Friday, September 3, 2010

The Value of the Startup Product Manager

I'm a big fan of Steve Blank. I think he is spot on about the Customer Development model in startups. I regularly read his blog and have read his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany.

That said, he posted recently about speaking at the Silicon Valley Product Management Association, and, from what I can tell, he's missing the point about product management in a startup environment.

He is correct that in many ways, product management in a startup is drastically different than product management in a larger organization. However, those differences are surface-level details, more the deliverables of product management than the actual purpose of product management.

Product managers are experts at collating all the information sources that come into an organization about a product, filtering out the meaningless information, and ensuring good decisions get made based on objective facts and not subjective feelings.

Many (if not most) startup founders are emotional, passionate people. They make decisions based on what feels right, and those instincts serve them well to get a company started. As Blank knows, though, listening to those instincts over a long period of time instead of getting objective will cause problems. That is, after all, the whole point of "getting out there" in Customer Development.

So here is my list of what a startup product manager does:
  1. Ensures decisions being made by the founders are consistent and in-line with the current goals of the company and not because the founders saw something shiny.
  2. Extrapolates and defines the actual market from the individuals being talked to because, no matter how much the founders may believe it, everybody is not a market.
  3. Ensures a product is being produced instead of a bunch of closely related code by monitoring user experience, evaluating final fit-and-finish, and driving organizational release readiness among others.
  4. Balances the passion of the founders with the rationality of getting a product ready for a market.
  5. Maintains the development backlog, keeping things out of development that don't belong there and making sure the things that do belong there get done (see #3).
And that is what your startup's product manager does. He is not a secretary setting up customer appointments for the founders; he brings discernment to a murky environment and order to chaos. And that is why you should hire product management first.

To be fair, I did not see the presentation at the SVPA and am going off what I'm inferring from his blog post. I also know I am overstating the comment on being a secretary, but this is the blogosphere, so it's OK, right?

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Night at the Museum" at a Toy Factory - Quickly Framing Your Product

I just published an article for the day-job blog about Paramount losing an email message that discusses films they have in development.

I love the way movies initially get pitched, and I think there is a lot for product people (whether product managers or entrepreneurs) to learn from it. Today's topic is the high concept, which originated with a need to pack as much punch as possible into two lines of text in TV Guide back when it was a dead tree and space mattered. [1]

Robert Kosberg wrote,
The essence of high concept is that it is both brief and provocative. It piques the imagination and promises that big things are going to happen out of an ordinary situation.
And we even see a few high concepts in Paramount's email:
  • "Night at the Museum" at a Toy Factory
  • Fugitive meets Taken
  • Oceans 11 Years Old [2]
If you are familiar with movies, you now have a good idea what these movies are about.

If you are trying to bring a new product into the market, comparing yourself to a known entity will give the listener a lot of context that you can begin altering to describe your product. You leverage the marketing the 800 pound gorilla has done to your advantage.

See how much information one sentence can give you?
  • It's like Siebel hosted for you in the cloud.
  • It's like Powerpoint with one big slide.
But we can do better. Neither of these are very provocative. The cloud doesn't really say anything. One slide doesn't even sound appealing. In either case, we aren't really piqued.

Let's try again:
  • It's like Siebel, but we have to deal with the bearded guys in the data center.
  • It's like Powerpoint from a helicopter instead of a 70's slide projector.
Well, I think they are more compelling, anyway.

I'd love to hear your product's high concept. Put it in the comments or tweet them using #prodmgmt #concept tags.

[1] There are a lot of conflicting opinions on what High Concept really means. I'm going with the definition from the provided link based off its etymology.

[2] Oceans 11 Years Old - a heist movie featuring middle school kids.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Product Management Elevator Pitch

Tondin Banks asked this recently:

What's the elevator explanation for what YOU do as a product manager?

Every product manager I've met has problems answering this question, and the answers tend to vary depending on who you are talking to. How many times have you answered cynically:
What do I do? Well, I'm a janitor, mopping up messes created by people in order to get a polished tur...umm...product out the door. Sometimes I babysit, sometimes I whine, sometimes I threaten, sometimes I cry myself to sleep. If I'm really lucky, I find enough time to talk to customers and figure out what color polish they want.
Doesn't really portray product management (and, therefore, you) in the best light, does it? I thinking Tondin was right in asking about the elevator pitch. Remember, an elevator pitch is a 30-60 second spiel (the amount of time it takes an elevator to get from one floor to another) meant to get somebody to invest or buy. In this case, you are trying to get them to invest in you and in product management.

My job is to figure out what it will take to make customers and potential customers delighted, then make sure it happens.

While that may work for a tweet, it isn't really an elevator pitch. Remember, you are trying to sell your personal value and the value of product management here.

What do you do?
I am a product manager, but what that really means is that I produce software. Just like a producer in the entertainment business, my job is to understand what the consumer is going to buy, make sure that it gets built, and ensure it is done for a profit. I am the hub of the software development process, making sure the right people are given the right information to do their jobs, whether that is listening to customers and potential customers, teaching sales about who the buyers are, providing requirements to development and QA, or collating feedback from support. I know that I've succeeded, not by my software being successfully delivered (after all, that could be done by a project manager), but rather by customers buying, using and loving that software.
How do you describe what you do?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Changing the World

Will your product change the world?

Every product manager should be asking this question. I don't mean will everybody in the world use your product. Instead, will the people who use your product have their world changed (in a positive way!!) as a result of using your product?

But my product is a boring, enterprise product with no possibility of being exciting.

Well, with an attitude like that...

But more importantly, even if that is the case, you can still change the world for your customers. You can put in the extra effort involved in understanding their key pains and find solutions for them. I can guarantee you are changing their world for the negative if you aren't trying for the positive!

Who knows, changing your customer's world may free up enough time for them to get out there and really change the world!

Monday, June 28, 2010

From the Intrawebs - June 28

I haven't had much time this month for reading or writing as I've settled into the new responsibilities. That should change as I get some of the critical things-that-must-be-done-yesterday finished.

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What's New

Worth Reading

Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bringing Out Your Inner Extrovert - How to Make the Most of Conferences

Conferences have been a favorite of marketing for a long time, with good reason. There are few places where you can find such a concentrated grouping of potential customers ready to talk about your products. The more closely aligned your business is to the conference, the higher the concentration. What a great way to get targeted leads!

Many of the product managers I speak with look at conferences differently. Instead of being lead generation factories, they are opportunities to connect with real people. They recognize the majority of the value of the conference isn't in what is being presented (though there may be value there) nor is it in the leads that are being captured (though there may also be value there), it is in the knowledge gained through informal conversations.

