A while back, I had a spirited exchange with someone who took a rather extreme position about the role of product management in software as a service companies. The less polite version: He staked out a silly position – just poll your customers about what to build, and eliminate the PM role altogether – so I felt obliged to refute it. With two additional years of research into SaaS and PM, it's worth returning to that contretemps for a moment.
Then, I argued that PM was necessary in SaaS ventures.
Now, it's clear that PM is not merely necessary but essential.
Product Managers Are Really Innovation Managers
If the sole responsibility of PM were requirements, as my foil assumed, a poll might replace a person, but only if you had no interest in the long-term success of your company. Polls are extremely useful tools, and it's far better to use them than not to. However, polls have their limitations: most obviously, as a tool for taking the temperature of the customers you have, they tell you absolutely nothing about the customers you don't have yet.
[As promised, here's the first in the series about the tech industry's drive to reduce complexity.]
Remember the magic number? It's the one thing from Psych 101 that you should recall, since it pertains to memory. The brain has an upper limit on the number of chunks of new data it can stuff into working memory at one time. The number is around seven, plus or minus one or two depending on the person and the task. It's the limitation that makes the old game Simon challenging, and that bedevils us when we try to remember a phone number that someone just told us.
The magic number is one way in which the human brain tries to trim down complexity. Another more recent discovery is the brain's fuzzy boundary between literal and metaphorical statements. Attach a candidate's resume to a heavy clipboard instead of a light one, and the interviewer is more likely to treat the candidate seriously, because the resume seems somehow weightier.
Countless other examples exist where the brain takes shortcuts, filters information, and otherwise simplifies the constant, complex stream of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions that would otherwise turn into a "blooming, buzzing confusion." We're not stupid creatures, but the machine that grants us powerful mental capabilities also puts limits on them.
The Death Star Would Be Great If I Could Figure Out What All These Buttons Do
Ever since I got an iPad, I've been eager for the update to the upgrade to the iOS4 operating system that premiered on the iPhone months ago. The ease of use of the iPad erodes, grain by grain, with each app that you add to it, as long as you're forced to keep sweeping across page after page of apps. Organizing apps into functional groups across pages is a tedious process. After a while, you really feel the need for folders to organize your apps more effectively.
Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when iTunes froze as soon as I launched it. It was the start of yet another chapter in the story of my hate-hate relationship with iTunes, because of its unstoppable bloat and accompanying seizures. With every major update, iTunes grows another layer of fat, causing more frequent electronic coronaries when it needs to run (or waddle) through its paces. I can't say I was surprised that iTunes froze, forcing me to reinstall it (the software equivalent of sending someone to fat camp?) before I could get it working again.
Here, from a single company, on a single desktop, is the history of the tech industry's problems with complexity. A device that is consummately simple to use, the iPad, is handcuffed, like a slender Sidney Poitier to a morbidly obese Tony Curtis, to iTunes. As Apple keeps jamming more of its business plan, in the form of new features (Genius, Ping, etc.) and new content (anything that could be described as "released" or "published"), iTunes swells to ever-increasing levels of complexity.
A recent conversation with executives from Clarizen, a software company in the work/project/task management realm, shows how profoundly SaaS can change the innovation process in technology companies. However, you won't get the most beneficial changes unless you're willing to make an investment.
During our briefing, I asked the CEO of Clarizen, Avinoam Nowogrodski, and the VP of Marketing, Sharon Vardi, whether being a SaaS vendor made it any easier to resolve the sort of questions that vex technology vendors. Their response: "Of course it does."
Here's one of those vexing questions: Why don't more customers move from a pilot to full adoption? The usual first answers blame someone else's department for the disappointing conversion rate: Your product stinks. Your leads stink. Your salespeople stink.
Round-robin finger-pointing like this thrives in an informational vacuum. If the only hard fact available is the conversion rate, marketing can accuse sales of presumed incompetence; sales can claim that the current bug count might have an effect on customer satisfaction; development can claim that it's bogged down in too many special requests from strategic customers; and so on.
During last August's Agile 2010 conference, I attended a session that used a board game to simulate the collaboration between developers and UX professionals. The object of the game was to coordinate the schedules of these two groups, who normally follow the beats of different metronomes. On top of that basic timing challenge, unexpected events complicated this dance between development and UX.
While this session does show a novel application of serious gaming (one of my favorite topics, in case you hadn't noticed), the interesting aspect of this session is that it happened at all. Until recently, UX was not a major concern for Agilists – or most people developing software, for that matter. The phrase, "And then we'll throw a UI on top of it," summarized the indifference of all too many development teams to UX concerns.
In the last few years, many teams have learned a new attitude. Instead of treating UX as a tarpaulin, thrown over the application to clumsily hold it all together, UX is as much a part of the system as the technical architecture or the application logic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Believe it or not, that was a piece of "advice" that I discovered while trying to fix a problem with Google Chrome. The question was about a browser, but the answer was about an operating system. It was clearly not helpful, at least in dealing with my immediate problem.
On the other hand, pseudo-advice like that is very useful if you want to understand the state of the technology industry in 2010. It's the subject of this autobiographical psychodrama that I might entitle, Personal Computers Are Not Appliances. If you decide to read on, let me warn you: it's a terrifying tale of reasonable people at the mercy of unreasonable levels of complexity and unreliability. During this exposition, you'll encounter interesting characters like the Apple iPad, Google's business plan (of sorts), Marc Benioff, and our evil cat Kelly.
When Chrome Lost Its Shine
Yesterday morning was crunch time at stately Grant Manor. The quarter was coming to a swift end, which meant all kinds of deadlines for research documents, expense reports, client projects, and a variety of other tasks. Regular activities, such as phone calls with technology companies about their latest product and service offerings, still happen during these hyper-busy periods, when time becomes so compressed that it fails to serve its basic purpose of, in the words of Richard Feynman, preventing everything from happening all at once.