Saturday 21 December 2013

Product management in startup

I always loved product management. Thinking about what others want is such a selfless feeling.
It is not a natural instinct for everyone. It is tough, human beings are designed to be egoistic. 

Product management is like a right drink, alcohol(Technical skills),water(Business acumen) and ice(User experience).Product management follows S Curve and includes product development(Microphone as inbound) and product marketing(Speaker as outbound).


Microphone activities include customer research/feedback, trend analysis, competitive analysis, and development.Speaker activities are feedback, distributing marketing messages, training sales people and engagement team, brand promotion strategies. 

Sitting in room and believing what customer wants didn’t work well for many companies. This might be the reason why startup became beast enough to swallow big corporate products.So now let us think about the small boat, does startup require product management team?Are the co-founders smart enough to figure out what product needs? The answer can be yes, if one of the co-founders is a product guy!That also means startup needs a product guy.
Product management should simmer the boundary with other disciples like sales, development and customer engagement.It needs complete involvement from the whole company so that right signals are passed to product team. 

What it takes to make a great product management in your startup?

Start from top: Everyone in the startup should believe that product management is very important.
Don’t forget gut feelings comes from gut neither brain nor heart. Even CEO has to listen to what product management team says!This also means all the decision makers should have “product guy” qualities defined below.

Audience Discovery: Sometimes startup lose focus because proper audience discovery is not done.
The product management should discover the audience and understand their needs in depth.Build persona and write down the what they want to do.You have to metamorphous to a “Black Swan” and it needs practice.

Don’t love your product: Product management team should not get obsessed. Don’t build a product you want.Build a product customer wants. This falls back into Audience discovery and understanding  their needs.

Process is a garbage collector: In product management focus and methodological approach is very important.But do you need elaborate process ?. The answer is no, use process as a garbage collector.Use it as a tool for focus. Whenever you feel some task takes away your focus add a process to do that.Also add process when you feel anybody should be able to do the task.

Put the team into focus: Product guy is the “NO” guy not the “YES”. When bunch of passionate people brain storm over new feature lot of opinions surfaces.Looking deep into facts and doing the right thing for the customer is “must” for product management.

Fear of failure: As a product manager fear of failure can prevent you from doing the right thing. ”Fixing Fast” is more important than doing it right first time.Build your team around this.

Core Fans: Identify the core fans of your product. Best way to identify your core fan is to look at the data you collected about usage.This is as important to remember that this group is the right audience you discovered. Core fans can really accelerate your brand value.They are the ambassadors and see value in your product. They will pay for your product. Core fans also knows how handicapped your product is.Listen to them.

Continuous feedback: The importance of feedback is spoken a lot about but how many companies does make it actionable. And sometimes startup over react to the feedback derailing the product.
The right balance is the most important job of product management.

Most of the above point is applicable for all companies.
So what you think is the right thing happening in your startup w.r.t product management?


Sunday 3 November 2013

Benefits of Hackathon and how to plan

Next week I am volunteering for the HackNight by Microsoft Ventures to represent NowFloats. I would have loved if the "word" hack means "share your idea" but unfortunately  it means "to reduce or cut ruthlessly". To etiolate it I decided to take some effort from my side. Hence sharing some thoughts around Hack days which can help others.  

The "word" Hackathon was coined by Sun Microsystems around 1999.Now most of the tech companies have Hackthon (hack day), but why?. Attending hacks makes one look geeky, get some goodies, a nice T-shirt may be, a photograph with tech magnet, this is obvious. Beyond this hack days helps techies in many ways. To make most of the Hackthon preparing well is pre-requisite.  

Benefits of hack day for techies 

  1. Build Next Big What: Hack days are like going to place of worship. It builds a environment in which your thoughts is streamlined by like minded people. This will help you to refine your thoughts/ideas or may be give new direction to your thoughts. Who knows your idea is next big thing! GroupMe and PhoneGap came out of Hackdays! .May be you will meet your "Angel" there.
  2. Ship it : There is lot of difference between having an idea or coding it and shipping it. In Hackday you have to Ship it. Hackdays helps you understand the importance of shipping the product in given time and the challenges in doing so.
  3. Gulp More : Learning new technologies, new ways of doing things or other soft skills is also major benefit for techies attending the event.
  4. Meet people : There are two kind of people whom you will meet in hack-days
    1. Veterans/Experts/Evangelist in industry : There will be experts attending the event to enable you to do your Hack. Go and talk with them and connect with them during breaks. Also most of the hack-days start/end with interactive session with technical leaders. Students will get chance to meet potential employer.
    2. Peer Group :You will meet lot of like-minded people. Meet new people and form teams. I am sure there will be a take away for you
  5. Foot loose : It is a break from your daily routines. It is as good as going for fishing in a nearby lake. Just enjoy it even if you don't catch any fish.  