Like a good number of product managers with a software engineering background, I am an introvert. Having spontaneous conversations with strangers puts me way outside of my comfort zone, so I have to work to overcome my natural desire to sit back and listen.

Here is how I approach conferences to ensure I get value out of those informal conversations:

Prepare Before the Conference


I don't just try to "wing it" at the conference. I'm not very good at striking up small talk and have a harder time directing the conversation if I'm not prepared. Before the conference, I will:
  • Determine what the significant open questions I want answered are. I look at conferences to give me specific feedback to specific questions, so I need to know what the questions are.
  • Determine what types of people can answer those questions. Do I need to be speaking to a particular level of person (CxO, manager, etc) or do I need to be speaking to somebody in a particular vertical?
  • Visualize the conversations. In particular, for me, it is about getting the conversations started, so I spend time thinking about the various times I will be able to direct the conversation and how I can do that.

Find the Best Times for Chatting


Some times at a conference are better for chatting about your product than others. Some of best times for striking up a conversation are conference meals, receptions, and while waiting for a session to start. You may not have time to have a full conversation, but you can try to get permission to contact the person later.

Starting the Conversation


I find it easiest if I initiate the conversation. This allows me to direct the conversation where I want it to go from the outset, rather than trying to reshape an existing conversation. This is the most difficult part for me, but after a little experience, it becomes almost second nature.

People like to talk about themselves, so I almost always start the conversation by looking at their name badge, finding the company and asking something like "What does Company X do?" or "What is your role at Company X?" I never ask about titles because they are meaningless for the most part.

Guiding the Conversation


As I find out a little more about the person or people, I determine whether they fit any of the types of people who can answer the questions I previously identified. If I think they can, I introduce myself, my company, my role, and my product (using my elevator pitch). I then ask for permission to ask questions, making it clear that I'm not a sales person or in any way looking to make a sale.

As I mentioned, people like to talk about themselves, but now you've upped the ante. You've asked somebody to talk about what they consider themselves experts at. I have never been turned down.

Thanks to my prep work, I know what information I'm trying to get. I may not ask the specific questions I identified above, but those will guide the questions that I do ask.

Finally, I always ask for permission to contact them later and swap contact information. Business cards are still the most common way to do that, so I write contextual information on the card (when and where we met, etc).

Following Up


After the conference, I follow up with everybody I talked to. Depending on the conversation, the follow up ranges from a "Thank You" email to a telephone call with more questions.

There seems to be a large push on-line that conferences have little marketing value anymore. Perhaps that is true (I'm not totally convinced, but that's another article), but that doesn't mean they don't have product value. The real value of a conference for a product manager is not what the presenters are talking about, but rather what the attendees are talking about. Make sure you are ready to listen!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

From the Intrawebs - June 1

As mentioned in my previous post, my focus for the forseeable future is going to be builing a new product at a new company. For an entreprenurial product manager, this is heaven! You can probably expect this blog and From The IntraWebs to reflect that, as this is my method of syntesizing the things I learn.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • The Startup Toolkit - A fascinating little tool for working through assumptions/goals/what-have-you for a start-up. It is based on Steve Blank's customer development model.

Worth Reading

  • Pre-Launch Marketing for Stealthy Startups - What do you do with your website before you are ready to launch? Hint: you should be doing something!
  • Conjoint Analysis 101 - A great introduction to conjoint analysis, which is a methodology for determining the value of individual features to your product. I will definitely be digging deeper.
  • The plural of anecdote IS data. - The plural of anecdote is not data. Except when it is. This post will help you how to turn those anecdotes into data (and that really is your job as a product manager).
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

ClickLock Hired Product Management First

A while ago, I posted my belief that product management should be hired first (and found others who agreed with me).

I'm very excited to announce that ClickLock.com took those words seriously. Today, I am joining ClickLock as its first full time employee! You won't find much information about ClickLock yet, but that will change. We know we have a good idea and some very interesting technology, now it is my job to find out the product for that technology.

As a company, ClickLock will be following the Lean Startup philosophy. What that means is that our primary focus is not hiding behind closed doors and building some uber-cool thing. Instead, our focus will be to spend a lot of effort figuring out exactly what the market wants through communication and pivoting, then rapidly scaling to provide that.

As the product manager, I will be following the Customer Development model as the method of determining what the ideal product is. As a small company, we have very limited resources; Customer Development allows us to ensure our precious development resources are being use optimally by knowing who our customers are and what they want to buy before we spend a small fortune building something.

I have always had a passion for small companies and am extremely excited about ClickLock. I believe the product is really going to make a positive impact in the ways we communicate most frequently on the Internet. After seeing small companies struggle so much after building a leviathan that nobody wanted, I'm also thrilled to be utilizing a development model that will maximize our chances of achieving those goals.

Stay tuned for the grisly details!

Monday, May 24, 2010

From the Intrawebs - May 24

The winds are a changing for the Software Maven. Next week I will be making an announcement about what's coming and how it will affect this blog. In the meantime, this is going to be a long week!

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If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • Standing Cloud - This service lets you test and deploy open source application in the cloud with the click of a button. Really cool!

Worth Reading

Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Brainmates, the iPad, and...Is that Limburger?

A few days ago, Adrienne Tan of brainmates and I had a conversation about the iPad. She took the time to put the thoughts together into a coherent blog post.

The conversation really revolved around who is the iPad valuable for, or, in more "product managery" terms, "What problem does the iPad solve?" Generally, I think you are in trouble if you cannot clearly articulate the answer to that, and, as you can see if our conversation, neither of us could.

However, every once in a while, a product gets introduced that, by itself, may not solve a problem, but it allows people to think about solving problems in a completely different way. I think the iPad falls into this category: people are going to approach the types of applications that they build, and how they build them, differently as a result of this innovation. Future computing hardware will also be changed as a result of the iPad and how people expect to interact with their computers.

However, being a category changer is dangerous ground to be on. The cliché most often used is "The early bird gets the worm," but I think, in these cases, "It's the second mouse that gets the cheese" is often more appropriate.

This is not the first time Apple has tried to build a category changing device. Most recently, the iPhone received many of the same comments I'm hearing about the iPad. People obviously figured that one out. Nobody asks what the point of an iPhone is anymore.

But don't forget that Apple also had another experience trying to be a category changer: the ill-fated Newton. It did succeed in changing mobile computing, but it was Palm that came in as the second mouse and reaped the rewards.

Monday, May 3, 2010

From the Intrawebs - May 3

April was an insanely busy month. With it out of the way (especially the Utah Innovation Awards), I can get back on track with the blog.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • Tynt Insight - Tynt provides information I would have never thought I could get. If you are providing any kind of valuable content on your site/blog (and you really should be), Tynt can provide valuable analytics that you probably don't have now.

