Monday, April 14, 2014

Product Management: Manage Requirements for Project Success

India has been a major power in computer software, but lot of companies struggle to develop software products. I have seen a lot of start-ups struggle with new product development and after several months or years of efforts product development projects are canceled.

The major problem with Indian IT companies is that they lack proper product management skills and fail to properly manage the product requirements.  In this blog, I have listed the basic steps in managing requirements to ensure new product development success - particularly for start-ups.

All product development starts with identifying product requirements. The job of product manager is to define the product requirements and work with engineering and project management office to implement it.

Successful new product development is not an easy project and there is always chances of mistakes or missteps. From experience, I have noted down few mistakes that must be avoided in all projects.

The most common problem is that of project overruns. Often the project costs more than the initial estimate and/or takes more time to complete. To avoid getting the blame for the overrun, some teams try to release a half baked product. Which results in a much bigger problem of fixing the issues after the product release.

In this blog, I have listed the basic steps in managing requirements to ensure project success.

1. Document the minimum set of requirements that has to be met to ship the product.
2. Avoid misinterpretations of product requirements.
3. Do not 'Overbuild'
4. Define 'quality parameters' as part of product requirements
5. Define compliance as part of product requirements
6. Keep a close eye on project team coordination
7. Build an agile product development process
8. Avoid excessive changes to product requirements
9. Ensure Executive involvement
10. Ensure a Beta test program with a real customer.

Document the minimum set of requirements that has to be met to ship the product.  

Before starting the development project, the first step is to document the requirements in ways that can be clearly understood by the team. If needed, use visuals or animation or mock-ups to make people understand the requirements.

These requirements must also be prioritized into "must have", "Good to have",  "Bonus" etc. The final product cannot be released if it does not meet the "Must Have" requirements. Once the "Must Have" requirements are identified, then work on estimating the time & resources needed to complete the project.

Product managers & all stakeholders must review the product to check if all the must-have features/requirements are met before proceeding with the product release.

Avoid misinterpretations of product requirements

Understanding product requirements is always a challenge. Often times, the requirements are documented in plain text. Which can be misinterpreted, leading to chaos/confusion at the time of product release.

There are several levels of requirements that must be documented. Starting at the high-level of the product concept, Architectural details, and down to user interface design requirement.

The best solution is to document the requirements using visuals - either in terms of visuals or animations or mockups. In addition, one can create user personas to illustrate the end user requirements.

During the development process, ensure that the entire product development team has a common understanding of the requirements.

Do not 'Overbuild'

A common problem with building new products is to add loads of bells and whistles into the product or build capacity/capability which is far in excess of user's real requirements.

Another manifestation of this problem is to add too many features. In most cases, there is just one customer who needs that particular feature!  This leads to adding too many features which confuses customers.

Overbuilding a product costs money, time and resources - all that for features that customers do not want!

So care must be taken to ensure that the final product actually has what is needed.

Define 'quality parameters' as part of product requirements

Quality of the product must be defined in the product requirements. The quality is as perceived by the customer. For example, Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) of the finished product must be defined in the product requirements. In case of software, the system stability, or memory growth must be defined in the requirements. The quality parameters such as "response time" or "resource utilization" etc. must be defined as part of the product quality.

Define compliance as part of product requirements

Just like quality parameters, the product compliance requirements too must be documented in the product requirements. Often times, I have seen that the requirement document makes only a passing reference to compliance adherence - and does not dwell deeper into the actual technical details of the requirements. Such high level description is a perfect recipe for disaster - as it opens up the field for misinterpretation of requirements.

Keep a close eye on project team coordination

Today, distributed project teams have become a norm. Even startups out source some segments of projects. In such cases, the team coordination becomes a major hurdle, leading to miscommunications and project over runs. Any signs of poor coordination is a red alert on things going wrong in the project.

As part of Product management oversight on the project, it is important to keep a close eye on the team coordination and take proactive steps to improve team coordination. Product management must work with project management and engineering teams to constantly monitor team coordination and take corrective actions as necessary.

Build an agile product development process

In today's rapidly changing world, it is important to be agile - not just in project management, but also in Product management. Agile product management helps in modifying the end product to meet the market needs - even when the project is under execution.

Agile product development allows product managers to fine tune product requirements and meet customer's changing requirements.

Avoid excessive changes to product requirements

While agile product development helps, excessive changes are detrimental to the product development. Especially, when changes are made to sections of the project that is already built/coded. So any change in product requirements must be validated and vetted by all stake holders. As a thumb rule, a project should not have more than two changes to requirements - to sections that is already completed, and any change must be approved by the change request management committee - a.k.a. stake holders.