Preparing for the Hack day event 

  1. Know it all : Understand well what is the intent behind the hack day. Prepare by making notes and how your idea is aligning with the scope and expected output.
  2. Miniscule project scope: Keep it practical, don't dream of building complicated scenarios. Keep it very simple.  First make it work, keep a copy and make it pretty by adding features. If you ask me only one thing that should be taken care then it is this. The concept of MVP revolves around this.
  3. Learn :Go through the API or Frameworks which you have to use in the hack-day if any. You might have to brush up technologies/framework to use in the hack-day.
  4. Business value : The judges will ask usually questions regarding business value of the hack. So please prepare for that.
  5. Preinstall :Preinstall any software you require. Also test any other devices like phone or any  hardware your planning to use.
  6. Reuse :Try to use UI templates, library, your old code, open source or any code from other forums. Nobody is worried about originality of the code in the hack day.
  7. Hack-mate: Find like-minded people and if possible with slightly varying skills like UI, Design other than coding skills. In hack day everybody in team should code.
  8. Tummy full: Drink lot of water and eat food. Dehydration can affect your task in hand.
  9. Connectivity: Usually the venue will get crowed and leads to Wi-Fi connectivity issue. Keep your mobile phone with data connection/data-card/other means as backup.
  10. Last but not least :Take a print out of your registration notification/email if any so that you don't struggle once you reach the venue.

Beyond 24 hours of sweat: 

  1. Connect with peers and take forward the Idea if you think it can go beyond Hack day. Most big companies got build under small ideas.
  2. Send e-mail/Add to LinkedIn people you met in the event.
  3. Add the Hack event to your resume.
  4. Make a notes of things which you want to learn in detail after the hack day and learn it.


So best of lucks all the Hackers of the world!

Monday 14 October 2013

Software development process in Startups

In software development we always start with “Hello World”. We never start with “ABC”. My little one was watching "fruit train" today and this made me think about it. Sometimes we jump into “Hello World” without learning ABC. A dev team for startup is different. How you build it defines most of the tech startups.  

When I thought about process of software development it got outlined as mixture of process and principles. Following is what I discovered.

Agile Process:

The mission statement of our dev team is “Quick with Quality”. We cannot choose one from either of them. This is also one of the reason “People matters” (See my earlier blog). Recruiting the right people will enable you achieve both.
Development process makes quality of deliverables from all the team members agonistic of quality of the people. Common mistakes are avoided by following process. I think if you have right team with business acumen, need for strict process reduce drastically. And building that team is what it takes.
Mostly testing is ignored in early stage start-ups which leads to demo syndrome* and poor quality. This also leads to team getting randomized with lot of bug fixes. Following will help to improve quality and efficiency:
Buddies in team:
1.       Testing each other’s code :Testing improves quality and product understanding.
2.       Avoid single point of failure: At least two developers knows the code and configurations. This will come handy for you in many ways in development and business practice.
Automate: Whenever you have time automate the testing as much as possible. Start by writing Build Verification Test (BVT) and move towards Unit Testing(UT). Start the practice before your code base becomes very large.
Sandbox environment: It is very important to build a sandbox testing environment. Everything works in developer’s box**.Virtual environments is means to reduce the cost.
Scrum: Daily standup meeting are very critical to keep the team focused and achieve the mile stones. As advocated by Scrum Gurus keep it brief and precise. Keep the sprints as short as possible. Maintain backlog of the all the requirements and feedbacks. 

Source control, reviews and testing should be mandated even for small teams.

Business validation process:

In startup the software development team should be integrated to product, customer engagement and sales team. Business development and software development can’t be separated. It is very important for leaders to define purpose and principles of the start-up and make sure that team knows about it. If developer is doing something other than core business, Stop!. It doesn't mean stop innovating, it means focus.
When you reduce the barrier between dev and other teams the inevitable side effect are following:
  • Team getting randomized by others teams
  • Lot of noise-business requirements from other team.
It is very critical for dev leader to make sure that it doesn't go to this extent.
When it comes to features to implement its a haywire. Pick your right battle at right time. Pick the "Right" features for the customer rather than allowing customer to pick the "Right" feature. This task is very difficult than most of us think, especially if your audience is diverse. The above doesn't mean you don't listen to customer. Following practice might help.
  • Problem Validation: Does the problem exist for wide audience.
  • Feedback Analysis: Filter the noise from customer feedback. And prioritize the feedback.
  • Product Validation: Do you want to solve the problem now or guide customer towards some existing solution. It might include suggesting your competitor or other solution providers.This is tough for most of us.
In spite of the speed of development, uniformity among different components, intuitiveness of the eco- system, focus on the problem and value add should not be derailed.
Don’t develop features which you like. "Disconnect” yourself, listen to the market and solve the most important problem. After all you’re not going to use it, your customers are.

