Thursday, July 29, 2010

Addiction, Totems, and Giving

This is my technical blog, so I'll try to avoid getting too theological--but when I'm talking about what's closest to my heart, my true passion, it really does border on incoherence, spirituality, and insanity. That's probably as it should be, because it's our creative minds that see what's beyond our current perception of the universe. Without this borderline insanity, how would we be able to change the is to the could be? So please bear with me, and leave comments to help me see where my ramblings aren't clear.

Recently I made the difficult decision to return (with my family) to my home in Philadelphia, after a 2-year adventure working in France. So, I've got big changes ahead--an international move and a new job. It's making me nostalgic, question my values, and reflect on what I've done. An essay by Paul Graham recently triggered even more reflection on my values: he talked about Addiction. It really made me wonder whether I'm addicted to anything. The most likely candidate for me is the internet--but as I read from Wikipedia:
The American Society of Addiction Medicine has this definition for Addiction: Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. Addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.
Furthermore, addicts often are in denial--saying they choose, and like, the activity, to the extent that even when something catastrophic happens they still insist they want it--but in reality they have no control. I find this definition problematic, because if clinicians can't diagnose addiction until something bad happens, it doesn't do us a lot of good in preventing these accidents.


So if addiction is the point at which a person can no longer heal oneself, and as Graham argues, we live in an environment that is getting more and more addictive, we need warning signs that work better than what we had in the past. He says that traditional, cultural, and social means for controlling addictive behavior are insufficient. For me, this is where Totems come in.

A Totem, in pre-historic times, was an animal with a spiritual connection to an individual. When that person was in trouble, the totem often showed up to help. Many cultures have used totems or icons of human form in various ways, leaving traces behind in the form of statues, idols, and carvings in temples, churches, roadways, and homes. Imagine traveling by foot for hours, coming around a corner and seeing a huge statue or relic like this, pictured right.  It is inspiring, centering, and powerful. Even today many people use descendants of totems in the form of physical charms, to keep them centered.  Take, for example, Jerry Weinberg's consultant's kit--a box full of simple tools to remind him what to do when he has a problem.

As you may have noticed, though, the prevailing use of totems has evolved from the mystical to the symbolic.  Consider how in ancient times people considered that the animals would come to us, then there were statues that happened to be along our route, and now there are charms we bring with us or place lovingly at an alter in our homes or places of worship.  All are powerful, but there's something especially magical about the kind that show up before we know we need them, instead of when we turn to them. That kind of magic, I believe, is real, and can still be integrated into our lives today. It may be easier to explain this as the subconscious telling us to notice when something isn't right. Or if you're inclined to have fun with the mystical explanation--let me tell you I actually have a totem.  I didn't pick it--but sometimes when things are out of balance in my life, I start seeing spiders. It's scary to admit it--I think it's a bit crazy even--but I'll be getting ready for work one morning, and there will be a spider in the shower.  Then there will be one at the badge swipe at the front door of my office. Then one will drop down from the ceiling over my desk. Of course it could be chance--but when this happens all in one day--I get a bit freaked out. Don't get me wrong--I love the beauty of spider webs, the way they trap nuisance bugs, the metaphor of web-weaving and the internet--but I am also irrationally scared of spider bites. Or maybe I could say I have a healthy respect for spiders. This makes them a great totem for me. Maybe there's nothing supernatural going on here--maybe a neurologist could explain these sightings as a desperate attempt of my subconscious mind to be creative when I'm overly focussed on a project--and maybe that is why I notice spiders more when my life is out of balance.

Regardless of any logical, mystical, or even insane explanation of totems--when I see spiders, it's a wake-up call. Maybe I forget most sightings, because nothing in particular is going wrong. Yet when I'm starting to head into potentially addictive territory, and a spider crosses my path, it helps me get back in balance. So in response to Graham's search for early warning signs of addiction, I think we need to capitalize on totems. At my office in Philly, I put a big 5-foot round Halloween spider web in the window; in my garage I keep a web-shaped wind chime.  Whenever I see a web or a spider, I step around it in respect for the work it's done--and I also ask myself if I'm in balance. So I have to admit that I like a combined approach--a belief in the kinds of totems that come to me, and the integration of physical charms into my daily environment.

Another kind of totem that works for me is mantra:
  • Give 'til it hurts.
  • Anything with value is hard to do.
  • Too much of anything is a bad thing.
OK, so why am I writing about Addiction, Totems, and Giving on my technical blog? It's because this blog is part of my internet life--a part of my life where I wonder if I'm addicted. I think all the nights and weekends I spend reading/writing/e-mailing could cause a catastrophe some day. I try to stay in balance by running regularly, spending time with my family, volunteering for the Agile Community (e.g. Agile Tour, Agile Philly, and other projects), and coaching/managing software development teams--but it's hard to stay in balance. Something always suffers. Yet if I look back at the mantras above, it's OK that it's not perfectly balanced--because too much balance is a bad thing.