After the second change request, any subsequent change requests must have an executive level approval.

Ensure Executive involvement

New products are part of the overall business strategy. So the top executives must get involved in new product development and provide strategic inputs when required. Top executives must also oversee the project and provide active project governance. In case of startups, when the founders themselves are deeply involved in the project - the board of directors must provide the higher level governance.

Ensure a Beta test program with a real customer.

Beta testing the new product with the customer solves a lot of problems in the product development stage and also improves customer satisfaction and user acceptance. Getting customers to test the product before release will help uncover functional bugs, design gaps and other user environmental issues which could not be found in the internal testing cycle. Often times, developers use simulators for testing - which does not reflect the actual customer environment. So the Beta test helps identify those bugs or even design flaws - which can be fixed quickly.

Remember: the cost of fixing a bug in beta testing is lot cheaper than fixing it after the product release.

Closing Thoughts

Project success is also dependent on managing requirements. Product Managers must keep a tight control on product requirements. Many Indian software startups try to build a perfect product and try to please as many customers as possible or try to add too many features/requirements. This leads to an unwieldy projects - which eventually fails.  In this article I have described 10 main points product managers must follow to ensure new product development project a success.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What Marketing wants from IT

Today marketing technology products is fully digital. Product Marketing is a big user of big data analytics. The potential benefits of data analytics for marketing is immense. Marketing has been an early adopter of cloud SaaS services

In this business environment, marketing needs more than just a plain vanilla tech services from IT departments.  To succeed, CMOs need more that the traditional application hosting, support, security services. CMOs need IT departments to be an active partner and help leverage technology to develop cutting edge marketing initiatives such as predictive analysis, creating custom offers etc.

This new jobs will be in addition to the current role of keeping the infrastructure running and the systems secure. As a product manager, I am involved in several product marketing initiatives and I interact with several CIOs. These interactions have given the insight into these new requirements.

1. Enable Big Data Analytics

The IT systems are collecting tones of data. But this data is locked up by IT in different silos. Marketing needs to access this data in real time to run data analytics. CMOs need IT to provide access to these multiple data sources in an integrated way - i.e, provide a quick, safe and secure access to the data lake to run their data analytics.

Managing, collecting and making use of internal and external data is one of their top five challenges, according to more than 500 marketing professionals who responded to IBM's 2013 Global Survey of Marketers.

2. Help to measure new KPIs

Social media, viral marketing, multi-channel customer engagements, and big data analytics are creating new key performance indicators, or KPIs. CMOs understand the value of these new KPIs but often struggle to measure it.  Marketing needs help in measuring parameters of time taken at the billing section, time taken for servicing a customer request etc. Getting these new KPIs helps marketing to optimize & improve all customer interactions and deliver a truly outstanding experience that matches the company's brand promise.

IT needs to understand the new KPIs and then help marketing by building IT systems to measure it. Thereby helping marketing to succeed.  This implies that IT must go beyond the back-office functions and become an active technology partner in marketing activities.

3. Help to remove shadow IT & manage technology expenses

Marketing works at a pace which is much faster than what their internal IT can support. So often times, marketing chiefs create a shadow IT - by outsourcing some IT function - such as creating & hosting specific websites, or subscribing to a SaaS or PaaS or IaaS services. While outsourcing & creating a shadow IT helps, it also costs more. So over a period of time, the cost of maintaining shadow IT becomes prohibitively expensive.

CMOs want their IT departments to eliminate this shadow IT by bringing back the external hosted sites/applications in-house and by consolidating all the outsourced IT services.

According to Gartner report, by 2017, CMOs will spend more on IT than will CIOs.  So CMOs want IT to bring its technology expertise, knowledge of existing infrastructure and newfound understanding of marketing's objectives/KPIs to bear in helping marketing make the best investment decisions.

CMOs want IT to guide/assist/help in selecting technology platforms and provide data on viable IT systems that meets the business needs.

4. Faster Turnaround time please... 

One reason why CMOs use shadow IT is due to the fact that their own internal IT department cannot service them in a timely manner. Today marketing campaigns are planned and executed in days. For examples a road show is planned, and a web site has to be created for the event in 3 days. The CMO approaches IT with this request, but IT needs 4-6 weeks to test and host the web site! Such a long turnaround time is unacceptable for CMO and they end up outsourcing to a third party or signing up for a cloud service.

