Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Working Backwards in Product Management

I just want to bring to spotlight some significant product management contributions buried into huge mass of Internet generated information

Ian McAllister from Amazon could be the most significant hands-on product management guru that I came across. Ian describes the "Going Backwards" a product management creative process, originally published on Quora October 17, 2010.  In my opinion it deserves a Nobel Prize nomination in Product Management (Please don't google it. It is just my admiring metaphor).
There is an approach called "working backwards" that is widely used at Amazon. We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. While working backwards can be applied to any specific product decision, using this approach is especially important when developing new products or features.
For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product's customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.
If the benefits listed don't sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they're not (and shouldn't be built). Instead, the product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they've come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!).
Here's an example outline for the press release:
Heading - Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
Sub-Heading - Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
Summary - Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
Problem - Describe the problem your product solves.
Solution - Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
Quote from You - A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
How to Get Started - Describe how easy it is to get started.
Customer Quote - Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
Closing and Call to Action - Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.
If the press release is more than a page and a half, it is probably too long. Keep it simple. 3-4 sentences for most paragraphs. Cut out the fat. Don't make it into a spec. You can accompany the press release with a FAQ that answers all of the other business or execution questions so the press release can stay focused on what the customer gets. My rule of thumb is that if the press release is hard to write, then the product is probably going to suck. Keep working at it until the outline for each paragraph flows. 
Oh, and I also like to write press-releases in what I call "Oprah-speak" for mainstream consumer products. Imagine you're sitting on Oprah's couch and have just explained the product to her, and then you listen as she explains it to her audience. That's "Oprah-speak", not "Geek-speak".
Once the project moves into development, the press release can be used as a touchstone; a guiding light. The product team can ask themselves, "Are we building what is in the press release?" If they find they're spending time building things that aren't in the press release (overbuilding), they need to ask themselves why. This keeps product development focused on achieving the customer benefits and not building extraneous stuff that takes longer to build, takes resources to maintain, and doesn't provide real customer benefit (at least not enough to warrant inclusion in the press release).
 Ron Brinkmann,  who self describes himself as a "Technology Dilettante" at Amazon, adds another punch:

The 'Working Backwards' methdology couples nicely with another Amazon approach - the fact that powerpoint presentations are strongly discouraged as a way of communicating between different groups in the company.  The thinking is that the success of a verbal presentation is very dependent on the skills of the presenter whereas boiling everything down to a written document takes the 'personality' issue out of the equation.  It's not uncommon to attend meetings at Amazon that begin with everybody sitting in silence for the first 5-10 minutes reading a document.
 I am re-reading the answers on March 15, 2012. This is after Steve Jobs passing away and the publication of his biography. I am amazed how the working-backwards, imaginary-release method shifts the responsibilities of knowing what customers want to the product manager. The anticipation of the customer reaction is predicted by the product team, and not lengthy customer interviews. This is revolutionary indeed and proven right once more in the Steve Jobs contention that customers do not know what they want.
 They complain of symptoms, but they do not know the cure.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Autism and Entrepreneurship

This graph shows the autism spread in all US state by state

In California, Most autistic cases are in Silicon Valley and Bay Area Los Angeles and San Diego area.
My son is highly functional autistic. He will get a certificate of completion (not graduation diploma) from Whitney High School in Rocklin, CA in June 2012. . He attends once a week a special Social and Communication program at MIND Institute part of University of California Davis.

Now what's going to happen after graduation? He may continue to get to attend college and some sort of graduation with supportive services paid ultimately from California budget. He may try to get a job, something not designed for his strengths and skills. Research shows the 98% of the persons on the spectrum end up living with a family or supporting charities paid from the budget Department of Developmental Services 

On March 13 I attended  a one day working conference Driving Forces Behind Post Secondary Education and Employment for Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities and with Autism .The tune at this conference was to make the autistic persons join the mainstream, but this is an impossible dream. We can not force the nature to make them be as we want. The sensitive approach is to create for them environments where they feel comfortable the way they are naturally, and not feel a stranger. The job must be designed for them and not redesign the candidate by forcing him to pretend he is not autistic as a precondition for employment

My son David would not be able to handle an interview. Yet he can build Lego constructions of 2,000 plus pieces reading the plans without any assistance, the quality of his work and attention to details can not be matched anyone in our family. He has qualities that could be channeled to be highly productive in a right enterprise.

  • Photographic memory
  • Ability to match shapes and a 3D view final construction
  • High tolerance for repetitive work
  • Obsession for perfection and spotless quality

So here come the idea. If Silicon Valley is the world hub of entrepreneurship, why not do two things.
  1. Facilitate Startup companies for profit, with specific  job descriptions and supportive services until all autistic employee reach full productivity.
  2. Created multiple oasis of productive units with jobs designed for special skills of highly autistic children in large corporation like Google, Face Book, Oracle
  3. All jobs for (1) and (2) will be specially designed for persons with Asperger and autism)
To illustrate the potential, the Obama administration high priority project of scanning all paper medical records and create an EHR  (Electronic Health Registry) is estimated to cost $100 billion and $27 billion have been out as an incentive. The California  Department of Developmental Services  budget is $4.6 billion.

