You were a project manager, right…

These were the words just a couple of days ago in a Facebook chat with someone I met in the twilight of my career. She wanted to catch up with me to talk about project management – a nice thought, but what have I got to say?

I got to thinking. I spent most of my career doing project management or something very close to it. Even in the last few years when I was supposedly into business development and marketing, a lot of my work was informed by project management experience. It’s a lot easier to sell a project development if you can talk intelligently to the customer about what’s involved. Trouble is, like many areas of expertise, if you know what you’re doing project management seems obvious – until you see how badly some people do it. In this blog I’m simply going to skate over the surface, stating the obvious – I don’t think anyone would want to stick around for the full treatment, and I’m certainly not going to get into a philosophical discussion about waterfall or agile methodologies.

Project delivery happens in phases – some of these can overlap, sometimes they become iterative, but delivery of a project is about moving from nothing but an idea to a set of tangible deliverables. Often when projects go wrong it’s because people forget about some of the phases, and even more commonly they work with a silo mentality, limiting communication across departments and disciplines, which can lead to less than ideal project outcomes.

Concept phase

Someone has an idea which might become a project. But what is it? In this phase we are talking about the “what” and the “why” and emphatically not the “how”. Techies will want to discuss the “how” at the earliest opportunity, and often either forget about the “what” and the “why”, or think they know better than the customer/user/stakeholder. This phase is about defining the requirements. To do it properly we need to work closely with the customer, users and stakeholders, as well as the breadth of company activities such as sales, marketing, finance, customer support and training.

  • Deliverables – agreement of all parties on the deliverables is crucial. If we don’t know what we’re delivering, how do we know when we’re finished?
    What is actually wanted?
    What will it do and why?
    What are the benefits?

    Can we identify customers, users and stakeholders and do they agree on the objectives?
  • Budget – in most environments a project must make financial sense.
    What budget do we have for delivering the project?
    How much is it worth spending?
  • Timescales – a project is usually only valid in a particular timeframe.
    When is it needed?
    When would it be too late?
    Is it possible to be too early?

Planning phase

Once we have a handle on the requirements, we can start thinking about “how” we will deliver. Typically we will discover things in this phase that cause us to go back and consider the requirements. It’s fine to go back and revisit the previous phase, but make sure you don’t get confused between the “what” and the “how”. We still need to be working across the many departments of the organisations involved – very often the technical teams will think that they own this phase. They should not!

  • Resourcing – we need to determine who will be involved in delivering the project, and where will the money come from.
    Who is in the project team?
    Do we need external resources?
  • Cost – this is deeply dependent on all of the other parameters in this phase. It’s pretty important that the development cost is in line with the budget identified in the previous phase. I have worked on many projects which would not have happened if we’d known the true costs when we’d started. There can be ways around this, such as finding other revenue streams based on the development (maybe technology licensing, for instance).
    What will it really cost?
    Who pays if we’ve got it wrong?
  • Technology – we need to consider the technology we will use for this project, both in terms of the underlying deliverable and the tools used to develop it.
    What technologies could we use as the basis of the project deliverables?
    What about development tools?
    Do we have experience is these technologies?
    Do we need external resources?
  • Timescales – this is a different question from that in the previous phase. Then it was “when do we need it?”. Now we’re asking “when can you have it?”
    How long will it take to create the deliverables? Even if we could estimate perfectly (and we can’t) there is no single answer to this question. The deliverables might come in parts over a period of time, or be delivered in a number of different ways. It might be possible to deliver earlier if we were to spend more money.
    How long will it really take? Think about risk. You need to be realistic about the timescales and factor in some contingency. If the project is very similar to 10 you have repeatably done before then the contingency can be small. If it’s based on brand-new technology that no-one has ever used, it will probably take twice as long as you think, even when you have factored in some contingency.
  • Methodology – in the good old days we (in theory) carefully defined a project specification in minute detail before we started the development process. It is fashionable nowadays to use agile development, which takes account of the fact that we don’t know everything we need to know before we start. Each methodology has its advantages – and its disadvantages.

Execution phase

On a technical project, this is what the developers regard as the real work. They start coding and developing the electronics. But in the real world we also need to take into account the needs of the marketing department, sales, customer support, and test teams. Many immature companies regard these as serial activities rather than taking a holistic team approach.