Worth Reading

  • The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer) - This echos many thoughts I've been having about higher education. My kids are getting to the college age, and, honestly, I'm concerned about what college means for them.
  • Sorry TechCrunch – FaceBook is NOT the Biggest Driver of Social Sharing on the Web! (Its e-mail at 70%) - How important is email to the "social web"? This sums it up pretty well!
  • Rands In Repose: The Twinge - This article is why I think engineers can make the best product managers...if you can get them out of the "build" mentality. Those "twinges" can make phenomenal difference to a product.
  • Turning on your Reality Distortion Field - I've been thinking a lot about elevator pitches recently as we start talking more about the nascent company I'm working with, so this is particularly timely for me.
  • Why Apple Changed Section 3.3.1 - Best reason I've seen for Apple's policies around 3rd party application platforms like Flash. I think Apple's decision here is absolutely the right decision for them and for end users. Of course, as is often the case, many developers forget that it isn't about the "tools", it's about the product.
  • The Startup's Rules of Speed - Finally somebody stepping up and saying company growth does not mandate an inclusion of process. In every company I've worked at, process has become a binding yoke that prevented innovation rather than ensuring a better product was created. But (and this is scary for most companies!) it requires creative effort to find solutions to problems instead of wallpapering over them.
  • The new startup arms race - Another plug for the Startup Visa. Just as engineering and tech support has been globalized, so, too, is entrepreneurship being globalized. We need to do everything we can to bring those entrepreneurs to the United States or we will find our economy suffering in far worse ways than it is now.
  • Clive Thompson on the New Literacy - You may never think of texting and tweating the same after reading this. Who would have thought that you and/or your kids are learning kairos (what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across) while sending all those little messages all over the place?

    How does this affect your product and its marketing?
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Friday, April 30, 2010

2010 Utah Innovation Awards Finalist

OK, I've just got to brag a little. I am managing a product for a start-up called ClickLock. We are very early in the product's life, but, notwithstanding the fact that we don't have a product released yet, we've still managed to be a finalist for the Utah Innovation Awards!

You can read the whole press release here, but it requires you to register, so I'm quoting the relevant information here:

30 April 2010—

Utah Technology Council and Stoel Rives recognized some of Utah’s top inventions at the Utah Innovation Awards luncheon, held Thursday, April 29. Honorable mentions, finalists and winners were chose from 120 applications—the most applicants in the program’s eight-year history.

More innovation during times of economic trouble isn’t a new trend, but it’s a trend that Jason Perry, Gov. Gary L. Herbert’s chief of staff said will help Utah recover from the recession quicker than any other state in the country.

Keynote speaker at the event, KSL radio announcer and author Amanda Dickson commended the award recipients for being thoughtful, persistent, courageous and stubborn. "I know that’s what it takes sometimes to make an idea happen," she said.

Dickson also encouraged the luncheon attendees to prompt ideas by changing small details in their lives. "We are afraid of change because we think the worst thing is going to happen if we change," Dickson said. "One of the biggest mistakes we make is we assume we won’t like the worst thing…but the worst thing sometimes leads to the best thing."

Innovators know bringing ideas to the table, no matter how mediocre they may seem at first, are important to bringing change to the world around them, she said.

This year’s innovations are applicable to several industries, from a device that protects patients from catheter-related, life-threatening bloodstream infections to a technology that allows consumers to access Facebook from their television.

The winners announced at the event are Computational Molecular Phenotyping by MetaboView, Subsurface Metabolic Enhancement by Pure Enviro Management
, Gypsy by Cricut by Provo Craft, 4 Store by Control4, SmileReminder Patient Communication Software Suite by Smile Reminder, Nanostrands by Conductive Composites
, DualCap by Catheter Connections, Inc.
 and LiteStik by Fertile Earth Corporation
.

See a complete list of award recipients below (winners indicated by *) and for in-depth coverage see May’s issue of Utah Business magazine.

Enterprise Software and Web-Enabled B-2-B Solutions

Finalists
  • ClickLock by Kiwi Labs, LLC
  • SmileReminder Patient Communication Software Suite by Smile Reminder *
Honorable Mentions

  • Marketing View by TreeHouse Interactive

  • uGenius Personal Teller System by uGenius Technology, Inc.
(Note: I've only listed the category we were in. See the original article for all categories, nominees, and winners.)

Congratulations to SmileReminder for taking the trophy. We'll get it next year!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

From the Intrawebs - April 13

I won't apologize for being late this time. Instead, I will simply say enjoy the new reads from the past couple of weeks.

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If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • LinkUp Job Search Engine: This looks like a very interesting job search engine. It is trying to go deeper into the many jobs that never make it to the standard job boards.

Worth Reading

  • Harvard Business Review Article Advocated Opt-Out Email Marketing: It is surprising that an article on HBR could get things so wrong and an author who is a marketing teacher and consultant could so fail to understand the importance of building relationships in today's world of marketing. IT didn't win the battle, the people who were tired of being inundated with unasked for email did.

    It will be interesting to see if Cisco does reverse their policy and if they get blacklisted. Somehow, I doubt it.

    I'm pointing to this reply (instead of the original HBR article) because I don't think the HBR article should get my link juice.
  • Why The ‘Fail Fast’ Mantra Needs to Fail: I like the core value of "fail fast", but I completely understand what Mark is saying about it being misinterpreted by the intellectually lazy. Perhaps it's a good way for investors to weed out bad investments: what does "fail fast" mean to you?
  • Microsoft: Still Breathtakingly Evil (a rant): It is always great to watch a company make product decisions whose only value is to the company itself. Did ANYBODY raise their hand and say, "Sure, I'm interested in a crippled operating system"?
  • Finding your brand essence: If you don't have a product or brand that a few people hate, you don't have one that anybody loves either.
  • The Power of Differentiation: "Differentiation is your friend." Says it all, really.
  • Is Agility Making You Less Innovative?: I think this captures a major complaint from product managers about agile processes. The short of it is that product managers need to stay market focused and not get bogged down in the day-to-day running of the sprints.
  • Natural Born Cyborgs: I liked this article because I think it does a good job explaining the difference between people who adapt to technology and those who don't. For software product managers and entrepreneurs, it is important to understand the difference between these groups because they are part of the reason the product chasm exists. If you don't understand that, you will have a difficult time crossing the chasm.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Demanding Kisses Before You've Been Introduced

We've all had the experience: going to a web site and immediately being accosted for information.

