Product Management

Stupid Things Engineering Says

The Dude has been around a long time, and has seen just about every bad behavior. This will be the start of a series of “Did they really say that?”. Today’s candidate is Engineering.

Backdrop

About 2 year ago, a product we had was struggling do to the lack of a major capability. Marketing had always pointed out that this capability was missing, as it locked us out of about 80% of the TAM.

A program was undertaken to add this to the project as quickly as possible. Since it was to be a “rush” project, we didn’t use the program as an opportunity to reduce the costs, making a conscious decision that time to market was more important.

Fast forward

Today, 2 years and 4 months after the “start” of this 3 month program, we are still struggling. Granted, the architecture and base design of our system made this feature a challenge, but somehow a 3 month development program turned into 27 months, multiple missed milestones, an acquisition of a technology partner (ostensibly to “speed” time to market), and we are still not done yet.

In the timeline, we had defined a 3 month “beta test”, and had negotiated with two ideal partners who were excited to get access to the technology early. They were originally scheduled to receive their bets instruments in March 2014.

March of course came and went.

Then the date was June. Definitely, absolutely, positively June.

Of course June 30 came and went.

The next date was August. The 15th to be precise. Engineering, and production both swore up and down that that would be the date.

What happened? You guessed it, August 15th came and went. Marketing stopped making promises to the beta partners. Fortunately, both were understanding beyond belief, but you get to a point where your credibility is shot to hell.

We have had definite, positively can’t slip deadlines of September, November, end of the calendar year, and other dates, all agreed to, and all missed.

We are at a point where we have customer orders that we have shipped, or need to ship (sold without demo or even seeing the system in action), and the beta systems have become first commercial shipments, and first revenue systems.

The last beta system will ship this coming Friday (Feb 27th) to Asia to be our demo instrument, and we are planning on squeezing the local beta test to an afternoon this coming week of inviting the beta partner in. Essentially, the plan for 90 days of beta testing and feedback, possibly reworking any gross issues found, and hammering on the software before launch is gone, and we are going to just ship it.

The Stupid thing

In the weekly meeting, when we were discussing the elimination of the beta test, the R&D manager had the audacity (the balls) to say: “Beta testing is really just a luxury”

Sigh, this product manager knows that to skip beta testing is the equivalent of banana product launch. Releasing an unready product and letting it ripen in the field. And nobody is happy with that.

Coda

I wrote this and scheduled it a couple of weeks ago. All was on track, but alas, that was not to be. Tuesday evening, in the last phases of testing, some anomalous behaviors were observed. Upon a safe shutdown, a quick inspection showed a high voltage power supply was burned to a crisp.Oops, I guess we aren’t going be shipping on Friday after all.

Product Management

Looking to the Past

The Dude went to a trade show this week, not a newsworthy item in itself, but he was able to reconnect with a lot of old colleagues and friends.

A job the Dude left in 2009 due to grossly incompetent management, he left behind two major developments. One, a new product offering that was a blend of technology, and “good enough” capability to expand the market, the second was a transition in the architecture of the product control software.

The Dude carefully crafted both sets of requirements to prevent engineering from screwing them up. He was halfway successful…

The hardware

At the time, the company had a new platform. It was kick ass, world beating technology in their space. The problem: It was overkill for the vast majority of the market, and the price was out of reach.

The concept was simple, take the fundamentals, reduce the specs, substitute some adequate, but much much cheaper hardware, and it becomes a general purpose, large audience system.

The MRD was crafted to ensure that engineering didn’t back out of the task (they hated not designing at the bleeding edge) at hand.

The Dude noted the launch, but since he was on to another company, and another industry altogether, he never got to see it up close.

This week he got to lay his hands on it. Wow. He even got to look under the hood. Son of a bitch, they did what he asked, and it is a thing of beauty.

Of course, the marketing team that took over couldn’t help but fuck it all up. They added bells and whistles to it until it is almost as expensive as its bigger brother. Now there is no low cost product, and the difference in price between the high end and this “affordable” model is small.

