Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to become a Product manager?

Recently I got a question from a sales person who wanted to become a product manager. As a product manager for several years, I had to think for a while before I could answer him - and the contents of that e-mail was morphed into this article.

What's Product Management?

The definition of a product manager is not a standard across different industries. In consumer products (FMCG), its called as brand manager, in manufacturing companies its called as product marketing manager, in IT industry the name of product manager is quite common.

Product manager is a unique role in all organizations and there is never a well defined career path to become a product manager - unlike a engineering manager, Account Manager etc.

To begin with, one needs to understand the role of product manager. Its part technical and part marketing, and product manager straddles both the worlds.

Technical skills

A product manager must have the necessary technical skills needed to develop the product, i.e., he needs to understand the technology needed in the domain to design & build the product. This implies deep technical skills: both domain knowledge & tools knowledge.

To illustrate this, start with a simple product and identify 3 improvements that can be done to the product. Then document this in technical terms - telling an engineer what needs to be done and how. If you can do that level of detail, then you will win respect from engineers.

Marketing Skills

Product manager needs to understand the market requirements of the present and in the future. One must have an innate knowledge of the industry, market trends, & business models for the product. Product manager must understand how customer use the product as on today and also determine what additional needs they will have in future.

Communication skills

Communication skills are vital for a product manager. As a product manager in software world, one must be able to " speak geek" - i.e, ability to talk to engineers in engineering terms to describe what the customer needs & give ideas/suggestions on how it should be done (leave the implementation details to engineers). On the other hand when speaking to customers, product managers must be able to speak in terms of Total cost of ownership, customer use case, customer value & benefits. Essentially, product manager must be able to sell the product to customers.

Landing the job

Having mastered these three essential skills, landing a product management job is not easy. One also needs some luck, network and faith. It will take several months of campaigning to transfer from marketing/technical role into product manager role. Many product managers I know have fallen into that role - because they had the skills, so plan to campaign for yourself.

Ideally, start off with a small company which is starting a product manager role, and when the role is just being defined, you have the best chance to make it. It is much easier in smaller companies than in a large one.

Closing Thoughts

Product managers are unique - there is no set career path for product managers, so after getting into that role, you still need to grow by acquiring good project management skills, negotiations skills, having good business fundamentals, and technically well versed - and that sets you up for greater roles in leadership roles.

What's Wrong at Cisco?

Recently, July 2011, Cisco announced a major layoff - about 6500 people are being let go. This is a public acknowledgment of things going wrong at Cisco.

Apart from the highly publicized jettisoning of "Flip" video cameras and decision to retreat from consumer markets, there has been other serious problems plaguing Cisco today, and all that is due to faulty strategy & leadership

1. Leadership failure in consumer space products. Flip was a very successful product, but leadership failed to capitalize on this. Becoming No 1. Video camera in the US market is no easy task, and the Flip team achieved this, yet the top leadership of Cisco was not able to capitalize on it.

2. Linksys & Scientific Atlanta: Both the acquisitions have not been able to capitalize on Cisco Brand name, nor Cisco strengths. These two divisions have not been able to take advantage of Cisco brand name nor Cisco is able to take advantage of these two companies distribution chain. Ideally, I expected Cisco to launch low end enterprise switches to compete with Huawei/ZTE under the Linksys brand name, thus protect Cisco brand from competition. Similarly, Scientific Atlanta could have been leveraged to create IPTV solutions for consumer space - a.k.a. Google TV or Apple TV.

3. Stronger competition for its enterprise switch products, and Cisco does not have a good competitive position to compete with Huawei/ZTE in Asian markets.

4. Cisco no longer has the bragging rights for the highest performing, High end routers & switches: Juniper, Force10 have developed superior products.

5. UCS strategy is a high risk strategy. Cisco entering server space has antagonized its major partners - HP & IBM. HP acquired 3Com and developed ProCurve line of switches to compete headlong with Cisco. IBM tied up with Juniper, Dell acquired Force10, Brocade acquired Foundry. All this implied that Cisco will now face increased market disadvantages when dealing with integrated IT infrastructure deals. The gains in UCS is still not sufficient to offset the losses in networking space

6. Cisco product line has become too fragmented and lacks inter operability. Cisco has several versions of firmware (IOS, IOS-XR, NOS, etc), multiple network management tools that do not work well together, causing major hardship for customer who opt for Cisco only network.

7. Cisco failed to innovate. This probably is the biggest fault. In the heydays Cisco was able to buy innovation with its shares and acquire innovative companies, but in the process, Cisco failed to innovate internally. All the Cisco's new products - were from acquisitions. As acquisitions stopped, the new product innovation tap stopped flowing.

8. Cisco products have become too difficult to manage. Within Cisco, there are several standards, tools and methods for managing their networking devices, causing a major headache for the network administrator to manage all the devices. Cisco today supports SNMP in its Catalyst family of switches, while Nexus uses XML/Webservices. While ISR routers also use Webservices - but ISR webservcies format is not compatible with Nexus. The changing nature of network traffic demands that the network configurations & provisioning must be changed dynamically - and today Cisco tools make it tougher to do so. In short, Cisco has fallen behind the market needs for managing networks.

9. Cisco's focus on large government contracts for services diverted management focus away from products towards services. Cisco built a large services organization - but at the cost of product supremacy. IBM was able to move from hardware to services, and in the process, IBM lost its supremacy in hardware - which was OK, as the gains in services was more than losses in hardware.

