Friday, April 17, 2015

So you want to be a VP?

I am periodically asked about becoming a VP.  That is the wrong question. An appropriate question is, "How do I increase my organizational, customer, or industry influence?" Recognize that our interests are not what drive other departments.  They want to execute and grow a business.  For them, technology is a means to an end.  To influence them, seek to understand their world.   

I recommend three groups with whom you develop relationships. 


Find ways to visit customers, attend customer events, or join calls with customers.  Set aside time to learn about your industry (in my case, healthcare).  The more you understand your customer's business and industry, the better partner you become.  It will improve your product decisions, as you will have context for how your customers use your product and the problems they are trying to solve.

Business partners

Your business partners include departments like sales, support, services, and marketing.  Take time to learn how they do what they do.  For example, learn how a salesperson gets quota credit (you do know what quota credit is, right?) or when and how your services team recognizes revenue (you do know what revenue is, right?)  Once you learn these concepts, you will have a better appreciation for why June 30 is significantly more than one business day away from July 1.

Finance and accounting

Learn how the money works in your organization.  There are critical concepts like capitalization, R&D Tax Credits, and so on that impact your company financial statements.  These in turn impact your ability to hire or to buy software. Financial management is as much a software development executive function as is shaping engineering practices and technology choices. 

I have never met a customer or business partner that refused to teach me.  They greatly appreciate your interest.  In turn, you will be surprised at how much you teach them about product development.  Spend your time here, and the question of "How do I become a VP" will take care of itself. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Customer involvement to reduce time to satisfaction

In my previous post, I discussed time to customer satisfaction. Much has been written elsewhere about customer involvement as part of a user experience program.  Prototypes, wireframes, and other techniques are well documented. As such, I'll avoid these topics. There are, however, two items that don't receive the same level of attention (or at least I haven't seen them frequently). They are the focus of this post.

Early involvement via sprint demos

Agile advocates that stakeholders (or proxies in the form of product owners) be part of the team.  This is an admirable goal, but I've yet to see it occur in practice.  This may be due to my experience in product development companies, where the "customer" is a market, not specific people.  While I've not had the opportunity to embed customers in my teams, there are ways to integrate them in your process.

Make each product owner responsible for cultivating a cadre of users.  These users are people heavily involved in the operational workflows for which the product is intended to be used.  Beginning with the first storyboards, this collection of users participates in sprint demonstrations.  They are made aware of the user stories delivered and the user stories being considered for the next iteration.  As the product is demonstrated, they can immediately confirm or correct workflow and visual designs.  I've even witnessed users helping each other understand how to use the product, thereby eliminating feature requests entirely.

This group also is a sounding board for questions or ideas that come up during the development process.  It is not unusual for product owners to have multiple user contacts through an iteration.

Advisory boards

While iteration demonstrations are tactical, advisory boards are strategic.  Look for people with industry breadth and understanding of operations within their organizations.  Advisory boards are critical to ensuring appropriate major product features and workflows.  Instead of focusing on iteration deliverables, this group guides you to determine priorities of competing major features, high level workflows across features, and your standing relative to competitors (within ethical and legal constraints).  

You will want 8-12 people representing multiple dimensions of your product. For example, a product for physicians would have an advisory board comprised of multiple specialties, geographies, and EHR usage. I encourage you to have non-customers represented, as well. They are highly likely to provide you completely new ways of thinking about problems, since they don't "know" your product or its workflows.

Most importantly, you want this group to tell you where your strategic mistakes are - before the market does.

These two groups can tremendously impact your ability to deliver a highly acceptable product to the market. They help refine workflows and visual designs, thereby decreasing the time to customer satisfaction. Equally important, the people involved throughout take a high degree of ownership. They become product advocates, since it is their product design.