Carl Jensen was headed for his first big meeting with Kate Oneal. All the directors had been asked to be present, and the topic was just “Empire”. Empire was the name of the new project that Marketing director Jim Anderson had proposed a couple of months back. Everyone knew now that there was no money to do Empire. In fact, Dan Devlin had had to sell off Oak River’s old business a year ago and the maintenance contract was just about up. Prospects were grim.
Dan had sent around a memo introducing Kate but had provided no real information:
This is to introduce Kate Oneal, who is helping me work on the future of our business. Kate will be talking with many of you over the next few weeks. Please accord her every hospitality while I'm away on vacation. I'll see you in two weeks.
No one knew whether Kate’s assignment was to be one of the better looking executioners or what, but she was at least cheerful as she went about it. She acted like a light-hearted Inspector General. You’d hear her wheels sizzling down the aisle, catch a glimpse of her going by, and next thing you knew she was in the coffee room, talking with someone about what they did with the company, and why.
As one of the company’s technical directors, Carl had had his turn in the coffee room, and he had to admit that he liked Kate. She had seemed friendly and cheerful, and her questions were good and generally insightful. On the other hand, the rumor mill had it that Kate’s job was to bring about change, and when people in a troubled company think change, they often think bad, and layoff. Only two weeks had elapsed since Kate had started showing up, but apparently she was ready to start doing her job. Whatever that was.
Carl got to the conference room almost ten minutes before meeting time, and found most of his colleagues already there. This was unusual for meetings around Oak River: apparently everyone wanted to impress Kate. Since Kate hadn’t arrived, the group took the time to express curiosity about the meeting and say what they made of Kate. Most people seemed to like her, though Susan Prior, a marketing director, and Gil Silverman, the other technical director, clearly didn’t agree. The company women had already picked up that Kate was not married, having lost her husband shortly after they were married, in the accident that put her in the wheelchair.
Someone speculated that she was buying into the company with her insurance money. Then Susan said, “Obviously Kate is totally unqualified for a high position in the company.”
Carl said, “Let’s try to be fair. We don’t even know if she’s an employee, much less what her job is. It’s kind of hard to assess her qualifications.”
Gil Silverman said, “Dan hasn’t been seen since she got here. Maybe she killed and ate him.”
“OK, I heard that!” Kate said as she wheeled into the room. “Maybe I’m a bit on the fluffy side but I don’t really eat all that much. Dan’s on a camping vacation. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I think he wanted to see what I’d do left on my own.”
“We’d all like to know that,” Carl said. Everyone around the table nodded.
“Well, I’m curious what I’ll do, too,” Kate said. “Let’s find out. Today I want to chat with you about Project Empire. Almost all of you have mentioned it in our one-on-one meetings, and I’d like to talk about it with everyone at once.”
“We all know there’s no money for Empire,” said Susan. “Unless you’re planning to buy your way into the company. Are you? Are you going to be in charge of Empire? What exactly is your role, anyway?” Everyone knew Susan was edgy and saw herself as on the way up, so no one was surprised at this initial thrust.
“No, I’m not exactly going to be ‘in charge’ of anything. I’m here to help Dan and the company do good things, but not to push people around. I don’t like following orders, so it seems only fair to me not to give orders either.”
“And yet you called, and everyone came,” said Gil. “What’s up with that?”
“Fair question, Gil. I supposed it was because you were according me that hospitality Dan talked about. But seriously, Dan asked me to look at Oak River’s product development prospects. Aside from continuing contract maintenance on the old product, that comes down to Empire.”
“So you do think you’re in charge of Empire,” said Susan.
“Susan, yes and no. Dan does want me to watch over product development, and frankly he’s interested in having me invest to help the company get back on its feet. I believe that Dan thinks I should be ‘in charge’. But that’s not how I’d like to work. I’m interested in Oak River learning better ways to get things done, so we don’t get in any more binds like the current one. To me, that’s not about someone directing the organization, it’s about the whole organization deciding what to do and how to do it. To me, that means real empowerment of teams and leaders.”
“Oh no, not the old girlie empowerment bullshit,” Gil whispered to Carl.
Kate smiled down the table at Gil. “You’ll just have to wait and see, Gil, but in fact I’m serious. I don’t know how to define this product, how to market it, and certainly not how to build it. If it gets done, it will be up to us all.”
Carl said, “But Kate, we were told you have degrees in computer science and business. I’d think you’d want to put all that to use.”
“I do want to help,” said Kate, “and I will. But I’ve never managed an organization and the biggest program I ever wrote was a team project for my Master’s. What I have is interest, energy, and the ability to put in some money if the project sounds good to me.”
Jim Anderson said, “Are you just here to make an investment decision, or what? You said that Dan wants you in charge.”
Kate said, “I like Dan a lot, and I also know that your last product venture was a flop. I’d give him a little money just because he’s a friend, but what we have in mind is more involvement than that. The project basically needs full funding, and if I’m to do that, I’ll want to be able to see that the money is being well spent. Does that seem fair?”
Gil said, “It depends on what you want to see and what you want to do about what you see, I guess.”
“I have some starting answers on that, Gil,” Kate said. “This is a software project that will probably consume a fair amount of money before it’s done. So I want to see two things. I want to see tangible software features getting done, and I want to start showing a return as soon as possible.”
