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Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies
Posted: August 21, 2012
by Steve Kupferman

HTML5 solution for Complete Innovations’ multiplatform development troubles, but experienced programmers are hard to find

Vital Stats
Address:
475 Cochrane Drive, Suite 8, Markham, Ontario
Contact:
1-800-220-0779, sales@completeinnovations.com
Field:
Mobile workforce solutions
Employees:
Just under 100
Years active:
12
Last year's sales:
$15 to $20 million
Core Customers:
Delivery and field service companies
Notable:
Over 50,000 mobile subscribers, including vehicles and phones

When Tony Lourakis founded Complete Innovations in 2000, the world was a simpler place.

The company’s first product was a workflow management system for courier businesses. It allowed managers to track staff in the field and assign tasks in real time. Developed with BlackBerry 850 pagers in mind, Complete Innovations had to create entirely new versions of the program as other devices reached the market.

At first this only meant having to develop for for feature phones — the predecessor to smartphones — Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry.

“From 2000 to 2010, those three platforms were something you could rely on,” said Lourakis. “As long as we supported those three, we pretty much had all our bases covered.”

That changed about two years ago. Businesses around the world, including Complete Innovations’ clients, were allowing employees to use personal mobile devices —  from Apple and Android handhelds to offerings from Windows and BlackBerry — instead of company handhelds. In other words, customers suddenly needed the company’s mobile offering to work on far more platforms than it had in the past.

This means that to support the phones, tablets, and everything else out there, the company is faced with building its mobile offering from the ground up multiple times, once for every platform. The process is simply too expensive and time consuming to be sustainable.

So, to avoid breaking the bank and keep their programs — which now include a complete fleet and asset tracking, management, and dispatching system — working for their approximately 5,000 clients, they’re carving a new path. Complete Innovations is abandoning the security of established coding practices for a new and unfamiliar language — HTML5.

“We have invested the most we’ve ever invested in this release,” said Lourakis. “We’re betting the future of the company on this strategy.”

It won’t be an easy journey. Complete Innovations’ 22 developers are talented, but they’re still learning the new code.

It’s an update to HTML4, a web presentation language that’s been a standard part of every developer’s toolkit since the late nineties. HTML5 is quickly becoming a standard, and is a fairly sure bet for the future that works by creating an app-like experience inside web browsers. So, unlike traditional smartphone applications, HTML5 apps are compatible with any phone, tablet or computer with access to the internet.

But the changeover is a struggle for many businesses, and this means that beyond Complete Innovation’s internal learning curve, hiring is also a problem. Developing with HTML5 is a new enough practice that the associated talent pool is still shallow.

“It’s hard to find talent that have experience directly with the newer technologies,” said Shil Sondagar, Complete Innovations’ manager for research and development. He’s hired five mobile-and-web developers in the past few months, and none of them have arrived with any significant HTML5 chops. They’re using general web development knowledge to learn on-the-job, but it’s tough to move fast.

Not only is the language unfamiliar, it’s also so new that development tools, essentially shortcuts for performing common tasks and creating popular features, are still few and far between when compared to older platforms.

But Krista Jones, project lead for IT, communications, and entertainment at MaRS Discovery District, thinks HTML5’s drawbacks are outweighed by its benefits, especially for companies in Complete Innovations’ position.

“From my perspective, it’s really all about understanding the needs of the client and the ecosystem that you’re selling to,” she said. “There are risks, absolutely. And there are ways to mitigate those risks if you’re good at engineering, and if you understand them and you properly develop for them.”

It’s a simple reality in a world where customers expect every program to work smoothly on all of their devices.

“They basically don’t want to be limited in any way,” said Lourakis.

With the exception of some minimal customizations for different mobile platforms, the company hopes that by using HTML5, they’ll meet this need while only having to develop the next version of their product one time.

“We could have gone native on each of these platforms,” said Sondagar. “To do that, you have to have a team of, I would say, three or four people on each of these things.”

By developing with HTML5, the company can afford to assign just six of its 22 developers to the mobile product.

It’s a strategy that’s pushing Complete Innovations into unfamiliar territory, but the company recognized the changing habits of its customers early, and Lourikas thinks they’re moving in the right direction.

“We’re pretty confident on the decision to go this route for the long term,” he said.

EXPERT VIEWS

As Interviewed by: Tom Henheffer

I like this company a lot. Unlike many other businesses, they aren’t just running after the latest technology because it’s shiny and new, they’re actually giving a lot of thought to what their customers want. And what their customers want is to use the company’s application on a number of different devices, so being able to integrate HTML 5 will be critical to Complete Innovations’ success. This means they’ll need to be conscious about the capabilities of the people they bring in to work with the language. Trying to have internal staff learn on the fly isn’t the best approach, so I think they should find a third party vendor to help with development. This doesn’t really make sense long-term, but there is a permanent solution. Say the company needs six developers for the project, I’d bring in three, and have them work with three of their most talented staff. That way, the work gets done quickly, and the internal programmers learn from the contracters. Now you have three people on staff with experience in the language, and the next time around you won’t need that outside help.

by Jame McGuire

Complete Innovations are brilliant for knowing to avoid programming natively. If they did they’d have to code not only for every operating system, but for every new version of every operating system — operationally it’s really inefficient. But moving to HTML does mean dealing with a really shallow talent pool. We will see skill sets broaden and the field of available programmers will grow — the challenge will be attracting them first, because everyone out there is going to want these resources. Complete Innovations knows the culture they need to foster. They should employ the right mobile technology to create a workplace where staff can bring their own devices, work remotely, work flexible hours when possible, and collaborate effectively wherever they are. That cutting edge office culture is what these young, hungry developers are looking for. And the company should also be actively recruiting these people. It can partner with universities to create co-ops and internships so they have a stable of potential hires, and can jump on fresh grads first. That way they’ll establish the right reputation so programmers know they’re the best company to work with in their field.

by Tisha Rattos

A lot of research shows that businesses, including Complete Innovations’ customers, are moving to a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model. Employees want to work from home or off their own iPhone, tablet or notebook, and they're demanding BYOD as a condition of employment. So, assuming HTML 5 is the right platform for Complete Innovations — and I think it is given that they need their programs to work across devices — their challenge will be getting the right resources on their team. It's hard to find talent with a background in such a new language, but the company should think more broadly than just, "we need to find an employee with that skill." They could look to contractors or contracting companies, outsource parts of the development or even the entire project, and they should also think about using videoconferencing and other collaboration tools to expand the geographic area in which they're looking for workers. Whichever method they chose, the company should move quickly, because effective multiplatform development will be crucial to to stay relevant with their customers.

by Gary Isaacs
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