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A single product champion is capable of only so much crazy

18 Jul 2011

Product Engineering, Messier in Practice

  1. Got a brilliant concept which early feedback reveals as a huge market opportunity? [check]
  2. Have the sharpest minds and the most adept hands in the industry ready to execute a polished design and beta? [check]
  3. Turn the crank and toil away to a product success story right? [keep dreaming]
  4. Just because you can envision a clear working model in your mind's eye, doesn't mean reality will be so pliable.

    Real products have anything but tidy backgrounds. Their disheveled stories revolve about uncertain resources, unproven markets, near mad visionaries, driven designers, and exhausted engineers struggling to make an abstract concept into a practical product. History has a way of painting a smooth surface on the chaos that is a breakout product's origin.

    Product life cycles are born out of the relentless will of champions whether they turn out to be shining successes or catastrophic flops. In the startup world we call these folks founders, and their roles often grow beyond caretakers of a single product line. Likewise mature businesses have internal leaders which champion new products.

    The company born product champion trades off ownership, control, and freedom from layers of management and bureaucracy (aka bullshit) for the security of a steady paycheck. In theory the company insider has a softer landing in case of project fails, but I'm not confident this holds true in practice. The founder of a failed venture can jump into a cash rich startup, land a corporate gig, or dust themselves off and take another swing at their own startup.

    Whether inside a company or on their own, champions are the first kick into the product evolutionary funnel. From the outside looking in, this first stage of development is often associated with the greatest disorder. Although the product development cycle is perceived as trending from chaotic to ordered, in my sixty seasons as an engineer I can vouch for the disorder growing and simply spreading out to inhabit unseen regions of a larger system.

    A single product champion is capable of only so much crazy.

    Things don't get really interesting until you add the combinatoric entropy of designers, developers and engineers throwing in their lot of dementia to the early product bonfire.

    The Prototypical Grind House

    Professional developers and engineers tend towards austere work environments to balance the complexity of state that their work demands.

    The stark contrast between clean modern offices and erratic hardware labs belies the erratic processes which give rise to stable products. My hardware experience is limited to time served in a chip wafer plant in 1995, where yields were anything but predictable. A quasi stable equilibrium takes hold in functioning product design labs.

    More subtle yet just as disruptive are the raw codes bristling with untested edge cases as they churn on volumes of data quietly commanded by calm keystrokes. Regression testing can hardly keep pace with rapidly shifting and uncertain requirements. Dev teams dance their way to product releases, monkey patching freshly discovered flaws as they go. It's common for a few design errors to be beyond the team's limited resources to refactor, and work documented work arounds are a fall back. Good enough wins every time over perfect in the blistering world of product engineering.