Gil said, “Good software needs good design and solid infrastructure. It’ll be a long time before any features get done.”
Susan jumped in. “And it takes a lot of features to build a viable product. We can’t just release a couple of features and be successful.”
Kate said, “I don’t want to seem hard-nosed about this, but tangible evidence of progress and early return on the investment are very important to going forward.”
Carl said, “Why is early return so important to you, Kate?”
“There are two reasons for early release,” Kate said. “One is that if we get the product out there sooner, we’ll learn about how well people like it. But the other reason is purely monetary. Let me draw you a picture. Let’s hook my tablet up to the screen, please.”
Jim brought down the room’s screen, while Carl brought the projector plug over to Kate’s machine. Shortly, Kate was able to draw on her tablet and display the picture on the screen.
“OK, the way I think of it is this. Our purpose is to build a product that, over time, will give us some benefit. For benefit on my chart, I’ll use the symbol $, but for sure there are other benefits we’ll think about as we go on. So, we want benefit, over time, like this:”
Kate kept drawing. “After we work on Empire for a while, we’ll release it and people will start buying it. We expect to make an increasing amount of money over time. That will be good:”
Susan Prior said, “That curve is totally naive and unrealistic. Revenue won’t grow linearly. It’ll start slowly, then grow strongly, and then after some time, slow down again.”
“Yes,” Kate said, “and we may explore those details later. It won’t change my basic story, though. On the chart now, we have a good thing happening, revenue showing up after a while. But things could be better. What if we could release a lesser product, that would grow less rapidly, but release it sooner and then fill in the remaining desirable features right around the original release date? Revenue might look like this:”
“So if this sort of thing is possible – delivering a partial product early and following on with the full one, we could get more ‘benefit’ sooner. This highlighted area is all money we wouldn’t have had with the first plan. We’d be ahead of the game, forever.”
Kate said, “So there’s one of my concerns: I want us to focus on getting to market early, even with a reduced feature list. If we can do that I can see several advantages, including less monetary risk. Any questions?”
Susan leaned. “So you’re saying that you want to control what we build and how we build it just to reduce your financial risk?”
Kate said, “Darn right …”
Jim Anderson interrupted. “Hold on, Susan. Let’s remember why we’re here. Dan spent about five million dollars on the Catbird project. That was supposed to go to market two years ago, and finally limped out about a year later. It never took off and Dan had to sell off the whole related business. That’s exactly what Kate’s trying to avoid.”
“Kate’s just trying to save her own butt,” Susan said. “Catbird failed because our so-called software engineers aren’t very good.”
Gil Silverman stood up. “Susan, that’s just crap. The requirements kept changing …”
“Requirements always change, Gil,” said Susan. “You and your people just couldn’t deliver!”
Kate spoke. “Susan! Gil! Sit! Stay! We’re not here to revisit history today. Sounds like we should do a review of Catbird to see what we can learn, but if you two are going to fight about the past, please take it outside while the rest of us work on the future.”
The two subsided.
“OK,” Kate said. “I’m honestly glad people care this much about the company and how we do things. But let’s try to shed more light and give off less heat. For now, let’s take a break and meet tomorrow at the same time. Before we close, are there any questions or comments about getting a return as early as possible?”
After a silence, Jim said, “I’m not sure we can do it, but I think you’re on the right track. We all feel awful about burning so much of Dan’s money and we’re sure we’re better than Catbird shows us. We’d like another chance, and it looks like you’re it.”
“Thanks, Jim,” said Kate. “I guess I am a chance, and I want to be a good chance. I’m not trying to do anything special with this project, though. I think every project should manage itself in the ways I’m thinking about and I’d like us to work through it together.”
Carl said, “I don’t want to reopen the debate right now, but looking back, my guys and I knew we were in trouble on Catbird but we had no way to explain or predict it. Dan and Marketing just piled on the pressure. As a result, we burned through more money than we thought we’d need, and an early product release might have saved us. I have no idea at all on how we can do what you’re asking, but I’d like to try.”
Gil said, “I’m sorry I exploded. I get so tired of the blame being laid on the programmers. We can do good work, and what we are asked to do makes a big different to success too. It’s not just dump a million requirements on us and stand back.”
Carl grinned. “I know Gil is sorry, and we all know he’ll do it again. Gil really cares about this stuff. We’ve learned to live with the excitement.”
Kate said, “I’m all for excitement. Let’s find ways to turn that energy to something useful.”
Finally, Susan spoke. “I’m really not convinced. I think we had a good plan with Catbird, and some bad programming. But I do want all of us to have another chance. What I’ll need to see is some kind of proof that we can do what you’re asking.”
Kate said, “Good. What I’m asking is that we work to get the product out there, even in baby form, as soon as possible, so that it can start to fund itself, and so that we can learn about how good it is and what needs to change.
“And that’s not all. Remember that I want to see tangible progress being made all the time. I think that’s going to be challenging as well. For now, I’d ask you all to think about how a subset product might bring us some success, and how to build such a thing safely. If that’s a fair request, let’s talk about it next time. OK?”
“Can do,” Jim said.
Carl said, “I’m in.” The rest nodded or expressed agreement.
“Meeting adjourned,” said Kate. “I’m heading for the coffee room. Join me if you care to – I’m buying.”