel sales forecasting tool for you. So it is time to become data driven now and with Biarri’s new tool this is extremely easy. 

Biarri has taken some basic AI techniques and put them into a spreadsheet that requires no macros, no plugins and nothing to install. The AI techniques in this Excel tool will help guide your sales team to make more accurate predictions for the coming year. 

You don’t need to be an expert in AI to leverage the tool. It does all of the hard work for you and provides you with data driven monthly predictions for the coming year based on quarterly sales patterns. You don’t need to know cutting edge AI to use the tool, just how to copy and base a small amount of data.

You can download the tool below for free. There is no need to leave your email address or anything. Biarri’s mission is to make the world more efficient via better decisions powered with mathematics and we believe this tool has the potential to make a difference for your organisation.

Your New Sales Forecasting Tool

Before you download the tool, it is worthwhile telling you what it is, and how to use it.

It uses historic data to establish a pattern and then extrapolates this pattern to be able to predict the coming year’s sales. 

Not only does the tool provide monthly predictions, it also takes into account quarterly sales cycles. Forecasting quarter-by-quarter aligns it with typical quarterly reporting and also captures the variance in quarterly sales. This quarter-by-quarter approach is designed for industries like retail which have some quarters with greater sales (e.g. Xmas). 

There is also a “bad month flag”. This allows users to indicate if something bad has happened in the past during months (e.g. COVID) and if similar events are predicted to occur in the future (in the PREDICTIONS tab). 

This spreadsheet comes prefilled with data to show you what it should look like. To use it for yourself, remove the data from the Monthly Sales column in the Data tab and replace it with your own data. The calculations and updates will be carried out automatically. All other cells are locked for your safety. 

How do I use the sales forecasting tool?

The steps to using the sales forecasting tool are as follows:

1. Collect exactly 36 months of contiguous sales data leading up to the month you would like to predict from. E.g. if you want to predict the yearly sales from January 2022 until December 2022, then collect the 36 months of sales data from January 2019 until December 2021. The model is set up for exactly 36 months of data, not more or less.

2. Copy this sales data into the Monthly Sales column in the Data tab (in green). The top most entry should be the oldest (e.g. in the example in 1., January 2019) and the bottom most entry should be the newest (e.g. December 2021 in the example in 1.).

Sales forecasting tool monthly sales column

3. In the Data tab now enter the first month for the monthly sales data in the month tab by choosing from the drop down menu (this cell is green). Also choose the year in the year column from the drop down menu (this cell is also in green).

Sales forecasting tool month selection

4. For each month, choose whether a bad event occurred (or not) by selecting Yes or No in the Bad Event column. If normal trading and fluctuations were occuring, then put No. Otherwise, if something truly unusual (e.g. COVID) occurred that significantly impacted your sales volumes, select Yes on the months which were affected by this (this column is coloured green).

Sales forecasting tool bad event input column

5. Once this data has been entered, go to the Model Analysis tab to see the outputs of the model. In the Predictions tab, if you predict that there will be any bad months in the future, select Yes in the corresponding months in the Bad Event column (which is in green). For this to have effect, similar Bad Events need to have occurred in the past otherwise this will have no effect.

Bad event output column

6. Finally, your predictions are shown in a graph in the Dashboard tab, with a table showing the cumulative results for each quarter.

Monthly sales prediction graph

Download the sales forecasting tool by clicking on the button below.

What does Biarri do?

Most companies begin with Excel sheets like the one provided here to start making once off decisions on key parts of their business. It is like the first flight of a plane with an often inaccurate fuel gauge caused by data issues. At some point, organisations need to lift up from Excel to correct, secure, easy to use and more powerful tools and this is where Biarri helps.

Biarri’s main value proposition is to help clients realise operational excellence in the way they run their business via AI. The core of this is excellent, data driven decision making. Biarri catalyses AI driven business decisions by using its cloud based set of mathematical tools, the Workbench.

To discuss how you can leverage your data and turn it into value to reach new operational heights, reach out with the form below now.

Get in touch

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Agribusiness Optimisation Solutions

Maths and Machine Learning for Agribusinesses

Mathematics powered by computers is changing the world we live in. At Biarri we see this everywhere, across every industry, and I’m sure you do too. Recently we have delivered a number of Machine Learning and Mathematical Optimisation solutions for Agriculture businesses in Australia and were fortunate enough to be invited to speak at the recent Case IH agri-business conference in Mackay.

Ash Nelson, Biarri’s co-founder, presented on Maths and Predictive Analytics for better business decisions. He described how our everyday lives are being changed by corporations leveraging large data sets, advanced statistical analysis and powerful computing resources. Ash then outlined how these same set of technologies can be utilised to improve business decisions in agriculture. This includes optimising agricultural supply chains and port operations, reducing unplanned equipment failures by using intelligent predictive maintenance algorithms or to improve health and safety outcomes for farm workers by better identifying areas of best practice to inform injury prevention initiatives.