Just in case you haven't, let me share the experience that prompted this post. I was reading a forum. Somebody posted a link to a recipe that looked interesting. I clicked on it and was presented with the atrocity below. This is not the first time this has happened (Checker Auto Parts, I'm looking at you!), and I'm sure it won't be the last.

I have two words for the marketers and product managers who are doing this:

STOP IT

Maybe I'm not talking to the right crowd here. Maybe it is just engineers who aren't being empathetic with their users that are complaining about not knowing how to query the database without a zip code.

But I doubt it.

Anybody involved with marketing knows the value of information about users. The more information we have, the better we can focus the conversations we have with the user. And it is just so easy to add another field to a form (or to drop a form in there at all).

I'm sure you've heard that marketing is like dating, and I think that is a good analogy. The best relationships start slowly, giving a little, taking a little, building trust over time.

As a corporate entity, we are already at a disadvantage and are starting the relationship with little trust. We need to do everything we can to build that trust, and the surest way not to do that is to start demanding information before you've gotten through the introductions.

So, next time you are designing something, instead of thinking "How much information can I get from the user here?", try thinking "What is the absolute minimum information I need to create a compelling experience here?"

And maybe you'll get a goodnight kiss after all.

Photo Credit: JD Lasica.

Monday, March 29, 2010

From the Intrawebs - March 29

After punching in 70+ hours last week, I had little time to actually look around so this week's list is short. That said, the video posted on Spatially Relevant is worth its weight in electrons. I highly encourage you to watch it.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • Augmented Reality Browser: Layar: This is a great idea and a great implementation. Layar has an opportunity to own the augmented reality space, which is going to be huge.

Worth Reading

  • Most users don’t even know what your product is: This is enlightening and a great example of why you need to get out of your building and talk to users. If you don't understand their world, you will never be able to communicate in a way that makes sense to them.

    As an aside, this is exactly why I think the iPad is going to be a success: it is targeted directly these people.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Preventing Process Goo (or How to Keep Process in Check)

Everybody loves process. Approval forms, multi-level sign-offs, tools that make everything "easier", and people who find satisfaction is getting the process done, regardless of whether work gets done or not (you know, the process police).

If you've only ever worked in large companies, you may have never experienced a life without process. There is a place where, as a trusted employee, you make a decision and just do it. That flexibility is a small companies greatest strength, but it can also be its biggest weakness.

Different types of companies require different amounts of process. Life sciences, with the heavy regulation, needs a significant amount of process. The average consumer web company doesn't need much. Every company needs some process, though.

Good process ensures that good decisions are being made. It provides information and direction on how to do things better than you did last time. A good process will make sure you are gathering and taking into account all of the information you need to.

The problem with process is, left unchecked, it will self-replicate into grey goo. And, just like in nanotechnology, the way to keep prevent process goo is by adding "process limiting code."

How do you implement processes limiting code? You specify up front things that you want to get out of your process and what you are not willing to give up. What are you currently doing that is working really well? If you don't identify it what you want to keep, you can be sure that your process changes will eventually destroy it.

And that, in a nutshell, is what most people fail to realize when they go into process mode. In all of the ferver to find new and better ways to do things, they keep track of what they don't want changed.

So next time, you are changing your process, keep the following in mind:
  • You should have specific, measurable goals of what you are trying to accomplish with your process. If you can't measure it, it didn't happen.
  • You must include the set of anti-requirements: what you want to ensure you process is not changing. Again, try to make it measurable, but that can be hard for things like company culture.
  • Make small changes over time to better identify cause/effect relationships
  • Evaluate if you process changes are meeting your goals and not breaking your invariants.
  • If you are not seeing the results you want or your invariants have varied (bad thing for an invariant to do!), roll back those changes and try again a different way.
Here are some ideas:
Goals Invariants
Management should be able to predict the output of the team for the following two weeks within a 20% margin of error. A task should never take more time in process than in actually completing the process.

Photo Credit: Amit Patel

Monday, March 22, 2010

From the Intrawebs - March 22

Happy spring! March 21st is one of my favorite days of the year. It was a beautfiul day here in northern Utah yesterday as well.

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If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • Crowdspring: This is the first of two options I recently found for getting design work done. You post your project description, receive designs from multiple sources, and buy one or more of them.
  • 99 Designs: And the second option for getting design work done is 99 Designs. It works pretty much the same way: define a project (including the budget), get submissions, choose and buy. These services are great when you need some design work done quickly.

Worth Reading

  • User-Centered Innovation Is Not Sustainable: Many of the biggest product hits have eschewed User-centric design. The model is not "build it and they will come", rather, it is to understand your users well enough that you can predict their future wants and needs. A not-trivial task, to be sure, but critical if you want to move beyond incremental improvement.
  • BoomStartup Gives Utah Its Own Startup Incubator: This is exciting news for the Utah start up community. Utah has long had a strong start-up ecosystem, but it is nice to see it growing up.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

From the Intrawebs - March 15

Beware the Ides of March! Actually, I'm going to celebrate it. It is a beautiful day outside after a pretty gross weekend. The sunny morning almost made up for the lost sleep due to daylight savings. Almost.

I'm adding a new section to From the Intrawebs that points out any interesting new services or applications I find that may be of interest. If you have an interesting service or application, feel free to ping me to take a look.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.

What's New

  • Simler: A very intriguing site that attempts to address what is missing in many of the popular social networks: how do you make new contacts. Facebook and LinkedIn are very good at keeping track of who you already know; Simler attempts to help you meet new people.

    Disclosure: I have business dealings with a potential investor in Simler.

Worth Reading

  • My experiments in lean pricing: A great article on SaaS pricing, one of the best I've read.
  • Choices: an exercise: Are you trying to be McDonald's (around everywhere with an underwhelming experience), 21 Club (solid, consistent, a strong reputation, and expensive), or the noodle place on the corner (cheap and eclectic). Always a good idea to know what you are striving for.
  • Six Delusions of Google's Arrogant Leaders: Always dangerous to drink your own Kool Aid for too long. Regardless of whether these things are true or not, believing you are above caring about them is dangerous for any company.
  • The Origins of Product Management (part 2): This is looking to be an interesting series of articles on where product management came from. You probably want to read part one first (there is a link in the article).
  • Pricing: A look at how not to price your products with some humor thrown in for good measure.
  • Attaching your Startup Brand to a Movement: This is part of the effort to not blend into average. To succeed, you have to have customers who are as passionate about your company and your mission as your are. Aligning to a movement your customers can get behind helps with that.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why You Care About the Color of the Bike Shed (but Shouldn't!)