Sigh.

The Software

When the Dude worked there, the main control package was ancient. It was a DOS program that someone migrated into a Win32 application in the mid 1990’s (it originally ran on Windows NT 3.51 for the true geeks) and it was a mess. About 2005, he convinced management that it was time to architect a new platform. The duct tape and bondo that kept being applied to this long past its prime application was just not cutting it.

A ground up rewrite, with a truly segmented, layered approach and full 64 bit clean code (as our data sets were often approaching the limit of a 32 bit world) was approved.

Late in the project, and too close to the time that the Dude said “Fuck it, I’m out” the UI got serious attention. There were provisional interfaces, but it was almost identical to the original UI, designed for the time when 800×600 SVGA was the state of the art in computer monitors.

The Dude got the acting VP/GM (who was also the Executive VP) to agree to bring in a consultant to guide the process. Truth was, the EVP had worked with a few UI consultants over the years, and was on board with the idea, not too much selling involved.

But they went cheap. Very cheap. Since it wasn’t the Dude’s problem anymore, he just stepped away.

What they developed and launched? Well, it sucked. Frankly, it looks like a ADHD squirrel wrote it. Workflow is clumsy, the analyses are hidden and hard to find. It isn’t intuitive, and it takes longer to do simple tasks that the older software.

This makes the Dude sad. A chance to really make a world class application, to be the benchmark, turned into a turd.

Reflections

As a product manager, you often kick off a program, giving it the best start possible. However, success requires a steady hand during the development and implementation, with minor course corrections to ensure that things don’t go too far off track.

The Dude has been a few places, and he is proud of his “children” but it does hurt to see how they went wrong.

Product Management

Executive Handling – A product management specialty

One truth that the Dude has always observed is that there is a disconnect between the reality on the ground, and the executive staff.

He likes to label this the Executive Delusion Syndrome. Its most common manifestation is in the complete denial of reality on the ground. The building can be on fire, sales can zero out, and the engineering team is in a foetal position sucking its thumb, and they will project that all is well, business is growing and, and we are on track for our product releases.

Standing outside the fray, this detachment is impressive. The executive projects confidence, and competence, even when the shit is hitting the fan.

However, all to often the shim between the executive is the product manager (or equivalent). They live halfway in the tactical, and halfway in the strategic realm. They have to deal with cost overruns, program slips, petty personality issues, and conflicts between groups (the absolute worst are the tensions between production/manufacturing and R&D.)

The product manager can’t shield herself from all the bad that is happening. They have to stand up and take it head on. They have to babysit, wheedle, cajole, and in general be the peacekeeper. They have to balance feature reductions versus schedule slip.

And they have to feed the executives so that they can put on the happy face.

The hardest part: Sitting in a meeting where the executive is presenting the state of the business to his boss, and keeping a straight face when they knowingly mislead the higher executives.

There is a personal toll that this takes on the product manager though. Her sanity gets frayed, and the stress if off the chart.

All the responsibility, and no authority rings true. If you can’t handle your executives, and keep your sanity, you might not be product management material.

Product Management

Screwed up priorities – OEM Business and a normal business

The Dude is sitting in a strange place. His business is buried in a business unit that has a long (he means looooooooog) history of OEM business. Being a techie/product dude, the Dude finds the behaviors of his cohabitors odd for many reasons.

The OEM Business is Different

In the depths of time (probably more than 30 years ago) this product group was invited into a supplier agreement by a company that was integrating a bigger system. They had a crucial technology, were the world leaders in this technology, and the attractiveness of a predictable forecast was compelling.

So they went on down to the crossroads and sold their soul to the devil that is OEM land. They traded autonomy, and flexibility, for predictability and run rate forecasting.

At the time, life was good. Orders came in, unit volumes grew, and a good time was had by all.

However, one insidious thing began. Instead of Marketing doing market research to identify trends to chase, and what segments looked promising, their customer became more insistent.

