Why Politicians Are Like Users

Undoubtedly, when you read the title of this blog post, you thought, "But politicians are users." No, I'm not talking about that kind of user. Instead, I'm thinking of the user we normally discuss around these parts, the kind of person whom product managers and product marketers try to understand, but often don't. 

The 10Questions Project posed questions from salt-of-the-earth, ordinary folk to California senatorial candidates Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer. It's a noble failure, a change of medium that had no discernible effect on the quality of message. The candidates' answers are exactly the sort of vague, high-level statements that are more about sentiment (what candidates hint they might do) than policy (what they'd actually do).

These frustrating YouTube snippets resemble the kind of bad answers that users often give when PMs ask them questions like, "So, what would you like to see in the next release?" The reasons for the uselessness of the answers are the same, too:

  • The questions.
  • The channel through which they're answered.
  • The lack of follow-up.
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SAS Shows How Thought Leadership Is The Art Of The Possible

Yesterday, I was talking with members of the SAS government team about recent developments, such as the state of their business, acquisitions (here's my take on one of those companies), and success stories. I was very, very happy that they wanted to devote the majority of time on the success stories, since you often get more insight from discussing how customers are using technology than running through the list of new features and functions.

Funny thing, that's exactly the conclusion of our research on thought leadership: If you want to be a thought leader, talk about how you've made people successful. Actually, there are more aspects of thought leadership, but success stories are a good place to start. Not only do they illustrate how a vendor can contribute to a project, but they also identify the types of projects worth pursuing.

SAS is involved in well-established, well-understood government activities, such as preventing fraud in corporate tax collection and social programs. It's also involved in far less established and understood areas, such as nipping new cybersecurity threats in the bud and dealing with recent IT requirements for health care. Not only are governments trying to figure out how to fit technology into their strategies for dealing with these new challenges, they're still figuring out the strategies.

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For ISVs, Technical Debt Is A Serious Business Issue

When you were a child, you may have played with a paper fortune teller (a.k.a. cootie catcher). By folding and unfolding this origami-like construct, you produced answers for questions you posed.

The topic of technical debt is a lot like the paper fortune teller: the more you unfold the topic, the more interesting observations emerge. Israel Gat wrote two recent posts (click here and here) at his blog, The Agile Executive, that illustrate the sort of costs that technical debt imposes. His second post focuses on the most conspicuous cost: The more you develop, heedless of the technical debt you create, the harder and harder it becomes to make further changes. While this may seem like an obvious conclusion, it's not one that has the impact on software development that it should. In their rush into the future, building code that is supposed to expand choices, many teams are actually constraining their choices.

For ISVs, technical debt has a lot of important ramifications. Here are just a few:

  • For startups, aggressive product road maps can be counterproductive. The more you develop, the more competitive your product, right? That formula seems obvious to most insurgent vendors, but there's definitely a point of diminishing marginal returns, when the cost of maintaining all that aggressively-developed code exceeds the company's ability to continue developing and supporting it. 
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IBM Shows Why Tech Companies Should Take Serious Games Seriously

IBM recently launched CityOne, a serious game that poses the kinds of questions about water, power, finance, and retail that city planners face daily. It's a powerful tool for a B2B company like IBM to market its products and services in a way that engages the customer more deeply, making the company's value proposition more clear and compelling. 

IBM has been making a serious investment in serious games for quite a while. Here's a short interview with IBM's serious games program manager Phaedra Boinodiris, in which she lists some of the business applications of serious games. Here's a brief overview of the work IBM has done with USC to incorporate a serious game about business process management (BPM) into the USC business school's curriculum.

The BPM game, INNOV8, demonstrated that a serious game can translate a dry and complex subject like BPM into something more interesting and vivid. It appeals to human psychology in a way that even the best white paper can't. Humans are visual creatures, so it's often more effective to show us a principle in action rather than talk about it. A serious game like INNOV8 pushes other buttons in our brains, too. For example, there's a higher probability that someone will finish playing a game than reading a white paper. If the game succeeds at keeping your attention, you want to see it through its conclusion.

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Twitter: It's Like Catnip For Social Media Mavens

Obviously, as a regular blogger, I think social media are the cat's meow. However, when I use social media, I don't lapse into that blissed-out state that cats enjoy when they bust open a jar of catnip. Your experience may be different:

If you believe that Twitter is of net-benefit for the world, and only someone who hasn't used it much would say otherwise, then what's good for Twitter is good for the rest of us, too. Costolo's adventures with the last world-changing messaging system he [led] may have worked out better for himself than for the rest of us in the long run, but his work at Twitter so far has been key at building staying power for this new, more accessible way for people around the world to speak with each other.

That's the concluding paragraph from a ReadWriteWeb story about Twitter's new CEO. It's just the sort of gushy, overblown statement that plays well in the pocket universe of people with a vested interested in social media using social media to sign hosannas on the highest about social media. Outside the pocket universe, it's just the sort of hyperbolic prose that makes people who are on the fence about Twitter, who don't necessarily see it as good for the rest of us, nervous that anything sold that hard must not be as good as advertised. For people who still look at their email inbox with despair, Twitter may be one more channel of communication that they don't need.

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Doing Research In An Agile Fashion: A Retrospective

Our first application of Agile principles to the research process, which occurred during our study of thought leadership in the tech industry, was a very Agile-esque journey into the unknown. We learned a great deal that applies to future applications of Agile Research Development, so here's my retrospective.

You Can Be Agile Up To The Boundaries Of What You Control
Ultimately, you control only part of the value stream. This maxim holds true wherever you apply Agile, and software developers learn this principle right away. You can be the most disciplined developer imaginable, never checking in code that doesn't work, always building in tests, and still be at the mercy of your own QA team. And even if the larger team, including testers, works in blissful harmony, someone needs to deploy the code on a live system. (Which is why dev ops is receiving a lot of attention from within the Agile community these days. See Jez Humble's recent book for a good example.)

If a stream is an appropriate metaphor for value creation and delivery, then this stream always takes many twists and turns, frequently encountering dams and obstructions. The success of Agile, therefore, depends to a great extent on eliminating these kinks, navigating around them, or learning to accept them as part of the value stream's trajectory. 

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