Continuous development process:

When you are travelling very fast small mistakes get amplified with time. Continues feedback and corrective actions doesn't have any substitute. Earlier you listen to feedback and fix it less catastrophic it will be.
Following helps in continues development and deployment:
Continues deployment: Integrate as often as possible in the sandbox environment. Let each developer take pride about not breaking the integration environment. There should be daily continuous deployments to sandbox.
Continuity plan: A startup needs business continuity plan. It can be simple but there should be a plan.
Enable the team: Once you have right team, enable the team. We don’t have robots to do software development yet. Come back to reality. Acknowledge that people make mistakes. They need higher purpose to work in startup. Allow them to make decisions, allow them to make mistakes, allow them to interact with business as required. Don't be overprotective about what you developed from scratch. The team should run without you …period.
Build Operable system: Build software which gives you continues feedback from system and business perspective. I have discussed this in detail earlier.
* Demo syndrome : Your application never works when you go for demo with client or leaders..
** Dev box : Developers computer. 

Thursday 19 September 2013

Traits of Rock Star Software Engineer

Question: Who you want to hire for your team?
Answer: A Rock Star Software Engineer.

I am at a juncture where I started thinking about forming the “A team”. We all know the importance of “P”. Fortunately I have had the privilege to work with real “Rock Stars”. I pinned all the traits which is common to all those.

Tagline of great companies reflects what they stand for. Thought it will be a great Idea to map them to traits of a “Rock Star”.

I’m lovin’ it (McDonald's)

They love what they do. All good programmers are passionate artist. Artist’s gives utmost importance to the details, perfection and finishing touch. Takes pride in their code.

Look for good story tellers. When you read their code you feel like you are reading a story. Story will be very precise and concise. Good documentation, unit test and following fundamental principles of software engineering will be quiet natural for them.

Evaluation: Ask how you will mentor a new joinee into a good software engineer. Ask for importance of unit test, principles and a practical stories.

Just Do it (Nike)

For Agile working environment we need rock stars who can just do it. No non-sense. They will find ways to do it rather than ways of not doing it.

No reinventing the wheel. They will do it the smartest way. (Design pattern, framework, copy code)
Just do it also means they learn quickly and take tasks to the finish line.

Evaluation: Ask about application of patterns and reasons of selecting frameworks. Ask about an experience of doing something out of comfort zone.

Think Different (Apple)

They have business acumen. They are not code factory. They know what they do. They will have understanding of the bigger picture. They ask difficult questions and have to be themselves convinced before doing it. They think different and come up with simple and innovative solution.

Evaluation: Ask about projects end to end workflow and business value. Check if he is asking questions to clarify and does story telling. Give a problem which sounds complex and look for the approach.

Imagine it Done (Unisys)
Imagine it, consider it done. Great problem solving skills are essential. Approaching the problem in a disciplined manner is trait which make them different. No follow-up is required. They will make sure that the whole team is orchestrated and informed.
Evaluation: Look at the approach of problem solving. Ask about deployment and co-ordination with other teams.
Because You're Worth It (L'Oréal)
Confidence is the super trait they possess. They knows how much they are worth. You get what you have paid for. Money is not the only thing which attracts them they believe in something and they stand for it.
More number of developers are not equivalent to a Rock star. For that matter sometimes they are irreplaceable.
Evaluation: Is he begging Or He know what he wants. Confidence comes with knowledge and trust. Don’t confuse with great communication skills.

Betcha Can't Eat Just One (Lays)

They are curious people. They are aware of latest news in technology or internals of how things. They learned internals of operating system because they want to not because they have to. Data structures and algorithms will be in their blood (or will derive solutions from basic understanding towards existing principles).

When they don’t know they listen. They will not make others feel they know everything.
They will have projects which is not related to work. They always learn, imagine and innovate and do things differently. No complaints about absence of challenging work.

Evaluation: Ask problem solving question with application of data structures and algorithms. Observe if they listens, questions, and disagrees if required. Ask about contribution to open source or stretch projects or community contributions. (Gist?)

Connecting People (Nokia)

They are not ball of mud. They connect people. Rock stars believes that by mentoring and helping others you can add more brains and hands to yours.
They get things done. Again! They are not just code factory. They also helps software community in some way or other (Blogs, forums, open source).