  • Progress tracking – the methodology zealots will talk of stand-up daily meetings for agile developments, or meticulous tracking of hours spent and earned value for more traditionally run projects. This is what some people regard as the core of project management.
    Are timescales on track? It’s an easy question to ask, but devilishly difficult to answer. It’s often the case that projects stay on track until the 80% point, and then take as long to finish as they took to get to that point.
    Are costs on track? This one is probably even more difficult to answer
  • Customer management – also taking account of users and stakeholders.
    Is progress what we expected? We need to be setting appropriate expectations.
    Have we met unforeseen technical obstacles where the customer could help? Sometimes we can struggle expensively to solve a technical problem, when talking to the customer would have established that it’s not important.
    Are there potential follow-on projects? We might have decided to postpone solving a problem until later, or have identified an opportunity for further development. We need to start talking as soon as possible.
  • Scope – almost certainly the customer will realise at some stage that the original requirements were not correct. That’s fine, but we need to realise that the later we make that discovery the more it will cost. Moving goalposts cost a lot of money – but there’s no point in delivering something which is no longer appropriate.
    Is this a real requirement, or just a nice-to-have?
    Is the whole of the customer organisation in agreement?
    Has the customer analysed the benefits?
    Have we analysed the full cost and timescale impact?

Handover phase

We’ve finished the project, so we hand it over to the customer and (if it’s that sort of project) get paid. Simple! Ideally handover is an event, not a phase. But in reality, not everyone agrees that it’s finished, and it’s probably not on time. If we’ve been doing it right the other departments will have been marching with us during execution, now they come to the fore. Sales, marketing, training and customer support all need in their own way to get hold of the deliverables and work their magic.
Do we have agreed actions, timescales and payment schedules to tie up the loose ends?
Can we make sure the developers don’t disappear to more exciting projects before they’ve finished the job? 
Have we scheduled a cross-functional project review (including the customer where appropriate) to analyse and learn from this project? 
Have we kicked off the process to secure follow-on work before we lose the team expertise?
Have we put in place appropriate warranty and support processes, taking into account the probable change of timescales since they were initially agreed?

Post delivery support phase

This is both an opportunity and a problem. The customer, users and stakeholders will probably want the deliverables to function for many years. But the project development team will be working on new and exciting projects. An existing (and happy) customer is a valuable asset for up-selling and cross-selling.
Are we staying in touch with the customer to ensure they’re happy?
Are we looking at opportunities to upgrade the original deliverable, or move it on in relation to today’s technology? 
Do we have a succession plan to ensure that developers have an interesting and challenging career path, but we maintain the ability to support legacy products?

Further reading

No-one agrees how many phases there are, or what activities take place, but here’s another view:

https://www.smartsheet.com/blog/demystifying-5-phases-project-management

Why wasn’t I surprised?

The only slightly surprising thing about this story was that it made the news at all – and that is surprising partly because it’s hardly news that bullying goes on in the workplace (from Philip Green downwards, or perhaps that should be upwards), and partly because those affected rarely go public either through fear of career repercussions, or because they think it will make them appear inadequate. It’s been reassuring to see a mostly positive response to Olivia Bland’s story.

After a career of more than 40 years in the tech industry I know that despite its young, hip and cosy image of pool tables, ping-pong and bean-bags (all true) there is no shortage of bullying behaviour and for many this starts with the interview. While I have certainly been subject to bullying from managers once in a job, I’ve been fortunate and not suffered direct bullying at job interview stage. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of cocky arrogant people trying to show me how clever they are, but I’ve attended most of those interviews as an experienced professional, and been able to respond appropriately at the time (I can be cocky and arrogant too), and walk away from the job. That’s much more difficult for junior personnel and those desperate for a job.

But I have been a part of organisations where the ritual bullying of interviewees was institutionalised. Techies who spent most of the day wearing earphones, staring at their screens and talking to no-one could be seen stalking around the office with a manic grin rubbing their hands in anticipation of locking a poor victim in a closed meeting room for a couple of hours posing questions designed as much to show how clever they were as to gain any insight on the abilities of the interviewee. It served as a group bonding exercise for the perpetrators, so I guess that helped morale, but I’m sure many good applicants slipped through the net, and the company lost the powerful benefits it could have derived from a more diverse workforce – those who did survive the process tended to be clones of those doing the interview.

See also my earlier blog on workplace bullying once you’ve got the job – Business Bullying – “You’re Fired”: http://www.cliffdive.co.uk/business-bullying-youre-fired/

Why I never became a CEO

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to someone about my career. ‘Why didn’t you ever become a CEO?’ he asked. It wasn’t a deep and meaningful conversation, and I’m way past seeking the attention of a career coach (no point trying to revive a very dead thing), but it was a good question which made me think more deeply than was ever intended.