In 1999, Poul-Henning Kamp sent an email to an open source software developer mailing list. I came across it sometime around late 2001. To this day, I find the concepts he raised fascinating and have spent a lot of time thinking on them.

This email was in response to the reaction to a proposal to change the BSD sleep() system call to allow it to take fractional seconds. For such a minor change, the response was prodigious and often negative. The reaction was orders of magnitude greater than the change and its effects.

The Bike Shed

In the specific example involving the bike shed, the other vital component is an atomic power-plant, I guess that illustrates the age of the book.

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. Richard P. Feynmann gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

In Denmark we call it "setting your fingerprint". It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say "There! *I* did that." It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement.

(You can read the entire email here, and it is worth the time to do so!)

Technology Religion Wars - Endless Bike Sheds


It is a never-ending story in the software world. Religious wars that have no clear "victor" yet battles continue unabated.
  • Emacs versus Vi (Emacs, duh!)
  • BSD verus Linux
  • Agile versus Waterfall
  • XP versus Scrum
  • Compiled versus Interpreted
  • LISP versus Every Other Programming Language Every Invented
  • User Stories versus Market Requirements
  • Python versus Ruby
  • SOAP verus REST
  • PC versus Mac
  • HTML 4 versus XHTML
  • Permission Marketing versus Pervasive Marketing
  • ...
I now refer to any behavior that focuses on meaningless details at the expense of the work to be done as bike shedding.

Bike shedding has gone on so long and in so many guises that, while I think Parkinson and Poul-Henning were correct about its symptoms, I think they were wrong about the cause.

Frustrated Artistic Geniuses


At their core, almost everybody in the software world is extremely intelligent and incredibly creative. To build software, to take nothing but an idea and use it to create an ethereal projection in a virtual space, absolutely REQUIRES intelligence and creativity. From the first point the idea is hatched to finally getting a customer to understand how the incorporeal substance will improve their very corporeal lives demands it, not just of developers (but, perhaps, especially of developers), but also of product managers, sales sales people, testers, and others involved with building software.

We have a huge number of people that are, at the core of their beings, creative geniuses, who are pent up in dingy, gray cubicle farms having their lives scheduled for months based on the roadmap, expected to behave essentially as factory workers.

Can you feel the tension already? But it gets worse!

Being Afraid of the Meaningful


In his latest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin takes a deep look at the potent fears that make it so hard for us to get out of our comfort zones and the dynamics that have shaped our comfort zones.

As we grow up, we are taught to be afraid of our creativity in so many ways. We are taught that it is important to fit in, to toe the line and to not stick out. Finish school, get started on your career, hunker down and hope for a promotion or two before you head out to pasture. That is The American Dream.

The problem is, the more intelligent you are naturally, the more you recognize that the Dream isn't quite so rosey. You see the holes in the system, the duct tape holding the pipes together. You recognize that it could be so much better.

The more creative you are naturally, the more vision you have for crafting ways to make it so much better. You aren't just paralized with the knowledge that things could be better: you have the means to make it better.

I really do believe this to be true. The people in the software world are that smart and are that creative. I can honestly say that everybody I have worked with in my career has been oustanding and that I really do believe each and every one of them could change the world in meaningful ways. I don't believe that of everybody I have known or worked with!

But what an awesome responsibility. To know that you could change the world! Talk about stepping out of line! Nothing would expose you quite like stepping up and changing the world!

And so the fear Godin talks about pops up, ready to shut the whole thing down. "You couldn't really change the world, you'd probably screw up, lose your job, and get ostracized from the community", goes the inner dialog.

And so most of us don't and we look at those who do as special, different, a cut above us, when all they are doing, to put it in Godin's words, is shipping.

So the Color of the Shed Becomes All Important


A whole class of frustrated, scared geniuses. So much creative talent and passion with so little important work to get done. Is it any wonder that there is a 20X difference in software engineer productivity?

What's left to fill the gap? The color of the shed, of course. Not actually getting the shed built, that's too much like work. Instead, it's talking about building sheds.

It allows me the opportunity to show the world how smart I am but without exposing myself to any real risk (after all, you can't really critique an opinion). I can get lost in the technical minutia of the details without worrying about anything coming back to bite me.

The more I talk, the more comfortable I become with the concept that I'm doing something important without actually doing anything. It also uses up a staggering amount of time, time that doesn't leave me wondering how to make things better.

The irony about the bike shed is that, in appeasing the frustration and the fear, the very act exposes our own short-comings: either our own lack of real understanding or our lack of empathy with the other involved parties. But that doesn't matter, because the tension and the anxiety are eased, so I can handle the cubicle and the calendar another day.

The horror Dilbert talks about is very real!



Dilbert.com


Overcoming Our Own Bike Shedding


The only way to overcome bike shedding is to do. Any other course may stop the bike shedding, but will likely just lead to some other behavior that will sooth the tension and anxiety but lead to no meaningful change.

Getting meaningful work done will increase the anxiety for a while. You are fighting a lot of both nature and nurture; there will be resistance! But if you know the resistance is there, you can identify it and overcome it.

Find meaning work. Whether it is contributing something to an open source project, helping a friend flesh out an idea for his business (NOT critiquing the idea!), getting help from a friend for your idea, or helping others at work with your skills, the important thing is that you are doing. Not doing to receive something in return, just doing to do it.

The early challenge may be figuring out what to do. We have been conditioned to stay in line for so long that stepping out and doing something on our own may not come naturally. Fortunately, there is often a solution right in front of you. The more you bike shed, the more likely it is to be there.

At some time in the future, you will find yourself thinking, "That is a horrible idea. I better make sure she knows why it is!"

STOP

Instead of letting her know why it is such a horrible idea, ask her how you can help her.

It may very well be a horrible idea (unlikely), but by using your vast knowledge and creativity for helping instead of showing off, you force yourself out of the bike shed, into doing work, and, as a result, into a relationship.

As you continue to do this, you'll soon find that there are really very few ideas that are horrible, the bike sheds are getting along fine without you, and you are getting some amazing things done.

You'll also find that those people who once seemed to be a cut above you will become much more human, and you'll recognize how much you actually have in common with them. You may even bump into them along your way.
Photo credit: Paul Downey / CC BY 2.0

Monday, March 8, 2010

From the Intrawebs - March 8

Some weekends just fly by with Monday morning hitting abruptly. I hope you accomplish all your goals this week and have a little time left to snoop around here.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.
  • Trust and credibility: Product management requires leadership. Leadership requires trust. If the people you work with don't trust you, you will not be able to effectively lead a product.
  • Startup Visa update: I am a strong believer in the value of the Startup Visa. If we do not encourage people to come to the United States to start companies, they will start them elsewhere. Somebody coming here to start a company doesn't "steal a job" from somebody else, but rather has the potential to create many jobs. More important, we keep the doors open for the best and brightest of other countries to come innovate with us, which is critical for a knowledge worker economy.
  • The Emotional Power Of Frisbees: A good reminder of why product management and product marketing needs to think about the emotional response customers have to their brands, even in the business-to-business space.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Monday, March 1, 2010

From the Intrawebs - March 1

Last week was a very productive week. Not only on the blog but in the "day jobs" as well. On top of that, March is finally here and starting to bring its longer, warmer days! I hope your week goes amazingly well this week!