10. Organizationally, Cisco has become too big and has built up several layers of bureaucracy and is becoming top heavy. This has made the organization less nibble & agile and cannot move as fast as its competition.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Resource Management in Projects

Resource management is one of the key corner stones of project management. If a project manager excels in resource management, then I'd say he has 50% of project management challenges solved, and the project manager needs to concentrate on the remaining 50% to get the project completed on time & on budget.

Why am I placing so much importance on resource management? The answer is simple. Resources cost money, and not having the right resources at the right time upsets the schedule. In complex projects - especially non-IT projects, there are several types of resources that needs to be managed: Equipment, supplies, machinery, people, land, clearances etc. These resources cost money to procure. If the lead times are too short, it costs more money to get the resources. So it pays to look ahead in the project planning stage and make proper plans to procure the required resources in a timely manner for the lowest cost. Changes to the cost of the resources has a big impact on the viability of the project, therefore resource management also impacts cost management.

In my extensive experience, I have seen that resource management is the key for successful project completion. Based on this experience, I writing this article on resource management.

Resource management has several components:

1. Effort Estimation
2. Resource Identification
3. Lead time to get required resources
4. Resource Utilization
5. Resource Tracking

Effort Estimation

Effort Estimation is the first step in project planning. Essentially the project has to be broken into smallest possible work packages and a project plan is made based to meet the delivery date.

Project manager needs to know the type of efforts involved & the resources needed for that to start the estimation process. Next step is to prepare the estimates. The best way to get the estimate is to talk to the actual persons who will be doing the work. Talk to the people and ask for three estimates: average, pessimistic & optimistic. An experienced project manager will have a good feel for how reliable these estimates are, and then modify/enter the estimates to the actual project plan. It is essential to add some buffers into the initial estimates - for contingencies such as vacations, unexpected sickness etc.

It is very important to know the accuracy of the estimates in project planning. For example, if you are working on a fixed price project, or if your project is in a critical path of a bigger program, then you need to have a high level of accuracy.

From experience, people know how much actual effort is involved, so taking a review of the estimates from an expert will be useful in determining the accuracy of the estimates.

I would strongly recommend using a software tools to capture the initial estimate for the task - i.e, for each work package, and then comparing with the actual effort/resources consumed for a similar task in the past. This comparison will help in determining the accuracy of the estimates. My suggestion would be to use tools such as Clear Quest or Remedy to create job orders for each work package - and with in each job order, capture the initial estimate, revised estimate and the actual effort taken. If such a system is implemented organization wide, then even a new project manager can query the system and get a comparative data for analyzing the estimates.
Only after finalizing on the accuracy of the estimate, share the upper limit value with customers or any people external to the project team. For the internal project team the aggressive estimate should be used as bench mark. This allows for flexibility within the project execution and helps a great deal in customer satisfaction.

Never reveal the lower end of the estimate to customer or even reveal the ball park figures to the customer before the completing the estimation exercise. Customers often tend to seize the lower end of the estimate and treat that as the final figure. A good project manager takes effort and time to hammer all the caveats and assumptions into customer's mind along with the upper limit of the project estimate.

Summarizing this, the exercise of resource estimation is as follows:

1. Break the project down into smallest possible set of tasks - also called work packages.
2. Talk to the persons who will be doing the work to get a range of estimates
3. Validate the estimate with experts & historical data
4. Determine the way the estimates are recorded and presented to customers & stake holders
5. Roll up all the estimates and present the pessimistic estimate to customers
6. Hammer all the caveats and assumptions into customer's mind along with the estimates

Top Estimating Mistakes to Avoid

1. Bowing to pressure and changing the carefully computed estimates with numbers given by someone senior or from upper management.

2. Not having the estimates for all work packages worked out, and relying on the gut feel for the missing estimates

3. Taking the words of experts as final estimate. An expert will be able to do the work in hours - which for a fresher will take days.

4. Taking the estimates from team as final - without factoring in caution or optimism. Depending on the overall experience of the team, the accuracy of the estimates changes. The estimates given by the team is driven by several of their internal political factors - and the estimates may not reflect reality. So as a good practice, all estimates must be validated.

Resource Identification
Every single work package in the project should have resources identified with. In the initial stage of the project, if resources for each work package is not identified and assigned for that, then that's a major gap in project planning, and the project plan is not complete nor it should be shared outside to customers.

It is the role of the project manager to work with the stake holders to get resources for each work package. In most cases, not all the resources are identified and allocated at the start of project, so from planning perspective this denotes a risk & hence a contingency resource identification must also be done during the planning stage.

Lead Time for Resources

Resources are always scarce and must be carefully used. In most cases, resources will be committed to the project at the beginning of the project, but it is the duty of the project manager to know the lead time needed to get the required resources and plan things accordingly.

With agile projects, resources are not made available to the project till the time it is really needed. In such cases, project managers will have to set timelines and do an early check if the resources are indeed available for the forthcoming iterations, identify the timelines as to when the resources will be made available, who is responsible for the resources, what is the escalation path/plan needed to get the resources, and what is the contingency plan in case the needed resources are not available.

A good project manger should have forward thinking to ensure resources are available when needed. This involves making early bookings, and reconfirming the availability on periodic basis, - particularly reconfirming the availability as the planned state date approaches.