Forty years in six bullets

I recently defined my career as a long hard uphill struggle followed by a precipitous decline. Looking back, I see that from the beginning to the end my career was an accident that happened to me – I had no goals and certainly no plan.

A goal without a plan is just a wish — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When looking at possible roles towards the end of my time at university I sat down with material from the careers centre, and sorted into yes and no piles – at least, that was the intention, but there was nothing on the yes pile, so I had to redefine the piles as I guess I have to do something” and no way”.  

So here’s my CV in six bullets:

  • I left university with a degree in Engineering Science and no real idea of what to do with it
  • I spent few years trying to find my professional self
  • The defining moment was when I fell into developing real-time embedded software in its early days
  • By the age of 30 I had moved into development manager roles, running technical teams and communicating with customers
  • In later years I migrated towards business management and marketing of hi-tech products and services, but always with deep technical understanding and involvement
  • Finally, at the age of 64, never having made the big-time, I was redundant (for the fourth time), but this time round I didn’t find a new outlet for my experience and abilities. I gave in to the inevitable and declared myself retired

All this sounds rather negative, but there’s been one common theme in all the jobs I’ve had – I’ve taken jobs because they’ve looked like fun. I’d like to say that when those jobs have stopped being fun I got out, but I wasn’t so good at that.

But I have been very lucky to enjoy an interesting and varied career, working with some great people…

…of course, I’ve met and worked for some real idiots as well.

What I’ve learnt

If you want to progress in your career, shout about your abilities, especially if you don’t have any

I took a very long time to recognise and exploit my own value. I came from a modest background. For all the years I was around, my father had a technical job in the Civil Service with no ambition ever to do anything different, and my mother stayed at home. I had no idea how business functioned, or how to develop a career. I eventually realised that you will be judged not so much by what you do as what you say.

Don’t sacrifice yourself in the belief that you’ll get rewarded for doing a good job. Reward comes with getting the politics right, not the job

For a long time I arranged my life around what I thought was in the interests of the companies I worked for.  Those companies were happy to exploit my flexibility and in the end were happy to dispose of me without a care in the world. This is the other side of the previous point – what you actually achieve is far less important than the story you tell about it, especially with your boss’s boss.

If it’s not working out right now it probably never will. It’s not worth suffering in the hope that it will all get better tomorrow/next week/next month/next year

I have only once been in a company where there were major organisational changes which led to much improved prospects for me – and that was followed a few years later by another organisational change that proved catastrophic. In other companies I have spent extended periods trying to improve my situation, going in optimistically every Monday, only to be depressed by lunchtime.

Don’t believe that loyalty to your company is good for your career. At all times consider what is in your best interest – but keep making the right political noises

I was always loyal to the company I was working for, while I was working for them, but at the same time openly but constructively critical when I felt they were not doing as well as they should. I have seen many others who been exploiting their current position for personal gain.

Become a part of the inner circle social scene. Chances are that the senior guys (and they probably are guys) have a favoured out of office activity, traditionally golf, but nowadays perhaps something like cycling

It’s a great make to get yourself known to the people who make the real decisions. When opportunities come up, managers will feel much more comfortable offering promotions to people they’ve socialised with outside the office. The downside is that this will only work if you’re quite good at these activities – if you slow down the Lycra clad macho management peloton this will just reinforce your image as an incompetent wannabe. <I thank my ex-colleague Melissa for suggesting this point>

Your boss is always right, even when (s)he’s wrong – and make sure you tell everyone how great your boss is, particularly if they’re not. Shout it out!

In a misguided attempt to do a good job and promote the interests of my employer, I have always told it like it is – if the boss has been wrong I have said so. Unless you have an exceptionally enlightened boss this isn’t good for your career. But see the next point for a possible exception to this…

As a manager, loyalty to your team can be a double-edged sword. It makes for a pleasant and productive work environment, but what happens if you have to choose between them and the boss?

I have always made it central to my work ethic to support the people I manage. I discuss this in more detail in http://www.cliffdive.co.uk/what-price-success/. I believe that on balance this is the right approach, even if it leads to conflict with management. The enlightened boss will give his or her team credit for success but take personal responsibility for failures, and while this is sometimes not good in the short term, in this case I think the karma is worth it.