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

How Much Is Enough? How Much Is Too Much?

How much content do you need to communicate? A book? A journal? An article? A post? An email? A paragraph? Four, three, or two sentences? 140 characters?

I want you to communicate status about the project every week.

Our relationship needs more communication.

I can't seem to communicate with my kids.

I don't understand what he's trying to say.

Why can't I seem to get my point accross?

Now, again, how much do you need to communicate? That is utterly and completely the wrong question to ask.

Make sure when you are looking for productivity tips, you are optimizing the right behavior!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Are you a Maven, Connector, or Salesperson Results

  • Maven: 62.5%
  • Connector: 12.5%
  • Salesperson: 0
  • Maven & Connector: 18.75%
  • Connector & Salesperson: 0
  • None of the Above: 6.25%

That is almost exactly how I would have predicted the numbers to come out. I also bet that they are wrong. I would bet every one of your who selected just Maven has far more Connector in you than you gave yourself credit for. I also think it is important to develop our inner-Connector and inner-Salesperson, because, of the three, the Maven is first that will be outsourced.

My Search for Scrum Tools

I've been spending time over the last couple of weeks looking at agile tools. Of course, you can't have a development philosophy take hold like agile has without varying level of tool support. I started looking at several tools and doing some research because I have several projects that I am product owner for.

A very good resource is Mangrove Weblog's On-line Scrum Tools Review. His list is VERY much worth looking at but is a little bit out of date..
I added to that list the following. You will notice that I included PangoScrum and ScrumEdge in the process as well, as they seemed very promising and felt it was worth double checking.
I'm going to focus quickly on the list I looked at. Kudos to Mangrove for the detail he gave; I'm not going to be quite as detailed. :)

PangoScrum

I like the simplicity and feature set of PangoScrum a lot. While it did elicit this tweet:
It has themes that not only make life tolerable but are actually quite attractive.

PangoScrum supports sprint and project backlogs. It is weird in that they seem to be completely separate. I can't move an item from the product backlog into the sprint backlog. I always thought that process was sequential: anything not currently working in the sprint backlog goes into product backlog which eventually gets shifted into the sprint backlog.

The fact is that I like a lot pieces of PangoScrum, but the backlog/sprint management is just flat out weird. To this point, I cannot figure out how to take an item in my backlog and add it to a sprint. In my mind, that is a completely broken feature.

If I am wrong in this, I'd like to know, because I like PangoScrum otherwise. However, if I can't shift things from product to sprint backlogs, it won't work.

Target Process

Having "Process" in the name is revealing. I think if you had a significant process that you needed to follow, Target Process would be a good bet. I would expect significant training of your Scrum Masters and your conributors to get it running smoothly.

This sounds painful for a small company. On the plus side, it does support multiple projects well.

ScrumEdge

ScrumEdge received a notable hit in the previous review as being under-developed. I spent some time playing around with it and found that it is much more solid than the previous review indicted.

I like ScrumEdge. Simple, minimal functionality, fairly elegant, and, did I mention, simple! The setup is fairly straightforward. It seems to revolve around the notion of time tracking (almost to the level of Base Camp) rather than what I would consider agile task tracking.

Supporting multiple projects is also a critical feature for my needs and it does support them. If you need detailed time tracking, this isn't a bad way to go, but managing iterations as a product owner is painful. When I can more easily manage my backlog and sprints using ScrumEdit, it will be a serious contender.

Keep a sharp eye on this one if you are looking for agile tools in the future. Four to six months may be enough to put this at, or at least very near, the top..

AgileFant

AgileFant seems to be so much more than a small company needs. I would say it is to agile tools waht a company like @task for project management tools (when I need something more like Base Camp). If you have people sitting around waiting to do your scrum management, this could be a great tool. It is not for the small companies I am working with.

Agile42

Agile42 provides a software solution to back up their training company. It is built on top of the open source issue management project Trac.

Two issues: First, personally, Trac is one of my least-favorite issue management systems out there. In the build versus buy decision, I think they made the wrong decision.

Second (and perhaps related to the first), you can only supply tasks to user stories. That makes validating how mch work someone is accomplishing over time more difficult (but not impossible).

Scrum Ninja

I really like Scrum Ninja. Maybe it just fits how I see managing managing scrum. Projects flow into sprints automatically by determining story points and prioritization. Very clean and fast.

Developers are given a simple "white board" that gives them the ability to update their status (estimate your time left or drag it to the &quote;Completed" list). Burndown reports and other reports are straight-forward. Multiple projects are supported, which is critical for me.

This is, by far, my favorite of the six that I looked at.

The Three Sentence Versions

Not everybody can afford large licensing fees and there is a wide range here. Rather than go into details of their licensing models, which can change on a whim, we'll do Free, Small Biz, Enterprise, and On Premise..

Free

Agile42 has a free version that, while it takes some set up to get to to, is a reasonable tool. You can upgrade using a freemium model if you need more functionality. You trade off time tacking details so you can spend more time coding and less time on managment.. Seems likde the rght trade-off to me.

Small Biz

This is a tough category as there are so many potential options and needs. In the end, my preference is Scrum Ninja. $50/month for 5 users and $140/month for 20 users is a good deal for a tool that, for the most part, just gets out of the way.

Enterprise

Ralley and AgileFant both seem like good options here, but you are trading off developer efficiency for more detail in your data. If you don't need those details, I'd look elsewhere.

On Premise

If you need to keep data behind the corporate firewall, Scrum Ninja is still my favorite. Agile42 is a good choice (paid or free); it seems like a solid application and you control the install.

My Choice

Ending quickly, let me just say that I'm going to continue using Scrum Ninja. Trust me, you'll know if things go wrong!

