I have a lot of correspondences with interesting people. This thread I was on was a discussion between a few guys I know in technology. One shared the article "It isn't lying if you believe it" by one of the co-founders of Netflix -
As software began to be sold to people who would never consider themselves technical, it suddenly became clear that you needed people who spoke their language. It became fashionable to hire product managers from places like Proctor and Gamble. Or Clorox.
It drove the engineers crazy. It was best when you had iron-clad test data demonstrating something purely ridiculous; like that software in the blue box sold twice as well as the exact same product in the red box. It made their head explode. On the one hand, they knew with absolute conviction that there was absolutely no reason why the color of the box should make the least bit of difference. But, on the other hand, they also knew with absolute conviction that data didn't lie. After puzzling over this paradox for a few hours they had no choice but to conclude that maybe us marketing people had some value. Or practiced a kind of black magic. Or both.
These days, the soft bigotry of anti-hucksterism can be seen every day on HackerNews. And there are still plenty of hustlers not quite getting how important their technical co-founder actually is to their success. The truth of the matter is that both sides need each other. We always have and we always will.
A reply from a friend of mine who worked at a few of the top Silicon Valley companies in 1990's to 2000's, and now is CEO of a a company doing a few million dollars in revenues per year replied with this (he's graciously given me permission to repost his thoughts, but wants to stay anonymous for obvious reasons) -
I've worked a lot with engineers. Most are super smart, but incredibly narrow-minded and naive. They believe that everyone does or *should* think like they do. They often won't accept reality when it doesn't conform to their idea of how the world should be or how people should behave. Or, when confronted with hard data they'll accept it grudgingly but never understand it. "It made their head explode" made me laugh out loud. I've seen that.
99.9% of engineers are incapable of creating something as simple and elegant as an iphone or ipod because they simply can't comprehend how normal people think or interact with technology. That took Steve Jobs, who is a creative and product visionary, not an engineer.
Check out this site comparing and contrasting the presentation styles of Jobs (a marketing and product visionary) with Gates (more the usual engineer type). Funny how the feel of their respective presos is just like the feel of their respective products.
Now, that's a pretty strong claim. I don't know if I buy it entirely. But it's worth thinking about. I know there's lots of engineering/technical-minded people who are readers here. What's your take?
Hey, I'm an engineer (mechanical). I find a lot of my fellow engineers do have trouble explaining their ideas to normal people. Its hard because you have to translate everything you say. It was only within the last couple years that I learned, people's brains do not all think the same way. I always knew we had different thoughts, but my thoughts literally come out in a different language than yours. I found this out when I was reading an article on a physiology website. The article pointed out that some people are actually not capable of creating visual images in their minds. My immediate reaction was, "Wait!, other people can think in images!" No wonder, I am completely lost when others try to explain what color something would look best as.
So if I can't think in images, you probably can't think with math and science. Not in the sense of doing multiplication in your head. If I design a pipe system and show it to customer, we just are not looking at the same thing. I see velocity and pressure and vector fields, while he sees some pipes. Now I am expected to have a conversation about this with him. If I write a program that solves a problem in the fastest way, it may not sell. If my competitor throws together a really fancy GUI (graphical user interface) which introduces memory leaks and slows the program down, he is going to sell more. These sort of issues really does baffle engineers. If you don't understand that other people think differently, you don't stand a chance at actually understanding them or communicating.
A few of us engineers realize that we think differently, but all of us believe our way is better anyway. Honestly, I do believe it is a better way of attacking most problems. Like most engineers, I see how other types of people are important to running a society, but in the same way that most people see other animals as an important part of the ecosystem. Of course marketers are important, just not as important as engineers. This prejudice is something I scream at others, but its something that slips through my mind regularly when I am having a conversation with a non engineer.
A lot of this is changing. Engineers are getting better and better at this, partly because each new generation of engineers is less dorky... 99.9% is way high, but I understand that this is a figure of speech for normal, non-engineers that in my experience translates to about 80% which is probably reasonable.
But honestly, I worry less about our engineers not understanding our consumers and more about most people not understanding science. If you can't turn a box over to compare stats on two products before you buy, shame on you. If you aren't away that your mind is capable of being tricked by a color scheme, shame on you.
What I have experience with is being the communication link between Marketing / Sales / IT. We were developing an e-commerce website. And I was something like a Front-end project manager.
