Monday, November 5, 2012

The importance of strong product management

There's a lot of folks who whine about Windows 8, "Why did Microsoft have to change the UI? I like the old one!" The thing is, the old one simply isn't working well for a lot of people anymore. Hard drives have gotten so big, and people have installed so many programs on their systems, that the Start menu has achieved a depth that nuclear submarines would envy. Because the population is aging and eye-hand coordination is declining, both seeing all the tiny print on that Start menu and navigating it through several levels of sub-menus has become increasingly hard for a large percentage of the population. And finally, the Start menu paradigm simply doesn't work for tablets. If eye-hand coordination diving through the menu is an issue with a mouse, with a tablet touchscreen it would simply be impossible.

In other words, the notion that the Windows 8 UI change is all about "marketing" is pretty much nonsense. It's been well known that the Cairo user interface introduced with Windows 95 has reached its logical limits for quite some time, and ideas for changing the UI to meet the new challenges of the 21st Century have been floating around inside Microsoft for years, if a look at the Microsoft Research web site is any guide. I'm sure that Marketing told engineering, "we need a UI that will be usable on a tablet! And oh, make it usable on a desktop too!", but at worst Marketing merely hurried what was already in progress, rather than being a direct cause of the changes in Windows 8. The writing was on the wall for the Cairo UI, and sooner or later it would have been consigned to the dustbin of history regardless of Marketing's frantic panic about tablets.

So unlike a lot of people, I'm not surprised at all that Windows 8 has a significant shift in UI functionality. What I *am* surprised at is that it was done so badly. Microsoft has a lot of good people, and Windows 8 has all the raw tools in it to be a great operating system. Yet there's some needless complexities in its operation that shouldn't be there, and some important missing functionality that should be, such as IOS or Android style icon folders (without that, you're in endless sideways-scrolling territory to get all your most-used programs onto the start screen). So what gives?

In my opinion, the biggest issue with Windows 8 is caused by a clear failure of product management. Good product managers are hard to find because the job requires an understanding of customers at an intuitive level such that you can devise workable requirements to meet their needs, yet sufficient technical chops to understand what is doable and guide engineering toward producing the product that is going to meet those requirements. It also requires taste -- the ability to look at a product and say, "yes, that is tasteful and will please our customers" or look at a product and say "that is a pile of garbage, get it out of my sight until you do X, Y, and Z to it." Furthermore, product managers have to be empowered to be able to make those sort of judgements and have them stick. For better or for worse, Steve Jobs provides the template for what a strong product manager looks like -- opinionated, tasteful, with an intuitive understanding of the customer, with enough technical chops to understand what can be done, and power to make it stick.

Thing is, it's hard to find product managers like that because the geeks and nerds who typically run engineering departments wouldn't know good taste if it bit them on their bum, while the sales flunkees who typically run marketing departments wouldn't know technical chops if said chops bit off their ear. You almost need a Steve Jobs to do it. Unfortunately Microsoft doesn't appear to have a Steve Jobs to find good product managers, or if they do have good product managers, haven't empowered said product managers to make critical decisions about the product. Which is a shame. Because Windows 8 has a lot of good ideas, and the underlying technology is good. It just fails because of a lack of good taste (and courage, but see my prior blog on that), not because of a lack of technical chops.

Which just goes to show that putting out a great product isn't a matter of having great technology. It has to be a team effort, and if you don't have that, what you'll get is either a product that doesn't meet the needs of the marketplace, or a product that's far less great than it should be. Something to think about, if you're thinking about forming or joining a new startup. Do you have the kind of team that it will take? Does the company you are thinking of joining have such a team? Important questions, yet pretty much every startup I've encountered is all about the technology, and the rest of what it takes to have a great product is completely ignored. Which is probably why so many startups fail. So it goes.


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