Having a resource schedule as part of the project plan is a good practice. The resource schedule should list the following:

1. Resources needed
2. Duration of the need
3. Lead time for procuring/booking the resources
4. Remainders/reconfirmations schedule for ensuring that resources to be made available.
5. Cost of resources & cost variations of resources.
6. Ramp-up time for the resources - i.e, time needed for the resource to be fully effective

Resource Utilization

Resource utilization refers to the plan on how the allocated/available resources are utilized in the project. Often times people succumb to the pressure and get into over utilization of resources: i.e, make people work overtime to complete the tasks, overload/overuse machinery etc.
Over utilization of a given resource is not a standard plan. No project manger should plan for overloading of resources in the initial project plan. The project plan must account for normal usage of the resource.

A good project manager will not make a plan in with all resources are utilized at full capacity - especially people. This is because resources cannot operate at their full capacity all the time. With people resources, one also needs to account for other overheads such as meetings, training and also plan for holidays, sickness, & vacations. This implies that a 32 man hour task should be planned as a 1 man week task. Ideally 60% of person resource utilization must be factored for project planning.

With equipment or machinery resources, overloading must never be considered in the project plan & in practice it must be followed on ground. If overloading is permitted, then the inevitable happens: the machine breaks down, causing your project schedule go haywire. To eliminate the schedule variance due to breakdowns, resource utilization must be planned at 80% of the machine capacity. This means that on the ground, if a machine breaks down, the other machines can then be loaded at 100% and the project schedule is still unaffected.

Resource Tracking

Once the resource planning, resource schedule is done and the project is under way, the project manager must track the actual usage/consumption of the resources and compare against the plan. The actual usage must be captured into the system and this helps in refinement of future project plans.

During the project estimation time, people have a tendency to tell things which their managers like to hear - thus giving an overtly aggressive estimate or a conservative estimate. But when the actual efforts are tracked against the initial estimate and the variances are discussed openly in the project meetings, people tend to become more realistic in the future projects.

In my experience, I have used tools such as Rational or Remedy to track the actual utilization and then build that into the knowledge base for future use. Also having a centralized tool to track the actual resource utilization will help in project analysis & progress tracking. If the actual resource utilization is much greater than the initial estimate/plan, then it is an indication that the project is likely behind schedule and people are over working to cover up.

Also under utilization of resource is not a good thing. This implies that the initial estimates were over blown or the project is falling behind schedule and things are not starting on time. From my experience a 10% variation from the planned resource utilization is acceptable, anything higher is a leading indicator that something is going wrong in the project.

Note on Completion Tracking

Tracking Resource utilization is not everything for a project manager. One also needs to know how much of work has been completed on the ground. Often times people report that their work is 90% complete - and then it remains at 90% for a long time, with 10% pending and consuming resources. The percentage(%) of resource utilization should be an indicator for the completeness. Of 100% of the allocated resources are consumed then the work should be 100% complete, else the project is said to be behind schedule/plan.

Contingency Planning

Resources are always scarce & hence there is always a possibility of required resources not being available to the project. It is therefore a good practive to add resource contegency into the resource estimates to guard agaist resource scarcity.

Resource contingency is something that's added to the initial estimates to guard against things requiring more work than expected or simply to reflect the fact that the estimate is not reliable. It is good practive to add contingency to individual work packages. In some cases, contingency is added en bloc in form of additional work packages.

In large complex projects, It's common to incorporate contingency at both levels. Understanding how much is already built into individual, detailed estimates is part of deciding how much additional contingency you should allow for the project as a whole.

Closing Thoughts

Project managers are measured primarily on the delivery of projects. To deliver projects on time and on budget, one needs to have a very tight control on the resources and time scales. From experience I know that resource management is the key for successful projects delivery and resource utilization tracking is a key metric in measuring the quality of the project plan, monitoring the project status and this helps in taking any corrective steps.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Resource Commitments in Projects

I was reading Robert G. Cooper's book on Product Leadership Creating & Launching Superior New Products. While going through the book, I found a section that resonated with leadership of product management in Projects, and here are my thoughts.

In today's dynamic software development world things are often in a state of flux. As companies are launching several projects every quarter, the project prioritization and resource allocation becomes an ever dynamic component in any project - which can have a tremendous impact on the success or failure of a product. If a project is inadequately staffed, the project will be delayed and/or the final product will be lousy. On the other hand, several highly ambitious projects suck up so much resources that the other products & projects get starved for resources. Often a successful product will get all the resources at the cost of other products, which in other words implies that potentially good products will never see the light of the day.

Fundamentally, there are only four ways to deploy resources to projects.

  1. Resources are infinitely flexible. Resources are added/removed based on business priorities.

  2. Resources are firm only between each stages of the project.

  3. Resources are firmly committed to the project as long as the project meets the timelines & other deliverables.

  4. Resources are fully committed to the project till the project is completed - irrespective of the the project performance.

In today's agile world, Option-1 sounds the best. In theory, this option gives the best utilization of resources, but in reality this dynamic approach kills the team morale & team performance, and eventually it could lead to an substandard product, or the project will eventually get killed and all the resources will get wasted. It may sound attractive to launch new projects, but such a flexible approach will lead to an case where no project ever gets completed.

Option-2 & Option-3 provide the best way to utilize the existing resouces. In product development projects, the project should have several stages for review, and at each stage of the project, the status of the project must the reviewed along with business/finanical goals. If the project meets those objectives/goals, then resources for the next stage will be made available.

