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Five Ways Housing Construction Taught Me to Build Great Software

Published on
Published on
September 24, 2015

Product Manager at FileMaker

I can’t remember how old I was the first time my dad put a tool kit in my hands, but I was young enough for my mom to be alarmed that Dad was letting me handle sharp objects. My family’s business was home construction, but my passion lay with technology. I had no idea that the principles of construction that I learned working side by side with my father and would set the stage for my job building business software.
Building things that mean something to people is what home construction is all about. As a teenager, I worked closely with customers, making sure we were building the right thing, for the right reasons, the right way. In the family business, there was no skimping. It was all about building something that customers wanted, and building it well. It’s exactly the same with software. 
I’m a product manager for FileMaker, Inc., an Apple Subsidiary, which produces software that businesses use to create custom apps. I’m still building things that people and companies care about and depend upon. As an advocate for the customer, it’s my job to remember that FileMaker is important to businesses, schools, hospitals, research facilities, and more. So, as with housing construction, pride in workmanship is critical to success. From construction sites in Baltimore to cutting edge technology in Silicon Valley, quality craftsmanship is key.
This is what I’ve learned, that’s helped me as I’ve made the journey from working in my family’s construction business to being a software product manager. The remarkable thing is, the product is different, but the philosophy is the same. We’re building something important that will be used by people every day—and that’s what drives all of us to strive for excellence.
  1. You need a solid foundation.
No matter how large or extravagant the house, if it isn’t built on a solid foundation, it isn’t going to stand. The same holds true for software. I spend a lot of time doing market research, learning what customers really want and need, then, I work with engineers to make sure we get that solid foundation.
2. Build to the customer’s vision—not yours.
I watch customers interact with the software all the time, and if I see a face twinge—that tells me it’s a pain point that needs to be fixed. I saw those same faces out at construction sites. If something wasn’t quite right, we had to be in tune with that. What’s really important is not to get too attached to an idea. I’ll never do something just because I think it’s cool. It’s the customer that counts. You do it if they think it’s cool and, of course, if it makes the product better.
3. Listen and communicate.
When you’re building a house, you can’t work in a vacuum. Managing products that work for a lot of people in different ways can’t happen in isolation, either. Collaborating with every stakeholder—including future customers—is the only way to be successful. I’m in constant communication with customers and engineering to find out what’s needed, what’s best, and to facilitate making sure the best decisions win.
4. Don’t be afraid to make the hard calls.
Construction taught me that it’s better to fix something while it’s easy to fix than it is after everything has been sealed up. There isn’t a better metaphor for software product management. Users don’t have time to deal with technical glitches and bugs—they just want to get their jobs done. Once, when I was still working in frontline support, I questioned what looked like an error in a new product. The company ended up stopping production to fix it—and it ended up preventing company and customer headaches. That was painful at the time, but it’s the right thing to do.
5. Quality is King.
My dad used to say to me, “Pretend that this is yours. How would you want it?" My family’s business prided itself on quality craftsmanship. We knew we were building something that was going to affect someone’s lives, so we built it like it was our own. Now, as the voice of the customer for FileMaker, I take that same attitude. I make sure that we pay attention to the little things—even if nobody else sees them. I take pride in knowing that this thing that I’ve helped to create is going to make people’s lives better.
Ultimately, skill and pride in workmanship are traits that cross over between construction and business software product management. When I used to build houses, I would imagine what memories the families who moved in would create. With FileMaker, it’s exciting to know that what I build is just the beginning—what companies do with FileMaker is only limited by their imaginations. Interested in learning more about us? Check us out here
Robert has been applying the principals of construction to building software at FileMaker for 11 years.
FileMaker, Inc., an Apple subsidiary, makes software that transforms businesses by enabling users to create and run custom solutions that work seamlessly across iPad, iPhone, Windows, Mac and the web. Interested in learning more? Click here. 

Comments on Robert Holsey’s article

Great story from a great PM !Rock solid foundations is key for the solutions we built as they have to last for a long time. And our customers business keeps changing all the time, which challenges the foundation even more. That is why we truly enjoy building our solutions foundations on the very solid and versatile FileMaker Platform.Thank you for managing this platform as good as you have done for a long time !And we like to take it even a step further than you ever imagined the platform to go ;-)

Reply to Robert Holsey’s comment
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