Are you interested in leveraging your data using advanced maths to make better business decisions? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with our friendly team.

Biarri and SaaS

SaaS deployments are now ‘mission critical’

Gartner recently published a survey citing that SaaS deployments are now ‘mission critical.’ Some of the key reasons behind this statement is that respondents looked for cost savings, an increase in innovation and accessibility to their systems as key drivers for the move away from local software solutions.

Joanne Correia, Gartner Research Vice President said,

“The most commonly cited reasons the survey found for deploying SaaS were for development and testing production/mission-critical workloads,” and went on to say “This is an affirmation that more businesses are comfortable with cloud deployments beyond the front office running salesforce automation (SFA) and email.”

This shows that companies are becoming more aware, and switched on to the benefits that cloud based software can bring to their company.

It was also demonstrated that on top of cost savings, accessibility, and innovation, SaaS based systems allowed for easier training and lower learning curves for employees.

“Non-IT professionals, often view the cloud strictly as a tool that they can use to reduce their operating costs,” and in turn effort.

Biarri empowering you through the cloud

Biarri was established in 2009 with the mission to provide accessible business optimisation to all clients regardless of size or budgets. We develop bespoke SaaS based solutions for you, with you allowing your solutions to meet your specific requirements.

We have been able to develop a bunch of applications for our clients to suit their specific; Advanced Planning and Scheduling, Workforce Management, Business Analytics and Supply Chain needs.

Get in touch and see how you can benefit from our solutions today!

 

What Google Does Right

I’ve appreciated Google’s mission and its modus operandi for a long time now.  I’ve avidly read Planet Google, many Wired articles, and a number of blogs and other pieces about the company.  But what I want to address here is how Google provides a great user experience, what enables it as a company to follow the path it does, and what smaller companies can learn from it.
Keeping it Simple
It’s easy to state but hard to do right, and often requires deep design to accomplish, but it’s one thing that Google does extremely well: it keeps its interfaces simple.  This ability is, for sure, enabled and exploited by the very nature of the company: it’s a web-based company through and through.  That means it can radically simplify so many things that mass consumer computing users find so hard: a big example being navigating and using a file-based storage system.  Instead, of course, everything is stored by Google (in its “cloud”, if you like) – and this simply obviates the need for a Save button, a Load Button, and all that junk.  Nor do you need any IT infrastructure to use most of Google’s products (email, for example).  By saving your documents or writing automatically – quietly and regularly, the way it should be done – the user never needs to even think about the where or how of storing data.  Except, that is, if you need to categorise – but here again Google makes sure that its core capacity – that of Search – is always front and center and powerful enough to find whatever you need.  A user experience should aim to empower the user, not baffle or frustrate them, and in this regard Google generally succeeds admirably.
The Power of Free
By providing many of its products free to the mass consumer market, Google owes its audience nothing.  This gives it free rein to change and improve (in short, to innovate).  By having lots of small but focused products, it can bring on or cull away products quickly (generally at the lightning-quick speed of the web world, and impressively fast for such a big company).  Here again Google understands right in its DNA both freemium and the web’s “Everything, free” tendencies.  Google is also very good at knowing what to keep hidden – its apps are great at hiding functionality that is less relevant to day-to-day usage from the user (they’re often there, but you have to dig a little to find them).
But Will It Scale?
Google as a company has shown an almost terrifying ability to grow, but to grow without collapsing under its own weight.  One way that they do this is by – in the main – using low cost easily available hardware (which has financial benefits as well as intangible benefits), even in huge data centers; a Commodity Computing approach (they even store their servers in shipping containers).  Development has an open feel to it, and is often open sourced or provides public platforms and APIs; Google Labs and techniques that expose Beta versions show Google developing software often in public view – compare to the secrecy that often surrounds Apple development.  Product support is often scaled by using open forums where members of the public helps each other.  Internally there is an almost astounding lack of management hierarchies.  In fact one could conjecture that Google is probably not really a big company as such, but a network of highly connected small companies that share common DNA and some common base technologies (often through open sourcing or open standards).  The shelter of the larger entity (not to mention its profitability) give it the ability to take risks – if one of the smaller companies/products fails, it can be easily absorbed.
Of course, Google’s flagship Web Search also scales (it has to, to have any chance of covering billions of web pages).  But interestingly, it seems to me that the success of Google’s PageRank algorithm – the core of it’s Web Search function – is largely because at heart the algorithm combines both the human and the machine in a very effective way – the human aspect is the importance of a page due to linking (a result of human activity) along with a series of quantifications (the rank).  But we are now also starting to see meta-data aware algorithms, that are getting nearer to natural speech, for example the Wolfram Alpha service (a so-called “computational engine”).  You can be sure that if Google truly cracks the problem of natural language search (which may or may not be equivalent to – perhaps a very dumb – AI), it will change the world (again!).  Indeed Google’s founders have stated that Google’s aim is to develop an Artificial Intelligence by way of Search, and there have been some startling successes: Google’s language translation service is apparently very good, and has resulted from a statistical approach enabled by massive data sets.
What Type of Company is Google, Anyway?
Google might be construed as an “information” company – after all, it wants to “provide access to all the world’s data”.  But there’s an important distinction to be made here – Google only cares about data insomuch as it is useful to someone (typically, consumers or businesses) – it does not care about information per se.  (That’s not to say Google will lose your data!).  The point is that Google is above all a technology company – it is enabling and automating the use of technology, predominantly software, but increasingly also hardware, to solve all sorts of engineering problems, and lots of data just happen to be the input.  Storing millions of search results, using millions of documents in different languages in order to automate translation, and many other examples support this view.  Google as a company is a master engineering problem solver, including solving some of its own internal problems.  Many of its products are happy accidents, or the results of its famous “20% time”, where its employees are given one day a week to pursue their own interests.  Google is like a giant R&D lab that also happens to be a corporation.  It also places huge importance on hiring the right people (smart ones), because it knows that great solutions come from clever minds – in fact CEO Larry Page personally signs off on every new hire.
What We Can Learn
The humble web start-up right through to the big unwieldy enterprise can learn much from Google’s approach, particularly if your products or services are targeting the mass consumer or massive business arenas:
  • Don’t discount the ability of technology to be a game changer.  Google has disrupted many industries.
  • User experience matters.  Strip away everything but the essentials to get the job done.  What’s left should work well.
  • Make sure your core product is healthy and pursue improvement and innovation as aggressively as you can.
  • Keep your technology and processes as open as possible.  Closed solutions harm innovation and sharing, which helps problem solving.
  • Scale through technology – automate as much as possible.
  • Give some of your product(s) away for free.