Option-4, is the most common form of resource allocation. Usually the product development teams will have an allocated budgets and a long term roadmap. Based on the budget and road map, the project teams will be staffed and the project will continue till completion - irrespective of the delays. If the product is already successful, then there will no resource constrains for the subsequent release of the successful product, and the top management often takes a lenient stand when it comes to reviewing the project status. This leads to wasted resources with

Closing Thoughts

In my opinon, Product managment should provide leadership in such cases by demanding that the product development project teams by adequately staffed as long as the project is meeting the stated objectives. Every project must be reviewed periodically to see if the project is on track, if not, product management should decide on the next course of action: Increase resources or kill the project or put the project on hold. One should not hesitate to take the extreme steps if needed. Often times, the political pressures within the organization will come into play and force the project management leadership to act the other way - which eventually leads to product failures.

Having successful products requires a very strong discipline in project management. The ownership of the project lies with Product management & product management therefore must provide the right leadership in providing the necessary resources for the project.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Apple's Market Positioning

In my earlier blog, I had written "How to beat iPad". In that article, I had written primarily about having functional features needed to beat iPad, but having all the right functional features is just not enough to win, it also requires the right positioning.

One person asked me comment on the market position of Apple in today's market and its impact on Apple. This made me think and write this article.

Apple is currently occupying the "white hot center" of converged personal computing & entertainment market, and that's a tough position to beat for any competition. So the best solution in such a case is to lure customers into a different market place - i.e, enterprise market place. e. g Apple, by nature & by business strategy, has never positioned itself in the enterprise space & that opens an opportunity for competitors like HP, Blackberry & others.

What is White Hot Center?

White hot center is a market position where all the customer's attention is on. Its essentially the prime spot of customer attention, and everyone is watching every step the seller makes.

To illustrate this, imagine a market or a Mall with a large central space where seller is selling his wares, and is surrounded by people in all direction, people are hustling to get in front and buy his products, and the crowd is making a huge commotion about it. This commotion and noise will attract other people who have come to the market and they too are watching the action at the center of the market/mall. Now, seller is at the white hot center of the market.

Today, Apple is at the white hot center selling its iPhones, iPads, Mac computer, Apple TV, iTunes, etc., and people are surrounding Apple store in millions, and making all the big noise, and then put yourself in another store at a corner of the market, trying to attract customers for your products. And that's where Apple's competitors are today.

Every market has one white hot center: Starbucks in coffee, BMW in cars, HP in printers, iPhone in Mobile phones, iPad in Tablets, Nike in sport shoes, Tiffany's in Jewelry, Marriot in Hotels, etc.

How did Apple get to the white hot center?

Apple did not get to the white hot center by accident, it was culmination of a decade's hard work and mistakes of its competitors. To understand this journey, imagine a mall of PC sellers. Certainly Apple was one of the early stores in the mall and other joined: IBM, Companq, Dell, HP, Digital, Gateway, Acer, Sony, Toshiba etc. Over a period of time the position of white hot center moved from Apple, to IBM, to Compaq to Dell to HP and back to Apple. During the last 30 years, several things changed in the PC industry. IBM was the early rock star of the PC world - but with time, Compaq was able to win that crown, and then came Dell, but as Dell stumbled & fell on quality issues, HP picked up the crown - and for a brief period of time, there was no one occupying the white hot center.

While the rest of PC manufactures stumbled and made mistakes, Apple has been executing flawlessly. Its not that Apple did not have its share of problems: Apple has faced several manufacturing problems - Imperfections in its transparent iMacs, Failure of toaster like design for PC, Scratches on iPod, dropped call in iPhone 3G, debris in 27" LCD monitors etc. But Apple has been successful in avoiding controversies, and has been very successful in cultivating customer satisfaction, Apple has been open and transparent of its problems and has taken all the necessary steps to fix those issues.

While the competition was entrenched with operational issues that they failed to produce competitive products. The fact that the competition had failed to respond forcefully to Apple's new product introductions - had enabled Apple to gain the white hot center.

Lets take a look on how Apple achieved the white hot center position in the market:

Step-1. iMac: Simple & easy to use PC, designed for style and personal resonance with the customer. At a time when all the PC manufactures was selling white box PC, and Black colored laptops, Apple took a fresh view of things and introduced stylish iMac. It was a bold design with an integrated monitor/CPU & without floppy drive. The boldness in design & style was unmatched till date.

Step-2. iPod: Personal MP3 player - with legitimate MP3 download music site - iTunes. Coming into the market when RIAA was suing Napster out of business, Apple created iTunes where customers could legitimately download music and enjoy it in iPods. The competition till date has not provided a competition to iTunes. Both Sony & Dell introduced MP3 players, but failed to create anything like iTunes

Step-3: OS-X & Intel processors. Apple moved smartly to dump PowerPC processors in favor of Intel, and created OS-X, Apple's version of Linux kernel. With this bold move, Apple was able to throw away tons of legacy code and create a small, nibble & efficient OS for all its MAC computers. Till date, Microsoft has not been able to create a product like OS-X, Windows Vista failed in market as it was loaded with several tons of legacy code, which Microsoft could not throw away.

Step-4: Mac Air Book: Apple reinvented laptops with Air Mac Books. The ultra thin laptops was revolutionary in design and size. Even after 3 years of its introduction, competition has still not produced anything like an Airbook in terms of design. Only recently, Lenovo announced a competitive product & that's 3 years too late.

