Tuesday, February 07, 2006

opportunity: working with smart technical people

As I've grown up/older, I've come to acknowledge where my skills and passions lay, and one area of endeavor that just plain doesn't grab me is the deep-dive technical voodoo discussion.

I swear I can't be alone when I say that after a few minutes, all I hear is barking noises. I know they're saying important things that matter, but for the life of me, it comes across as an impenetrable fog of jargon and logic.

Realizing this, and realizing that I wasn't going to bring world-class C++ and Java coding skills to the table, I came to understand I needed to bring something else that would add value to the endeavor of creating software products & solutions.

So what I do is I try to complement the technical smarts of my resident geniuses with an alternative world-view that employs equal parts lateral thinking and heuristics to get them to think about not just the technology, but the impact of the technology on real people (that is to say, customers). I try to be an advocate for the user, for the market, and to bring that perspective in-house. Since customers think differently than developers, this is a worthy skill, and a valuable one.

There's a nice quote associated with this article on ideonomy that describes the benefits of this:

Merely imagining what our ignorance may be can expand the human mind; it can lead to heuristic imagery, new modes of thought, and revealing gedankenexperiments; and it can quicken the appetite for discovery in both young and old. Moreover, it can breed that humility which is so important to the opening up, and the opening out, of reality.

Product marketing (and by that I include product managers who can be deep-voodoo technologists but for business purposes shouldn't always function in that role) needs to bring something to the table for developers that goes beyond another set of hands to specify/code/document. Product marketing needs to be able to relate to development - they have little patience for the utterly clueless, tech-wise - but then PM needs to help them expand their world view.

Here a quick exercise to help you start doing this better. When you have an opportunity to talk to a development manager, start asking "what if" questions to try and veer them off their current path of thinking to explore the very real possiblities that lay to either side of their declared path.
  • What if a customer needs to migrate from another product to this one?
  • What if what the customer is looking for isn't just product A, but a solution that incorporates products A, B, D and X?
  • What if we delay this a quarter or two to work on quality?
This must seem so entirely prosaic to you, but honestly, in the excitement of all these neat technologies we get to work with, how often do you take a step back and try to see your work through the eyes of your customer? What do they need most? What matters most to them?

At the end of the day, smart technical people love to build things. It's our job to help them build the right things.

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