Balancing Trains and Product Roadmaps

 

Balance to life is kale shakes and cupcakes!

– Unknown

 

Product Train

 

Founded in 1853, the state owned Indian Railways has one of the largest railway networks in the world. With over 71,000 miles of track spanning 7000+ stations carrying over 8.3 billion passengers annually, it employs over 1.3 million people. Indian Railways generates about 70% of the revenue from freight traffic while the remaining 30% comes from passenger traffic.

Given the socialistic background of the Indian government, freight business profits are used to subsidize the passenger ticket prices so that a common man can travel very inexpensively. You could travel by train from Mumbai to New Delhi (about 900 miles) for a super low price of around $10! To enable such a low price travel, Indian Railways has to balance many variables such as freight-versus-passenger traffic, frequency, route planning, staffing levels, passenger convenience, amenities, capital expenditure, service quality, safety, etc.

In many ways, balancing train operations is very similar to balancing product roadmaps. And yet, if you look around, you will find plenty of examples of technology products (especially from big companies) that are a bit of a train wreck – uninspiring, buggy, unintuitive, slow, clunky to use, etc.

 

Why is that?

Unbalanced Product Roadmaps!

 

As companies get bigger, there is a pressure on product teams to prioritize items that have a direct ROI. While that intent is noble, it typically results in a situation where new features/functionalities are given much higher importance. Every subsequent release gets stuffed with more and more bells & whistles to appease external customers & internal stakeholders (sales, marketing, execs, etc.) and also because it’s easier to justify ROI with new features.

With this intense focus on new features & functionality, 2 things usually get the step-child treatment:

 

  1. Infrastructure Improvements: Every technology product has frontend/backend infrastructure like databases, middleware, messaging, caches, security framework, identity management, UX frameworks, analytics, test automation, etc. Keeping this infrastructure humming takes a non-trivial effort on an ongoing basis. And yet, such infrastructure improvements typically take a back seat because improving/maintaining it is not as sexy as product bells & whistles.
  2. Refinements: This is polishing the product to a shine – bug fixes, performance improvements, UI/functionality tweaks, usability improvements, etc. It’s the little details that elevate the product experience. Again, this area typically doesn’t get much love.

 

Over a period of time, as the products get stuffed with more and more bells and whistles with little attention to Infrastructure Improvements and Refinements, the product becomes clunky. Technology industry even invented a term “technical debt” to describe this. It’s a fancy way of saying “we didn’t do stuff that we should have and we kicked the can down the road”.

 

What’s the mantra to prevent that?

Balanced Roadmaps!

 

When planning product roadmaps, management should mandate product teams to present a balanced roadmap. Every product release should offer a balance of Features and Functionalities, Infrastructure Improvements & Refinements:

 

Balanced Product Roadmap

 

Typically, I guide my teams to allocate about 60% of the bandwidth to Features and Functionalities, 20% to Infrastructure Improvements & the remaining 20% to Refinements. While this allocation can vary, in the long term, this structure allows product teams to deliver solid well-rounded products in a disciplined manner without incurring “technical debt”!

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Email is Dead! Really?

 

Email is the Jason Bourne of online – somebody’s always trying to kill it. It can’t be done!

-Anonymous

 

 

Email Tombstone

 

 

Not a week goes by without somebody at work throwing up hands that “email is useless”. Same thing with tech rags/sites/blogs proclaiming that email is dead. An occasional news story about a company that has completely banned email only adds to the hyperbole!

Every time I hear that, I’m thinking “BS!! Have you tried working without email for a week?

Don’t get me wrong. I love using IM, Lync, Hipchat, Webex, BlueJeans, Skype, Slack, Sharepoint, Wiki,  Confluence, DropBox  & any other tool-du-jour! Heck, I love meeting people face to face and even phone calls. But, I haven’t yet seen anything that’s as effective & well-rounded as email.

Don’t believe me?

Asynchronous: I can send emails during work hours or after dinner when the family has dozed off. Try doing that with other communication channels!