I have no idea how teams without people like me even start to communicate. I am no hard-core techie, but I understand the concepts and the language. I am also no business-school graduate, but I understand where the salespeople come from. And I understand marketing speak.
I think it is vital that projects have a person to TRANSLATE what each of these teams is trying to say. Sometimes, when I joined a discussion late, they were shouting to each other because the IT manager would say: We need a RULE! I need to PROGRAM this behaviour! and the Marketing team would say: People need to have FREEDOM! And they would keep shouting without understanding where each of them is coming from. Strong words, concepts, without a down-to-earth approach.
So I would then interrupt them and start asking questions: what type of rule do you need? Is this a database you're planning, or just a list with options? And then the marketing team: what are your ideas? What freedoms do you want people to have? Where can we put a limit? IT, can we do that with such and such rules and constraints? Yes, great - let me draw a basic scheme. Marketing, is this right? OK. IT, is this realistic? Let's build that then!
So I think when you understand people's strengths and weaknesses and what they can contribute to the project, you don't need to give these strong 99.9 type of statements. We're different. And that's what a team needs. You just work with that and deliver the product.
The problem comes when one side or the other holds too much power. Sure engineers need people persons to guide them. But they need engineers to be able to stop them from being ridiculous.
In my organisation the person at the top ignores the engineers. He promises things which absolutely cannot be given in the timescales that he promises (we are currently running around 18 months beyond his "couple of months" estimate with no finished product in sight. It's _hard_).
Oh, and I may be able to see this, but I hate muppets who make purchasing decisions based on things like the colour of the box. In the same way I hate myself for buying books with "pretty" covers on them.
I find this quite a funny phenomenon, given that engineers would generally agree with the statements made, yet still categorically believe people SHOULD think their (my) way.
I've often thought about the engineering mindset like this, and have done so ever since seeing this dilbert video many years ago:
In the video, Dilbert's mother is informed by the doctor that her son Dilbert has "the knack" - an incurable disease resulting in a greater understanding of electrical and mechanical devices, with all the lack of social understanding that goes along with it. He's doomed to be an engineer.
The thing is, I have found myself to operate as if the above is true in all human interactions. If I want to explain something to a "human", I'll explain in terms of personal experience, i.e "You can use your mobile phone to call your friends". Whereas when explaining to somebody who "has the knack", the personal explanation becomes irrelevant, and the function and purpose come to the fore. I.e "It's a phone. It can connect to other phones all over the world wirelessly through the use of towers, and these lithium batteries store 30% more energy than previously".
Actually that's not the best example, a better "knack" example would just be dot points.
The above holds true in all situations as well. This isn't something just related to gadgets and things. If I want to explain a bit of code to an engineering buddy who isn't a programmer at all, I can STILL explain the functionality of the software and how it's operating, despite that engineer having no coding knowledge. Again, the alternative for explaining to humans is just "it makes pictures on the screen!".
I'm not saying that normal humans are stupid, they just think so differently to those of us afflicted with "the knack" that it's simply impossible to understand how they operate.
"They believe that everyone does or *should* think like they do."
I guess what I wanted to get at here in my rambling comment, is that the "should" in the above quote is as far as the engineering mind can go in this regard. We all start by thinking everyone does think like us, we then realise that they don't, so we then realise that they SHOULD.
It really would be a lot better! For one it would save engineers a few billion work hours a year, each, with all the time saved from not having to dumb things down. We'd probably have spaceships by now, and the BEST goddamn sound systems you have ever HEARD my friend. Admittedly we'd all be living in caves (better acoustics), and hygiene would be something of a problem as well... but... spaceships!
>They believe that everyone does or *should* think like they do. They often won’t accept reality when it doesn’t conform to their idea of how the world should be or how people should behave.
Haha now we need to make more engineers so the reality will conform their needs) Hate that unnecessary i-glamour >:-]
As an engineer with a strong geek/Unix background and now business owner I see my story reflected in this post. For me nothing opened my eyes more than starting my own startup and owning a product. Once you have to do customer validation or think about marketing your perception of what you're building completely shifts. Since then I've encouraged all my fellow engineers to go through that exercise and I've had good feedback from them.
Because this is a known problem, although I agree with Sebastien that the figure might be a little inflated, there are some known remedies that companies have began to adopt more widely: 1) cross teams with engineer mixed to UX people 2) fake user profiles.