Step-5: iPhone: Revolution of Touch Screen Phones. Apple redesigned the cell phones with a completely new user experience, and with that Apple created a niche for itself. With a strong position in high end cell phones, Apple changed the business environment for the incumbents - Nokia, Sony-Erricson, Motorola. Apple created a whole new platform for its iPhone, and refused to reuse its OS-X for iPhones thus avoiding Windows CE like blunder.

Step-6. IPad: New paradigm of computing. Apple was not the first to introduce the tablet computer. HP, Nokia, Sony had experimented with that before. But Apple changed the computing paradigm with its multi-touch interface in iPhone & expanded that concept in iPad. Its been about 2 years since the original iPad debuted, but the competition is yet to introduce an strong contender in this space. Nokia is no where near with its Tablet, nor is Dell or Sony. HP & Motorola had a decent product but its not a substitution for iPad.

Market Position

To understand market position of Apple, one needs to look at the basics: Price, Product, Place, Promotion. a.k.a - Fundamentals of marketing.

Apple in general is positioned as a premium product. Apple products are generally priced higher than competition. This position has helped Apple a lot as it avoids getting into price war. Instead of competing on price, Apple can now compete on innovation and unique value propositions. This is a key element to be in the white hot center. This position of a premium priced superior product was once occupied by IBM and later by Sony.

Premium pricing strategy helps to make big profits without hurting the brand. Apple brand is the most valuable asset, bigger than all the technologies it controls. Having volumes at this premium pricing helps Apple make bold design decisions and force its supply partners to comply with its design decision.

To strengthen its premium pricing, Apple does not do any discounting on its products.

Apple simply wants to sell the best product in the class. No compromises in quality or performance. Here Apple had its share of manufacturing mistakes: Antennagate, iPod scratches, etc. But every time such problem was identified, Apple moved swiftly to solve it completely.

Apple has taken bold decisions when it comes to product quality: Delay shipments to get quality products out, rather than compromise on quality and get more products out to customers. Apple's positioning on quality has helped build trust & confidence of the market.

As long as Apple maintains its product quality, Apple can continue demanding premium prices and people will line up to buy Apple products.

Another good point of Apple's product positioning is that there are very few variants in each class of products: iPad is available in Black or White, 3G + Wifi or WiFi only in 3 memory sizes: 16GB, 32GB & 64GB, and 3G is available on Verizon or AT&T network. This limits the number of choices the customer has to choose from and it makes it easy for customer to decide and buy.
Similarly in its Mac Pro line as well, there is a spartan range of models to choose from. (see Product Management - Paradox of Choice)

No Substitute Positioning. Apple products are unique and does not have a similar substitute. A Mac can be technically replaced by a PC, but the user will never accept the substitute PC because of the user experience on a PC is totally different than on a Mac. So a replacement for a Mac is another Mac, replacement for an iPad is another iPad, iPhone with an iPhone.

Recently, I swapped a Dell for a Compaq without missing a beat, the user experience was the same on both laptops, but I tried Galaxy Tab - only to get back to iPad.

In the era of Internet sales, Apple moved boldly in the opposite direction and set up exclusive retail outlets, when its competitors closed retail outlets and moved to Internet based sales. Apple has been very selective in choosing the retail partners, has made big demands on how Apple products must be placed and displayed in stores and in case of company owned retail outlets Apple has gone the whole length to design the store as a boutique store aimed at giving the best customer experience. Apple stores are often located in prime retail places and that augurs well with its premium image.

Apple has been a though leader when to came to advertising, be it the 1984 super bowl advertisement or today's iconic iPhone 4 advertisements, Apple's advertisements have always stood apart from the competition.

Apple has been very careful not to give discounts to promote its product, instead it uses scarcity as a promotion technique, saying only 100 pieces are available & that makes people eagerly wait to get their hands on Apple's products. So when the product becomes available, people are readily exchanging their Dollars to get their iMac/iPad/iPhone.

The judicious mix of 4Ps has led Apple to create the right branding, & market positioning.


Apple has been building up a very big reputation and a very strong brand, I suppose that Apple is within the most expensive brands on earth. Everybody associates automatically Apple with innovation, design, quality, being different, etc. Apple cannot deliver products that are not innovative, well designed or top-notch quality, they would only destroy their own brand and reduce sales figures dramatically. Innovation and quality are related with high price, the high price guarantees the customer that he is buying an excellent product, this is psychologically as well as from the business side, a typical business model. The human psychology says that the higher the price, the better the product and otherwise. Cheap Apple products would mean low quality which would hurt the Apple brand in good times and maybe in a long term, be more dangerous than just trying to survive the hard times.

Take the case of Dell. Which had serious quality issues and that effectively destroyed the brand, and Dell lost the market leader position.


Apple has positioned itself to be a lifestyle product for wealthy people, innovators and people with good jobs. Apple has become a desired product but not easily affordable. This premium positioning helps Apple in the long term. With inflation in wages, affordability, more people can afford Apple products in future, thus increasing sales by reaching out to a larger audience with time, and when people can afford to buy Apple products they do not haggle about price, price would be secondary and the image of having an Apple product is more important.

Four years ago, very few people could afford a smart iPhone in India, but today the situation has changed, iPhone is becoming part of mainstream market as affordability has increased.

Business Environment

Not all things at Apple was deliberately planned and executed by Apple. Few things happened in the business environment that really helped Apple along the way. Failures of Microsoft Vista, limitations of Symbian OS, Fragmentation of Andriod systems and importantly security threats on Windows - all this helped Apple.

