The Persistent Myth of Product

This morning i had to take it a little easy. I burned myself out last night debugging and needed a small break. So i spent a little extra time sipping my coffee, enjoying my garden and reading a random book from my young adulthood. The book i picked up from my bookshelf was Michael Tomcsyk's "The Home Computer Wars." It's a first-hand account of Commodore's rise as a home computing juggernaut in the early 1980's. Written in an informal, first-person style, it's a surprisingly fun read; sort of like a romance novel for tech geeks.

One of the things I noticed about the book was how few rules there were to making "hit computer products" in the early 80's. The market was still developing and everyone seemed to have their pet theories for how to build the next, great thing. The locations involved, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, made me think of the companies I worked for in the valley; how their approach to structuring a business was straight out of the 80's and how that's probably why they're no longer around.

I'm thinking mostly of PalmSource, the software spin-off of Palm, Inc. PalmSource was structured in a pretty standard way: executive management at the top, different divisions for sales, marketing, operations and engineering. We worked in matrix style teams with product definition the responsibility of the team's product manager. I don't want to dispiarage anyone on the PalmSource team; with very few exceptions everyone involved were highly competent professionals. But in retrospect, I believe PalmSource's organization and rigid responsibilities set it up for failure.

My team was working on the software to secure apps on the device from other, potentially rogue apps. I was happy with the work I was doing, but the software security work I was doing quickly laid bare a sad truth: our product manager had no idea why we were including security features.

People who have implemented security features on products will probably understand how frustrating this can be. Security features frequently do things like pop up dialogue boxes or cause certain types of data accesses to fail. As feature developers, we can dial up the access protection and annoying interactions or we can dial them down. It's not exactly true that good user interface and good security are mutually exclusive, but it's frequently the case (especially in the first rev of a product.)

So as developers, we cheat. We have our software refer to configuration files to say how frequently we should annoy the user and what resources we don't let other programs access. It's great for the software developer, but it's really just kicking the can down the road. Someone, somewhere needs to make a decision about how often you annoy the user. And it's a horrible choice. If you err on the side of caution, people hate your user interface. If you err on the side of convenience, you open yourself up to vulnerabilities.

At PalmSource, we convinced ourselves that our product manager would make these decisions or would be the conduit for customer requirements. But we made a bit of a mistake. Our product manager, while very competent in the general handheld space, had about zero experience with security features and not a whole lot of experience evaluating user experience. And this was the guy who was going to make the decision in the usable vs. secure issue.

I don't blame our product manager. He was a good guy put in a situation outside his area of expertise. It did take him a little longer to recognize this than it should have, but he had a lot on his plate. As engineers, we had no way to report this issue to upper management because our management was actively hostile toward security features. (Seriously, my manager once fell asleep during a meeting when we were trying to explain the problem to him.) We had no authority to make a decision on our own, because PalmSource's corporate culture was "product tells engineering what to build, not the other way around."

In several old-school companies, the product management group is responsible for surveying the market, making educated guesses about economic trends and customer behaviour and developing a target for price and performance. Usually (hopefully) guided by the executive team's directives on ROI and general location in the price / quality matrix, they help engineering prioritize features for the products under development.

But it's increasingly important for product managers to have a deep knowledge of the product features. In the old days when the division between product marketing and engineering was established, products were effectively widgets with five or ten bullet-point features. The "quality" of your product was defined by the presence of a bullet-pointed feature or it's relative feature. Product managers didn't need to know what the features did, only that we had one.

Fast forward to the modern era... The iPhone finally got the term "user experience" on the lips of executives. Just-In-Time manufacturing is the default rather than the exception and various SaaS successes have people talking about how to provide value through an API. Selling software in Sili Valley is less about putting bullet points on boxes and more about adapting your API to fit into someone else's value chain.

So why do we still have product managers that aren't also sales engineers? Why did I, as an engineer, have to explain the business ramifications of poor design choices to our product manager? Why did I have to use back-channels to find engineers in our customer's organizations and ask *them* about their business objectives?

And I think the answer is "the Persistent Myth of Product."

There's a truism in marketing that to make money you can do two things: figure out what people want and make that, or figure out what you're good at making and make people want to buy it. In the early 80's, the vast majority of the populous wasn't familiar with what computers could do. It's safe to say people didn't know what they wanted. Sure, we all thought we wanted a device with more flashy graphics, a better keyboard and more memory. But that's just the "computer fetishist" view of computing products. What we needed to know in the early 80's was how these devices were going to fit into our lives.

And while I like to grouse about Apple's developer support from time to time, it's hard to argue they didn't do an EXCELLENT job communicating how Apple products fit into people's lives. When the Macintosh came out, IBM offered a series of ham-fisted windowing programs to counter the Mac's "ease of use" argument; ditto for Digital Research; ditto for Microsoft. I believe IBM and Microsoft survived because they understood the lucrative enterprise market.

In the early 2000's, Apple struck again with the iPod. It wasn't the first personal audio player, but it was the first to not treat the user interface as a bolt-on afterthought. And Apple did another EXCELLENT job communicating how the iPod fit in a user's life: buy an iPod, take your music with you. By comparison, Diamond and Creative were selling Rios and NOMADs like you would sell a PC component: by listing bullet points on the side of a box.

Traditional product managers are taught to identify key features of a product segment and then communicate those features to an engineering team. They are taught that all you have to do is make a widget slightly cheaper or slightly better and the world will beat a path to your door. And in many segments this is true.

But it's not true in software. Or at least it's not true for organizations that don't want to rely on dumb luck.

"Product" is not defined by a market, but by observing people, figuring out how technology can affect their lives, building it and communicating that change to the end user. Don't depend on an existing market to tell you what to build. Depend on your customer's need first. Or... figure out what you're good at building and figure out how it fits into your customer's life.