Further Reading: “Google Thinks Small” , Google’s “Ten Things We Know To Be True”, “How Google Works”

Cross Platform Development By David

I was involved in the development of a ‘simple’ application in C++ in windows and wanted to get it work in multiple versions of linux as well. By ‘simple’, I mean there is no windows GUI or links to other complicated third part libraries so a lot of the C++ should just port straight over to linux. Below are a few tips/lessons learned while I went about this task.

VirtualBox and Code Repository

I was working on a windows box and wanted to port to Ubuntu (a Debian flavour of linux) and Oracale Enterprise Linux (a Redhat flavour). The use of virtual technology is definely your friend here. As a result on my windows box I had virtual machines running Ubuntu and Oracle Linux Enterprise edition.

As we have a number of developers in our organisation working on a number of projects with libraries that are shared across several applications it is logical that we have a code repository. As I spend most of my time in a windows environment and am more familiar with it I prefer to do most of my editing in windows (the application was originally written in windows and most of our applications don’t need to work on other platforms).

I could have chosen to setup the code repository (in our case Mecurial) on each of the linux VMs. However, this would have been more time consuming and I don’t want to have to push code to the main shared repository and then pull onto the linux VMs everytime I want to test changes on other platforms, especially when the other platforms are all on the same computer. As a result, I set up shared folders in the VMs and made sure they pointed to the copy of the repo that I had in windows. Now I could easily make changes in windows and build and test them in all the environments.

Building and Testing

A couple of things to note is that while windows generally builds and runs quite happily without impacting what goes on in the linux world, the two linux worlds impact each other. This is because they both use the same makefile and clean/build binaries with the same names. I found that I had to be careful when building in different linux enviornments that the clean was done completely before the build started. The clean script when run in Ubuntu did not always clean/remove the binaries created in the Oracle Linux Enterprise environment. If the biaries didn’t get cleaned properly I got some build errors (e.g. /usr/bin/ld: cannot open output file executable_filename: Operation not permitted) or I got a segmentation fault at run time.

Different versions of g++ in Ubuntu (4.5.2) and Oracle Enterprise Linux (4.1.2) also meant that there were different compilation issus that needed to be dealt with but overall these were not too difficult to work through. Some of the issues resolved around simple compilation problems (e.g. g++ 4.1.2 was stricter with linking to libraries that started with the letters ‘lib’, 4.5.2 didn’t seem to mind as much).

Another main sets of issues were related to the use of third party libraries that we used (e.g. curl, coinosi). The coin library problems were overcome by simply ensuring the source code was downloaded, built and installed on the required linux platforms (i.e. no changes were required to the source code itself). Curl behaved a bit differently (i.e. it didn’t work for Oracle Enterprise Linux) but that was because a difference in the way different g++ versions treated the addition of strings. Once I made a small change to the code it worked fine.

The end result was that I managed to have the same source code build and run in 3 different environments: Windows, Ubuntu and Oracle Enterprise Linux.