Know yourself – I could never create a start-up. I have the right skills but I can see the risks and I’m naturally cautious. But I make a very good number two in a start-up

I’ve experienced a lot of business life in many different types of company. When I have dreams I see the potential for them to transform into nightmares. That sense of realism stops me ever creating a start-up, but combined with my skills and experience, can work well in helping an entrepreneur to realise their dreams – without getting too carried away on their own hype.

Be under no illusions – the HR department is there to protect the company from the employees, not the other way round

The HR department is there to make sure that hiring and firing are as clean and cheap as possible.

If you find yourself working with a boss or a mentor in a senior position who is genuinely appreciative of your capabilities, make sure you truly value and nurture that relationship

This is the secret to progressing, particularly in a large company. Your manager or mentor can see opportunities, open doors and generally facilitate your progression. This is fine until it all goes wrong and they get fired.

Summarising all of the above: look after yourself – no-one else will

The productivity dilemma

Picture from Flickr by Abhijit Bhaduri

The low level of productivity in the UK has become a hot topic in recent years. Simplistically it sounds as though workers are not working hard enough – all we need to do is crack the whip a little, people will knuckle down and work harder and the problem will go away.

However a slightly more sophisticated analysis than that normally offered by politicians or the tabloids suggests that one element in this failure to improve productivity is actually a side-effect of the country’s success in achieving high levels of employment – a lot of the new employment is in the low-skilled service sector and “gig economy”, where individuals typically don’t generate much revenue per hour, for themselves or anyone else.

And therein lies the dilemma. Which do we want – full employment (even where many of those jobs leave people still on benefits) or high value-add for those employed, but higher unemployment?

I’m not normally short of opinion, but I really don’t know the answer on this one. Is having a job such a noble aspiration when that job is exploitative?

On the other side of the argument, I know at first hand that a lot of revenue is being lost at the moment while people like me with high levels of skill and potential revenue generation are left outside the world of employment, partly by choice and partly as a result of various forms of discrimination.

What price success?

This post is a little story about a couple of my formative experiences in a management role. I’m pleased to say that throughout my life I have remained true to the philosophy that emerged in those days – but I now realise that has probably been to the detriment of my career.

I entered my professional life with an incredible level of naivety. My father had a technical role in a top-secret organisation, never sought promotion and told me little about what he did. My mother stayed at home. I was the first one in the family to experience university. I had no insight or role-models for my working life.

Little wonder that when I left home and started to make my own way through life, I often felt like the wide-eyed bunny in the headlights.

How to win friends and influence people

A few years after leaving university and drifting fairly aimlessly through a couple of jobs, I found myself with what were at the time rare skills in writing real-time software just as microprocessors were first emerging into the world. Someone must have recognised some well-hidden latent talent, and I was managing a small group of engineers.

I had a call from one of the directors of the company:

I’ve just seen one of your engineers chaining up his bicycle at 08:50 – he’s 20 minutes late for work. What are you going to do about it?”

My answer, because I believe in treating people fairly, and that my job was to get the best out of my team for the benefit of the company and their own satisfaction:

Yes, but were you here at seven o’clock last night when he unchained his bicycle to go home after we spent the evening fixing a bug?”

 

I heard no more about that problem, but some time later my boss summoned me into his office to tell me that one of the directors had come over to our building and seen one of my software contractors staring at the ceiling rather than working:

 

We don’t pay him all that money to stare at the ceiling. Could you make sure he doesn’t do it again”

The contractor concerned was a very productive and creative engineer, but indeed didn’t come cheap. My answer:

We pay him for his creative technical skills. If he gets his inspiration from staring at the ceiling that’s fine by me. Feel free to complain if we don’t deliver”

You’re either with us or against us

I never understood colleagues who spent a lot of time cultivating the patronage of senior managers, and carried out their bidding unquestioningly. I thought it was my job to work with my team to deliver the best results we could.

I have always taken the line that if we have a success it’s a team success – if something goes wrong, that’s my responsibility. I chose to support and protect my team, but be demanding of my managers.

I’m pleased to say that, even as I began to realise that there are downsides of simply doing a good job and telling it like it is, I have chosen to stand by my principles. I’m sure it’s limited my career progression, but I have had the privilege of working with some fantastically talented and loyal teams, and been able to sleep at night knowing that we’ve done our best together, as a team. With the benefit of what I know now, I’d do the same again.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me…

Like many people, my career has been not so much the result of planning as a series of mostly happy accidents. I have always taken the view that as long as I am still effective at my job and enjoying it I would go with the flow and keep working, so maybe my retirement will also happen by accident.

Happy birthday

There I was thinking all was well with the world when my employers decided to take control of my career just in time for my sixty-fourth birthday. Their birthday present was to offer me my freedom, in the form of redundancy. What now?

Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose

Some people with whom I’ve discussed this don’t see a problem – why don’t I just get in the motorhome (RV if you’re from the States) or on my motorcycle, leave all the work-related hassle behind and enjoy my freedom. But as I experience my new-found life of leisure I’m realising now just how much I enjoy the challenge and excitement of technical innovation.

It’s always good to have a Plan B or C…

When I was made redundant, my plans formed rapidly:

  • Plan A – exploit the breadth and depth of my product innovation experience offering my services as a freelancer. I acknowledged the risk that only a small segment of the industry would recognise the value and have the money to pay for my services and indeed finding those customers has not proved easy
  • Plan B – get a “proper job”, with a “proper company”. I’ve had enough of what we might politely call the quirky behaviour of small tech companies. I’m well aware of the downsides of big companies, but right now their advantages sound attractive. Job applications via the web and LinkedIn have proved to be total black holes – introductions via my network have led to interviews, but no actual offers
  • Plan C – simply accept I’m now retired, and find new meaning in life. This is the only plan over which I have total control, and will be the default outcome in the case of failure of plans A and B.

Where am I now?

  • I would dearly like to work for a big tech company but remain sceptical about the chances of success in finding that dream job
  • I am interested in freelance assignments, but not looking proactively beyond my normal web and networking presence – the returns are simply not worth the effort
  • I will never apply for any job without some form of personal connection to the hiring manager
  • If all else fails, I have the motorhome and the motorcycle

If you would like to talk to a seasoned product/project manager with solid business development and marketing capabilities underpinned by strong technical understanding, here I am.

Take-aways

  • Never make assumptions about your on-going employment. Whether you’re in a multi-national corporation or a start-up, there’s no such thing as a permanent job
  • Take care of your career, especially as you get older. Go for jobs that will look good on your CV and give you a place in a high esteem network. Whether you are regarded as “past it” or  “seasoned expert” will depend crucially on your recent track record
  • I’m not the only one – we are throwing away a vast untapped reservoir of skilled flexible and experienced professionals while at the same time complaining about skills shortages. A diverse workforce will always win over a group of clones
  • You learn who your friends are when you’re no longer a useful contact
  • If we’re all supposed to be working into our later lives, where will the jobs be?

Contact me

Professional networking – one day all conferences will be like this

Blendology E-ink conference badges at MIA Agents Day
Blendology E-ink conference badges and an iPad registration terminal at MIA Agents Day

Last week I was invited to attend the MIA Agents Day at Robinson College in Cambridge. This was my first opportunity to see the exciting new Blendology E-ink conference badges in action. Five years ago I had been at the same venue as part of the team for Blendology’s second ever deployment at TVC 2012. What a great opportunity to see how far Blendology has come in  those five years.

Selling a solution

In the early days at Blendology I used to joke (with many a true word being said in jest) that Blendology was offering customers a problem rather than a solution. In reality we were offering a professional networking solution that delivered benefits for conference organisers, exhibitors and attendees, but there was a price – not just a financial cost but increased complexity for registration and badge preparation.

Organising badges for TVC 2012
Organising badges for TVC 2012 – the night before in the Blendology office

For many customers that was a price well worth paying, and the Blendology team was able to take much of the extra burden from the organisers’ shoulders. The benefits of the comprehensive event metrics from Blendology meant that many customers came back time after time.

But anyone who has ever tried to organise even simple paper badges for an event with several hundred people will recognise the effort required to print, sort, and hand out badges. Over the years Blendology’s work flow has become incredibly refined compared to that event 5 years ago, but the challenge of producing paper badges has always been there for all event organisers…

…until now. With Blendology E-ink badges the paper is gone! Each badge can be instantly wirelessly assigned to the correct attendee, handling both pre-registered attendees and those who show up on the day – no need for printers or sticky labels and a felt-tip pen, and (my bête noire) no alphabetical sorting of hundreds of badges.

It’s now simpler to deploy the professional and sophisticated Blendology solution than even the  simplest clip-on paper badge. Blendology E-ink badges are now definitely a solution rather than a problem, even before you start looking at the other benefits. So let’s look at what Blendology can now offer at a professional event.

