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products, development, management…

Engineering and social science lead to plans

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One of the biggest challenges of building technology products is that to bring a technology product or service to market requires great engineers to do their best work without really knowing the answer as to whether the choices being made will yield success or failure. This seems obvious but is often the greatest source of tension in a product team and just about every juncture.

Note: When saying “engineer”, please take it to mean all of the specialized skills involved in building a product inclusive of development, testing, design, operations, and more, and when saying “sales” or “marketing” take that to mean all of the specialized skills involved in getting a product into the hands of customers and supporting it—there is a spectrum of skills and responsibilities, which is critically important. No matter how many or how few specializations, the seams between roles are always fuzzy and that is good.

Natural tension [sic]

Any non-engineer who has ever interacted with an engineer knows the challenge (or frustration) of being told something can or can’t happen, or that something is right or brain-dead, or worse the stupidest idea ever. Likewise, every engineer knows the frustration of dealing with a salesperson, marketer, or customer who insists on something being done a certain way but can’t offer any rational explanation. This is often referred to as a natural tension or instituted balance of power on a team.

But who wants an instituted tension? There’s enough stress in just doing what needs to be done from your own perspective without the need to institutionalize more with no hope of resolving it.

The challenge is not easily overcome. Sure you can have engineers visit customers or you can have sales folks sit in on an architecture review, but these are anecdotal and don’t really infuse the relative challenges and contexts each party faces. In fact there is no easy answer because the reality goes back to the training, culture, and even time horizons of the different members of a product team. Rather than assume a natural tension, rely on anecdotes, or attempt to converge the DNA of the team there might be a better approach.

If you think about a team as a set of folks each coming to work to make difficult choices each and every day (and night!) then the critical element for the team is a shared and detailed sense of the overall plan for a product. Historically software planning has not matured to the degree of planning for most other engineering endeavors (construction, transportation). For the most part this is viewed as a positive—it is the “soft” part of software that makes it fun, agile, and in tune with the moment. Likewise, in the world of blogs and social media, the ability to re-craft the message to customers about a product can change much more rapidly than the days of lead times and print advertising. Again this is also a positive.

But if each perspective on a team is maximizing their creativity and agility, it doesn’t take long for chaos to take over. And worse, if things get chaotic and don’t come together well then fingers start pointing. Throw in a bit of performance evaluation or an executive meeting and what was a small disagreement becomes a wedge or worse, “politics”, very quickly. It is often amazing how quickly the most well-intentioned folks working together can start to have that so-called natural tension turn into a genuine dysfunction.

A plan for what is being built can sound so heavy or burdensome. It can be. It doesn’t have to be. Another word for a plan is a “framework for making decisions”. It is easy to make a plan that says all the amazing things that will be done and all the amazing ways money will be made. That’s the easy part.

Another easy part is listing all the things that won’t be done–sort of so everyone is clear on the inverse of what is being built. This sounds weird. I remember the first time I learned of a technique of deliberately detailing the non-goals or cut features of a project. I found this a puzzling disclosure–and maybe it was a specific device in a limited set of teams. If you list the project goals, then isn’t anything else that can be talked about a non-goal? The same goes for detailing features or outreach plans by priority. A lot of times you see lists of features/goals with priorities but that leaves it unclear which ones will get done (all the musts and a few maybes, most of the musts, etc.) – it seems best to simply list the ones that you’re signed up to do since for the most part I don’t think any of us have worked on a project where there was a surplus of time or money!

The hard part about making a plan is establishing the context of why a product is being built and how it will be successful. This is the social science aspect that is tough on an engineer. You can’t prove something will be a success in the market since there are no equations that govern market behavior. Similarly, the role of the technologist is to draw a trajectory of technologies to a world that might be different from the here and now, the here and now where people are spending money today. This is the social science that is tough on the sales and marketing team members.

What’s in a plan

For a project of any size that goes beyond a handful of people or involves any complexity, detailing the how and why of a product, not just the what, is a critical first step. The reality is that every member of the team benefits from the context and motivation for the project. Armed with that information there is a basis upon which to make decisions—decisions about how to implement features, decisions over priorities of features, decisions about how the product will be positioned or sold, and so on. It is amazing how often you run into engineers that know precisely what “needs” to be done but there isn’t really a good story as to why, or conversely how often you can find the marketing folks knowing what story would sell well but don’t know how to create that story. The point of a plan is to build a bridge made up of the how and why, not the what.

Of course things change. Code is harder to write than you would like. Competitors fill a void. Customer views change. In fact any project is going to go through a phase of questioning parts and resetting details of the plan. The most counter-intuitive notion of a plan is that the presence of a plan means you have the tools to change the plan, together as a team. The absence of a plan is what creates the chaos, finger-pointing, and accountability dodging that we’re all familiar with. A plan does not imply rigidity, but like any tool a plan can be abused. There are people who think plans are chiseled into stones. There are also people who think a plan is just a starting point and that everything is dynamic. Product development is a dynamic system with plans provided the needed anchor points for the team as a whole, across disciplines.

