On product development

[edit: this got consigned to being a draft far too long ago.  Then I got busy with buying houses, saying goodbye to dogs I’ve had for many years, buying tractors, and resurrecting old Jeeps.  I’m reading it more than a year later, and it rings even more true than it did when I wrote it.  Therefore: worth sharing.]

So today is day 58 of 30.  That seems like an odd way to say it, but it’s representative of how things went down, man.  #30daysofbiking was in full swing (hipsters in MPLS kicked it off April 1) and I glommed on through some facebook postings and started on April 16th.  At the end I didn’t see any good reason to stop, and plenty of reasons to keep going.

That 16 day delay about sums it up for me trend-wise.  I like to let ‘em age out a bit.  Those early adopters have a rough time of it.  Electronic shifting on bicycles in the 1990’s?  sheesh.  Apple Newton?  Pshaw.

The old Diamond Rio mp3 players ?  No thanks.   I first saw one in 1998 visiting a friend in Boston, Massachusetts and was amazed.  But it didn’t make sense, particularly when you factored in how long it took to download songs into it.

Now I have days worth of music in my pocket most of the time.  Course, it was still hundreds of dollars, but some things will never change.  I even came to the iPhone party relatively late.  Glad I did.  Early generations of anything inevitably take a little while to iron out.  Take it from me- I do new things for a living.  Not that there’s necessarily any bugs or anything wrong with the first generation.  It’s just that the design team hasn’t been through sequential iterations of developing, releasing, and getting feedback from real customers who put hard-earned money on the table.

My buddy Glen at work (Lead for the last project I worked on) always quotes his Rule of Three:  It takes three tries to get it right.  I think that’s right (it’s also why I’m making damn sure to plan 3 attempts at my next project before we even come close to having to produce something fit for public consumption.)  On our last project, the first bikes were so-so at the first attempt, okay at the second (some would have said acceptable for production), then stellar.  It took more than a year of working in secret to get there after we had, at least nominally, finished the design.   This was with a team that had been through the wringer and should have been able to hit it out of the park on their first try.

But they didn’t, and that’s intensely interesting to me.  They didn’t do anything wrong, not in the slightest.  They did their level best.  It just wasn’t good enough.  They had to try and find where they’d failed, fix those problems, and try again.  The important thing is being honest about the gap between what you did and what the customer expects, and having the courage to swallow your pride and redo things so that the final product is right.  That’s sometimes the toughest thing in the world, because you have to take something you’ve nurtured and developed, and basically throw parts (if you’re good and/or lucky) or all (if you’re neither) of it out.  Not easy if you’ve been slaving overtime and have brought your best game and found it lacking.  Humbling.  Terrifying, even.  Bad enough to make you not want to try, or to try and bargain your way out of it.  We see all the stages of grief in product development.

Managing that process can be daunting.  Setting up an environment where people want to put their best thinking and creativity into their design, then offer it up willingly like a lamb to slaughter is not a straightforward affair.  Maintaining a sense of perspective about things, and knowing how to do good triage- separating the designs that are right from those that just need work is hard enough, but knowing the designs that are so architecturally hamstrung that they need taking out back and shooting?  That’s hard work.  Factor in that people are involved, and they all care about what is going on, and they all have different ideas about what the right thing to do.  Throw in a senior manager that thinks they need to give input, and that you have to do what they say?  Ay yi yi.

I remember an interesting editorial in a windsurfing magazine back in the 90’s.  The overall theme was: don’t be learning how to do something when it’s critical and your life depends on it.  Don’t learn to waterstart in the Gorge when a barge is bearing down on you.  Don’t learn to handle an overpowered sail when the wind is offshore and the next shore is further away than you can sail.  It’s fine to do dangerous things, just give yourself some room to learn them where the odds are in your favor.

This sort of thing

Back to bikes.  I can’t believe I didn’t ride as much as I have for as long as I did.  Or didn’t.  Being back on a bike feels so good.

[edit: I didn’t ride my bike nearly as much in 2011 as I wanted to.  Heck, I didn’t even get in a decent motorcycle trip, or ride on the track.  But it will be all worth it in the long run.  You’ll see. :) ]

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