E-ink badges – paperless, instant, convenient and compelling networking

 

Blendology created the patented oneTap technology to allow attendees at an event to exchange contact details simply by tapping their badges together. The new paperless E-ink badges continue to offer oneTap technology – you wouldn’t want to miss out on that compelling functionality. But they can also offer so much more:

  • wireless assignment to attendees using iPad hosted management platform either before the event or on the day (no wait for printers or folding and stuffing paper into badge)
  • personalised graphics and other information (such as table number for meals)
  • sponsor information
  • location maps
  • personalised agenda

Because it’s a paperless system, it’s simple to download new information to the badge, or reassign it to another person. Blendology demonstrated how, in a few seconds, they could take my picture on their iPad and add it to the display on the badge. Try that with paper badges.

Your connections await

So, you’ve done your networking, tapped your badge, avoided carrying home or losing a large pile of business cards, and you receive a link from Blendology to enable you to pick up the details of your contacts – here are some of mine:


The information can be viewed in various ways or downloaded as an Excel file for entry in your CRM system. Users can chose what they share with others, adding information to their own profile either manually or by populating it with data from their LinkedIn profile – Blendology’s software uses a LinkedIn API  and allowed me to very quickly generate an impressive profile.

Analytics

Blendology is exciting because it offers something to all the stakeholders. For the event organisers it’s great that the attendees and exhibitors have an attractive way to network, but even better that they can get analytical information about the event, both in real time and for later analysis.

The data collected can demonstrate the success of the event in nurturing networks, and also provide location and footfall analysis.

Exhibitor booths

Blendology tap points on exhibitor booths can allow a self-service feature for visitors who want more information about a product, or facilitate conversations with booth personnel, working in a similar but less intrusive way to the commonly used bar-code scanners, as part of a single holistic data-collecting Blendology system.

Logistics

At that event 5 years ago we had a rudimentary registration app running on a PC platform. The system has come on tremendously since then with a range of capabilities to support pre-event and on the day registration,  and in-event and end-of-day management features. With wireless hubs around the venue, connection data, footfall and room occupancy can be collected and displayed in real time, and attendees can be kept on track wherever they are with messaging to badges.

Why isn’t Blendology just a phone app?

This question gets asked all the time. Blendology has spent a long time working on this technology and has learnt that phones just don’t allow the same sort of universal connectivity – any solution for an event has to be “it-just-works” simple to deploy, and easy for attendees to use. Many people won’t download apps for an event. Even if they do, the wireless infrastructure at large events is notoriously unreliable. If you can get that to work, mobile phone incompatibility still prevents hassle free universal connectivity for all attendees. With Blendology it just works – it’s been designed so that it would work reliably in a tent in a desert, without any infrastructure or wireless connectivity. That’s what’s needed for events.

Looking good five years on

In the early days of Blendology a paperless solution was our dream – that dream is now a reality. Blendology badges tell attendees they’re at a premium event. Blendology offers something special – it doesn’t just record networking, but promotes it. I’m impressed.

One day all conferences will be like this.

Want to know more?

To learn more about Blendology go to www.blendology.com

Camels, Tigers & Unicorns

The discussion panel
A lively discussion chaired by David Gill at St John’s Innovation Centre, Cambridge, UK

I was delighted to be asked to appear on the discussion panel for a seminar at St John’s Innovation Centre entitled “Rethinking science and technology enabled innovation: The Chasm II Challenge”.

The session started with Uday Phadke outlining some of the major elements of the book which he co-authored with Shailendra Vyakarnam – ‘Camels, Tigers & Unicorns: Rethinking Science and Technology-Enabled Innovation’ and went on to a fascinating audience Q&A and panel discussion. In addition to the authors of the book, the panel included Lianne Taylor from the Lord Ashcroft International Business School, Anglia Ruskin University and serial entrepreneur Bryan Amesbury. I was there as someone who has worked in a variety of roles creating, selling and marketing products and services.

Let’s start by explaining the three animals, and then move on to discuss the chasms.

Camels, Tigers & Unicorns

These terms describe three different types of company, particularly in the area of technical innovation.

The camel has all the resources it needs as it travels from one oasis to the next. It’s well adapted for survival in its environment. A traditional engineering company might well be a camel.

A tiger is agile, and it needs to be. It lives in a hostile environment and has to live on its wits, often not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Many high-tech start-ups are tigers.

Unicorns are mythical creatures. Some people believe they really exist, and place billion dollar valuations on start-ups  where in reality there is little more than smoke and mirrors. And, just sometimes, it works.