Apple was able to pull other developers to develop applications on its iPhone/iOS platform, which led to creating a sustainable ecosystem for its business. With millions of users, third party developers are happy to develop Apple specific products.

In the back end, Apple worked hard with music label companies to create iTunes. Now Apple is building iCloud as well to create a right environment for the future.

Staying in the White Hot Center

Apple is in White hot zone, that it cannot afford to make mistakes. Customers are willing to forgive one rare mistake, but not too many of them. Apple has been able to execute extremely well all through the last decade, and has corrected several glitches, come out openly and admit the mistake and fix them.

Apple products are never positioned to be a low market products, its only in the premium segment mind share. Do not respond to competition in obvious ways, instead make the competition respond to your moves.

Apple works doubly hard to find out what customers want and then delivers on the key requirement. Once in execution, it must be a flawless execution.

How to stay in the white hot center:

1. Move with the customer.
2. Influence the customer to move in that direction. (Best way to be a leader is to find a group of people walking in one direction, and then walking in front of them)
3. Make no mistakes, when you make one, correct it ASAP.
4. Throw yourself at the audience as a thought leader in that field.
5. Always be seen with the winning horse. Always be associated with success and never get associated with controversies or losing propositions
6. Never take customers for granted - get the pulse of the market and move ahead swiftly & flawlessly.

Also See:

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Product Management Lessons in HP TouchPad

On July 1st 2011, HP started shipping TouchPad, HP's tablet computer and competitor to Apple's iPad. Congratulation for the launch. Its a bold move by HP, but a necessary one in the present conditions.

In last few days, there has been a dulge of article reviewing & comparing HP TouchPad with similar products. So I won't do any comparison or write a review of TouchPad. Instead I will use HP as an example in identifying lessons on product management and write about that.

Lessons in Product Positioning

Pick any business strategy text book and you will find a chapter on pricing and product positioning. What the text book says about product positioning can be summarised in three points:

To win in a market place a product has to be:

1. Positioned at a lower price than the market leader - but the product must acheive parity in terms of performance/features/functionality.

2. Positioned at a superior product than the market leader - but the product must acheive parity in terms of pricing.

3. Positioned as a premium product, priced very high when compared to the market leader - but it must appeal to market as a luxury premium lifestyle product.

Looking at TouchPad, it seems that the product positioning has failed on all three points.

HP TouchPad is priced on par with iPad, but it falls way short in terms of functionality or features. TouchPad runs on WebOS, which is a new platform and as a result the security, stability of the platform is still untested in the marketplace. As a new platform, HP TouchPad has far too fewer apps - which makes the device less valuable.

HP TouchPad has failed to create a superior positioning in the marketplace - even though it has achieved price parity. This is strike-1.

Few minor design flaws with HP TouchPad are:

1. Its overweight when compared to iPad
2. Poor display quality when compared to iPad
3. No front & back camera
4. Shorter battery life.
5. No smart cover
6. No HDMI out port.

Few good points in HP TouchPad
1. Micro USB for mass storage & charging
2. Better keyboard design

Lessons in Product Line up

HP TouchPad is currently available only with WiFi option, and HP claims that the 4G option will be available later this year.

This is a clear blunder, tablets are seen as totally mobile personal device. I.e, like cellphones customers expect to take their tablets with them to meetings, malls, vacation etc. Not having a 3G and CDMA option makes the product unattractive to most customers.

Also in the global makets, 4G is not yet popular, in most places there is only 3G network, and often 3G is the preferred Internet connectivity (like in India). Lack of 3G connectivity simply means that HP has deliberately chosen to ignore the vast Asian market.

While 4G network offers superior bandwidth, HP TouchPad device itself does not have applications that can make use of the 4G bandwidth (>100Mbps). This to me is a meaningless feature. (Its like a car designed to travel at 400 MPH, while the roads are designed for 100 MPH)

Another minor design fault with HP TouchPad is lack of 64GB memory models and lack of expandable memory.

Lack of Connectivity options is Strike-2

Instead, HP could have opted for 3G and 2.5G connetivity for a wider appeal, and then introduce a 4G model when applications have been developed.

Consumer or Enterprise

Every product must be designed and positioned to an appropriate market position. In case of Apple - its primarily positioned as a lifestyle product aimed at the consumer. HP has not explicitly designed the table for consumer market nor is it positioned for enterprise market. This lack of calrity in positioning will spell doom for the device.

There is no supporting eco-system designed and built to support the TouchPad unlike its main competitors: Apple & Google. Apple had a head start with iPod, iPhone devices, and accordingly built an active ecosystem with iTunes, App Store, and iCloud (coming soon). Similarly, Google has built Google Docs, Google Apps, YouTube and Andriod Apps.

Lack of eco-system is Strike-3.

In short, HP TouchPad is "Dead-On-Arrival" in the tablet market place. Only die hard fans of HP will buy it. (Which can run in several thousands - when you count all the HP employees, Distributors, sales partners, etc)

Next Steps for HP TouchPad

To be fair to HP, TouchPad is like a just born baby, a Version 1.0 product. HP designers should go back to the drawing boards and fix some of the design flaws, HP product management should start building a robust eco-system designed for enterprise markets (see: Product Management - How to beat the iPad?), HP management should figure out the right positioning and pricing for the product, and then release Version 2.0 which has addressed all these issues.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Product Management Leadership

As product manager, I face the issue of project executions on daily basis. Today in most companies, there are dedicated Project manager, Engineering manager, QA manager, Program manager and a product manager overseeing various aspects of the project. Having multiple managers overseeing a project of developing new products creates its own set of challenges. The biggest challenge is the project leadership, often times the leadership role is not defined and hence the project wobbles along - leading to cost & time over runs.