This blog is part of the way I try to give until it hurts. I try to find something that's on my mind each week to write about--it challenges me to keep reflecting on the work I'm doing, it forces me to have some discipline.

There's something more important about giving though. It's personal, really. One who gives, gets. When I write here, people comment, or e-mail me, or mention it at a conference. People give back to me. They help me see my shortcomings, they center me. They help balance my perspective.

Hmmm. Addiction comes from overuse of one activity or substance. Wake-up calls, in the form of totems or gifts, re-center us, put us in balance.

So go to your local user group meetings. Participate in the online community. Give 'til it hurts. It will help you more than you put into it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Target Customer Characterization

Recently I've been interviewing all the sales, pre-sales, and professional services staff in my company to build a profile of our customers and prospects, in order to better focus our development, marketing, and sales efforts. This is the template I made (inspired by Geoffrey Moore's book). I use it to guide my interview process, and try to fill it in under 15 minutes. Lots of times I only use the initial table to get context about the work environment, but can't fill it in; I rarely get to the "after" scenarios, but I'm posting this to get feedback--what would you change in the template?

So far the whole process has been quite illuminating. It takes a while to digest all the information I get, though, so I can't do more than a few clients a day.

Target Customer Characterization

Client Name: Industry: Interviewed:



Job Title


Technical Buyer

Economic Buyer

Before purchase, a day in the life of (find consequences for economic buyer):

Scene or point of frustration:

Desired outcome:

Attempted approach / Alternative Products / Competition :

Interfering factors:

Economic consequences:

After purchase, a day in the life of:

New approach:

Effectiveness of approach:

Economic benefit:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

pull stand-up sessions

Though I haven't (yet) succeeded at this, I'd really like stand-up sessions to go more efficiently by replacing the standard stand-up and report tradition to a stand-up and ask questions. We'd organize the discussions around the active story cards, addressing each card one by one. Someone who is not working on the selected card will ask--"what's left to move this to the done pile?" followed by any clarifying questions necessary. Answers will be short and to the point. If questioning goes on too long, we'd just take it offline and move to the next card.
What's my motivation? I'm always torn between listening to what people around the circle are saying and trying to summarize my status... and as a result I get less out of the other people's summaries. I learn more by asking questions, by pulling information--and I wonder if other people would too.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Favorite lines from Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore

There's a reason this book has been a best-seller--it's full of great insight, it's well-written, accessible, and Moore's arguments are backed up by clear logic. It was initially published in 1991 but I read the revised version, published in 2002. Here are some of the ideas I found most inspiring.

Chrossing the Chasm is all about "marketing and selling disruptive products to mainstream customers". This line, direct from the cover, means so much more to me after reading the book--for example, the fact that growing a business based on a technology product is not soley dependent on the value proposition and execution--but is equally dependent upon the sales channels and relationships we build in a target market. I learned why our salespeople do so much networking, and why my personal network is so valuable.

So let's begin with Moore's first principles; a high-tech market is:
"a set of actual or potential customers, for a given set of products or services, who have a common set of needs or wants, and who reference each other when making a buying decision". So there it is--what we already knew before--that word-of-mouth marketing is the most effective form of marketing. What is new to me, though, is the premise that word-of-mouth marketing is effectively the ONLY way to reach the mainstream market. We may reach our first clients (innovators and early adopters) directly, but to fuel sustained growth, to cross the chasm, we need to become the referent solution in a market segment - that is, word-of-mouth should mention our product any time the problem comes up. How do we ensure this? Attack a very focused market segment--and become the market leader. Yet crossing the chasm is dangerous for a company, too, because mainstream customers will not pay the margins that early adopters will--and so we cannot offer them the same level of service or customizations. The innovative developers and visionary sales staff of a pre-chasm organization are not the same kinds of people that are required for managing a post-chasm business--the post-chasm folk are experts at fitting the existing product into a customer's environment without tailoring--and the post-chasm developers are making the product easier and easier to support / use. This brings up a good point about how to reward founders (pioneers) and settlers. Pioneers should be paid highly for initial conquest/development work, and then they're likely to move on to new challenges; settlers should be given equity and share in the long-term growth of the company. Often compensation models are quite the opposite.

Moore breaks down market adoption into the following phases: innovators (technophiles), early adopters (visionaries), early majority (pragmatists), late majority (conservatives), and laggards (skeptics). Many companies get stuck after finding their first innovators, or get stuck after their early adopters... but there's a chasm between each phase. He says many companies fail to leverage the conservative market--but because it's so large, it can be a great source of profit for technology that is no longer under active development. Conservatives want COTS (commercial off the shelf software)--everything in a box. This brings up another important concept--the whole product. In crossing the chasm, the innovators must discover the full suite of services, features, and support required for successful implementation of the product, and add that to the product during the early adopter and early majority phases (since late majority users won't pay for support). Also of note--Moore considers himself a late majority adopter. To help pull them along, without hurting sales for the early majority, we need to provide easy upgrade paths and continued support of old products--thereby showing a commitment to the stability expected by conservatives.