Photograph by Andreas Borutta

Monday, February 22, 2010

From the Intrawebs - February 22

Yay for being on time this week! Shot but sweet. Enjoy the list.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.
  • No Accounting For Startups: I've said it many times, but Steve Blank is much better at saying these things than I am. Figure out what you need to measure, then measure it. A number just for the sake of a number is worthless (and this counts for mature products, too!).>
  • Yammer: The Story Behind Their SaaS Traction: While Yammer is interesting, the concepts of space between giants and KISS are the key concepts to take away from this one.
  • Emulating Empathy: This can be such a difficult thing for people in engineering to learn, but it is critical if you want to interact with more than the computer. I hope Steve dives deeper into this concept in the future.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

How the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life Can Help Product Development

The Drake Equation was first presented in 1961 as a method of pondering the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the galaxy. Very quickly, the equation looks like this:

The Drake Equation

where:
  • N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
  • R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
  • fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
  • ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
  • f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
  • fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
  • fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
  • L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

    Quote from Wikipedia
The bigger N is, the more likely we should have encountered civilization. But we haven't. And what does that have to do with product management, anyway?

The problem with the Drake equation is that there are too many unknowns. How many planets support habitable systems. How many lives grow into sentient beings, and on and on. The number could be 1 (we humans) or trillions. As such, the trying to compute the equation is meaningless.

Applied to Product Development


Whether a start up or a well established company, new product development comes with a business plan and every business plan has a section that talks about how your product is going to take the world to storm. Unfortunately, it usually looks like the the Drake Equation with nearly as many unknowns.

This is a real working hypothesis I saw once upon time:

where:
  • R = The elusive revenue number
  • Cx = The masses who used email
  • fe = The percentage of people relying on e-mail for a critical tools.
  • fu = The fraction of those people that really had this problem.
  • fc = The fraction of people who would pay for a solution
  • i = The number of people who would convert from a free to a premium model.
  • pu = The retention rate of the of the software.

Making It All Up

As you can see there are lots of probabilistic variables. It is bad enough to have a single probabilistic variable in an equation, but to have the question be full of them; well, that goes well beyond bad. In fact, you could argue the equation is meaningless. My argument is that the outcome of the equation (the vaunted R value) is completely meaningless. There is too much noise going into the equation to get anything valuable out. In the Drake Equation, depending on the values you "assume", you either get a universe teaming with intelligent life or you get a fluke where no intelligent life exists and we are the sad figments of a cat's imagination. As business leaders, we really need something a little more repeatable.

Using Your Equation Instead of Solving Your Equation

On the other had, the inputs to the equation are very interesting and worth knowing. Drake originally formulated the equation to give an agenda for what needed to be talked about, not as a way to arrive at an answer. If you can discover your equation: the equation that drives your businesses, you can then identify the areas you don't understand or the changes you need to make in order to succeed. Knowing your equation isn't about knowing how big R or N values are, it is about truly know what the inputs are that drive those values and, if all goes well, knowing how to positively modify those values.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Career Change: The Presentation

This is the fifth and final part in the career change series. It has taken a while to get to this one because, frankly, it is the most difficult of the series. You need to realize that unless things fall magically into your hands, this part requires patience and perseverance. It requires networking and getting out of your comfort zone. Finally, it requires ensuring your resume says product manager and not developer or analyst or wherever else you are coming from.

Remember, your best bet is going to be going into product management in your current company. I want to be very clear that, especially in the current economic environment, you are very unlikely to change companies into a product management position. A company is taking a risk just by hiring you. Product management is such a pivotal role that you would be asking a company to take on three risks: you, your ability to manage a product, and the product itself. Still, it can be done.

To get there, start with reworking your resume. As I go through specifics, I want you to keep one thing in mind: every item on your resume should be tailored to show how you benefited the company from a product management perspective. You closed more sales, you caused costs to go down, you reached better compliance, whatever. You want the hiring company thinking about how they could use those benefits in their company.

Show your customer interaction


It is extremely critical that you show how much successful customer interaction you've had. "Personally caused an additional $3M in sales to close due to my assistance in sales process" is gold, but even saying "Provided technical expertise on eight failing sales, leading to three unexpected closes." is good. Product managers don't need to be sales people, but they need to understand the sales process and they have to have customer empathy. You have to show that on your resume.

Show your data gathering


Product management is data intensive. The more you can show you know how to gather that data and that you've used it, the better. "Ran UI focus group, identified product weaknesses, worked with UX to improve, and saw support incidents go down 10% as a result." There is a lot there, but it shows the cross-functional nature of the position and a solid benefit to the company. This could also be done with win/loss analysis, support forum monitoring, and any number of other areas.

Show cross functional skills


I alluded to it before, but you need to show how you understand the cross-functional nature of the position and can succeed at it. Most projects have a cross-functional project meeting. This is a good time to volunteer to be the secretary. Take note and do follow up. That can end up on your resume as "Ensured cross-functional team understood and met objectives for biweekly coordination meetings."

What to leave off


Leave off the technology specifics. Showing that you re-implemented the UI in Python is not going to win you points. Showing that you understood the customer concerns with the current interface and caused them to be addressed successfully (you can leave out the "addressed by you" part) will win points.

Network, network, network

As I mentioned, in the current economic climate, it is unlikely you will have a job fall in your lap. You need to have a finely tuned resume and you need to be talk with people. I am on the board of the local product management association and I attend start-up group meetings. Find out what is in your area and get out there. Things won't change by themselves. It will take work, but it can be done.

Good luck!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just a few days left on the poll

Just wanted to point out that there are only a couple of days left on the poll about whether you are a Maven, a Connector, a Salesperson, or some combination thereof. The poll is sitting tot he right of this post below the subscription widget if you haven't taken it yet.

If you are reading via RSS or e-mail, come to the site to vote.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

From the Intrawebs - February 16

Happy late President's Day for those of you in the US. I got a little behind this week due to the site redesign. I still have things I want to do, but I felt compelled to get this week's From the Intrawebs up first.

You can subscribe to the live feed of this list in your choice of feed readers. You can also follow @FromTheIntraWeb to get instant gratification.

If you find something that you think belongs on this list, send it to me via @SoftwareMaven on Twitter.
  • Emulating Empathy: This can be such a difficult thing for people in engineering to learn, but it is critical if you want to interact with more than the computer. I hope Steve dives deeper into this concept in the future.
  • Hey Customer: Would You Like Some Time With That Product?: Making your offering more time efficient is a great way to differentiate, and there are so many places you can "shave time": making your product information cleaner, simplifying your offerings, streamlining installation, automating features, and optimizing your interface, just to name a few.
  • Facebook's fatal attraction: It is common, as a product and company matures, to start looking at other pastures and think how green they are. Products and companies need to grow and evolve, but they need to do it in a way that doesn't risk causing the current pasture to dry up underneath them.
  • A Story Culture: "How much will you consume and how much will you create?" I certainly hope to be a creator, but understanding the relationship between consuming and creating is important.
Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The New Look is Here!