Product Development is a multi-displinary activity which involves several departments/group to work together to develop a product. There will be multiple teams working on developing a new product, but often there is no designated project leader. The absence of a designated leader creates multiple power centers that causes the project to wobble & stumble.

Few organizations have created Program Management Office (PMO) to coordinate the activities of various groups and have a common dashboard/reporting structure for project and in absence of a project leader, the leadership role is often given to PMO which often leads to product failures.

Program management office is a conduit between the project teams and upper management, the PMO does not have the right expertise to provide leadership for the projects. The best role for PMO is to provide a platform for leadership building and consensus in project execution.

In a typical product development project there are several moving components. Changing market requirements force changes on the scope of the project. The changes to the project team composition due to attrition or changing engineering priorities can lead to changes in the project schedules. This results in a very dynamic environment which has many moving parts and that leads to changes to both the scope and schedule of the project. In absence of leadership, PMO will be forced to impose strict deadlines and that often leads to shipping inferior/poor products.

In waterfall model, the product manager would sign-off the product requirements to the development team and define the release date. The project team would work on those requirements and release the product when the features are completed. Any changes to the product requirements would have a direct impact on the released dates. This methodology had several disadvantages - mainly the release dates change when the product requirements change or when resources allocated to the project change.

Leadership in project management is often an undiscussed matter, people tend to assume that there will be a project leader who is some else but not them. Even PMI's PMBOK is silent when it comes to leadership in project management.

Leadership and Project Management

In product development projects, the role of leadership in projects fall naturally on product manager. Only if the product manager abdicates this role, the leadership position must be taken by project manager or program manager.

In my experience, the main areas of leadership that a product manager needs to provide are as follows:

1. Vision
2. Good Communication
3. Enthusiasm
4. Team Building
5. Integrity
6. Trust
7. Competence
8. Empathy
9. Problem Solving Skills
10. Manage pressure


The product owner or the product owner must be a visionary. The leader must have a clear vision of the future and must know how the product fits into that future. Great leaders have the ability to articulate their vision and inspire other to work towards realizing their vision. Visionaries always challenge the status quo and thrive on bringing in a change.

My favorite quote that illustrates leadership comes from Steve Jobs:

"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" - Steve Jobs, when is lured John Sculley from Pepsi.

Good Communication

A leader should be able to communicate with people at all levels. Project leader must clearly communicate about goals, responsibility, performance, expectations and feedback at all levels in the team and to all stake holders.

Leaders place a great value on openness and directness. The project leader is also the team's link to the larger organization. The leader must have the ability to effectively negotiate and use persuasion when necessary to ensure the success of the team and project. Through effective communication, project leaders support individual and team achievements by creating explicit guidelines for accomplishing results and for the career advancement of team members.


The Project leader always plays the cheer leader for the project team. People do not like leaders who are negative and who keep criticizing others - it brings down the morale. People like to follow leaders who display enthusiasm - who have a bounce in their step, who have a "can-do" attitude. People like leaders who show a challenge and then tell others how it can be achieved, rather than give reasons why something can't be done.

Enthusiastic leaders are confident of reaching the project goals despite all challenges and are a committed to their goals and their enthusiasm will rub on others to share their optimistic expectations. Enthusiasm is contagious and effective leaders know how to use it.

Team Building

Project teams are dynamic. People move in and move out of the project based on their roles and contribution. So in such a dynamic environment, the leader must constantly work towards team building to create comrade between team members. The main goal of the leader is to convert the group of strangers into a single cohesive unit. The leader must control the team building process and dynamics all through the project and provide appropriate leadership during each stage of team building (forming, norming, storming, performing & disbanding).

The leader must also have an understanding of the different team players styles, strengths and know how to capitalize on it. As a project leader, proper provisioning must be done at the project planning stage for all the team building activities. The team building is a continuos process all through the project and even beyond.


A great leader is someone who scores high on integrity and people will always remember it by his/her actions. Good leadership demands commitment to, and demonstration of, ethical practices. Creating standards for ethical behavior for oneself and living by these standards, as well as rewarding those who exemplify these practices, are responsibilities of project leaders. Leadership motivated by self-interest does not serve the well being of the team. Leadership based on integrity represents nothing less than a set of values others share, behavior consistent with values and dedication to honesty with self and team members.

In other words the leader "walks the talk" and in the process earns trust.

Trust to Delegate

Project leader often has too many things on his plate. It is not practical to do everything by one
Trust is an essential element in the relationship of a project leader and the team. Leaders demonstrate their trust in others through delegation and then how they check and control their work.

Individuals who are unable to trust other people often fail as leaders and forever remain little more that micro-managers, or end up doing all of the work themselves. I'd say: "A good leader is a little lazy." Remember - its a leaders job to see what's coming ahead and to do that one must not be too busy with work, so delegate to free up your time.


To be successful project leader, one should earn the teams respect. In a project, team members often look up to the leader to provide necessary technical guidance to overcome key challenges. At such times, the leader must have the necessary technical competence or must be in a position to get the necessary experts to help. Having technical abilities in the core technology areas of the project is a must for a project leader.