Thoughtful Communication: Without email ever tried to communicate a detailed strategy or proposal that requires long explanation, backup documents & spreadsheets?

External Communication: Tried working with people outside your group/function without using email? How about working with people outside your company (e.g. partners & customers)?

Cross Geography & Time Zones: Without using email try working with people in Stockholm or Bangalore while you are sitting here in California!

Meetings/Calendaring: Try setting up an hour long meeting with a handful of people without using email/calendaring!

Universal: Whether its work, family, friends, kids’ school or Amazon/Netflix/eTrade sending you notifications, email is a universal platform for communication.

Traveling: Some of my best productive moments happen when I am fly cross continent over to Europe or Asia. Without internet or interruptions, it’s a great time to catch-up on email, read analyst reports, absorb strategy decks, etc. By the time I land at the destination, I’m a whole lot wiser. Try doing all that without using an email product (e.g. Outlook) that syncs emails onto your laptop for offline use.

I rest my case!

 

Bottom-line: Can you reduce email? Are there better channels of communication than email for certain situations? Can the email experience be improved? Yes, yes & yes. Can you eliminate email in corporate? I won’t bet on that – I haven’t yet seen a realistic alternative that’s anywhere close to email!

 

It’s no wonder that email is the killer app of this century!!

 

 

Switching to Android – @#%*&$ and WOW!

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

-Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Switch to Android

 

Having been a power user of iPhone since 29th June 2007 (the iPhone launch day), never did I consider moving to any other platform – until recently.

A month ago on April 1st, I decided to prank myself – I switched to Android cold turkey on that Friday evening without ANY preparation whatsoever. I stayed on Android full-time for a full month (I vowed to not cheat) and here are my trials and tribulations with a pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow experience on a Google Nexus 5X.

 

First 2 Days

I HATED everything about Android – icons, colors, typography, navigation model, OS experience, 3rd party apps, hardware – EVERYTHING. It’s like shifting the furniture in a blind man’s apartment by a few inches – there was a  @%*&$# moment every so often with an urge to throw the phone at the wall! This was in spite of being very familiar with Android for a few years now!

Once I got over the initial frustration and setup everything , the experience was a lot smoother – in fact much better than I dreaded it to be!

 

Hardware Experience

With an iPhone, Apple is a vertically integrated manufacturer that tightly controls the end to end user experience. Whether it’s the simple rewind/pause/forward button on the earpod headset or the custom chip that drives the camera, 3D Touch, retina display, etc., Apple owns everything that is strategic to the end user experience – and hence the superior experience. But, your hardware choices are limited to the design musings of Jony Ive and his crew at Cupertino.

Android on the other hand offers a plethora of hardware choices. Depending on your needs (e.g. screen size, camera, pure Android versus OEM experience, finger print sensor, cost, etc.), you have a much wider variety of devices at differing price points (starting at $30). In the long term, this variety at different price points is a strategic win for Google/Android (evident from the market-share statistics) – especially in the non-premium market segments.

 

Native OS/Software Experience:

This is where iOS really shines over Android. Whether it’s the visual voicemail that requires carrier integration, email/calendar/contacts/tasks integration with your corporate Microsoft Exchange server or the Apple ecosystem integration via Continuity, the iOS experience is a couple of notches better than Android. Its mostly a result of Apple’s willingness to invest in attention to detail – more on that topic here.

To give credit where its due, Android has improved a LOT in the last couple of years. Google Now on Cards is sublime – it magically surfaces the information I need at the appropriate moment. Some may call it intrusive, I find it brilliant! After installing the Google Voice app, my international calls to India were automatically routed via the super-cheap Google Voice service rather than ATT. Awesome!

 

AppStore / Google Play Apps

On my iPhone, like most others, I had a ton of third party apps from the AppStore. When I switched to Android, at the end of the month, I had a mere 18 third party apps – ranging from the the usual Whatsapp/Facebook/Amazon to the more esoteric ATT Visual Voicemail. 18 apps is all I needed – I suspect that most people need less than 20 apps!

