True Stories: When Engineering Dominates Product Design

Sometime back, Slideshare decided to move from Flash to HTML5. As a PM, I would definitely support this decision if the cost-benefit analysis proved it (and Slideshare agreed with this), and this extended my product’s life-cycle. If this necessitates re-work, then that is the cost of product improvement, and must be accepted. However, if such a decision is taken because HTML5 is “cool” and Adobe Flash is “not cool”, then no self-respecting product manager should support it.

Here are 2 true stories (somewhat modified to hide identities), that illustrate incorrect design decisions.

I – The Perfect Design

A friendly neighborhood product manager narrated this to me a while back (If you’re in Bangalore, there are product managers in every neighborhood). He had joined a crack engineering team working on web technologies. Their mandate was to develop a high-performance, ad-publishing service for e-commerce websites. While he analyzed competing solutions and worked on a detailed PRD, the engineering team decided not to wait, and started building out a complex, computer science Artificial Intelligence (AI) model in a solution.

Six months later, the software was ready and the team started releasing it for various websites. Unfortunately, severe bugs kept cropping up in deployment, over different product components, which meant that a major re-design was probably necessary. After a lot of back and forth, where the PM was overruled, the team decided to keep their AI model, and started developing AI model version 2. After another three months, that too turned out to be too complex for high-traffic websites. In a bizarre twist, the team decided that the PM was not “technical enough”, and they wanted to promote someone from the engineering team as the PM.

Once the new PM came into the picture, he opened the PRD written by the former PM. The team abandoned the AI model version 2 and rebuilt the product based on competitors’ designs deployed on real websites.

Epilogue: The product was released a full year late, and has few real world deployments. While it has a smaller feature set than its competitors, it’s still shown as the “crowning achievement” of the engineering team in India. The former PM now works for an e-commerce site in the US.

II – The Immature Team Leader

In large Offshore Development Centres (OSDC) several engineering projects are incubated under the “20% Time” theory, popularized by Google engineering teams. These projects can often yield useful results, but many are not worth commercializing, especially if you are in the enterprise software business which is aligned towards solutions now.

Out of one such project, a team leader created a “secure web communication service”. He was feted for this effort, promoted and moved into product management. After he left, the team tried to advance the product into a usable form. They found that it:

  • supported only 6-10% of targeted throughput
  • did not support any browser except Firefox 3,4 and IE 7
  • had massive memory leaks, was crash-prone and hard to debug
  • used up enormous CPU time on the client side

Apparently, all this was suspected when the team leader was developing the product/service. However, as he was a “rising star” and favored by an engineering VP, everyone looked the other way and QA signed off quietly.

A year later, the product was discarded and replaced by a 3rd party product, purchased under a commercial re-use agreement, negotiated by the same PM’s manager!

Conclusion

There are countless opportunities for bright engineers in India to build products. However, the “code” is just a small part of the product, and if you have a bad design or software architecture, no amount of coding will make the product perform as expected. In India, the “development process” is often prioritized over rational decision making, which makes it impossible for the product manager to do his job (make a product succeed in the market over its life-cycle).

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