The App Store Is a Classic Example Of A Broken Business Process

May 10, 2009

In the last 10 years or so, I've worked on or witnessed a number of broken technology business processes. Most of the symptoms and causes appear over and over again, and it appears from the outside that the iPhone App Store process (if you look at it as a whole) seems like a colossal disaster in the making.

What is a technology business process? It a series of actions taking by various people in a business to perform a business function involving (or sometimes avoiding) some technological support.

A perfect example was the CheapTickets refund process I worked on in the late 90's. The process took 3 months to get refunds to people with unused tickets, and during that whole time no one actually knew the status of anything, the 5 people who worked on it were way overworked, and the company was losing every customer who ever needed a refund (plus those that they told). Eventually the costs of losing customers overcame the unwillingness to spend any money and they begrudgingly hired my employer (and thus me) to fix it (but only me, they were being cheap). After about 8 weeks or so I had built a new process and the software to make it work, trained the employees and it now took about 1 week with full status reporting.

Why did it get so screwed up? When a process (or company in this case) starts they don't plan on growth very well, so things sort of slide along for a while. Processes which are not immediately important often get overlooked. Then when it starts to be a pain, managers often start by making the existing employees work harder. If that doesn't work they raid other departments in the company (if politically possible) but that screws up other processes and generally creates stress in the new employees (how do I do this) and the old (I have to teach people AND do all this work). If the workers in the process complain management may point to budgets being limited or other "excuses" to keep things from bubbling up the chain. Spending money on tools (which might make people more productive) meets the same denial.

What often happens in these high pressure process environments is that the workers start to create their own "tools" to make their lives easier. A shared spreadsheet here, a couple databases there, and soon the process is being supported by unsupported tools and applications which although they seem to help the workers, actually makes the process even less effective. Management often approves of these "self-sufficient" initiatives as they seem to cost no money and make it look like progress is being made.

In the CheapTickets case, the poor workers had utilized spreadsheets, databases, the SABRE reservation system, boxes, files and post-it notes to try to make sense of the mess. Until I showed up no one had spent any time understanding what the process was, much less how it needed to work. By spending time with each employee, seeing where all the data came from and to, following the process through all its evil steps it was clear that it could be streamlined and simplified. Since I understood both the business and knew what technology could (and could not) do it was fairly easy to build something that worked for everyone involved.

Another big one I did was for Sabre's Corporate Air Pricing Group, same kind of kludgy manual process but on a larger scale, which cost Sabre millions a year in Airline penalties simply because they had no audit trail to prove if they were at fault in ticket errors or the Travel Agencies were. Yet despite the $ the IT people had no interest in such a "minor" process. So the CAP department hired us (and I wound up working with another guy on it from my employer). Same problem (no one cared, employees do the best they can, customers are pissed, and the company is losing $), and same result (orderly automated processes, full audit trail, better management, and tons of saved money).

So what do these two examples have to do with the iPhone App Store? Even though I am outside I do know a few folks inside, though mostly I can simply see the end result. Initially when they started the App Store team I know they raided other departments for personnel. They also seemed to predict the volume but apparently did not plan for it.

From what I can tell, the process isn't very automated, the reviewers are overworked, there is little supervision or approvals internally, and the lack of bug fixes on vital web apps used by iPhone Developers dragging on for months sure seems like a good sign no one is working on them (I still can't even log into the Apple Bug Reporter web app despite numerous emails to them, but I do get helpful automated responses telling me to file bug reports in the Bug Reporter!). Apple in the past has always been very supportive of its developers (I started as a Mac developer in late 1984) and I've always gotten good help from the Developer Tech Support group (where I worked for a bit in 1995). Apparently the App Store team is isolated from the rest of the employees, plus they are forbidden to talk to anyone even at Apple about what goes on there.

I'd say either the management of this group is incompetent or overwhelmed, or maybe they are neither but their management has hamstrung them with the usual excuses (you can't exceed your budget, sorry); either way the end result reeks of CheapTickets' refund process or Sabre's Air Pricing (Corporate was bad but the general group was even worse). For a company with $29 Billion in cash, complaining of budget troubles is rather silly. I imagine that Steve either doesn't care since it doesn't impact products directly, or with him being out he's not getting the full picture.

Business processes are everywhere, you interact with them everyday. Most companies big and small have terrible ones. Fixing them is not always expensive (Sabre's ROI was about 6 months) but it often scares management types since you do have to spend some money (try fixing your dead car with no money) and it means change (people hate change) and it might make them look bad (you had to hire someone to fix your processes, you must be incompetent).

Fixing stuff like this is actually fun, when they are willing to accept that it's necessary (like an alcoholic admitting it); generally the workers are happy someone is listening, the customers (if you get to interact with them) are happy the company cares, and then when its working you get all sorts of thank yous (unless you are incompetent and screw it up).

Right now I'd love to get inside Apple and take a look. Fixing a bad process is a process itself and requires understanding of a lot of areas, both business and technical, and being a patient interviewer. Plus you have to be a good storyteller and management soother.

Of course fixing the App Store would make me happy too. Maybe my damn apps might get approved in less than geologic time.

One can always hope. That is itself a process.