If your usage is mostly limited to popular top tier apps (e.g. Facebook, Whatsapp, Amazon, eBay, DropBox, Pandora, etc.), these apps tend to offer solid comparable experiences on both platforms. Once you get to less popular tier 2 or tier 3 apps, iOS versions of the app usually tend to be a little better designed & executed than their Android counterparts for 2 reasons:

  1. iOS apps generate more revenue and hence the developers have an incentive to invest a little bit more on their iOS app.
  2. Because of the OS/hardware fragmentation on Android, maintaining a high quality product on Android is a lot more challenging and needs more effort.

 

Summary

Switching to Android was a seesaw of @#%*&$ and WOW moments!

If you had asked me a month ago before this switch, without batting an eyelid, I would have said that iOS wins. Now that I walked a few miles in the Android shoes, I think the answer is a little more nuanced. Android has definitely caught up with iOS in the last couple of years. Today I believe that iPhone holds a definite lead in most areas  of the user experience (e.g. better hardware, tighter hardware/software integration, OS upgrade availability, fit-n-finish, customer support, etc.) while Android leads iPhone in a few areas (e.g. hardware choices & price points, Google Now, etc.).

 

As for me, I am back to paying the Apple tax!

 


Miscellaneous Notes:

  • The fingerprint sensor on Nexus 5X is waaaaaay faster than TouchID on iPhone 6. Wow!
  • I tried hard but could not get Visual Voicemail working on the Nexus 5X (a pure Android 6.0 experience). Had to download & use the ATT visual voicemail app.
  • The voice recognition & accuracy with Google Now is much better than Siri – even with my Indian accent.
  • As I go back to iPhone, I’ll sorely miss the hardware back button on Android. Although, Samsung’s choice of putting the back button on the right side is an abomination.
  • Steve Jobs would have described Google Now Cards as “magical”!

 

Methodically Ignoring Your Customers, Again?

Customers are like teeth. Ignore them and they’ll go away!

– Jerry Flanagan

 

Ignored Customer

 

You read that right! Many medium/large sized companies in Corporate America have processes that methodically (but unintentionally) ignore the customer – especially in the software technology space. Here is what I mean…

Consider a medium/large sized company Acme Corporation that is in the technology business (my domain). When the product teams (comprised of Product Managers, Eng, QA, UX, Marketing, etc.) plan the next big version of the product, they seek input from key stakeholders. Sales teams provide feedback on new features/functionality that lets them close more deals. Customer Support provides input to improve product quality & reduce support contact thereby bringing cost savings. Marketing provides competitive information and other inputs to better position the product against competition. Different stakeholders provide inputs that impact their groups. So what’s missing?

What about your existing loyal customers who religiously use your product/service’s existing functionality? These loyal customers are your bread and butter. Chances are, they are being methodically ignored during every product cycle – here’s how:

When existing customers or prospects request new features that are deemed “major”, such requests are usually acted upon. If customers complain about egregious problems, they get fixed. What about problems that are “minor” inefficiencies, irritations or improvements? Often customers don’t proactively complain about what they see as “little issues”. Even if they complain, often that feedback gets lost in the process because those issues are prioritized as “minor” and get ignored. Over a period of quarters and years, these “minor” product issues accumulate and the end result is a product that’s heading towards mediocrity.

Why does this happen?

Engineers want to work on cool new stuff. Product teams are pressured into working on items that affect the sales top line or cost savings bottom line. Items that make the teams look good in QBRs (quarterly business reviews) get a higher priority. Egregious problems do get fixed, while the “minor” issues/irritations/improvements often get ignored. As a result, without the product teams realizing, the product gradually creeps towards mediocrity.

Don’t believe what I am saying? Take a look at your company’s HR, Procurement, Contract, Inventory, Quoting, Payroll, Legal or such similar software. Barring an exception or two, chances as, these products have mediocre user experiences (clunky, un-intuitive, hard to use, missing functionality, etc.).

