Monday 20 September 2010

Mechanical Sympathy

In the world of motorsports ‘mechanical sympathy’ is the measure of a driver’s impact on their vehicle. As well as fuel economy it is probably well understood by most people that your driving habits do have some impact on how long your car is likely to last, how often it needs attention, and how quickly the parts will wear out. The world of professional drivers is no different, except that excess punishment of the car can mean that vital few more seconds spent in the pit lane – which can cost a racing team a lot more than just this year’s annual service coming up sooner.


Mechanical sympathy attempts to quantify that impact and allows teams to acknowledge it and work on balancing car wear against squeezing that last little bit extra out of it.

I did a motorsports driving course a while back (number of formula 1 events participated in since training: 0 – number of speeding tickets around town since training: 1) and was mercilessly rated in this category. I guess that explains the frequency of servicing that my long-suffering saloon seems to require…

As an outsider to the world of motorsport the importance of certain metrics is immediately obvious – lap times or time spent under power etc – but why measure drivers on something mechanical? These guys don’t fix their own engines, swap out their own gearboxes, or tune their own brakes; that’s someone else in the team. But, as drivers, they do have a direct impact on how often this needs done, how severe it’s going to be, and how expensive it will be to do – and that has a direct impact on winning and losing.

So why don’t we measure the non-IT people in our businesses on their impact on technology? I’d like to introduce the concept of technical sympathy.

I think that people in our businesses should have at least a small part of their KPIs relate to technology. We’re not expecting them to be developers or sysadmins – in the same way that drivers aren’t expected to be mechanics – but we have to acknowledge that they do have an impact on this stuff (probably more than they realise).

Good stakeholdership can make the difference between a well-run project hitting time and budget and a chaotic piece of work drifting on endlessly. Considerate use of systems can avoid the need for expensive environmental controls and the wasting of shared resources such as disks and tapes. The costs and turnaround times of support can be dramatically different with more personal responsibility and better use of self-service at the desktop.

In almost every company I have worked in we’ve measured engineers on business knowledge and company performance to some degree, yet we never seem to have thought of the reverse even though business behaviours can have a profound effect on the cost and quality of technology.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

The Product Management Boundary

Talking to a few of my industry peers (web CTOs and CIOs) about what they do, and to a few CEOs about their expectations, something that’s becoming clear is that we’re increasingly being expected to know what to do, not just how to do it.

Traditional IT uses that age old you-give-us-requirements–we-give-you-back-[mostly]-matching-systems paradigm or variations on that theme. Something we do would typically have a sponsor who dreams up a course of action and a handful of stakeholders who detail it out. What you call those people will depend on whether you think you’re doing agile, RUP, waterfall, etc but typically you’d place them in ‘the business’ rather than technology.

That seems to be changing.

Less and less are we being handed requirements documents or project specs and then going off and doing work to order. Now we’re being asked things like; how do we reach new users? What things can we do to increase wallet share? Should we be doing something with social media? How are we going to internationalize this product? Yeah, that’s right, we’re finally dealing in problems not in todo lists, and - in a trend which is gaining popularity - product management is increasingly being based inside the technical delivery teams.

The days of a business giving us defined work and us delivering projects against it are going to come to an end. A pessimist might suggest that this is ‘the business’ escaping responsibility for defining it’s future. I’d simply argue that technology is an integral part of any modern business, not something else extra and external, and since we’re all part of the same ‘business’ anyway then why shouldn’t we take our fair share of determining the strategy?

I think this is pretty awesome and, in some cases, overdue – after all, don’t we want a bigger influence over what the future of the business looks like and how we get there?  Do it CxOs!