Lately I’ve been asked a few questions about how to reach and connect with those developers who are so deep into writing and debugging their code, so dedicated to their own vision that they never ask for feedback once they’ve been tasked. Then, in the off chance late in the development stage they are asked to change direction, they either refuse, or become so difficult your job as product manager or program manager becomes a living hell. Sometimes, they even quit, which may be your worse case scenario.
To be frank, I’ve seen this happen many times on projects I’ve worked on, whether it be in product management, shepherding a specific program pre or post-launch, or just trying to help business development when they bring questions back to the engineering team. After many years working with software and hardware engineers, I’ve found three key ingredients are necessary to build a mutually beneficial bridge between engineer and customer. The first is empathy (for the engineers and their work), the second is trust and the third is respect. In fact, I have found them to cascade from one to the other. The second is actually a byproduct of the first, and if it continues in a productive manner, you are then able to build respect. Without their trust and respect, you won’t get very far with engineers.
Developing empathy, definitely a key soft skill, is easiest if the product or program manager has a keen sense of what needs to be done technically. Empathy is gained by focusing on mutual interests and a shared stake in the value of the work at hand, but is nurtured by listening, truly listening to the engineer first, and the customer second. I know this sounds paradoxical as the engineer is there to develop a product the company wants to sell, and the customer’s (or stakeholder’s) requirement should come first, but if you don’t listen to the developer and the vision they have of the problem, you may miss some important benefit that perhaps even the customer hasn’t thought of and marketers are not even aware of. In fact, so many of the products we use today that enthrall us did not come from customer requirements but from creative people with a vision and the means to achieve their vision (through strong engineering followed up by great marketing). By listening closely and asking engineers questions about the technology, their work, their challenges with the project and what they perceive as their value to the product’s end use, you will learn a lot and you will be on your way to establishing the empathy you need to gain their trust.
Likewise, sharing your own vision and institutional knowledge with the engineer also helps as they often feel isolated due to the sheer effort of their own contributions. Sometimes you will agree with an engineer, sometimes you will not. When you do, and you act as their champion to key stakeholders, you have then won their respect as well. Do it repeatedly and you will win their trust. Conversely, you can still win their trust and respect even if you (or upper management) do not agree with them after you’ve established empathy by providing honest feedback followed up by supporting them in any way feasible as they cope with the challenge of working on something they do not agree with, or do not wish to work on.
You may be thinking, “easier said than done” but every real world software and hardware project has trade-offs introduced by the stakeholders or the creatives peppered with the temperaments of those who deliver said products. Many years ago when I was an intern at Bell Labs in N.J., a wise person once said to me “where there is talent, there is temperament.” This truth has not changed in all my working years. Sometimes the higher the temperament, the greater the talent, but sometimes great talent is meek. Regardless, everyone working on a product or program should to be heard, understood and represented. This is both a product manager’s and a program manager’s role.
Not long ago, I had a fun lunch with a former colleague (we worked together at two different semiconductor companies over the last seven years). Over some nice tea at a Chinese restaurant in Sunnyvale, CA we started comparing semiconductor corporate culture as it relates to vehicles. My buddy was better informed than I as he had worked (but no longer does) at the three distinct and best known semiconductor companies in Silicon Valley, although two of them now mostly operate their businesses outside California.
The analogy goes something like this: one company is just plodding along soccer mom style, going from point A to point B, mini-van style, not giving up, occasionally winning, with no real sense of urgency, but a good sense of commitment. Another company acts like a race car, everyone moving as fast as they can to win the race, with their eye on the driver, the owner of said race car. The last company is best represented by a big Mack truck, joining the race later than the other two, but winning by plowing down the competition.
Needless to say, I had a laugh as I thought it was a a great analogy and a fun story. I’m sure you can figure out which company is which vehicle.
When I think about launching any new software “product” these days, be it for developers in the form of an SDK, consumers in the form of an app or application or enterprise in the form of a standalone executable or client/server application, I always first consider these three major “must-haves” or market requirements.