Some things you might take into consideration when working to create a plan might include:

  • Current product state. If you’re updating an existing product, then there should be a shared understanding of how the current product is being received in the market. What are the strengths and weaknesses technically and in terms of the business? Those responsible for selling and supporting the current product should lead the creation of this content.
  • Business opportunities. Where are customers spending money? Where would they be willing to spend money? For competitive products, how are these products sold? In most teams there are people who deeply understand the revenue model and cost structure of a product and those folks should lead the creation of this part of the plan.
  • Competition. Everyone should understand the competition. This is not the sort of thing that should be done casually, but everyone on the team should know the competition inside and out and use competitive products and services full time. A lot of damage gets done to plans when people casually try out a competitor and don’t make the mind shift required to understand why customers might be migrating to competitive products. And keep in mind that competition might be disruptive and offer a product with “less” functionality but with a different model for making money. Driving this part of the plan requires teamwork.
  • Partnerships. Every technology product is made up of partnerships. Building a platform, an app, hardware or software requires partnerships with developers, hardware makers, component makers/supply chain, post-sales deployment / support (for enterprise products), and more. Even something as basic as a plug-in model or extensibility API needs to be thought through if you want it to be part of the decision framework for the team. Again, this part of the plan requires the team’s perspective.
  • Industry trends. The social science of putting a plan together really kicks in when the team starts to consider what the technology trends look like. What’s the timeframe? What’s the likelihood of a trend panning out? What is the upside / downside to the project if a given trend pans out or not? These are important questions. But agreeing up front on the waves a product is riding and being detailed enough that everyone is clear is important. This is where the nuance of a plan really comes into play. Today every plan might say “mobile” but the question is much deeper than that when it comes to how to act—how does that relate to monetization, what platforms, and the relationship to the browser are all critical “trends” to articulate.
  • Define success. What does success look like? As part of planning, sometimes a tool that is helpful is to pull together all the above and write the announcement blog post (aka press release). Is that credible? How would competitors respond? Engineers should consider defining success in terms of simultaneous users, transactions, or performance in addition to the features. Everyone works together to define success.
  • Timeline. Every good project starts with a timeline. And most projects quickly revise that. The real challenge with any planning effort is to pick a timeline that you genuinely believe in up front as a team and then use the above efforts to make tradeoffs to stick to the timeline. If you’ve scoped the work to the timeline and set an achievable timeline then changing the plan to account for unknowns is how you keep everything real. Because developing a plan is iterative, the timeline is informed by the plan–you don’t take the plan then go decide what can get down (or how long it will take), like the old waterfall model.

When you look at this framework three things might jump out.

First, the plan is not a top line business goal “get n% of Y” where Y can be customers, dollars, or some share measure. It is also not “get these 5 features done”. Those are potential measures of success but not the headline of a plan. The headline of a plan is a solution to a problem—whether customers expressed pain (an articulated need) or the team is anticipating a solution (unarticulated need).

Second, the plan is a team effort. Even developing the plan takes a coordinated effort across the team. One way to talk about this is that a plan is not any one of “top down” (executive handed on down) or “bottom up” (crowd sourced), using the classic description of top, middle, bottom. Rather planning is a process that requires a coordination of top down, bottom up, and middles-out. The best plans are the plans that have the best ideas from the broadest set of folks contributing to building the product.

Third, one might be tempted to look at this as a PowerPoint outline and do a slide on each one. A lot of plans get made that way :-) The only approach to planning is to write down the plans in words, Word, and to go through a process of making sure there is a consistent voice to the plan. That process of writing down the plan is just as important as the ideas within the plan. Perhaps the topic for a future post.

Building a bridge

As the team comes together with a shared understanding of topics such as those above, the next step is one that can be taken together. There are two key parts of the plan that really bring together the context and help to bridge the “engineering plan” and the “social science instinct”.

  • Big Bet(s). Every project is made up of one or two significant bets. These can be new technologies, break from the past, or new product area. These are the parts of a product that go beyond the incremental improvement (relative to your own previous release or to competitive products viewed in the same space). Detailing these up front is a really helpful tool because it means that there aren’t any other big bets. Big bets are generally the immutable parts of a plan–the plan doesn’t really hold together without the bet and it isn’t likely that part-way through a project you could add another big bet. So big bets serve as a foundation upon which future choices and decisions about a project can be made. It is tempting to have a lot of big bets, but even the largest projects cannot really sustain more than a couple–remember once the team commits to a big bet the idea is that it needs to get done no matter what or said another way, the soul of the product rests on getting this part “right”.
  • Engineering plan. The engineering plan can be thought of as a feature plan but is better thought of as a scenario plan when viewed through the eyes of engineering. When viewed through the eyes of the sales and marketing members of the team, an engineering plan should read like a “we solved these problems” which can relatively easily get translated into the “story” of the product/service or the “positioning”. It is a good idea for the engineering plan to be separate from the organization chart and to really represent the cross-team efforts (if that is applicable). Even the most straightforward app these days is a front-end/app/UI and a back-end/service and those are often teams (or people). Making sure the product goals are expressed as what those do together, not what they do independent of each other, will also help to bridge the engineering plan and ultimately the business and marketing strategy.