5. Enable a faster pace of  Business

Smart Phones & Tablets have changed the pace of marketing. Customers now have access to Internet from anywhere anytime. Added to this mix is the mobile social media: Twitter & Facebook. This implies that customers are interacting with the company in new ways - which require faster response from marketing departments.

Marketing now has to handle all customer interactions -- outbound, inbound and those happening on social media in real time - and for that they need new technologies that allows them to interact with customers at any time in any of those media.

But the IT departments are still hesitant to support the new mobile platforms and insist on doing things the old way for security. For example, IT does not allow employees to carry corporate data in mobile fileshare app such as Dropbox.  In many organizations, IT is yet to embrace Virtual Desktops on Tablets.

This slows down the pace of business & CMOs want their IT departments to change from being a brake on business wheels to a booster rocket.

6. Create an Office of Chief Marketing Technology 

The fast changing landscape of technology - with mobile, cloud, Big data and IoT, it has become a necessity for marketing departments to have a specialized technology office - which looks at new and emerging technology and determines how/when/where to use these new technologies. Traditionally, new technology evaluation and validation was done by IT departments - but now CMOs are creating an Office of Chief Marketing Technology.

Chief marketing technologist is responsible for understanding both available and emerging marketing technology platforms and articulating how marketing can capitalize on them. They play a strategic roles and some cases tactical roles in terms of getting involved in procurement, or setting up marketing technology centers of excellence etc.

In many organizations, marketing departments lack the technical skills needed to create the Office of Chief Marketing Technology and they need help of their IT department to set it up.  In some of the large fortune-500 companies, the Office of Chief Marketing Technology also works with IT to run & maintain new technology platforms.

7. Let marketing run its own software systems 

To reach out and communicate with customers in real time, Marketing departments have stated to run their own software. New technologies such as big data analytics, Internet-of-things, Mobile apps etc. has created several new requirements - where Marketing wants to have hands-on control on the software systems, while IT runs all the backend infrastructure.

In this new paradigm of mobile & Cloud Apps, Marketing want to own and control customer experience by running the software - where marketing team can quickly alter design, develop a new user experience or create a new technology-driven marketing initiative, without doing lots of coding or fixing bugs.

CMOs want IT to empower marketing in how they interact and deliver personal experiences to customers. In this way, IT builds the backend infrastructure and creates an engagement layer - which interacts with marketing department to empower technology users.

For example, IT creates & maintains a big data platform - which marketing department runs to get real-time insights.

Closing Thoughts

Big data, social media and mobile technologies are shaking up the old world order. CMOs are eager to bridge the big gap between traditional marketing and IT to take full advantage of new technology driven opportunities for better customer engagement and higher ROI.

Some of the leading organizations have created shadow IT or mini-IT within marketing departments, but then they are now realizing its limitations and challenges.

The right solution is for IT to take a proactive steps and work with marketing departments to bridge the technology capability gaps and lead the transformation of how marketing teams engage customers.

Also see:

  1. Understanding Big Data
  2. Defining the Business Objectives for Big Data Projects
  3. Understanding Data in Big Data
  4. Next Technology Disruptor: Internet of Things

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rise of Anti-Social Apps & Limits of Social Networking

Smart phones have indeed made people smarter. Right now, there are millions of Smartphone users who are worried about their loss of privacy.

On one hand Smart Phones gave users tremendous power to communicate with anybody in real time - via social networks. Social Networking Apps such as Facebook & Twitter gained immensely from this. But with passage of time, users are slowly understanding the "dark" power of social networks: Loss of privacy. Some people found it the hard way - when they were not getting hired - because of some "party pictures" in the social network, or a comment.

The social networks help people connect and communicate, but it also remembers all communications forever, and all communications are instantly made public!  This leads to loss of privacy.

Smart phones today have built-in GPS and it can imbed all the locational information in photos, videos, messages etc. Cell phone service provider can track the location of each smart phone using the GPS or by triangulation. In extreme cases, malacious software can be added to the phone which can record all conversations/communication and send to a predetermined location without the knowledge of the user!

Its no wonder that people are now abandoning social networks. Many users whom I know are not posting anything on their network and the volume of activity in my social network has dropped by nearly 90% from its peak two years ago. In other words, we have seen the high tide mark of Social Networking.

As users became more aware of the disadvantages of Facebook & Twitter, they switched over to apps such as Snapchat & Whatsapp or LiveChat, etc.  These apps allow discreet communications.

Secrecy has its advantages for people and It's quite attractive. These niche apps were being developed to capture some of few remaining untapped social-media markets.

