Monday, February 2, 2009

Time = Quality + Features

A recent article about Microsoft's process and thoughts behind the release cycle of Windows 7, brought to mind the above equation. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a partner, Yuval, who is as quietly wise (especially on matters dealing with technology), as he is gentle. Over hot chocolate one evening, he explained to me a stunningly simple equation that brought the tie between Product Management and company culture into sharp focus. For him it was as obvious; sort of like Einstein just knowing there was a relationship between the square of speed of light, energy and mass. Let me explain his equation:

Time= The date when your product/service will really be introduced to its customers
Quality= The customer experience (e.g. how many bugs/maximum pain to be inflicted)
Features= How much 'stuff' will be packed into the release

Yuval explained that each company has its own DNA, market pressures, and competitive dynamics that will cause them to interpret the above equation uniquely. For example, Intuit must hold (T) constant for its TurboTax product line, even at the risk of excluding 'killer' features, as it would be a death defying act for them to release a tax product on April 16th. On the other hand, Microsoft, was well known for its mantra to win all reviews. Knowing that breadth of features was essential to securing the coveted 'editors choice' (T) and (Q) often lagged customer expectations.

Lastly, a proud organization, such as IBM, was logically obsessed with product quality. As a consequence, they often shipped a superior quality product too late (OS/2) to have a market impact, or one that lacked feature depth to really differentiate themselves in a crowded ecosystem. Nonetheless, their core constituency, Enterprise customers, appreciated the reliability of the IBM brand.

The Internet, and more specifically the fast evolving SaaS universe, reinforces the validity of the equation. The now common practice, eponymous with Google, of releasing low/no cost permacheap 'beta' products may change user expectations at the core of Yuval's theorem, but it does not alter the DNA, or market pressures, that inevitably lead companies to make the 'best' in character decisions. To everything there is a season.

2 comments:

  1. Charlie, now that we're looking to SaaS as a business model, do you think bug count still belongs as a part of the customer experience definition? Having only Web development experience, I'd suggest the user interface, workflow, number of clicks to perform an action, etc, would define a quality customer experience.

    But perhaps that's one of the major differences between desktop developers and Web developers, and 'going gold' versus nightly deployment release cycles; Web developers rarely talk about bug count in relation to customer experience. On the Web, where customers to and fro with only a log-in form to contend with, it's all about an intuitive user experience, rather than a bug free one (the later is implied, or expected, thanks to the opportunity to submit a patch within five minutes of the first complaint).

    What would you think to Quality = Time / Features? That's one equation I believe the Web could be teaching developers & entrepreneurs (Twitter being the ultimate example, albeit, as a business, it's not strictly related to SaaS). It's certainly something that's been hammered home from my own software development experience. Less time for development = fewer opportunities for scope screep + a much more focused product.

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  2. Neil,

    You are absolutely correct that, in a web environment, bug count is relegated to a minor role. Thanks for highlighting it.

    I think you are also pointing to another significant factor; in a web/SaaS environment, developers are now much closer to the 'business' aspects of the site/application. Real-time adjustments to workflow, customer experience, and minimizing click to action metrics are now an integral part of the job description.

    This flattening of the organization is one of the hallmarks of 'capital efficiency' that will propel the next generation of net, cloud or whatever we call them companies.

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