There are many more parts to a plan–the business plan itself, the marketing plan, the PR plan, the pricing structure, the materials to train support and sales people, the operations / scale out plan, the test plans, the self-host plans, and so many more. The above represents some tools that the whole team can potentially benefit from if the work is done before the project really starts. As teams get into rhythms more things can be done up front and together. This is just a framework for when the first goal is getting folks on the same page to build something.

As much as we’d like, there is no magic answer or formula. If there was, then all projects would use it and would just be well-executed. No product is developed twice, so our collective ability to experiment and to design/iterate on a specific instance of product development is limited. All we each have is experience and paying close attention to the context and here and now when developing a product.

–Steven

PS: Thank you for reading. This was a first post in this blog–a learning process. I welcome feedback on the tone, structure, and approach. These are complex topics and I’ll probably see the shades of grey or middle ground more than the “answer”. Let me know what you think.

PPS: This post is about the general topic discussed and is not about anything specific in the past or present.

###

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 5, 2013 at 9:30 am

Posted in posts

Tagged with ,

114 Responses

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    Vlad (DarkTrooper)

    January 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

  62. Thanks for advise! I will. It’s really not good to ask the builder, “why the house you build crumbled to pieces”, when he wrote big and comprehensive article “How to build durable houses”.

    Vlad (DarkTrooper)

    January 9, 2013 at 12:16 pm

  63. Thank you for this great post! Looking forward to read and learn more from you! One more time thank you! :)

    Alex Tumanoff

    January 9, 2013 at 9:30 am

  64. Great blog, Shalom Steven. After the big crunch putting Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard in bankruptcy, after a general semiconductor failure forcing Apple to reorient and sell 249 dollar phones, forcing Apple to affix Apple stickers on China-made LCD TVs for selling them 49 dollar more than the average Sony or Panasonic LCD TVs, we’ll realize that the whole electronic and software industry went mad soon after the iPhone introduction in 2007. “No physical keyboard, no market for business users”. Kind of joke. Came RIM (Blackberry), came KIN, same genom, different results. On the short term. Came Android, still no keyboard, still not good enough for a lot of usual destop tasks. Windows 8 bringing the tablet disadvantages to the desktop. Windows 8 RT presented as a desktop possibility on ARM, however featuring the same tablet disadvantages, exhibiting no trustable desktop applications. It went mad, possibly because the software development methodology is unappropriate through the whole industry. Steven, this goes beyond what you are saying in your blog. What we need is a self-adjusting operating system (SAOS) analysing user usage, automatically generating forks corresponding to various usages that tend to be uncompatible like server, desktop, gaming, tablet, smartphone or e-reader. What we need is that such SAOS can “digest” a spice netlist describing the system hardware, and a XML file describing the hardware registers. Especially the input/outputs like sound, video, input devices, etc. Steven, once you endeavour this, you can come with something really new and interesting. No more drivers as they get automatically compiled during the build, using the spice netlist (topology) and the XML register description. The corresponding APIs need to be labelled and stacked using computer intelligence, without human intervention. Optimally exposing new features to the so-called SAOS. Do this within the MIT and come back in the industry in 5 years, seeding a new computing discipline where each terminal (server, desktop, gaming, tablet, smartphone, e-reader) carries its own genome (spice + XML) in Flash memory for automatically compiling the drivers and APIs. Write the protocol stacks enabling each device to act as global internet router and mobile communication node. No more telco infrastructure. Ensure that when a “cloud based” solution is perceived as optimal, that the SAOS (self-adjusting operating system) duly converges into a Cloud-based system using browser-enabled terminals. Make sure that the W3C works on a HTML6 that’s endorsing the spice + XML genome concept. This way any HTML6 browser will get a native access to all local features like GPS, G sensor, multichannel sound, accelerated 3D gaming engine, etc. When this is done, design the development IDE, compiler and linker in such a way that a human being can write a 2D Pacman game, only using 256 different instructions/variables/constant names with those names never exceeding a length of 8 characters. Simply said, manage that the Sinclair Spectrum source code, duly compiles and executes. When you have this done on paper, Microsoft will call you back at any price. Five years later if you can help Microsoft securing the relevent intellectual property, Microsoft market capitalization will reach 1000 billion dollar. Microsoft will become a worldwide telco operator, hardware silicon chip designer, OS vendor, software vendor, game editor, content editor, etc. Possibly an advertising agency too, if Google fails in converting their highly exposed server farms, into stealth and redundent Internet nodes. Keep in mind that in 2020, a terminal costing 100 dollar will host 10,000 American blockbusters in HD, powered using a 1 square meter solar panel generating 100 watt, costing 100 dollar. Such node could eventually input and output 100 gigabit/s. Imagine multicasts. This is what mankind is building, actually, currently. Now if you want mankind to become slave on data, slave on information, paying vast amounts of money to greedy people, paying vast amounts of money to have the honour to watch advertising anytime, anywhere, that’s a completely different story. Which side are you, actually? Your answer may serve as the big “why” on top of your list. What’s the purpose? Is it money? Are you aware that money, at the origin, is a “thank you” symbol generated by the whole communauty? Then comes the rest, quite naturally, isn’t?

    stephtsf

    January 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm

  65. “What if I didn’t have a mechanism to release an update” I like that.