Latter is especially interesting: some teams literally have inflatable dolls or animals in their meeting room for which they build a profile to represent their user. In every meeting, before a decision is taken to say develop a feature or spend more time on some technical aspect of the product, the meeting facilitator will ask, looking to the doll, "what do you think Lucy?". This is extremely powerful and while it seems a bit funny it goes a long way compared to just thinking in abstract about your users.
@Rumena, I don't think it's just a matter of being or not a visual thinker, but more of an issue with "knowing all the details" and "how it works" Vs "understanding the outcome". Engineers tend to be very much into details, so your abstract way of thinking does not appeal your husband (he could do that, but doesn't like to). I also think there's a strong "it's just vapourware" mentality among engineers toward stuff that isn't concrete and isn't expressed in code, which contributes to the disliking of that mental process you enjoy.
all the best,
I just realised how my husband thinks! You see, he is a prorammer - and I am more on thd media/marketing side. When he is working on a project (web app for example), he needs to BUILD every version of every element to see how it works. Where I can visualise and predict what it would look like or how people would interact with it, he needs to see it 100 % working to make the same observations... I guess he is more of a non-visual thinker - and I am a visual one. He would make fun of me for 'thinking too much' before I start working on something - but actually that's my 'trial and error' stage in my head. So it takes me less time and less tangible versions to arrive at a final product - but pretty much the same time.
Are there any more people who can speak from a visual / non-engineering perspective? What is your experience?
I'm not sure that your 99.9% figure is accurate. I think that it is overestimated because we tend to focus on things that don't work, so our vision of the problem is shadowed by what we expect to see. I'm an engineer (French also, it happens...) and the people I work with (mostly engineers) are completely aware that we have to design what our customers want, not what we'd like to do. Maybe I am in a niche since I work in aeronautics, but our engineering schools started teaching macroeconomics and sociology as mandatory courses more than ten years ago.
But maybe the problem comes from the fact that people who make important decisions - strategic decisions - are still "old school" and have difficulties making the right choices because they weren't taught how to. But even at the "high management" level of the company I can see at least a good trend towards customers driven decisions.
And the time for our generation to make important strategic decisions in big companies is coming really, really fast!
Engineer here. Totally agree with this post. It has taken my working with people who place a particular emphasis on marketing to truly understand how powerful and sometimes indispensable it can be (and it takes A LOT for an engineer to admit that).
As an engineer, if you've worked hard to develop something, you tend to have unwavering pride in it. You want those who benefit from your work to appreciate it for all its technical glory, any other frills seem superfluous. However, most users don't give a shit about your technical glory. You just have to learn to be content that at the end of the day, even if someone puts your product in a blue box instead of a red one, if your product sells *you* are adding value. And that's something I can live with.
Hello Mr. Marshall!
I have been a reader of your blog for quite a while now, and I decided it's time to try to connect with you. I am very impressed by the quality of your blog posts and I enjoy reading them daily. And I am aware that you don't have much time for reading emails lately (which is good, people reach out to you and they should reach out. It is great that you offer yourself like this!), so I'll try to keep my first email brief.
I am starting to grow an interest in existentialism, religious and spiritual philosophy. Since I'm just starting this field I would like to start off with the right material, so I was wondering if you could recommend me some books or other material on these subjects?
Of course I completely understand if you don't have time for it, or if this email flies right into the trash folder - some things are not meant to be.
In any case, I wish you kind regards. S
I just read this post about how the startup Level Up has raised $41MM but may now be running out of cash, and according to the article is down to half its previous employee count. It got me thinking about a big mistake I see startups make, which is over-extending before finding true product/market fit.
I was well aware of this danger at Socialize, and we still made that mistake. At one point in early 2012, we were up to 16 employees. When we sold to ShareThis, we were down to six. It's not that six employees was too few -- it was exactly the right number and type of employees for the stage of our company -- it's that sixteen was way too many. We didn't absolutely need that many people to build and sell our product, even though we felt at the time that we did. The six employees that ended up forming the core of our company in the year before we sold it were all very key employees and are incredibly productive, and that's what we needed to find product/market fit.
So if a CEO is acutely aware of the issue and still falls into the trap, I can't imagine what the siren call of rapid expansion does to CEOs who aren't watching out for it. But it is possible to get around it: On the opposite side of the spectrum you see companies like instagram that sold for $1 billion with just a dozen employees.
So I've come up with a mental framework to optimize the outcome of a new startup dealing with this issue.
Daniel's Framework For Optimizing Product/Market Fit: