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March 2010

Garden Update

Spring is here (at least, according to the calendar) and that means I get to move my obsessive-compulsive gardening addiction beyond pulling weeds and turning compost into the soil.

Here's a picture of my "nursery".  For a number of reasons, I found myself starting more vegetables from seeds this year, vs. buying plants.  In addition, I expanded my vision to include flowers (those things you can't eat) as well as vegetables.

Mar10 008 

I won't detail all of the plants here, but there are tomatoes (some I've grown from seeds, many bought from Love Apple Farms), peppers (sprouted today, yeah!), artichokes, lavender for the front yard, and other flowers and herbs.  It's going to get crowded when I have to replant some of these veggies and flowers into larger pots!

I've also been busy upgrading the garden.  I reconfigured two of the raised beds, installing drip irrigation with emitters spaced every six inches (vs. eighteen).  That means I can plant more greens than last year, since they don't need as much spacing as plants like tomatoes.

Mar10 009
After just a few days, I'm already seeing sprouts in the beds--lettuce, spinach, bak choi (pak choi east of the Rockies, as they say), Asian greens.  And those two spots of green? Last year, I had potatoes in these beds.  Apparently I failed to harvest a couple of potatoes, and they've re-sprouted.

So you may want to show up in early May with some vinaigrette dressing and a bottle of white wine :)

Hunting for Easter Eggs

If you participated in Easter egg hunts as a kid, you no doubt remember the experience.  You ran from spot to spot in the back yard or at the park, looking for (artificially) colored eggs, especially the plastic ones--because they were the ones filled with candy.  Little-kid screaming, parental helping, kids with baskets running every which way... it was a period of delightful chaos.

Looking for Easter eggs is great as a kid, but it's not so fun in the business world.  If you want me to launch your product, and provide the kind of Marketing support needed to make it successful, I need to know certain bits of information:

  • What is it?
  • What does it do?
  • How does it do it?
  • Why does it do it; i.e., what's the value?
  • Who is a prospective buyer of it?

and so on.  Actually, I need to know what the salesperson needs to know; I wrote about this in a post some time back.

The problem that often arises is that Product Managers write documents that don't address these kinds of questions.  Product Managers generate a lot of documents: a Product Requirements Document, maybe a set of use cases, sometimes test cases, and so on.  So when Marketing Guy drops by to say, "I need answers to these questions" the Product Manager's reflex is to hand Marketing Guy some or all of those documents.  "It's all in there" is the last thing Marketing Guy hears before the Product Manager rushes off to a bug review.

So now Marketing Guy has two problems.

  1. He has to search through a stack of documents to find answers to his questions.
  2. Having completed step (1), he still has no answers, and has to go back to the Product Manager again.

What compounds the problem is that some Product Managers may not have stopped to think about the answers to Marketing Guy's questions.  So the answers are not there, no matter how many pages of documentation exist.  This is like searching for that plastic egg, only to find that there's no candy inside.  So how to move forward?

Complete This Form

Our Product Management group at iPass was working on a product that amounted to a cloud-hosted version of an enterprise firewall.  As we approached the time for market launch preparations, the Product Marketing team was getting increasingly frustrated.  The Product Manager thought that the answers to the launch team's questions were in previous documentation, and kept referring the Product Marketing team to that documentation--which was voluminous.  (It didn't help that different documents described different products, since the product concept seemed to be constantly evolving, but that's another tale).  Although I was in Channel Marketing at that time, I volunteered to help, since I had previously run Product Management... I could feel everyone's pain.

My first step was to meet with the Product Manager and offer my help.  Fortunately, he saw that I could help him out and readily agreed to work with me.  We "story-boarded" the product concept for a while, to develop the overall message.  There were some pieces of the product puzzle that were well-defined, and others that were missing or overly vague.

Next I wrote up a document I called "Questions for Understanding"--the point being that answering the questions would amount to providing the market launch people with the answers they needed... without all the non-essential information to wade through.  I had thought (perhaps hoped) that the Product Manager now understood enough of my method to go off and answer the questions... problem solved!

