Monthly Archives: April 2008

Where’s the fire?

It has been quite some time. I wanted to give Drew’s comments some thought before responding, but the gap has more to do with sleep deprivation than soul searching.

I thought I’d look at what kind of companies are driven by the sales process. From my experience, these are companies that are typically either consulting companies, start-ups with few clients, or large products that depend on a small number of very large deals.

Consulting companies are a no-brainer. If you don’t succeed in the sales process, you have no deal, no money. Ideally, salespeople work to build long term relationships, but it doesn’t always happen. These are also the cases where I’ve seen annual budgets come into play on the client’s side. A client may have a limited budget for a period of time, typically the fiscal year, and they are going to use a significant part of it on professional services for the proposed engagement. This makes them feel like they need every feature they can possibly imagine delivered over the course of the engagement. Their rationale is that if they don’t get it during the 3 or 4 months they’re paying for consultants, they will have to wait until the next time budget cycle. Of course, most of the engagements I’ve seen have been waterfall and not iterative. That would be one way to address the concern.

For start-ups with few clients, the need for revenue and to please these few clients and partners often leads to acquiescing to many demands. I’ve been on the partner side in the past, where I’ve heard it said that the risk of working with a new company is often offset by the price and the ability to dramatically impact the product development. This can also happen with companies whose product management or product vision has not quite matured.

Large, expensive products often have long sales cycles and sell fewer licenses per year. The power of these deals often can exert significant influence over the product design in order to satisfy the customer. I’ve also seen product companies with no strong user experience expertise engage with clients with no strong user experience expertise. As you can imagine, this resulted in the product company having a list of clients that their sales people were not allowed to reference because the implementations were so poor. If they were asked about one of these clients, there was a canned response they gave and then dropped the subject.

For companies with mature product management and many smaller companies, it seems less likely that any single customer will exert enough influence to significantly effect the design. So why are there the same problems? In my comment, I hypothesized that these organizations are still choosing to develop/refine features based on existing knowledge, rather than spend time validating or performing new research. Why is that? Are we really under the pressure we think we are? How important is the first-mover advantage?

One of my favorite examples is from the removable hard drive war. At the time, Syquest was the clear leader in the space. When most people still used 1.4mb floppy disks, Syquest offered 44 and 88 megabyte cartridges. They were large, but they worked well. Then along comes the Iomega Zip Drive in 1994. It was fast. It was cheap. It held 100megs in a fraction of the space of a Syquest disk. It was also a piece of crap, and yet four years later, Syquest filed for bankruptcy. So it would seem that being first means a lot.

On the other hand, we’ve got Apple’s iPhone. Launched in 2007, it was late to the game. Smartphones had been around for anywhere from 5 to 14 years, depending on what you consider the first one. Little more than a year later, it is the most widely used mobile browser in the US. That may not be a measure of financial success, but clearly, they have put out a product that has changed the way the mobile computing experience is measured.**

So where’s the fire? Or more importantly, is there a fire? Should we rush to market like Iomega or take a slow and careful approach like Apple? Which approach do you prefer? Have you experienced both? What do you think are other salient success stories? Jason at 37Signals thinks urgency is poison. What do you think?

**Disclosure: I don’t yet use an iPhone. I’m patiently waiting for the next version.

I Forgot!!! Happy Cheese Weasel Day!

This is a bit off topic, but April 3rd is Cheese Weasel Day. This is one of my favorite holidays. Read on.

Unknown to most, April 3rd is Cheese Weasel Day, the holiday where the Cheese Weasel brings dairy goodness to all the good boys and girls in the tech industry. While the origins are murky, it seems to have started around 1992 when a weasel was spotted carrying a Kraft Single. This, they assumed, must be the Cheese Weasel, and therefore, that it must be Cheese Weasel Day. What was the weasel going to do with the cheese? He must be off to put it under the keyboards of good tech workers everywhere.

The practice of the holiday seems to spread through word of mouth. I first heard of it when I showed up to work on April 3rd many years ago and a fantastic spread of exotic cheeses was laid out in the middle of the office. It wasn’t until a few hours later, after the food coma had started to wear down, that I started to think about the legend, “The Cheese Weasel leaves cheese under the keyboards of good tech workers… cheese under the keyboards… keyboards.” I looked, and there was a cheese single, still wrapped. I wonder how long it would have lasted had I not found it.

The holiday does seem to be growing. Each year, more and more sites show up with a reference to the holiday or the song (yes, there is a song). One site even offers Cheese Weasel Day (CWD) ecards. The methods of celebration vary. Some prefer to celebrate with the best cheeses and freshest baguettes, while others eschew that practice and insist on keeping with the tradition of cheese food singles.

For many years, I brought cheese to my office on CWD, but this year, I forgot. I will make amends soon, and you can too. Spread the joy of dairy goodness!

Thanks to John @ crunchgear for reminding me.

Pointing the Finger

The problem is sales! (well, inheritance, but it’s not as catchy, so I’ll say sales. See this post for more.) Is this because sales people are a bunch of greedy, selfish, blood sucking leeches? Occasionally, but mostly not. Most salespeople worth their frequent flier miles do have some regard for the organizations they work for and the people who will ultimately deliver what they have sold.

I think there are two primary issues. The first is explained by the old adage, “you get what you measure,” which could be modified for salespeople as, “you get what you pay for.” How are these people typically compensated? Usually, their pay is tied to a percentage of the selling price. So they are incented to sell as much work as possible for as high a price as possible. Nothing in there about project success. There are a few places that do compensate based on customer satisfaction, but few look at the long term success of the project. No one hangs around that long. Can you imagine how things would change if a person’s commission was based on client satisfaction, on-time delivery, the final margin, and whether the project met the long term business goals set out in the beginning of the project?

That leads us to the second cause, which I believe is historically long delivery cycles. People are used to long waits in between releases. If it will be a year or more before changes can be made, you better believe I’m going to try and get every feature I can into this release. The irony is that most of these features aren’t used. Jim Johnson of the Standish Group noted that 64 percent of the features in a typical system are rarely or never used. (1) On the one hand, that boggles my mind, but on the other, I’m not surprised. Just think of how much faster the next release would come if you didn’t have to design and build that 64% of features that will hardly see the gentle click of the mouse.

Here’s the rub. Given a fixed time and budget, the more features I want, the less time I have to spend VERIFYING THAT THESE ARE THE RIGHT FEATURES TO BUILD! Let’s follow the logic. The longer it is between releases, the more I need done now. The more I need done now, the less time I have to validate that what I’m doing really solves my users’ problems. I’m starting to wonder if it’s much more than 64% that goes unused. We know intuitively that less is more, but now we attach a business value to it.

The latter is one of those problems that agile/iterative/lean/etc. development is intended to solve. You get less, but at regular intervals.

That begs the question of how can exert influence when we are fighting a poorly conceived compensation structure and the weight of years of experience? Thoughts?

(1) Johnson, “ROI, It’s Your Job.”