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Product Management

The Best Intentions

The Dude this morning really really intended to have a productive day. He had created a “to-do” list, chocked full of big awesome tasks.

But the derailing began early. First was a quarter start forecast review with sales. As expected, the last quarter was a disaster, and nobody was contrite for being at 35% of plan.

Then a partner in crime (another product manager) cornered me to commiserate about how on the eve of shipping a beta unit to a beta partner, it pretty much blew up, and needed to be rebuilt (this program was to improve the reliability and performance of said product).

Following that was a 30 minute meeting to discuss with the VP/GM the past performance and the outlook for the next quarter.

That took an hour and 20 minutes, and some delicious squirming by sales (who had to admit that it wasn’t marketing’s fault that they sucked).

Slam down lunch, head out to pick up a prescription that had been waiting for me for a week.(the total lunch break works out to barely 30 minutes, errand included)

1:00 and then a steady stream of people to my desk.

  • What about this configuration for a computer (engineer)
  • We need to talk about specs for this new program (R&D scientist)
  • We need to have a special configuration for a donation to a university (intern and tech partner)
  • A product that is not going to launch for 8 months needs to have the Oracle configuration entered (ERP specialist)

Suddenly it is 3:40PM, and NOT ONE ITEM on my To Do list is done.

Last 90 minutes I:

  • Wrote the quarterly order narrative
  • Put together a tentative schedule for a week of training
  • Review the collateral for the new marketing program
  • Forward collateral to the WW sales team.

4 out of 12 items done. A typical Dude day. In at 7:15AM out at 5:45PM

Product Management

Sales (lack of) Performance

Something that has confounded the Dude repeatedly throughout his career is the deference paid to sales, particularly when they completely miss their numbers.

This quarter is a classic case. Beginning of the quarter, sales “committed” to $10M in bookings. A little aggressive in the Dude’s mind, but nobody held a gun to their head forcing them to say yes.

The Dude, owner of marketing, and hence the “leads” knew that target meant that all the opportunities in the funnel had to swing our way. But the Dude had an open mind. Sales often has a lot of soft sandbag that they can use to magically make quota, so the Dude wasn’t worried.

However, as the quarter progressed, and orders fell out of the funnel, the situation became dire. It looked like we would miss, and not by a little.

The quarter closed yesterday, and we finished at 40% of plan.

ouch

Of course, this isn’t a sudden surprise, we had been tracking and triangulating throughout the quarter. But the usual excuses and scapegoats are being trotted out in abundance.

  • The “Glengarry Glen Ross” excuse – The leads were weak. Yep, they went there. Truth is the marketing team has greatly reduced the noise in the leads, handing better qualified leads directly to the sales team.
  • The economy. Again, a nice try, but this tired trope is wearing thin. 3 years ago there was a valid excuse, but the funding, and sales for our products is rising consistently throughout the world. In fact, our competitors have not had this shortfall.
  • The products are tired and outdated. BZZT thanks for playing, but we have new, better products across the board. Unfortunately, instead of highlighting that, and selling the strength of our story, you have consistently fallen back on the legacy products, and relying on deep discounting as the easy solution.

In short, the team committed to far more than they could achieve. We will have a very bad quarter, and the factory will suffer (belt tightening, or even reductions in force)

Will the sales team be impacted? Likely not. Unfortunately, the Dude’s experience has shown that sales is rarely held accountable for their failure to perform. But the Dude can dream.

Product Management

Big Companies – the Lorentz Transform of programs

The Dude works in a big company. This is OK, as he knows how to deal with the politics and the various eccentricities that come with the territory. That doesn’t mean he isn’t at times completely frustrated.

Startups have one huge benefit. Often a single product or service, and everybody focused on success, that truly amazing results can be accomplished in very short time scales.

However, once you add a second product or service, the rate of progress begins to slow. You need to decide how to focus resources, and where the investment is best.

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Product Management

Business Disasters – The Botched Acquisition

The Dude has seen some dooseys in his days, but he has been digging through a whopper of epic proportions.