    Kevin Koperski

    January 8, 2013 at 11:33 am

  66. The content was great, and because of that, the length is fine. A blog post can be long if what is being said needs the length. And this post was very insightful. The post is clearly the summary of years of experience, and in that sense it is boiled down to a very manageable length.

    Chris Hawkins

    January 8, 2013 at 9:51 am

  67. What about defining a limit on internal costs of development over expected revenue? It seems prudent to at least set a milestone somewhere in the project where costs already incurred are weighed against the expected remaining costs and expected revenue. Do you think the whole team should be made aware of it beforehand?

    GTJim

    January 8, 2013 at 9:14 am

  68. Vlad, I think you missed the whole point of this blog. You should save your comments for a more appropriate Windows 8 blog.

    Tony

    January 8, 2013 at 6:50 am

  69. Quote: “A lot of times you see lists of features/goals with priorities but that leaves it unclear which ones will get done…”. This makes a lot of sense. But I am not sure why a lot of teams are still doing it and I don’t know of any team who don’t. We tell ourselves: “Do first thing first, and second things not at all”. It’s possible that we assign priorities because cost estimates are never accurate and we want to work on more important things first. But it’s also possible that there are always more first things than we have time for, so we should never have to consider second things, in which case, doesn’t it still make sense to prioritize those first things? I think this whole idea deserves a separate blog by itself.

    Tony

    January 8, 2013 at 6:35 am

  70. I don’t know – should I ask here, but all this bla-bla-bla about project management and hiring cheap Indian and Chinese programmers made me ask: Does the Microsoft know the simple rule about developing and system administration – “Don’t destroy what you are already achieve.”? Mister Sinofsky, you are responsible for Windows 8, so you are definitely know – why? So I will ask.

    Windows 8 – is great OS, and I wish long life to her. But! It so many “why” in her start!

    I will don’t ask why Surface price was same as top tablets on the market, when Surface was clearly in the low-middle. You don’t need to expand the market share? Greediness takes over strategy and common sense? I’ts Microsoft problem anyway. It will be very sad to me to move in to the Apple environment, but I can survive this.

    But situation is more interesting around SkyDrive and LiveMesh. As clear example about all “Industry trends”, “Define success”. But mostly it’s about spitting on your customer needs. What was wrong with you guys? Are you think that we are too stupid to use so “complicated” think? Software evolution, as I understand it, means to take all good what already application had – and add the new features, improve usability, make interface more ergonomic e.t.c.. So why you drop development of LiveMesh, and simply made copy of Dropbox? This is evolution, as you see it? I had the ability to synchronize all documents and files between my desktop and laptop, and to choose – witch one of them i want to put in the cloud. I had the ability to keep my files where they must to be logically, and sync them device-to-device or device-cloud-device. Now, with Windows 8, I must break logical structure of my folders, put part of my files to stupid Skydrive folder, and have no ability to sync device-to-device. One step forward, two backward? I don’t want to put my naked girlfriend photos on your skydrive! I don’t want to put all docs, books, and pdf-s I’m working with also. But i want to keep them synchronize between my computers! Did you ever listen many plea on your forums do not take away LiveMesh from Live Essentials? May be this is internal information, but I ask anyway – are you people ever used you own products?

    Same questions going to widgets, aeroglass, DreamScene, normal plugins to IE (fck, did you ever seen speed deal in Opera or Safary? And shameful IE “most recent pages”?), boot recovery and safe mode (yes, we can recover our own OS without recovery disk anymore!), split screen in Metro (Android 4.2 already have it better.)

    Same question – to poor old start menu. Did you ever know – how many people will use Start 8 or Startisback with Win8? Did you ever tried to work on Windows 8 without touchscreen? On 27″ monitor? (I mean – work! Not to read the news and chat in Skype.) This is so many articles about “10 thing in old StartMenu, that better than new Windows 8″, but can i remind you some? (You didn’t pay attention to them in Windows 8 development, but maybe you will be interested to hear about them in your own blog?) In start menu I can press Windows key and start to type something. The search gives me all references in all locations – apps, files, internet links, history. In Metro interface, when I press Win key and start to type – it will give me only apps. All search locations are separated now. When i want to find something – I must make 3 separate searches by now. This is one of your new hired “interface ergonomist” invention? But he was cheap, I can admit it!

    You left desktop as “compatibility” with 99% applications for Windows. (LOL already.) And made Metro as “future version of computer interface”. And you strip desktop from everything that it had. Why? To force people to use “future”? Did you ask people – are they want to be pushed? Simply guy, who made Startisback shows you HOW it must been done, and what the people a really want. Simple switch between desktop and metro mode, WITHOUT removing abilities. It was so hard for you!