But call them for a movie they might not come J

Evaluation: By now you know that.


You will get geeks, nerds.. but they are rare…The Rock stars!

Monday 9 September 2013

Steps towards software operability

The generic definition for operability in Wikipedia is “Operability is the ability to keep an equipment, a system or a whole industrial installation in a safe and reliable functioning condition, according to pre-defined operational requirements”. The definition seems to be applicable to critical application software deployments also. The clause of “pre-defined operational requirements” either makes it vague or makes the definition customizable.

An operable system not only satisfies business functionality for end-user but team behind it. For example for making an eCommerce site working 24X7 requires a lot of operability efforts in design to post-deployment phase.

The projects I worked in past couple of years demanded high operability. This made us think in different ways of designing and planning. The cost you pay for not having operability practices in place is very high. It can shoot your company into “Wall of shame”.

Tackling operability issues of your project require following acts:

Sell it first: Operability is inevitable, to which extent depends on the project. Try to get a deeper understanding of the operability requirements from your previous projects or similar projects. Prepare well in this phase, tough questions awaits you. What, How and When should be detailed to evaluate the need, extent, benefit and cost involved. Sell operability needs of your project to the management, it involves cost.
If it is an existing project you might stop here and continue the way you’re executing the project. Operability is nothing new it always existed and you might already have things in place. But please read phase two “Get the act together” to make sure that you didn’t miss anything while planning.

For management also this is critical phase to understand and justify the cost paid for operability especially in agile projects.

Get the Act together: Since we are past the phase 1 you are ready to “Get the act together”. This does not happen as part of business requirement it needs some extra effort in all the phases of development. It is strongly recommend to have a separate team which will enforce the principles of operability, build/customize tools and framework to suit your deployment. This allows focus, reuse and policing of operability. Having said that separating functional requirements and operability can be fatal to the project.
Operability team should improve the process/framework via continuous feedback. The functional team adopts the operability by infusing it into the business requirements.
Operability should be part of all phases of Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC).Let us look at each of the phase from operability perspective.
Design: Define clear milestone goals for operability. Operability goal can be in following areas
1.       Performance
2.       Scalability
3.       Security
4.       Recoverability
5.       Backward compatibility
6.       Deployment
7.       Rollback
8.       Monitoring
9.       Reporting system health
10.   Trouble shooting
11.   Testing the points 1-10
All of the above should be present in one form or other in all your critical projects. If not remember about “Wall of shame”.

Development and Testing: Practically this might be the longest phase in most projects. As far as operability is concerned this should be the shortest one. If operability tasks is taking longer go back to operability team. They need to fix it.

The main intention of this phase is to follow instructions/guidelines and make sure that next phases doesn’t require human intervention. You should never lose a chance to automate.
Ensure to log in standardized format across all applications as appropriate to enable monitoring and troubleshooting in next phase.

Testing for scalability, performance, backward compatibility, rollback has to execute as planned in previous phases. This is your last chance to avoid catastrophic failures. Collect as much information as possible and do analysis of the variations from baseline during performance/stress tests.

Deployment: Deployment should be automated with rollback plan in place. For high  availability you might also consider Business Continuity  Plan (BCP).Auditing of the deployment and production testing will also help to improve the overall operability.

For complex deployment auto provisioning system can be used.It is generally good idea to do dry run before the actual deployment to make sure that all environment specific attributes are taken care of.

Watch Out!
I would say this is the most critical stage in operability. In this phase application is monitored and feedback is given to the system.
Tools required for this phase can be built or off-the-shelf product can be used. The logs collected should be stored to do analysis and reports.

Monitoring: Monitoring trending errors, performance parameters, application parameters and system parameters critical to project happens in this phase. Servers, Load balancer, Storage, Network, and Switches are possible candidate for monitoring. Use dashboard/alerts for monitoring the application.

Troubleshooting: How good you’re in “Get the act together” phase is usually defined by how fast you’re able to trouble shoot production. Design to make sure that the exact module which failed is identified immediately.

Classify the issues identified in this phase and formulae strict guidelines for the action. Also feedback should be given to phase 1 and phase 2.

Cloud Computing
Does the above applies to cloud computing?Absolutely.
At least in SaaS I would expect the provider to have a great operablity infrastructure.

Take away
Consider operability requirements as a critical deliverable. The key take away while designing and architecting the system are.
  • Evaluate: The extent of operability
  • Specialize: Form a specialized team for operability
  • Automate: Remove manual steps
  • Feedback: Give actionable feedback to the system