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Engineers are from Venus, CEO’s are from Mars
By Doug Roberts, CEO, Avolent, Inc.
Very often in software companies, a wall of confusion exists between the CEO and the engineering department. The two have very different perspectives: the CEO seeks to further vision, corporate initiatives, and market expansion, while engineering is concerned with technical advancement and day-to-day production issues. As each side tries to be understood, it is often left to chance whether or not the engineering agenda is tightly aligned with corporate goals.
Although a self-professed “non-techie”, in over 20 years of executive experience in the software industry with companies such as Avolent, Versata, Harbinger and Software AG, I have been able to establish effective solutions for aligning engineering to corporate goals while ensuring close adherence to high engineering standards. The following are five questions every CEO should ask to better understand how to engage Engineering executives and their teams to effectively communicate and synch the company’s business model with the product road map.
What steps can Engineering take to ensure releases are "on-time"?
“On time” is a relative term! It’s been my experience that “on-time" to engineers has a far broader meaning than simply about meeting a deadline. At Avolent, when I talk to our engineers, “on-time” is as much about achieving quality standards, preparing the architecture for future releases and meeting specification (e.g., features), as it is about sticking to the schedule.
I’ve found that the most important focus for on-time releases is adopting a product management process. First, it’s critical that engineering and marketing be aligned in their objective. This means they both understand who the target market is and the value proposition of the product. Once they are aligned, the process of determining features, timeline, and quality are much easier, and the clarity of aligning product goals to corporate ones becomes clear.
Second, you must have a clear process to gather valid input on which features are important to the market, which features should be included in the specification, and what the timeframe should be. During this design period, there is much interaction between marketing and engineering. And I tell engineering not to stop asking questions until they are satisfied with functional requirements, so they can build detailed requirements. But when the design period is over, it’s time to build. No more design.
Third, Engineering must have metrics (bug and TBV counts, code coverage, test complete percentages, fix/find rates, etc) to measure progress against plan on a regular basis. We break it up into product milestones, and my VP of Engineering reports on progress every Monday morning at our executive team meeting. This enables us to keep the rest of the organization informed. It also enables us to take any corrective action to keep the schedule on track.
Finally, it’s crucial that the CEO, sales, and marketing prioritize features as "must have" vs. "nice to have", and communicate these rankings to Engineering. Engineering must put both "must haves” and "nice to haves" in the plan, but "nice to have" features may need to be dropped if corrective actions are required during the development cycle.
Can Engineering ever fully understand customer needs?
Engineers can understand these needs intellectually, especially if put in a context they can understand. That’s why it’s important to have well-defined processes that obtain information on needs through customer and analyst feedback and involve review cycles to communicate this information directly with the engineers. At Avolent, every feature definition can be drilled down to the original conversation that took place. This allows engineers to access the raw data without having to guess.
Engineers should also be given the chance to interact directly with customers, particularly in the design phase. At Avolent, we have customer user forums that are run by the product management team, where product functionality and ideas are exchanged with our engineering staff. Customers get to see prototypes, suggest use cases, and help prioritize features directly with the development team. This gives engineers a feeling of being in on things.
That being said, I often remind my engineering staff that we’re in the business of evolution. Whether you come from the sales or the engineering side, you have to be able to evolve as customer’s business models change or new opportunities emerge. Not only do you have to understand what the requirements are now, but where the company and industry is headed 2-5 years out. This is another place where product management is key – helping engineers understand the big picture before the design is completed.
How can Engineering guarantee acceptable quality in a release?
It’s everyone’s responsibility. As CEO, you need to do the homework upfront - understand exactly how your customers use the product, and what defines “acceptable quality”. Before the product is released and well in advance of the marketing and sales efforts, I try to make sure that my engineering team comprehends how we envision how our customers are going to use the product (e.g., use cases, user scenarios) and I ask the engineers to incorporate these cases into the test plans.
Through my years as a software executive, I’ve come to realize that it should be every company’s goal to define the quality release criteria up front (e.g., no P1 or P2 bugs, run product in-house in production for two weeks, 90% code coverage, performance benchmarks, etc) and get buy-in from all departments. A company must decide what is acceptable quality and performance, and there can be no surprises.
So, defining the goal is first. Then you must ensure your QA team completing 100% test coverage (have run and passed all your automated and manual defined tests) and include a live user test milestone (e.g., beta program) in the development cycle. You’d be surprised how many QA efforts fail to test every user scenario.
Are your engineers using resources effectively and being productive?
Now, there’s a topic that we can talk about for a lengthy period of time. As CEO, it is my responsibility to ensure that everyone within my engineering department has the tools and the resources they need to develop a top-quality product. Engineering management identifies the gaps and suggests the best course of action, but in the end if they don’t have the resources, it’s the CEO’s fault.
I’m a big fan of spending the time to align individual goals directly to corporate goals wherever possible. Especially in small companies with aggressive growth, like Avolent, it’s the CEO’s role to help employees understand how their efforts contribute to the bigger picture. For engineering personnel, these goals may include putting metrics in place to measure effectiveness (e.g., number of re-opened bugs), but could also include understanding how not reaching their goal affects the ability of other employees to make their goals. We’re part of a team, even though we work as individuals. I firmly believe that once people have the right tools to do their jobs and understand their goals and responsibilities, that most likely, they will get the job done.
How can Engineering retain and attract top talent?
Engineering is similar to any group with highly motivated individuals – they need clarity on their role and objectives, the resources to do the job, and a challenge that is personally fulfilling. One part that is more unique with engineers is that their personal fulfillment often comes from working on innovative technology, and solving unique problems for customers. At Avolent, we celebrate those achievements every month.
The best thing a CEO can do to keep engineers happy is to have frequent, direct communications with engineers and listen very closely. We recently hired Tanya Johnson as our VP of Engineering and Professional Services, and she is extraordinary at this. If engineers are thinking about leaving, often an open conversation is needed to find out they just want something new…and often that opportunity is available within the company. But if you have frequent conversations directly with engineers about the company, our customers, and our strategy, retention becomes a much smaller problem.
I take great pride in our engineering team, and BizCast, the award-winning product that they have built. As CEO, you have to recognize that the true assets of your company are not the intellectual property (IP) of your product and the size of your customer base, rather it is the people who have made those things a success for your organization.
Doug Roberts, an executive in the enterprise software world for over 20 years, has a sterling track record of success in growing B2B software businesses including stints as senior vice president and general manager at Harbinger Corporation, senior vice president of sales at RAM Mobile Data and vice president and general manager at Software AG of North America.
Prior to joining Avolent, Doug served as the CEO of Versata, a leading provider of software and services that automate the business logic and processes that power enterprise applications. During his time at Versata, Doug stabilized the company through a combination of managed costs and sharpened focus. Doug can be reached for article feedback at: email@example.com.