"The consequences of being sales-driven during the chasm period are, to put it simply, fatal". The chasm period isn't about sales--it is about conquest. To cross the chasm, we need word of mouth references--we need buzz--we need everyone to be thinking about us in a particular market segment. The smaller it is, the easier it is to conquer. So sales outside of that segment are distractions that hinder our market penetration. It's fine to do another segment later--and successful conquest of several segments in a row will generate its own buzz--but stay focused! Mainstream market customers like easy buying decisions--and if you're the referent solution, they're happy, and willing to pay a small premium (30 percent) for the best of breed solution. Be the big fish in a small pond, over and over and over.

How do we pick the right market segment? Find one that you already have contacts in (you have their confidence), and go for the prospect with the most pain--something you can really help them with. If you have no strong contacts, grow some, and fix someone's pain with your product. Take note that crossing the chasm with an identifiable product is much easier than a product platform--e.g., smartcard-enabled credit card payments, since platforms need to be deployed ubiquitously before they're of much value. For more help in identifying segments or in categorizing clients, Moore uses a customer profiling technique he calls "scenarios". This profile is detailed starting on page 95 of the book, but captures elements like the point of frustration, the user, technical buyer, and economic buyer, the customer's goal, the current approach, the problems, and the economic consequences. Often you won't have enough knowledge to fill everything in--but "informed intuition" is OK too. The objective of mapping out user scenarios is to be able to target one, build it, and sell it. The targeting process will include a round-table discussion (with field reps) to rate each scenario against the following: "target customer, compelling reason to buy, whole product, partners and allies, distribution, pricing, competition, positioning, next target customer". With a compelling reason to buy, we can drive sales in shorter than 3-month cycles, and saturate the market in a year. With a market alternative, or product alternative, the customer can look at the existing budget for the product, and knows what it's worth--otherwise we have to wait for them to maybe budget for us next year. If you can't identify a market alternative, you may need a product analog--a methaphor that explains in a pithy phrase what this product is. Oh, and if you "have trouble finding a single, clear, market alternative" to attack and replace, then you won't be able to cross the chasm--people won't have a budget for you.

Product positioning is the pinnacle of marketing--but it's also tricky. People hold an image of a product in their minds--and don't like anyone else to manipulate that. So instead of trying to define it, find ways to make the product easier to buy. "Think about it. Most people resist selling but enjoy buying". Positioning is the attempt to get people to decide "best buy for this type of situation". Make sure your pitch passes the elevator test--because it has to be spread by word of mouth, and without this sort of focus, the development team will be fraught with too much complexity, marketing messages will be wildly different from one another, and potential partners/allies/investors will shy away since they do not know what you stand for.

Geoffrey Moore also talks about sales channels. We may use direct sales, systems integrators, retail sales, value-added resellers, or the internet. Of these, he prefers direct sales for an early stage startup because we need to provide a lot of hand holding to get customers off the ground, with a gradual transition to a less resource-intensive sales approach as we approach a mainstream market. Although integrators and resellers may reach a larger audience than we can alone, they who are in contact with the paying customer get the main profit.

The hockey stick sales growth of crossing the chasm is largely a myth. Moore says most sales patterns are like staircases. We discover and conquer a market, step up, and are stagnant again for a while while we invest in another market. He says some "vulture capitalists" take advantage of these stagnant periods to strip founders of their equity in the company.

These are just some of my favorite lines from the book--if you're part of a startup, I highly recommend reading the whole thing yourself!

XP 2010 physically agile makes us lean

This is my last post on XP 2010. I decided to host a "pre-conference session" every day--by going on a morning run--and a few people signed up for it on the LinkedIn group. It got harder and harder to get out the door at 6am every day, but I had a great time so it was worth it--and Xiaofeng Wang came along every day. We runners took a different path each time, and did about 45 minutes on the road at a conversational pace. It was great to do session re-caps and get a chance to get some exercise, too--I find it helps me focus for the rest of the day. Here's a couple shots from our last run:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

XP 2010 Session Report -- Speak Like a Native by Yours Truly co-starring Deborah Hartmann Preuss

This workshop gave people the chance to work, in teams, on a real-life design problem with a customer who doesn't "talk tech". Thanks to Deborah Hartmann Preuss for helping me run this installment--we each played the role of an annoying customer. We ran two iterations of paper-based design through acceptance testing, followed by a de-brief to share what works and what doesn't.
In this second installment of Speak Like a Native, we had a much smaller audience than I've worked with in the past... but everyone seemed to get something out of it and we decided the low turnout was actually a marketing problem. We decided it would be better to call this session "dealing with annoying customers", and to discard the Speak Like a Native analogy--it doesn't really add much to the session. We generated some great ideas for improving other session mechanics--a big visible timer, timebox warnings, and an overview of all envisioned system requirements before working on the first release. We also confirmed my previous findings--that building a toolbelt is not an important part of this workshop--but talking about tools as part of the first debrief is useful. Here are the slides we used: Speak like a Native.