Every marketing plan for software (cloud based or otherwise) should include these three major tenets be fully addressed:
1) Platform: Platform coherency should be clearly defined
– Must be low friction for deployment and well documented for access (no excuses)
– Should be open source (if business feasible)
– Have a support ecosystem if the product encourages growing a user or developer community (aka: community forum, simple helpline email access, FAQ, newsletter, etc.)
2) Content: Content should always be included, even if the content is only code samples
– Content is what motivates adoption and sells the developer on using the platform
– Encourage user-generated content (especially if the primary goal of the application is UGC – think Snapchat and Instagram)
– Content can help you determine which distribution models may work best (the other way around is true as well).
– Content should help provide support for user acquisition, lead gen and more
3) Support: Support should be just as much business oriented as technical.
– Partner guidance (e.g., mobile platform advice, infrastructure tools such as Github, Bugzilla, etc.)
– Other possible synergistic partnerships (e.g., ecommerce tools, ecosystems apps and tools, support partners, etc.)
– May include co-marketing aids (if that makes sense for your product)
– Could be contract based and/or subscription based (or better yet, free!)
– If the product is technical in nature, such as an software development kit (SDK), expect to create developer forums, FAQs, and have someone on staff active in other internet channels where your developer customers may congregate.
I hope to write more about this soon, especially regarding content driving distribution choices.
Do you remember your first video game? I’m talking about the one you made, not played. I remember mine like it was yesterday but it was more like 20 years ago. I couldn’t wait to learn how to make every aspect of it, it was totally addictive and I worked like 16 hour days to finish it. It took me three months. Alone. Thankfully I was being paid to make it. You see, it was actually a research project, and I was the young intern who “got multimedia” so I got the task as a young computer graphics researcher at a wonderful but now defunct research institute. So, what was the first thing I did? For me, it was learning how to do anything I could think of that would go into my game. In the early days, it involved everything from importing super simple art (never my own, often clip art like junk from the late 80’s or early 90’s) to crafting animation code so my characters would move in my simple scenes. After I had the basics (and it was very basic!) I then went on to think about adding some UI and interactivity in my game. I wanted to learn it all, and do it all, but I didn’t have a lot of patience. I was young (and probably stupid too). What I did have then was time. Now, I’m older, wiser, way busier but more experienced. I know I can’t do it alone and I know I would need a world class team. I also know the time to market for any game keeps shrinking, and the pressure to finish on time rising inversely.
The experience I’ve gained over the years has led me to a new understanding and appreciation of game development. When I think of a game I’d like to build, I immediately make a plan, even if just in my head. That plan always includes pulling together the best team I can find. I work on a storyboard and think about finding a great game designer. Whom do I seek out next? Artists, of course. And a bit later? Animators. The software developers and level editors come a bit later. And who do you think I would go to at the end? Right before publishing? The agency folks who find the right people to make a killer trailer. It’s always good to be prepared in case you want to go the crowd funding route, right?
Today, I wouldn’t think of doing all the art production in-house. I mean seriously, how few people in our world can create something like this amazing mythical bird from DeNA’s Chains of Durandal
I wouldn’t think of creating my marketing trailer in house either. Likely, you wouldn’t either. It’s just too expensive, too time consuming and too slow. Enter GameCo. They made this amazing creature for the good folks over at DeNA. I found these guys about six months ago and fell in love with their work, so much so that I offered to represent them at the Game Conference and GDC this year. They’ve already helped so many great studio’s get fabulous games out – on time and within budget. Look at Chains of Durandal by DeNA and Lord of the Dragons from KLab Games as just two awesome examples of game art by GameCo Studios. Now that I’ve moved on to new adventures in my life, I felt I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out for GameCo. They are just THAT good.
Contact my friends at GameCo if you want to learn more about how they can help or contact me next time you hit the wall and art production is falling behind or worse, is just not going to cut it. I’ll make sure you meet the right people at GameCo.
They’ll help you get that art production done and it will look amazing. I promise you that.