How to avoid this march to mediocrity?

There’s at least 3 ways to monitor & address this.

  1. Measure Customer Satisfaction: Senior Management needs to actively drive the exercise of bi-annual (or annual) customer satisfaction measurement. NPS (Net Promoter Score) is an industry standard methodology of measuring how likely your customers are to refer your product/service to others. NPS is a direct reflection of customer satisfaction. Management needs to measure NPS (or an equivalent metric) on an ongoing basis and make this score a part of the KPI (key performance indicator). This gives an incentive to product teams to pro-actively address the minor issues.
  2. User Research: Most companies under invest in user research – read more on this here. When user research investments & activities are increased, product/service niggles are uncovered that can be then proactively addressed by the product teams.
  3. Dedicate Bandwidth: Product teams should dedicate a non-trivial percentage of engineering bandwidth (e.g. 10% – 20%) and use this bandwidth to exclusively focus on improving existing product functionality (not new functionality). This forces product teams to proactively address  “minor” issues & details that often get swept under the rug. Click here to read more on the topic of little details.

 

None of this is rocket science. It’s a matter of Management and Product Teams deliberately setting priorities and allocating investments & resources to make sure that customers and products experiences are not getting ignored!

 

Silicon Valley Engineering VS Wall Street Engineering

I think one problem we’ve had is that people who are smart, creative and innovative as engineers went into financial engineering.

– Walter Isaacson

 

FinancialEng

What do Citrix & Yahoo have in common? Along those same lines, what do Facebook and Google have in common?

These companies typify the battle that’s brewing between Silicon Valley Technology Engineering & Wall Street Financial Engineering!

Since the early days of Silicon Valley with Shockley Semiconductor, Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, our tech industry has been intertwined with venture capitalists & wall street. Technology companies need access to cash to fund the engineering efforts. VC’s are only too happy to supply the funds in hope of future payoffs. When that payoff happens in the form of an IPO, Wall Street too gets their pound of flesh. Over the years, asset management companies, LBO specialists, investment bankers, hedge funds & private equity funds too got involved in the game by investing in private & public companies, taking the public companies private, buybacks, special dividends, divestitures, spin-offs, mergers, etc. – quite a financial engineering bouquet.

In the recent years, beyond writing investment checks, some of these funds have been taking a more aggressive stance in dealing with the tech companies that they have invested in. Initially, they try to work behind the scenes with the company’s management team to drive the changes they seek. If that doesn’t work, they lobby & fight publicly (open letters to management, proxy wars, board room battles, lawsuits, etc.) to drive changes – hence the term “activist investors”.

Yahoo: Yahoo has been going through a turmoil in the recent years – revenue/profit drops, lack-luster product strategy, non-performing acquisitions & “acquihiring”, losing market share, talent exodus, competing with Google, Facebook & Microsoft, etc. Clearly, the investors who plunked money into Yahoo aren’t too thrilled. Hedge fund investors like Starboard Value are openly pushing for major changes such as selling Yahoo’s core business, layoff employees, replace executive management, etc.

Citrix: Meanwhile, Citrix has been facing its own share of pressure from its activist investor Elliott Management. Driven by Elliott, Citrix has been divesting product lines, spinning out its GoTo products, laying off employees, etc.

These moves on the part of activist investors are designed to improve the company’s stock value & EBITDA multiples in the short term – leading to a higher ROI for the investors. However, these activist investors are probably not thinking about the long term impact on the company, employees, product strategy, synergies, customers and partners. These investors have a single minded drive of improving short term ROI and nothing but ROI – and it’s hard to fault them because that’s how the Wall Street gets compensated.

So, how are companies supposed to protect themselves from these short term ROI driven investors? How do they control their destiny?

Turns out, Facebook and Google have figured that out!