Chasms and vectors

It was back in 1991 that Geoffrey Moore wrote ‘Crossing the Chasm’. This talked about the difficulties in crossing the chasm in the product lifecycle between the “early adopters” and the “early majority”. Uday and Shai have been looking at real data-sets of metrics for 300 businesses and concluded that there are actually three chasms:

  • Chasm 1 – proving that you actually have a viable product
  • Chasm 2 – generating early sales revenues
  • Chasm 3 – scaling up the business

When the data are normalised and analysed there is a remarkable consistency across companies and sectors.

The authors looked for the factors that affect the progress of a company and identified the following “vectors”:

The discussion panel: Lianne Taylor, Bryan Amesbury, Clifford Dive, Shailendra Vyakarnam, Uday Phadke
The panel: Lianne Taylor, Bryan Amesbury, Clifford Dive, Shailendra Vyakarnam, Uday Phadke

  • Understanding the market space
  • Proposition framing and competition
  • Customer definition
  • Distribution, marketing strategy
  • Commercialisation strategy
  • Business models
  • IP management
  • Manufacturing and assembly
  • Product service definition and synthesis
  • Technology development and deployment
  • Talent, leadership and culture
  • Funding and Investment

The importance of each vector varies depending on the stage the company has reached in its evolution.

The challenge of the second chasm

It seems the second chasm presents a perfect storm. This crossing calls for the greatest number of vectors to be exercised, and it also happens to be the phase when funding and other support mechanisms are most difficult to find or least effective. The background of the panel members offered a variety of perspectives on these challenges, and the audience made a great contribution to a lively discussion.

Solving the problem

Unsurprisingly, good though the debate was, we didn’t come up with an instant solution, but the book makes a number of proposals, as well as suggesting tools which may be used to assist in the journey.

One essential factor is finding the right people to work with the management team to devise a strategy, and to assist in the delivery of that strategy.

Looking for help?

With management team experience on the leading edge of electronic and software innovation in organisations ranging from multinational corporations (including Qualcomm, Cadence and Philips) to technology start-ups and university spin-outs I am ideally placed to help companies as they tackle the first and second chasms. I have a technical understanding combined with real-life experience leading customer-oriented teams in project delivery, product management and business development.

If you’d like to talk about how I could help you to face your challenges don’t hesitate to get in touch.

strategy | product | technology | business

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Image credit: David, https://flic.kr/p/ah2HAg

On Thursday I went to a pub for lunch with an ex-colleague. The next day I went to a different pub for lunch with a different ex-colleague…

…and the experiences got me thinking about account management.

Thursday

We walked into the pub, ordered food and took our drinks to a little niche at the side of the bar area. So far, so good. Then, just as we were settling ourselves, a member of staff approached purposefully.

Member of staff (with a charmless and assertive manner bordering on aggressive): “You can’t sit there, this area’s closed”
My inner self (feeling immediately adversarial): “Where the hell else do you expect us to sit. The bar area’s pretty crowded”
What I actually said (in a very English way): “Sorry”
Member of staff: “…and you should have given a table number when you ordered”
My inner self (increasingly aroused, in a bad way): “Perhaps you should be telling that to the person who took our order”
What I actually said (in a very English way): “Sorry”

So, feeling rather passive aggressive by now, we picked up our drinks and stomped across the bar on a mission to find somewhere we were allowed to sit.

The food was fine, and the  conversation enjoyable. But if Google had asked me for a review of that place at that moment, it would not have been good.

Friday

We entered the pub before noon. The lady behind the bar appeared a little concerned as she told us that food wasn’t available until 12:00. We were happy to talk over a drink and look at the menu until then.

Member of staff (indicating one of the tables): “That table is reserved, but feel free to sit anywhere else”

After a few minutes the member of staff came over to where we were sat.

Member of staff: “It’s really not my day! I got confused – this table is actually reserved for 12:30”
What I said (reflecting the feelings of my inner self and very grateful for the lack of inner conflict): “That’s fine. We’ll move before the food arrives”

…and indeed, we happily took our drinks to another table where we enjoyed our food and conversation without any passive aggressive feelings. A customer-focused approach meant that we were more than happy to be cooperative.

Lesson of the day – it’s the little things that matter

There was no big problem with Thursday’s pub – but we came away unimpressed, not because of the deliverables themselves, but the manner in which they were delivered.

The same principle is true when working on customer projects in my chosen career of product development. Things will go wrong – timescales slip, software bugs happen, there are resourcing issues. Deal with it properly and the customer relationship will be stronger than if the problems had never occurred. Handle it badly, and it could be you’ll never work for that customer again.