In large complex projects, it may not always be feasible to have technical competence in all the areas, and in such condition, leaders must know to delegate such maters to technical experts and monitor to ensure that issues are solved in a timely manner.

Having a successful track record is the surest way to be considered competent. Expertise in leadership skills is another dimension in competence. The ability to challenge, inspire, enable, model and encourage must be demonstrated if leaders are to be seen as capable and competent.

A competent leader earns the team's respect and then only get the right to lead the project.
Problem Solving Skills

All projects run into problems, and when it does, the team looks up to the leader to solve them for the team. Leaders must be able to identify problems and effectively solve them. This often requires involving stake holders and getting necessary resources to solve the problems and keep the project moving forward.

Leaders are not expected to solve the problem themselves, but they must be able to provide the team with inputs (ideas, resources and methods) to solve the problem. Leaders must not delve on how the problem must be solved, instead provide the necessary inputs and see how the team solves the problem.

Manage Pressure

All projects come under pressure to do more, do it faster or do with less. A project leader must be able to deal with all the external pressures on the project and in the process manage the project scope and deliverables. This takes a extraordinary ability in terms of managing pressure. A leader will take these problems in their stride.

When leaders encounter a stressful event, they consider it interesting, they feel they can influence the outcome and they see it as an opportunity.

"Out of the uncertainty and chaos of change, leaders rise up and articulate a new image of the future that pulls the project together." - Bennis 1997.

Good leader should never let others in the team see how stressful he/she is. A good leader must be damn good in hiding the outward symptoms of stress.

Empathy & Emotional Quotient

"It's nice when a project leader acknowledges that we all have a life outside of work."

Great leaders know how to manage their people. Understanding that people have a life beyond work is just the first step. Knowing people's lives will help in getting the best of out them. Leaders must be able to connect to their team at emotional level and empathize with them.

Closing Thoughts

Project Leadership skills is not something that comes in a text book. It must be learned on the field and developed. Being a leader is a great aspiration but it requires charisma, individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, courage, dependability, flexibility, integrity, judgment, and respect for others.

Product managers are ideally positioned to provide that leadership but they cannot demand that their right. Instead they must earn that position.

Documentation in Agile Projects

There is a popular misconception that agile projects do not need documentation. But in my experience of product development, I find that documentation is an integral part of the agile teams and the workload on technical writers is actually higher in agile projects than in waterfall projects.

There are two main areas where documentation plays a very important role in agile projects:

1. Backlog list documentation
2. Product documentation in every iteration.

Backlog list documentation

The product owner is responsible for the backlog list. As the backlog list is a documented list of technical requirements, which must be refined to become a techncial functional specification document at the very beginning of the project iteration. I.e., the backlog list item must be developed into the requirement spec before the iteration for that feature can start. It is OK to have a bullet point or a brief description of each requirement in the backlog list at the project planning & project kick off stage, but as the project teams start working on a particular requirement, it bocome necessary to have a detailed product requirement specifications in order to execute faster and develop a superior product.

The product owner is responsible for creating this document and providing it to the project teams on the start date of that iteration. The more detailed the requrement specifications, the better.

Product Documentation during the Iteration

As the iteration starts off, the enginners refer the functional spec, and start their development. During the iteration, the engineers will have to document the implementation details of that feature - this becomes the input to Tech Pubs team or product documentation team to develop the product document the functional behavior of the product.

The documentation and engineers colloborate to finalize the functional specification document before the end of each iteration. At the end of the project, the product documentation will be complete and ready to be published.

A major reason to documenting during the iteration stems from the very nature of agile methodology. As the project teams can change during the project and the members who participated in one iteration may not be involved in the next iteration, there is a need to capture the implementaion details into the functional spec during the interation itself.

In large complex projects that use specialists - who will be used in specific iterations, and after their work is completed, they move out to different projects. In such cases - there is a need to capture the implementaion details into the functional spec during the interation itself.

Role of Product Manager in documentation

Product manager or Product owner must review all the documentation at the end of each iteration and sign it off and send it for review to other stake holders. At the end of the project, the comments of other stake holders can be incoporated before publishing the documents as part of product release.

Product Manager and the Technical Publication team are the joint owners of product documentation. With agile projects - where requirements are changing there is extra demands on documentation - as they have to keep up with changing requirements.

Product owner or product manager must drive the documentation process for the project. The scrum master ensures that the documentation process is followed & documentation is completed in the iteration.

Option of documenting everything at the end of the project

If the project is not very large and is planned to end within 3-4 months, then documentation can be done during the last iteration often called as "Release Sprint". Release Sprint is done so that the remaining work such as system integration, environment testing, system validation etc, are completed. Though in theory of agile methodology - every sprint is supposed to end with a shippable product, a Release sprint will be needed because not all the activities needed for an actual product release will be done for each sprint.

All documentation can be done in the release sprint provided all the members of the project team does not change during the course of the project. Based on my experience, documenting at the end of the project - ie., in release sprint is preferred for small projects - typically incremental releases, patch releases etc.

The product owner must maintain the list of activites that needs to be done in the release sprint - typically, this would be performance, regression, system stability, security & integration testing activities and documentation related activities.

Closing Thoughts

There is a general preception that agile projects can be done with less documentation, but in reality the opposite is true. There is a greated rigor for documentation in agile projects, and for product development projects, documentation is part of every sprint. Agile methodology places greater stress on documentation and documentation resources needs to be committed all through the project.

Doing all the documentation during the release sprint is not a good option therefore it must be used judiciously only in small projects.