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Archive for July, 2013

To a CTO: “you are now responsible for alignment”. What to do next …

It’s not uncommon for a new CTO to receive a new mission to align the evolution of technology roadmap with the  evolution of the company’s business.

So the immediate questions in the new CTO’s mind are …

– Is it a minor problem which requires a corrective action?

– Is it a fairly difficult problem to solve?   Probably – because clearly someone very senior with an ability to directly control or influence the outcome would be needed to engage and get it done

– Or perhaps this could be a symptom of a larger problem?    Very likely.

As companies grow and become more complex, the lack of alignment becomes more evident – just like the cars we drive at some point need wheel alignment.    This is not an automotive blog but it’s helpful to mention that wheel alignment is a very complex procedure of adjusting multiple suspension components to achieve desired driving characteristics.

Software companies also consist of major components.   It’s important to recognize that the CTO cannot align all components.   The CTO can only influence the alignment process by asking the right questions.  Some may not be very popular.    More on asking unpopular questions in a moment.   But then again – wheel alignment is not an easy procedure either.

The major components of a software company:

–  Turning ideas into product ideas (product management)
–  Turning product ideas into real products (engineering)
–  Evangelizing products in target markets and customer  segments (marketing / product marketing)
–  Selling products (sales)
–  Servicing customers (professional services and support)
–  Supporting the company operations (HR, administrative)

That’s it.    Only a few components – or functional areas – to align.

Alignment is first and foremost a leadership challenge, not a process or technology challenge.   And that’s why alignment starts with the most senior leader in the company:  the CEO.   The CEO needs to set the tone and adjust the measures of success of each senior leader in such a way that their success cannot be achieved without working effectively with other leaders. Only then alignment can become what I believe is the right way to recognize alignment:  continuous, effective and never mentioned again as a separate initiative.

I will share an experience that many readers can relate to.   It’s a launch of a new product with many problems which highlight (an extreme …) lack of alignment throughout the company.   For each problem – I will also include questions – perhaps unpopular yet very necessary – the CTO can ask.

The new product was intended for a new market segment outside of North America.

Problems and questions that were never asked at the right time:

– Resellers were not trained to sell the new product, leading to significantly lower revenue expectations.   “What is the plan to audit existing resellers, select resellers interested in selling this product?  When do we start training?  Where are the training materials?”

– Direct sales force did not receive any incentives to sell a new product.   “What changes do we have to consider in the sales compensation model to fuel adoption of the new product?”

– First few customers did not like certain capabilities.  Formal launch had to be delayed.  “How can the product management team incorporate an early adoption cycle in the product launch plan?  How can engineering team respond to problems or feedback points identified during the early adoption cycle?”

– The customer support team did not hire technical support engineers in the target country who could speak 3 additional languages.   “What are the customer support requirements?  What is the hiring plan?”

– The budget for launching the new product was not accurate.   Sales compensation changes were not included.   Reseller training costs were also not included.  “Did we recognize all the costs of launching the new product?  Who maintains an accurate financial model which incorporates the financial impact of all decisions and changes?”

– The company did not have an Integrated Product Launch (IPL) process which provided 100% visibility to all cross functional activities, milestones, and dependencies.   While the engineering team was busy building a new product, the customer support team wasn’t ready to support the new product on day one.    “Do we have a process to manage all activities, milestones,  and dependencies?  Who owns it?  Does this person have the authority?”

The last point is one I cannot say enough about.   Alignment can never be achieved without a set of real time measures, fully supported by all components of the organizations – ready to adjust in real time when needed.    That’s when alignment becomes a non-event: organic, continuous, and effective.   And that’s where any software company wants to be.   Great CTOs believe and practice alignment every day.

The war for talent – Part 3: “Where are all the great candidates?”

It’s 9am.

This is my first meeting with client’s engineering managers.  The objective is simple (CEO’s exact words): “I want to see a world class software engineering team generate world class return on investment and fulfill the promise that technology is an enabler of sustained competitive advantage.  Do whatever it takes.  Nothing and no one is sacred”.

I interviewed all senior engineers first – not managers, to the surprise of many managers.   Common theme from these interviews:

– “Almost every new hire is somewhat average;  no passion or drive.   The most recent hire did not care much about a broken build until we reminded this person how a broken build defeats the work of everyone else”.

The Interviews with all managers were more revealing.  Common theme from manager interviews:

– “Our recruiters seem to present candidates that are good, but not exceptional.   We don’t have a choice but to hire one of these candidates”.

The interviews with recruiters were more revealing – again.  Common themes from recruiter interviews:

– “We get very uninspiring job descriptions from hiring managers.  These job descriptions do not resonate well with exceptional candidates”.

– “Compensation is below market.   It’s too hard to obtain an exception for a higher compensation.  We stopped trying.”

– “Many hiring managers do not respond quickly and better candidates are hired by another company.”

– “We rarely receive feedback why certain candidates have been rejected.  Very difficult to improve the recruiting process.”

What’s not  very difficult to see is the root cause of what happened to my client’s software engineering organization over time.  The managers forgot that their first and foremost responsibility is to the organization:  attract, recruit, hire, and retain the very best.

I asked every manager to watch a movie called “Miracle”.  It’s a true story of Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell), the head coach of  the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980.  The U.S. Olympic hockey team played the against the heavily favored USSR team and won.

This movie highlights what every manager must live and breathe:  never give up the responsibility for building, managing, and improving a great team.   It’s a difficult, often hard, but a very rewarding process.

I asked every recruiter to stop reviewing resumes and made every manager responsible for the initial review and subsequent phone screen.   The results:

– 3 managers out of 6 did not see value in this process and told me that that’s what recruiters are for.   I asked them to consider a very simple fact.   If someone cannot identify a terrific candidate from a stack of resumes, why should this person be given the responsibility to manage, coach, and mentor any hire?

– 2 managers agreed and became better managers.  1 manager left within one week.

– The other 3 managers fell in love with the new process, despite the additional workload.   The new process allowed them to build very close relationships with recruiters who began to receive detailed feedback about each candidate.

In addition, more changes have been made:

– I asked everyone to review all previously rejected resumes – over 1,200 – and look for evidence of three critical items:  ability to learn, ability to blossom in adverse situation, and ability to solve problems while never giving up.

– This process produced 60 potential candidates.   7 were eventually hired and quickly became highly respected members of the team.

– Compensation inequities have been addressed within one budget cycle.

After 12 months, I provided a report card to the CEO with 4 metrics:

– “No more complaints from the management team that there are no great candidates’

– “Employee participation in the HR survey increased from 55% to 87%.   The management team in a 360 degree survey received B+.”

– “The last 3 major releases had a total of 3 regression issues vs 213 regression issues same time last year”.

– “Customer survey – NPS or Net Promoter Score – also showed substantial improvement.”

“Where are all the great candidates” is the wrong question.   Are your managers engaged 150% to attract, recruit, hire, and retain the very best?