Facebook: Facebook instituted a dual-class stock structure years before the IPO – class A & class B shares where class B shares carry ten votes per share while class A shares carry one vote per share. Mark Zuckerberg owns class B shares while the rest of the mere-mortals gets class A shares. As of few months ago, Zuckerberg controls 55% of the voting power even though his share ownership is much lower. What this means is – Zuckerberg and his team have absolute control over the company strategy & direction. Investors and Funds have no ability to hold the gun to Zuckerberg’s head or do any financial engineering to drive short term ROI!

Google: Google being Google (aka Alphabet), takes this strategy one step ahead of Facebook. Google has a three class share structure – classes A, B & C. Class A shares (ticker:GOOGL) get one vote per share, class B shares get 10 votes per share while class C (ticker:GOOG) shareholders get zilch/zero/nada votes per share. Class B shares (with 10 votes per share) are owned by Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and a few other insiders. This structure puts Google’s reins firmly in the hands of the management team without any form of activist investor interference. This absolute control also makes it easier for Google to spend billions of dollars on the moonshot projects without having to worry about the second guessing investors!

While its reassuring to know that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin & Eric Schmidt have absolute control over their company’s destiny, over the long term, only time will tell whether that’s a good thing or not!

 

Apple TV – 4th Time’s the Charm for Industry Disruption?

If it weren’t for Philo Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners.

 – Johnny Carson

 

Apple TV Small

 

Apple debuted the Apple TV product over eight years ago in Jan 2007. Over the years, Apple introduced 3 generations of the Apple TV to lukewarm response. Perhaps this lack of success is what prompted Steve Jobs to position the Apple TV as a “hobby”. The go-to market challenges associated with regionalized cable operators, hard negotiating oligopolistic studios, mish-mash of government regulations, consumers’ unwillingness to pay for a set top box, etc. certainly did not aid innovation in this industry.

For 8+ years Apple kept honing the Apple TV “hobby” and released their 4th gen New Apple TV a couple of weeks ago. In the latest iteration of the Apple TV with its new-fangled tvOS, Apple finally did a copy-paste of the AppStore ecosystem from iOS onto the TV. That opens the innovation flood gates of 3rd party developers to let a “million flowers bloom” for the TV experience. My fingers raced to click the Buy button on the first pre-order day!

I am not going to bore you with yet another review of the product – you can find that on NY Times, CNET & Engadget. Instead, here is my take on Apple TV’s potential (and Android TV, see PS below) to change & disrupt a few industries:

 

Casual Gaming: For the first week of the launch, Apple prominently featured the Asphalt 8 game on its TV AppStore. When my 11 year old son saw the Asphalt 8 icon on the TV, his eyes lit up and his jaw hit the proverbial floor. For the next hour, I could not pry the Apple TV remote from his hands while he raced his tricked out & nitro’ed McLaren P1 GTR through the streets of the London while the home theater speakers pumped out the visceral chest thumping roar of the McLaren. Quite a sensory experience that you don’t get on iPhones and iPads! Apple deliberately invested quite a bit on their graphics and game development frameworks/SDKs to make this possible.

While these $2.99 tvOS games may not be a threat to billion dollar franchises like Halo, the landscape of the casual gaming industry (think sub $20) will definitely change. In the coming years, the publishers of lightweight games on the game consoles will have a hard time convincing their customers to pony up $10-$20 for a game console title while similar games can be had on a multi-purpose Apple TV for $1.99 – $4.99. Over time, I expect these game publishers to migrate to the Apple TV gaming platform (& Android TV, see PS at the bottom).

 

Online Learning: After dinner, when the family has gone off to sleep, I have some difficult choices to make – read, watch Netflix from the comfort of a sofa or do something productive & cerebral with the laptop. It’s hard resisting the siren song of the sofa & remote!

With apps like TED & Coursera on the New Apple TV, it’s easier to engage in something more cerebral while comfortably ensconced in the sofa. Suddenly the Machine Learning course in Coursera doesn’t seem as daunting as it does on the computer. Given this ease of learning from the sofa & the TV, I expect more consumer traction for the online learning industry on the TV.