That’s why it often makes sense to have someone in the role of account manager, away from the pressures of direct project responsibilities. When problems arise, this semi-detached person can take the broad view on the solution, where the project manager might feel compelled to apply the letter of the agreement. There’s scope to play the “good guy/bad guy” personas and work not only to deliver today’s project but tomorrow’s relationship.

The person in the account manager role should stay in touch with the project, attending both internal and customer progress meetings, but must be careful not to drift into the project manager’s territory. This is especially true for customer meetings – the tone and content of customer messaging should be agreed between the project team and the account manager beforehand.

Equally, the project manager should not be making big promises to the customer without consulting the account manager.

I have seen this model work very well, nurturing long-term trusting and profitable client relationships. I have also worked with companies that don’t see the point – the technical team manages the whole relationship while the project is operating. These companies have had notably low levels of repeat business.

360-Degree Consumer Cameras from a User’s Viewpoint

360As a part of my company’s real-time video stitching work we have been looking at state of the art 360-degree video cameras. Most of our development work has been based on what has become a de-facto standard for professionals capturing 360-degree content in the field – six GoPros mounted in a cube
formation. This rig can produce great results, but it’s expensive, physically cumbersome and difficult to operate. I recently took advantage of the opportunity to use three very different products, all aimed at the consumer market.

My test was based on a realistic use-case for a keen amateur – capturing 360-degree video from a motorcycle for upload to YouTube.

The conclusion

Using the cameras in a real-life situation reminded me that any camera which requires lengthy processing before its content can be used will remain a niche product used primarily by early adopters. As people discard their PCs and do more and more on mobile devices and tablets, products aimed at the mass consumer market cannot rely on a PC for essential functionality. Of these three cameras, only the Giroptic even begins to meet these “instant gratification” objectives. Its secret weapon is real-time video stitching and reprojection in the camera, meaning the video file it outputs is immediately usable on YouTube (and Facebook).

A lot of product reviews dwell on video quality. At the moment, while there are quality differences in the video generated by each  of these cameras, by the time it’s been processed, uploaded to the Cloud and then delivered back over the internet for viewing, it’s difficult to tell the difference between them – in truth they’re all pretty dire if you look too closely.

Which one would I buy? I answer that at the end of this article – but read on for more detail….

The cameras

Kodak PIXPRO SP360 4K (around £350)

Kodak SP360

This has a single lens with 235-degree field of view which, with the lens pointing upwards, provides all-round 360-degree coverage. It is possible to use two of these back-to-back for a full spherical view, but I chose to use a single camera, which leaves a big blind spot at the bottom.

Ricoh Theta S (around £300)

This uses dual fish-eye lenses back-to-back to provide genuine full 360-degree spherical coverage. The light from the lenses is reflected through 90 degrees on to the sensors, an arrangement that allows the lenses to be very close together, to minimise parallax problems.

Giroptic 360Cam (around £430)

This was originally launched as a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, with first products shipping in 2016. It uses three lenses which deliver a 360-degree view but not a full sphere, since there is a significant blind spot looking down.

In use

All of the cameras passed the test of being easily usable without reading the instructions – simply turn on, select video mode and press the “go” button. All happily connected to my laptop via USB and made their content readily accessible. For the Giroptic that content could be directly uploaded to YouTube, which recognised it as 360-degree content but for the Kodak and the Ricoh there was a further step to produce the equirectangular video required. This re-projection (and for the Ricoh, stitching) was handled by the special Windows app for each of the cameras – and for both of them, on my modest laptop, the process literally took hours for a 10 minute clip.

Physically, the Ricoh and the Kodak are the neatest packages, but inexplicably the tripod mount for the Kodak is not underneath in its big blind spot, but on the side, in full view in the video (there is a special mount for the Kodak, with GoPro-like fixing which would address this problem, but I didn’t have the required parts to use it). In my particular test the Ricoh and the Giroptic both mounted neatly and conveniently, with the attachment visually unobtrusive.

The screenshots below link to the YouTube videos for each camera:

Kodak SP360

SP360 Screenshot

Ricoh Theta S

Theta Screenshot

Giroptic

Giroptic Screenshot

Which one would I buy?

For general use I’d want the physical compactness and aesthetic quality of the Ricoh. On the other hand, if I wanted an action camera for something like mountain biking or skiing, the Kodak would be a better package. But neither of those has the on-board stitching offered by the Giroptic, which is a real plus point. The Giroptic was the one I took on holiday this year.

This article was originally published on the Argon Design website:

http://www.argondesign.com/news/2016/aug/19/360-degree-consumer-cameras-users-viewpoint/