    Metro is most usable and good looking interface for tablets. On 11″ touchscreens. On tablets. My be on 50″ TVs with touch screen, but I doubt it. But it absolutely waste of screen space on 22″-27″ monitors. What if I not the stupid cow, as you count me, and want not only to watch youtube, and post something on facebook and twitter? What if need to switch between 10 windows with information, type this info in 11-th window, and answer to people in Skype chat simultaneously? O, and listen internet-radio or watch TV in small window in top right corner? Why you decide to take away this from me? You will say – “that’s why we left desktop support”! Ok, but why then I need Metro on my desktop at all? Why don’t simply allow to the people to chose – what shell they want to use? Are you afraid that 8 gigs of RAM will not enough to run them both?

    Sorry about my English. But it hard to lose Windows, where I spent so many years. Windows 7 was big step forward. Windows 8 is strange step, when one leg moves forward and second moves to the left. Mouse and keyboard still most useful interface between man and computer. And touchscreens are additions to them, not the replacement. I understand, that you are jealous to Apple, and their policy – eat what we are give you, stupid users! But with this approach, Apple still had only 10% of personal computers market, and start to lose smartphone market to Android. But you can help them, and give them yours 90% of PC market! If that’s your goal.

    Vlad (DarkTrooper)

    January 8, 2013 at 5:12 am

  71. Hi Steven, this post is a great topic and was fun to read. Though I would consider making paragraphs smaller in order to eas the reading. As for the topic I find it a good post because it is a simple plan to the Plan, which sometimes is hard to write down.
    I am an industrial designer, so I’m half an engineer but capable of understanding engineers and the social since too. As you are most familiar with software design it is understandable you don’t com across Industrial designers a lot, which are working in the field of product design. The fact is that by definition industrial designers are the bridge between the social field and engineering, so my thought is: Where is that person in the service development or software creation?
    Because I believe that when it comes down to writing the Plan you need some sort of mediator to bring both ends together in peace. Specially because in addition to the team there is the business plan which is hard to understand and most engineers don’t have a clue when it comes to satisfying the CEO and neither do the people from marketing. That is why I believe an industrial designer is important, using his talents to connect the teams and to sell the idea to the CEO.

    anonym

    January 8, 2013 at 3:42 am

  72. I’m a system administrator of huge network, with time critical environment, working 24/7. I don’t have any of signs of “terrible experience” with MS products. But our system of replications, working on MS SQL 2000-2008 servers – “most complicated and advanced in Europe” (words from MS sql specialist). Works like charm already many years.

    Sorry Gregg, but MS products – are most secure and stable. People who have “terrible experience” with them – mostly have terrible experience with anything. Even with tooth brush.

    Vlad (DarkTrooper)

    January 8, 2013 at 3:18 am

  73. Interesting post. As a former software engineer and space enthusiast I have 3 observations:
    1. Software quality sucks. The automatic reply to this is that’s it’s complicated, but so is hardware, whether it is a car, a mass-produced chair or a computer chip.
    2. Even with planning projects slip, regardless of the low quality that companies allow themselves to release with. Case in point – space projects, for example James Webb Space Telescope – about 8X over budget and several years over, or SpaceShipTwo (been 2 years from flying customers for the past 8 years).
    3. The easier it is to release updates, the lower software quality is. Before the internet any update would have to be shipped. Difficult. With the internet – the Surface ships and immediately gets 800MB of updates. The Wii U comes out practically unusable until its software is updated.

    Obviously every one of the above has a flip side that can tell another story, but I would be pushing any engineer, PM, manager, VP etc. to answer the question “what if I didn’t have a mechanism to release an update” whenever quality standards for publically facing software are lowered or about to be.

    Amnon Govrin

    January 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  74. If this resonates with you (it occurred to me) you might want to write some thoughts in an email and send it out with a link to this post. . .(to your list).

    hamiltongreatstories

    January 7, 2013 at 2:20 pm

  75. Love it, thanks. Specifically, the idea of “getting products to market and putting the broad feedback loop to work” in healthy tension with “big bets”. Too often a plan is built around static observations vs. planting a stake at the end of the regression line– an educated guess. We forget that factors are changing– economics, priorities, decision makers. And new factors are constantly introduced. Sometimes looking at the first derivative (rate of change) or second derivative (rate of rate of change) can be more telling than the data itself. Looking forward to the next post!

    Cameron Turner

    January 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm

  76. I actually appreciated the in-depth narration of the Windows 8 blog.

    ericstoltz

    January 7, 2013 at 11:58 am

  77. Hilarious! Full disclosure demanded by an anonymous poster!

    Eric Stoltz

    January 7, 2013 at 11:56 am

  78. I agree with Neil. I thought the post was mostly tech-jargon-free and the viewpoint was at 30k feet rather than down in the weeds.

    Josh Lyon

    January 7, 2013 at 11:50 am

  79. Thank you for posting this. Very enlightening :)

    dlopez6243

    January 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

  80. “Likewise, every engineer knows the frustration of dealing with a salesperson, marketer, or customer who insists on something being done a certain way but can’t offer any rational explanation.”