There is a precedent in Denmark. Businessman Thorkil Sonne created an IT business employing 50 people, 37 of them autistic, paid above the market, with a company that has $2 million in revenues and it is profitable. Harvard Business Review published an interview with him, that you download from our web site

Here is an extract from a Wired Magazine article on Thorkil Sonne
In 2004, Sonne quit his job at a telecom firm and founded Specialisterne (Danish for "Specialists"), an IT consultancy that hires mostly people with autism-spectrum disorders. Its nearly 60 consultants ferret out software errors for companies like Microsoft and Cisco Systems. Recently, the firm has expanded into other detail-centered work—like keeping track of Denmark's fiber-optic network, so crews laying new lines don't accidentally cut old ones.

Turning autism into a selling point does require a little extra effort: Specialisterne employees typically complete a five-month training course, and clients must be prepared for a somewhat unusual working relationship. But once on the job, the consultants stay focused beyond the point when most minds go numb. As a result, they make far fewer mistakes. One client who hired Specialisterne workers to do data entry found that they were five to 10 times more precise than other contractors.

Sonne recently handed off day-to-day operations to start a foundation dedicated to spreading his business model. Already, companies inspired by Specialisterne have sprouted in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Similar efforts are planned for Iceland and Scotland. "This is not cheap labor, and it's not occupational therapy," he says. "We simply do a better job."

In an article from IEE Spectrum, Engineers and Autism we read
The author of the theory, Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psycho­pathology at the University of Cambridge, argues that in generations past, engineers, mathematicians, and other systemizers had little opportunity to meet potential spouses who thought as they did. Now, however, schools and professions sort both sexes by psychological types, raising the chances that people of like minds will marry and bear children. Baron-Cohen, cousin to comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, says that such ”assortative mating” is concentrating the genes that predispose to systemizing thought. That, in turn, ought to be increasing the likelihood of having a child with the most extreme systemizing: autism.
He notes that engineers are twice as likely as others to have autistic children, and that in general, the relatives of autistic people tend to score above the average on tests of systemizing. An unusual number fall on the ”autistic spectrum,” which includes conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that can leave children isolated, if not actually disabled. Yet even Asperger’s may not constitute a true handicap, because it is so often accompanied by countervailing powers—sometimes even by genius. Newton and Einstein have been cited as possible examples.

Not all autistic people are like Newton or Einstein.   Yet the great majority of them can earn a livelihood, if given the opportunities. Dandelion is now a symbol or entrepreneurship for autistic persons. "While many people think of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) as a pesky weed, herbalists consider it a valuable herb that can be used as a food and medicine. Dandelion is a rich source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium, and zinc. Dandelion leaves are used to add flavor to salads, sandwiches, and teas. The roots are used in some coffee substitutes, and the flowers are used to make wines."
And the flower by itself, if we are to create a garden of dandelions only, is beautiful.

Hacking Autism is one response on Silicon Valley for developers gathering to develop applications for autistic persons, mainly children:
The work each team is doing could typically cost from $50,000 to $175,000. An organization called "Random Hacks of Kindness" is helping to coordinate their work. A typical team includes specialists in UI (user interface), graphics, coding, testing and quality assurance. An expert of autism is joining each team to guide the developers.
A similar team can operate in every company creating jobs (instead of games only)  for autistic employees The final deliverable will be a job description, a training program and incentives to reach a productive level without stress, while elevating their self-esteem and quality of life.

One surprising discovery is that creating jobs for autistic people, will help us create better jobs for all of us. Learning to observe an individual being - not an amorphous mass of people - will  improve - and one day change forever - the way Human Resources functions  in corporations.

Watch the video. (Refresh the page before playing)

The author  is an autistic musician, with  85,000 viewers

Sunday, March 11, 2012

cre-a-tive Doing Business Differently

My daughter Michelle, a psychologist at UC Davis, taught me about Abraham Maslow  the creator of humanistic psychology. He  believes that every person has a strong desire to realize his or her full potential, to reach a level of "self-actualization".
Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs deals with the notion of self-actualization. Maslow believed that an individual could not achieve the level of self-actualization (a need to maintain and understand their conscious experience) if other, more basic, needs aren't met first. The hierarchy looks something like a pyramid with basic physiological needs on the bottom (food, water, etc) followed by safety, security + comfort on top, then belonging/social activity, then status & esteem and only then can a person self-actualize.
Maslow Hierarchy of Needs

Professor Maslow's  Hierachy of Needs has a key application in  employee motivation, as quoted by  Michelle from the book The Personality Puzzle by David Funder.
"Smart managers understand two things: (a) Employees will not show initiative and imagination unless they feel secure, and (b) employees who feel secure want something besides more money - they want to express themselves through their work by identifying with the organization's goals and contributing to them... Most companies are less insightful (he used Southwest airlines as an example of a smartly managed company),  but the great majority corporate world follows the conventional model: (a) when in doubt, lay off more people and (b) if the remaining employees are feeling overworked and under appreciated, pay them more."