Acquisitions are a favorite mechanism by management to increase their domain. However, when doing an acquisition it is quite possible, or even quite likely to handle it poorly.

The Dude has seen many acquisitions that he has shaken his head at. Poor alignment, no synergy, picked the wrong company to acquire, all of these at various times.

However, the tale for today is an acquisition that was a good fit, a complementary technology, and for once, a good choice in the field.

So what went wrong?

Read More

Product Management

Why you want a single Engineering Leader

I know the Dude said he was going to tone it down, but he has dealt with some idiocy in just the last two days that demand a venting session.

In the Dude’s business group (3 product lines, a mix of OEM and commercial products), there is an “odd” structure. Where most companies have a single head of R&D or engineering, we don’t. Instead, we have a head of Mechanical, a head of Electrical, a head of Software and a head of Optical engineering. It is a matrix organization, where each group acts as contractors for major projects.

Marketing (me) gets to define these programs and projects, and then the respective group does their thing. For some programs, this works well. Particularly well defined OEM programs where the savvy customer is crystal clear on what is success. You get reams of documentation, almost too much, and you know what is expected when, and how much you agreed it will cost.

But of course, for a non-OEM program, life isn’t so easy. We in marketing gather and draft requirements, and bring the program to the table. That is all normal and good.

And that is where the shit hits the fan. Since all disciplines are commonly needed, and often a heavier lift from SW, ME, and EE, those groups immediately begin the blame game.

  • Unfair assignment of tasks. EE’s in particular seem to think that the SW team should be circuit designers. But all groups hedge and sandbag.
  • Lack of ownership. With 4 heads in the room, and not one “owner”, you can imagine that the round table circle jerk is the principal dance. So much finger pointing, you would swear that their digits would fall off.
  • The blame game. When (not if) something comes off the rails, even if it is something so obvious (like the EE’s designed a board with a connector wired backwards), the blame starts flying. Hoo boy, get the popcorn out and watch the fireworks. You can sit in the corner of the office and watch the chaos dissipate through the building.

Ultimately, our executive is the one that needs to arbitrate the conflict. But he is loathe to. In fact, I think he likes to keep the engineering team unbalanced.

The fallout

As you can imagine, the Dude sucks it up, tries to broker peace between the warring faction, and wonders if anybody else has this particular brand of crazy in the office.

One ultimate result is that programs are never on time and on budget.

It is important to have a single leader who is responsible for all aspects of the engineering team, one person who has the authority to “get shit done”. Without that, herding cats is an easier vocation.

Dude-ness/ Product Management

Time to turn down the lights

The Dude is facing a difficult decision. What to do with The PM Dude blog. As his role has changed, and his responsibilities expanded far beyond the scope of merely product management or product marketing, he finds it difficult to keep the flame alive.

Not that there aren’t asinine things happening in product management land that the Dude experiences, but in his new-ish role, he needs to step back, and provide a wider canvas to view, instead of the narrow focus of product management.

What does this mean?

The near term is that posting frequency will go down. The Dude knows that the last year has seen the fewest posts, but some hard hitting ones. He enjoys the snarky, biting commentary about the zaniness in engineering, or the privilege of the sales team, but it takes time to write, and time is what the Dude is lacking the most of.

The longer term? The PM Dude blog will probably be mothballed. The Dude has several web properties, so he will keep the hosting alive indefinitely, but long term, it will become more of a static resource.

Open to ideas

The Product Management and Product Marketing world is well served with consultants, and “positive messaging” blogs that paint the profession in a positive light. All nice and dandy, but, like all professions, there are a lot of hidden hijinks and mayhem that confounds the newly inducted, and those who toil away, wondering why it isn’t all “Unicorns and two drink minimums”.

If you are interested in a guest post (anonymous or with your real name attached), drop the Dude an email. Likewise if you just want to shoot the breeze.

It has been a fun 4 years as The PM Dude, but time rolls on.