    I think this is a great start to an interesting discussion on what is perceived often by dev as the narrow-minded parochial nature of sales/marketing/customers and the visionary nature of developers and engineers. As a former Microsoft Product Manager (1990s) who comes from programming background, I chafe at the implication that creativity and vision with respect to product direction and features are the exclusive domain of techies, and a business plan (which is essentially what is laid out here) should be little more than a superficial assessment of the 5 Ps (as Charlie Kindel so rightly identified them when he tagged this article). I have met as many developers in my career who have told me they couldn’t implement a particular feature requested by a customer or salesperson because “That’s the way it’s always been done.” And “agile marketing” is essentially the recognition by most modern marketers and product managers that a flexible product and feature roadmap such as you describe is essential in today’s world. But today the best product ideas (direction, not just indvidual features) should be sourced from from everyone – the user, competitors, kids – and yes, the dev and marketing teams.

    Social media has revolutionized the conversation between customers and companies. Unbiased market research can be obtained simply by listening to customers (and competitors) online. We are in a new era where product feature prioritization can essentially be crowd sourced at every phase of development. Where I think Microsoft could have done better over the past ten years is in listening to its customers, not letting developers have free reign to determine product direction. They’ve done that. Mediocre products, or visionary products a few years too late (Surface) is the result. Microsoft continues to dominate in the business software arena, but primarily because the marketing and sales groups run a ruthlessly efficient software licensing machine. Not because customers love Microsoft products. In the consumer arena, with the exception of XBox, Microsoft has never mastered, in my opinion, consumer product development.

    I understand it will always likely be the same company it was when I was there, where dev always had the first and last word. A deep partnership with and respect for marketing, sales, and ultimately the needs of the customer – instead of a dismissal of them as merely naysayers – might have saved Microsoft from its slow but inevitable slide toward consumer irrelevance (to paraphrase Dilbert.)

    solveigwhittle

    January 7, 2013 at 10:19 am

  81. Glad to see you are blogging again Steven – a learned a ton working on Office and am glad I can continue to learn more from you. Making business decisions and reacting to (or ignoring) competition would be welcome topics. Defining products and the role of Vision documents would be others.

    Margaret

    January 7, 2013 at 8:48 am

  82. It would help some of us understand more if you’re less vague and less abstract and instead, include some examples, either from past experience (omitting identifying info) or from hypothetical examples.

    Some of use learn best through experiential examples.

    Guy

    January 7, 2013 at 12:02 am

  83. SIMPLIFY Stephen. Way too long. SIMPLIFY.

    MICKEY

    January 6, 2013 at 11:48 pm

  84. Steve,

    This is a good post but it would be nice if you can color these posts with your own experience at Microsoft and Windows 8. Nothing will help the world more than telling the way it is with great examples. Also a lot of questions are still not answered about your departure. Please address the rumors. We would like to know what happened. I am sure there are a lot of non disclosure agreements in place but a good blog is like a biography of a person, it must contain everything!

    Anonymous

    January 6, 2013 at 5:50 pm

  85. Disagreed. A lot of us actually read blog posts, especially on such topics, specifically for the verbosity. This one is less than 3,000 words. Any shorter than that, and you might as well go with Twitter.

    Anonymous

    January 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm

  86. Like the content, but your writing style is way too verbose. You’re not writing a text book, you’re writing a blog post. Try summarizing better, better of use of bullet points and bolding. We don’t need to recreate 8000-10,000 word blog posts you have on the “Building Windows 8″ blog!

    Anonymous

    January 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm

  87. Modern UI is fantastic for desktop computers and I stand by that 110% but this isn’t about Windows. Steve has taken his time providing us future project leaders with some very useful knowledge and I thank him for that.

    I learned a few things from this post I can’t wait for the next one.

    Anonymous

    January 6, 2013 at 10:06 am

  88. Great post and a great start to your blogging journey. As others have noted, breaking the information into smaller chunks and multiple posts may work better. That said, there was really good information here. Much to think about and several ideas to leverage in my own daily work. Keep going!

    Chris

    Chris Halstead (@chalst)

    January 6, 2013 at 9:59 am

  89. Great Post

    Rob

    January 6, 2013 at 9:43 am

  90. I can see why you were in charge of things. Thinking at the high level of “how and why” enables everyone to share a vision, and get big things done.

    streich

    January 6, 2013 at 8:59 am

  91. Windows 8 has so many half baked things going on. I find nothing useful on the Modern UI side of things. I use multiple monitors and im in Cinema 4D, Corel and After effects all day. Screen real estate is very important. The MS apps are watered down versions of the web apps so they are pretty useless. I like a dark colors for the UI and when you make the windows dark the window title text disappears along with the min, max and close buttons. Its a good thing Stardock created Start8 and there are UX themes to download. The desktop part of 8 is great besides all the tablet optimized stuff i will never use in the “Metro” side of things. I use Google services and do more then blog, or check my e-mails and play cut the rope. You really helped to botch up 8. everyone I converse with on 8 are professionals like myself. Many use to be Mac only and 8 actually made them consider going back to Apple. Thats pretty bad.