Now, a  new trend of Apps are coming: The "Anti-Social Apps." While most social networks aim to connect people, one new service seeks to join the growing trend of doing the opposite and help you avoid them.

Some of the new Apps in this category are:


Cloak 'anti-social' app helps you avoid your friends. Cloak uses location information from other social networks (FourSquare and Instagram at the moment) to work out where your friends are. It then informs you via push notifications so you can avoid anyone you'd prefer not to see. Users can choose to receive an alert when certain people are believed to be nearby.  You can also view friends on a map or on a detailed list telling you how close they are, to the nearest mile. It's free and currently available on IoS.

Snapchat is used to send pictures and videos - which is automatically deleted seconds after they have been viewed.  This is opposite to that of Facebook, which keeps the photos/videos forever and for everyone to see.

Secret broadcasts messages anonymously - are growing in popularity. Using Secret, one can share a confession with your network (in practice, those of your contacts who also have the app), though they won't know it was shared by you. You must have a minimum of three friends before you start sharing (in order to protect your secrets). In theory, secrets that are liked and reshared can spread across the world — though the app's developers insist you won't be identified at any point. Posts are encrypted so that the Secret team doesn't know what you're sharing.

Whisper, like Secret enables users to share secrets. One can also respond to other Whispers with your own, and there is a private messaging app if you long to live in a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. You can browse by topic, so you can quell your conscience by unearthing others who have cheated on the other halves/shoplifted something/failed to give up their seat on the Tube.  It's free and available on IoS.

Closing Thoughts 

Today's young generation are done with sharing and uploading nearly every part of their lives. Instead, intimacy and privacy in the digital age is now what they seemingly seek. Constantly being connected to the world was cool way back when, but this constant connection has created lots of problems and people are fleeing from it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Nadella's new Strategy for Microsoft

As the new CEO, Satya Nadella has hit the ground running and has taken several big bets as he defined new strategy for Microsoft.

In this year's Build 2014 conference, Nadella made major announcements which indicate the shift in Microsoft strategy. The new strategy can be summed up in three main points:

1. Fix the current mistakes
2. Embrace the mobile world
3. Build for IoT

Fix the current mistakes

According to a recent study:

  • Windows 8.x is installed only on 11.3% of PCs. 
  • 78% of the enterprise users have no plans to adopt Windows 8.x! 
  • Android PCs are likely to get a market share of 8% by 2015.

This spells trouble for Microsoft and must be fixed ASAP. So Nadella announced few changes on Windows 8.1 - including bringing the Start Menu Back to Windows 8 and boot-to-desktop to make Windows 8.1 valuable to enterprise.

Embrace the mobile world

By making Windows RT 8.1 free for mobile devices with screen size below 9 inches, Microsoft is embracing the mobile world in a new way. With Microsoft's share in Mobile platform at abysmal levels, Nadella had to give away Windows RT for free to attract new cell phone vendors. Microsoft-Nokia has an abysmal market share of 3.1% in smart phones and at this levels Windows OS for mobile will be unsustainable.

So  Nadella is working out a broad strategy to make Microsoft Windows RT more popular by giving it free to cell phone vendors hoping that Cell phone vendors in Asia may embrace Windows more openly. Compared to Android, a free Windows OS would be more attractive - as cell phone vendors need not worry about Patent lawsuits with Apple or get entangled in licensing issues.

Build for IoT (Internet of Things)

Universal Windows Apps. Allow other developers to write apps that works seamlessly on phones, tablets, PC and even Xbox/TV. This is a very significant move from a strategy perspective. This allows Microsoft to leverage its large developer community to develop universal apps and make Microsoft a powerful player in the mobile world.

Microsoft just announced the concept of Universal Windows Apps, the implications are clear. Developers can create Windows apps for IoT - such as Car navigation/control/entertainment system and have the same app be remotely controlled/monitored or augmented in a mobile or a PC and Microsoft Azure Cloud.

If Microsoft enables app developers to leverage all four platforms: IoT, Mobile, PC and Cloud with Universal Windows Apps, then Microsoft will have a major foot hold in the IoT segment.

Closing Thoughts

Nadella has announced a big shift in Microsoft Strategy. Microsoft is fighting with its back against the wall in Mobile space and is non-player in IoT segment. So Microsoft has a stiff uphill battle to make itself relevant in the new mobile & IoT world.

Microsoft is still a very strong player in enterprise software and cloud services. Nadella must leverage these strengths to win the mobile & IoT battle.