 

Cable TV Industry: This is going to take a few years to play out. Barring the exception of Tivo and DVRs, the cable TV experience has been more or less static for the last few decades. An average American household pays $86/month for cable TV – for which you get a few hundred channels most of which you never watch. With the availability of HBO, ABC, National Geographic, Disney etc. in an ala-carte model on the Apple TV, cord-cutting is now easier than ever before. However, before TV consumption over IP becomes mainstream, a lot of work needs to be done by Apple to improve the user experience. The current model of app switching on the TV is nowhere as convenient as channel surfing with your set top box!

This decoupling of content providers & cable operators probably bodes well for the content providers as well. Once they have their channel as an app on the Apple TV (or Android TV), their market availability is worldwide – they probably don’t need to worry about negotiating with dozens of cable operators worldwide!

 

What other Disruptions?: Unlike mobile phones, tablets and laptops that offer a personalized compute experience for you, an app-enabled smart TV offers a new model – a shared (for you & everybody around you) compute experience from the comfort of a sofa. Try the gorgeous AirBnB app on a TV and you will know what I mean. The voice search via Siri is also pretty nifty – I’m looking forward to Apple opening up Siri to third party developers. What new opportunities (or disruptions) that creates, only time will tell. I for one, am quite looking forward to that!

 

PS: The New Apple TV & Google’s Android TV are very similar positioned and compete neck to neck. Given that, the above commentary applies equally well to the Android TV. In fact, the combined forces of these 2 behemoths probably double the chances of industry disruption!

Hire the person that says – “I Don’t Know”

Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress! 

– Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides)

Hiring

Over the years, I have interviewed and hired (& sometimes fired) many people – including engineers, product managers, QA, marketers, project managers, senior leaders, etc. Whether it’s a startup or a multinational corporate, hiring is arguably one of the most important decisions for the company.

So, how to hire the right people for the job? How to separate wheat from the chaff? Here are a few things I look for when I interview & hire people:

Domain Knowledge: Whether you are running a refrigerated meat warehouse or building a Cassandra big data warehouse, unless you are hiring fresh grads, you need to hire people who have an understanding of your business, technology involved, industry knowledge, etc. Hiring people with the right domain knowledge mix allows you to build the correct product/service with fewer mistakes & iterations. There is a reason why companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Yahoo, Microsoft, Tesla, etc. pay premium salaries & sign-on bonuses while poaching from each other to get the domain expertise.

Basic Smarts: Don’t think I need to elaborate much on this.

Tenacity & Persistence: Great products/services don’t built in the first iteration – similarly tough problems don’t get solved in the first try. You need to keep going at it until you crack it. I look for evidence in the person’s resume/background that shows that the person has the persistence to keep going even when things get tough.

Details & Execution Strength: As they say, success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I like people who are willing to sweat the details and focus on execution (aka get stuff done) – I’m not a big fan of people who skim the details. If you don’t dive into details, whatever you deliver will be pedestrian quality that will crumble sooner or later. When Mark Hurd got fired from HP, he immediately got hired by Oracle with a $40 million pay package. Why? Mark had a reputation for detailed analysis and focus on driving results. Read more about my views on attention to details…

Thinking Patterns: I like to understand how the candidate structures his/her thinking on a given topic. To judge this, I sometimes ask candidates to share a non-confidential document/deck that they have authored. This also helps me gauge their communication skills.

Team Composition & Culture: You need to ask the question – how does this new person fit into the overall team composition? People-person vs lone-wolf, tactical do’er vs strategic thinker, leader vs follower, specialist vs generalist, academic vs hustler, etc. End of the day, what you want is a well-balanced and a well-rounded team that gets the job done.

… and now about that rare quality:

I Don’t Know: Professional and Intellectual honesty is one of the most under-rated qualities – it’s also a quality that’s hard-to-detect. Everything else being equal, when I find a smart candidate that says “I don’t know” for a question or a concept, I know I have found an intellectually honest candidate. This also affirms that the candidate is not a glib talker.

Hiring right is more of an art than science – hope you find the Yoda you’re looking for!