Maslow is very popular all of a sudden and Harvard Business Review, New York Time. and Wall Street Journal  all dedicate article the new topic of  creativity.

From HBR Blog  by a graduate student" kpresson"
The figure explains that most of us do not know we are creative. Actually most people believe that in A slice at home, but at work, being creative is a sin and violates job descriptions. As we grow up from children to adults, we self-edit ourselves in more and more faked  standardized persons, that we think the society wants us to be and we will not succeed unless we all look like sort of identical bricks.

Quoting from HBR
This self-editing tendency becomes stronger and more instilled as we age. We are subject to standardized tests as the measure for achievement. In the words of William J. Wilson, a respected American sociologist, "But the person who scored well on an SAT will not necessarily be the best doctor or the best lawyer or the best businessman. These tests do not measure character, leadership, creativity, perseverance." 
Sure they are not!
So the question is - how should Harvard Business School be working to help us relearn and see the value in our creativity? Acknowledging a curriculum change is underway, a few ideas:
o  Add play to the curriculum (and not the pub crawl kind) - there are endless possibilities - community-created campus murals, throwing students into real-world business problems with little guidance, forcing students to display their logic and class comments visually, having more blogs like this one...
o  Make a greater effort to attract students with artistic and non-traditional backgrounds, those whose right brains have been cultivated. E.g., performing and classic arts. Exposure helps everyone involved.
o  Create environments and projects where open-ended brainstorming is a must. 
o  Continue to encourage and support entrepreneurship
o  Force students to "get their hands dirty ... If we're discussing or building a product-based business - we should hold and break down the physical product 
Note the extraordinary connection between entrepreneurship in creativity!  The bottom line, creative must come out of some tolerable chaos.  The creation involves contraction of the known corporate and HR dominated world, to make room for a new, imperfect oasis of apparent misfits that will generate creativity so we all can be all what we can be.
If different kinds of creative problems benefit from different kinds of creative thinking, how can we ensure that we're thinking in the right way at the right time? When should we daydream and go for a relaxing stroll, and when should we keep on sketching and toying with possibilities?
The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions "feelings of knowing," and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don't require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we're getting "warmer" or not, without knowing the solution.
The Wall Street Journal  article  How to be Creative is #1 in popularity and ends with these words:
Every creative story is different. And yet every creative story is the same: There was nothing, now there is something. It's almost like magic.

Monday, March 05, 2012

No Billing, no Cloud. Cloud Cruiser

To have a cloud as a business model, two things must happen by definition:

 1. A user will always have available  all resources s/he needs
 2.  A user will pay only for what it uses

The corollary of the above is that Data Center, outsourced or not, is transforming - for its owners - from a cost center, into a profit  center, once it becomes a cloud.

This is major shift  that started with  Amazon Web Services  sending  an INVOICE. This natural consequence of having resources available outside the organization  - like electricity, virtual nodes, storage and so on - is that the IT Director receives an invoice, and s/ he  does not know who should pay for it - triggered a need to keep track of all costs and invoice the responsible parties  inside or outside the organization.

In my opinion, the total cost of ownership (TCO) does not tell much about  Data Center. The Return on Investment (ROI) tells me not only how much the Data Center costs, but how much money the Data Center - once transformed into a cloud - make. It is the ROI, not the TCO, that gives power to the CIO and justifies its existence and its IT future growth.

No billing, no cloud. But with a cloud - we need the right tool. I learned at Cloud Connect 2012 about Cloud Cruiser.

Suppose we want to know how much the resource Open Stack costs over a window of time by department, we have this report:

Large organization want to restrict access to reports based by department and or management levels. Cloud Cruiser has a charming name for this restriction. They call it  "My Cloud". This is what limits the territory a given user.

"My cloud" assigns budget responsibilities to each department or manager. The user can set budgets - or assigned budgets top-down for each resource used. Then each time the resources are exceeded, or the trend analysis shows a date when will be exceeded with current consumption date, the software issues  a clear table of alerts. This is how it was done in time of mainframes, the problem is, resource budgets are not supposed to be part of the cloud, where one pays per usage..

Cloud Cruiser billing interpretation is deeply rooted in mainframe computing. They must first solve this chicken and the egg challenge, in my humble opinion.

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