    West

    January 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

  92. I believe the fact that windows 8 and windows phone 8 is not really merging
    The fact that developers still have to develop app for phone and tablet, also different yearly subscription
    The fact that customers still have to buy different app for phone and tablet
    even after the windows phone 8 restart, same architecture bullshit they said, nothing really merging

    I have a feeling that snapped view on windows 8 is a phone view
    and the tablet view is the full screen view
    but no, that’s not happen, there is different Skype for windows phone 8
    and there is Skype for windows 8

    so based on it, your plan is not working
    windows 8 and windows phone 8 still totally different store, different software
    customers don’t care about architecture behind the product, they just want to the apps they bought works on phone and tablet

    a total failure big bet

    tsuyoshi

    January 6, 2013 at 3:08 am

  93. Great post. Would love your take on how much detail is ‘good enough’ in a good plan. There is no end to the list of questions in a project (down to “what font should this dialog use”). One can plan out every detail upfront and document it. But when the planning phase is too long, it risks getting obsoleted before it is complete. And when documents get long, readers do not absorb them well

    T.P

    January 6, 2013 at 12:02 am

  94. I really liked it, still enjoy your writing style.

    I think you could easily expand on each of the areas addressed and create a separate post for each. Of particular interest to me would be the interaction with and creation of feedback loops between engineering and sales and marketing (as separate entities) and how you believe this is best implemented. Also, another topic that’s close to my heart is the area of disclosure to customers; the when, why and how of product decisions, would really be interesting to explore in more detail. But I get ahead of myself, still a lot of posts I’m sure before we get to those areas.

    Please keep writing and ignore the trolls, these are valuable insights and I admire you for sharing so freely!

    Werner Kasselman

    January 5, 2013 at 10:15 pm

  95. Namaste,

    This is a wonderful, well thought and well written post. I got an opportunity to read because of +Vic Gundotra of Google+ and Google+ where I am active. I call this post as learning, unlearning and relearning post. I am re-sharing it again so as to empower users connected with me. This post is meant to become unbiased from biased situation.

    Thank you much. Nature bless you. Nature bless your parents. Nature bless all of us.

    Phadke S. N.
    City: Pune
    State: Maharashtra
    Country: India alias Bharat alias Hindustan. I call it motherland.
    Date: 6th January, 2013 at 11:17 AM on Sunday.

    Phadke

    January 5, 2013 at 9:52 pm

  96. Steve, it might be helpful to set the scene here. What kinds of technology products are you referring to here? You specialized in large teams, high-stakes, product-as-a-platform plays. What about traditional enterprises using classical requirement gathering process. Will this apply?

    Chui Tey

    January 5, 2013 at 9:01 pm

  97. Great post. Especially love the planning framework that was outlined here. Any suggestions on how a “lean” organization would be able to leverage this planning framework?

    Dave Lin (@dclin)

    January 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm

  98. Part of my plan at work is getting more of this kind of thinking out in the open and internally in abundance within the network of walls and desks where I work. When faced with institutional harnesses, my preference is to do away with the establishment and create the solution, and in that solution is the product.

  99. (The old rule applies: don’t feed the troll …)

    br

    January 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm

  100. Some ideas for for future articles, building on this one:
    – How to separate the “big bets” from the “big list” of features
    – How to distinguish/walk-the-line of a dynamic plan versus feature creep
    – An concrete-enough example of a plan that more like a “framework” and less like a “burden”
    – How to tell the difference between planning agility and planning chaos and how to detect chaos early on
    – Recommendations on an “API” between engineering and product management/marketing that ensures that ambiguity-related stress is minimized
    – How to deal with features versus cost in such a way as to guide engineering and product management/marketing to *naturally* make the right trade-offs (tough one!)
    – How to avoid things like “as fast as possible” and “as cheap as possible” in favor of mutually understood targets
    – For projects where time-to-market is integral to the “big bet”, how to trade-off other features and requirements to make it happen without pushing engineering or product management/marketing into a corner (as per your comments about stress)

    P L

    January 5, 2013 at 5:09 pm

  101. Thank you for creating this blog, I can’t tell you how valuable this information. I’m just a student right now trying to pull a team together on a project and I believe you’re words describing the importance of bridging the “how” and the “why” are perfectly suited for doing just that. It makes perfect sense that helping people understand why we are doing what we are (why could be defining the problem) and how we might solve that problem will help the team see what we need to do in order to get from “why” to “how”. I think defining those parts will really begin to foster ideas, solutions and just an overall enthusiasm for the project. In other words, thank you for sharing your experience with me and everyone following the blog. Please don’t stop!

    Blake Westmoreland

    January 5, 2013 at 4:05 pm

  102. What I read out of this, is that Steven and perhaps the rest of Microsoft have no experience with Requirements. What I sense is what happens when you have an anything goes development environment. When you develop anything and you have no requirements, then there is nothing to control the progression of anything. Nothing is supporting the direction of the development and weird things start to happen. What you get out of that is always a disaster.

    When I look at this and consider my terrible experiences with Microsoft software systems, I’m absolutely sure that I know now where the source of all the problems at Microsoft come from.