After spending a few weeks trying to decide the new look for the blog, it is obviously live now. If you run into any problems or have any comments, please let me know. I will be adding new features as time goes on. Part of the redesign is to support that moving forward.

Happy President's Day for those in the US! :)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Product Managers, are you a Maven, Connector, or Salesperson


I think it is probably fair to say that most product managers would like to have our products "tip". I'm going to pursue this a bit more in the future, but first I'd like to get a little data.

To the right, I've added a little poll: are you a Maven, a Connector, or a Salesperson? From the Wikipedia article on the book, here are descriptions of each:
Mavens

Mavens are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information." They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell cites Mark Alpert as a prototypical Maven who is "almost pathologically helpful", further adding, "he can't help himself". In this vein, Alpert himself concedes, "A Maven is someone who wants to solve other people's problems, generally by solving his own". According to Gladwell, Mavens start "word-of-mouth epidemics" due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate. As Gladwell states, "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know".

Connectors

Connectors are the people who "link us up with the world ... people with a special gift for bringing the world together." They are "a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [... for] making friends and acquaintances". He characterizes these individuals as having social networks of over one hundred people. To illustrate, Gladwell cites the following examples: the midnight ride of Paul Revere, Milgram's experiments in the small world problem, the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" trivia game, Dallas businessman Roger Horchow, and Chicagoan Lois Weisberg, a person who understands the concept of the weak tie. Gladwell attributes the social success of Connectors to "their ability to span many different worlds [... as] a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy."

Salespeople

Salespeople are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them. Gladwell's examples include California businessman Tom Gau and news anchor Peter Jennings, and he cites several studies about the persuasive implications of non-verbal cues, including a headphone nod study (conducted by Gary Wells of the University of Alberta and Richard Petty of the University of Missouri) and William Condon's cultural microrhythms study.

After gathering the data for a couple of weeks, I'll follow up. Thanks for your input!

Monday, February 1, 2010

From the Intrawebs - February 1

I'm always happy to see the back side of January. I'm no fan of winter, and getting into February always feels like a major step towards spring.

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Disclaimer: Unless otherwise noted, I have no affiliation with linked properties other than being an interested reader, a happy user, or a potential customer: Nobody pays to receive a link. Any opinions of linked properties are theirs, not mine. I may or may not agree, but to be on this list I think their opinion is at least interesting.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Basics of Software as a Service Pricing


It is pretty unanimous that software pricing is one of the hardest parts of a product manager's job. Whether it is an iPhone app or an enterprise software suite, pricing is frustrating to get right and has a major impact on the success or failure of your product. Unfortunately, nobody has come out with a simple, fill-in-the-blank spreadsheet, either.

I want to talk a little bit about software as a service (SaaS) pricing. The vast majority of applications being created, especially in the consumer market, fall into this category. Even many mobile applications tend to have a SaaS component associated with them.

To understand how to price software, it is good to get a handle on the economics behind it. Joel Spolsky's Camels and Rubber Duckies is a great article on the economics of software pricing. Eric Sink's Product Pricing Primer adds to those basics.

What I'm about to say is actually very basic. I had thought that it was common knowledge, but I recently worked with a company that did not have this basic understanding. As a result, I'm going to outline the basics of SaaS pricing.

Basic One: Pricing cannot be an afterthought

With traditional software delivery (e.g. CDs, DVDs, implementations1, or even downloads), you had a binary relationship with the customer. Either somebody purchased or they didn't. The bit may have flipped slowly with timed trials and sales cycles, but it was still a single bit.

The world of SaaS software has changed that. People expect tiered software, with useful functionality at every tier. While you don't have to decide how much a tier will cost right away, you do need to be designing those tiers into the product from the start.

Basic Two: Consumer applications need the Two F's

Free: A large chunk of your users will expect to never pay for anything. If you need large numbers of users for any reason (a social environment, viral marketing, whatever), you need to provide a free version of the application. If you can find a way to monetize these users (basic ads, affiliate programs, etc), great, but you have to provide a no-out-of-pocket, not-blinded-by-ads-or-other-garbage version of the application.

Functional: Providing a free version of your app that doesn't actually do anything useful is the same as not providing a free version. End user expectations have changed, thanks in large part to companies like Google who "give away" so many useful applications. Users will toss free applications that don't do anything. If people toss it, they aren't telling their friends about it or upgrading to the pay tiers.

Basic Three: Differentiate business from consumer

Business applications don't have to have the Two F's. Because of that, if your app is a business app, you want to make sure it is positioned as a business app.

Take a look at the signup page for 37 Signals' Base Camp product. Base Camp is a project management application, targeted at the SMB market. You can find a free single-project plan with very limited functionality, but you have to really hunt. If you didn't know it existed, you would likely miss it altogether.

Because it is people (who are consumers) who do business purchases, you have to make sure to make it clear that yours is a business product. If you confuse the buyer, she is likely to slip into consumer mode and think your app should be free.

Basic Four: Charge as quickly as possible

Only you can decide how quickly you can charge, but you want to charge as quickly as you can. 37 Signals didn't wait until they had a massive following to try to figure out how to "monetize" BaseCamp. They charged from day one.

It's about more than just getting revenue (as important as that is!). It's about ensuring that your users are attaching a value to your product. The longer your product is free, the more difficult it is to change users' perceptions and get them to pay later.

Basic Five: Test and measure, measure and test

Pricing is not static. Neither are the inputs that bring users to your application. Neither are a million other variables2. You should always be measuring and testing. Make sure you know what the impact is when you change your prices slightly, alter what features are available in the free version, or do anything else.

Eric Ries wrote a great article about what you should be measuring. Eric's Startup Lessons Learned blog is a great resource for figuring out what to measure, how to measure it, and what to do about what you've measured.

Basic Six: It isn't worth money just because you built it

The final basic is really an economics basic. Just because you've spent a lot of time and money building something doesn't mean it has value to your customers. It is easy for product managers and executives to think "this cost X dollars to make, so we have to charge X/N for it."

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking will not optimize your pricing and may drive away those all important users. Pricing is ultimately determined by the value the customer places on your software. Your business' viability is determined by whether you can produce the software at a price customers are willing to pay. Your job as the product manager is to ensure that value exists.

Summary

There you go. Six basic rules that will give you a foundation for how to price your SaaS application. Still no answer on whether it should be $9.95 per month or $12.95.

Sorry.

1. "Implementation" is just a fancy word enterprise software shops use when their software is so hard to install that their services team has to do it...and charge you for it.

2. Hence the name variables.

Image credit: David Neubert