Of course, it wasn't so simple.  The Product Manager (like all Product Managers) was crazy-busy, and (like nearly all Product Managers) lived what I call an "interrupt-driven" life that left little opportunity for the kind of reflection and thoughtfulness that was needed to answer my series of questions.  And, as I said before, different people had different ideas about what the product was, so that confusion came through in the answers.

We Need to Talk

OK.  Since this wouldn't be as simple as answering some questions, I took the document and met with the Product Manager a number of times.  We took each question in turn and discussed it until I felt that we had a clear, unambiguous answer.  If I sensed confusion or lack of clarity about some aspect of the product, we noted it and took the action to get some resolution.  Within a week we were able to circulate a draft "this is what it is" document.  After reviewing and finalizing that draft, Product Marketing had what it needed.

Rinse and Repeat

We institutionalized this method by creating something we called a "Product Launch Form".  More important than the form itself were the rules that went with it:

  • No referring to other documents in your answer.
  • You're only allowed to use simple, declarative sentences... no subordinate clauses allowed!
  • "I don't know" is OK to use as a placeholder (better to deliver most of the information than wait for all of it to be ready).  But "I don't know" has to be resolved.
The most important rule was this: the form was to be filled out in the same kind of "interview" style I had used.  This was done in part out of necessity--we had to be one of the Product Manager's "interrupts" in order to get some time--and in part to allow for a give-and-take that would short-cut the time needed for arriving at clear answers.

So the next time you're holding a metaphorical basket of questions and your Product Manager tell you, "it's all in the documentation", hand them one of those plastic Easter eggs--and make sure the candy's gone.

Product Managers on the Road, Part XLV

Random notes from my interview trip to Orange County...
  • 5:30 AM, time to get up.  Not really a problem, since I've woken up every hour since I went to bed.  Yeah, I'm a little excited.
  • Nice that I managed to travel on the one day this week when it hasn't been pouring down rain.
  • I’m looking forward to spending more time talking to humans than farm animals today.
  • This is the first time I’ve been in San Jose airport in a while.  It’s disorienting, as everything’s moved around.  The good news is, they’re now capable of processing large numbers of travelers through security, something that used to be a nightmare.
  • The sign in check-in was right--the gates are a LONG way away!  They're calling my name over the intercom to board; that's never a good thing.  Luckily, I can put my short-track speed skating skills to use as I slide past the slower travelers on my way to the gate.
  • I get to fly almost directly over our house as we head south.  I wonder if Doc is barking at the plane, like he does with the turkey vultures?  And look at that--there's snow on the hills!
  • Thanks Joel, for the conversation this AM; I was able to use some of it in my “why you should hire me” pitch today!
  • I still call it Orange County airport (and the airport code is SNA, from the days when it was “Santa Ana”) but officially it’s “John Wayne Airport”.  Really, pilgrim?
  • And when did Burbank airport become “Bob Hope Airport”? Why not save that for Palm Springs? Or will that become Sonny Bono Field?
  • Who’s next on the old-and-dead-celebrity airport naming train?
  • Because it’s apparently an issue, there are signs in the Orange County airport informing you that you will have to check your snow globe, because it contains more than 3 oz. of liquid.  Think they sell a lot of those things at Disneyland?
  • Flew directly over Catalina Island on the way back to San Jose.  Great way to scope out shallower waters for dive locations!
  • The message on the the package helpfully informs me that my peanuts were made in a facility that processes peanuts and other nuts.  Umm, OK.
  • I exit the plane into the new "international" terminal at San Jose.  From the outside, the terminal looks like a cross-section of one of the worms from Dune.  But the inside is nice, very spacious and open.
  • I hear about the Pentagon shooting on the way home.  I'm pretty sure it happened at Brian's Metro stop.  Today I learn the shooter was from Hollister, and lived with his parents.  Great, I'm sure the Hollister Visitor's Bureau is happy to hear about that!