    Was there ever a requirement for software to be secure? Was there ever a requirement for software to be performant? What were the numbers, figures or details of these requirements?

    In the end, Microsoft has been fixing the same software products’ lack of security, stability and usability for more than a decade now, and we all still have viruses, malware, loss of data, corrupted memory content and lots of other basic software problems which recur, over and over and over.

    Once a month, I can expect an email from CERT with multiple Microsoft security problems which ultimately, almost always say “remote user can gain control of your computer”.

    What ultimately matters for software, is specified behavior/features. If you can’t write requirements for what you want to do, then how will you write tests to prove that the software meets those requirements.

    Sure, software can have bugs. Sure, humans are not great at being perfect performers. But history shows us that Microsoft has failed consistently if not constantly at delivering a truly quality product.

    Gregg Wonderly

    January 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  103. This is going to sound completely ridiculous, but the stuff in this post is really going to help me in my IT class next year. Thanks!

    Jack Fetter (@JackEFetter)

    January 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm

  104. Great post; thanks for taking the time to put these thoughts down into words. It pulls together much that I have experienced both as a software engineer and working for marketing strategy in a hardware company. But it adds a higher order dimension to the dynamics which I haven’t considered. I like your writing style. It’s tight, unique, and packed with the wisdom from your years of experience. Don’t change it; do improve as you see the need.

    Hope to see more from you; thanks for reaching out to the Google+ community as well.
    PS: I liked your PS’s.
    PPS: please add a G+ share link to your blog page, since the blog is not about “anything specific from past or present.” :-)

    Daudi

    January 5, 2013 at 2:40 pm

  105. I thought the post was clear and tech free but thank you for your reply because it adds an extra layer of insight.

    Neil B

    January 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm

  106. Thanks for the post.
    I am not personally involved in software development but hardware and, having stumbled upon this blog, it was great to read clearly described ideas and processes that seem like common sense but are often over looked.
    Thanks again Steve

    Neil B

    January 5, 2013 at 2:14 pm

  107. Hello,
    I work with engineers, and one of the best thing that anyone can do is learn Engineer. I do’t say this in a snarky tone, but in all honesty. When I first went to work for the computer company, I though I’d go crazy trying to understand our chief engineer. It took a good 2-3 weeks for us to stop having communication failures due to a lack of common language.

    Your own post is a good example of exactly what I’m talking about. There are tons of facts and good information, but it reads like a tech manual. If you want to engage the non-engineer, you have to speak their language and visa versa. In any company, it helps to have someone who can interpret. I became that person. I also eventually became the CEO, because I can deal with people and still understand when someone walks up and starts talking about how the module just won’t hold under the load placed on it by the memory chip.

    Were it me, this would be three posts. Feed it slowly, and take jargon out of it. Good luck.

    Rozewolf

    January 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm

  108. Hey SteveSi, is there any truth to this:

    “My understanding is that they actually promoted the one who designed metro when they fired sinofsky, Julie Larson-green. iirc, sinofsky was actually fighting to prevent metro from being the primary interface and was labeled an old stodge by his peers.”

    http://tech.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=3350305&cid=42447163

    Blogreader

    January 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

  109. Dear Steve,

    Great post and in detail.

    M senthil kumar

    January 5, 2013 at 11:18 am

  110. What are your thoughts on planning when you have short iterative release cycles? Seems that Chrome is doing pretty well with a 6-week release cycle …

    br

    January 5, 2013 at 11:17 am

  111. Nice post. I completely agree on the importance of coordinating engineering and sales, so they understand each other and the decisions they take. It’s a must to have a plan, a vision, a place where you want to be in the future. And that’s THE bet you are going to do. As an engineer sometimes is hard not to add features, but first you have to be sure THE main message (the bet) is clear for both your team (engineering, sales), and your clients.

    My two cents about the style: I’d suggest not to write paragraphs longer than 5-6 lines. I think you could have written it shorter expressing the main key points.

    PD: I’d love to read some stories about team building, team motivation and dealing with conflicts. Hope you can share some based on your experience.

    fesja

    January 5, 2013 at 11:16 am

  112. I have never worked in software development. I kept reading. The concepts of dynamic planning, the big bet, and connecting social uncertainties and to engineering are just a few I thought applicable to solving the challenges found in large projects crossing functional and business boundaries in large corporations, the area I struggle in.

    Anonymous

    January 5, 2013 at 11:04 am

  113. I work as a marketer and front end creative at a successful niche software company. Your insight here is invaluable do to your experience and effort to identify, then define, terms and issues unfamiliar to many of us in similar situations. I look forward to reading more and you can bet I’ll be sharing your posts with my co-workers. Thank you for sharing.

    Andy S.

    andyspliethof

    January 5, 2013 at 10:18 am

  114. Great blog post! This reminds me of a recent job interview where they asked candidates to provide a page describing describing competing products features and pricing plans. Whilst it required a lot more work than most applications, it makes sense why they ask for it.

    np

    January 5, 2013 at 10:06 am


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