The 9 AM meeting to talk about details was over. Kate reminded Susan that they had a session scheduled.
Susan said, “Really, Kate, is this necessary? I know I shouldn’t have burst out that way. I’ll try not to do it again.”
“Yes, I think it’s needed and will be useful. I’d like to talk with you about how this project needs to go. Take a break, grab some coffee, and let’s meet back here in … ten minutes?”
“Well, OK. Can I bring you anything?”
“Diet Coke, please,” said Kate. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Susan returned, coffee and soda in hand. She sat down.
“You look more calm, Susan.”
“I figured you wouldn’t let me bring you a soda if you were going to fire me,” Susan said.
Kate laughed. “Good guess, that would be really rude. Anyway, I can’t fire you. More important, I don’t want to. What I do want is just what you do: the best possible project from Carl and Gil and their team.”
Susan said, “I do want that. You know I do.”
“Yes. What we need to talk about is how we’re going to get it. We’re going to go at this project with a certain approach and style. I need you to understand that and to act in accord with it.”
“I guess you want to be all nicey-nice and cut the programmers a lot of slack. You’re a programmer yourself, aren’t you?”
Kate took a sip of her soda. “Well, yes, I’m a programmer. And I do prefer nice to mean. But to me nice is a matter of style, not of substance. I suspect that when it comes down to substance, I’m just as demanding as you are … but I demand different things.”
“Kate, you don’t understand. This project is a big deal! We need a whole lot of things, and we need them soon. We need them by December.”
“I agree that it’s a big deal. That’s why I agreed to fund it. And I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t think it could be done. Tell me why we need it by December.”
Susan said, “Well, that’s when the trade show is. At that show, we have to be able to present the product, or our next decent release window will be another year out.”
“Does the product have to work in December, or can we just announce it for release later?”
“It really needs to work. We should have demonstrations, and we should be able to slip working pre-release copies to key customers and prospects. Ideally, I’d like to be able to ship it to anyone who wants to buy. Jim and I believe that lots of people will want to buy it: if it turns out as we see it, this is going to be a game changer.”
“OK,” Kate said. “December first, or end of December?”
“The show is actually the weekend of December 5th. We should have it by then.”
“OK. That is my understanding from Dan as well. So the beginning of December it is. We’ll have it ready to ship then.”
Susan said, “Just like that? With everything we need? How do you know? There’s way too much to do!”
Kate smiled. “Did you just say there’s way too much to do? Haven’t you been telling the team that they have to do it all by then? If ‘telling’ is the word I’m looking for.”
Susan said, “OK, maybe I do get a bit excited sometimes. But this is a big deal, and it’s my first break with Dan and it just has to work.”
“But you know there is too much to do. You said so yourself.”
“I know there is. There are five big feature areas, and the product has to cover them all. There’s a huge amount of work. That’s why they have to go faster. I can’t fail at this … I just can’t!”
“It’s scary, isn’t it?”
“Kate, I came in here as a marketing intern. Dan has given me chance after chance, and I’ve always managed to deliver. I’ve worked 60, 80 hours a week sometimes, but I’ve never let him down. This is a big deal. I can’t let him down now.”
“What if you did let him down?” Kate said.
“I can’t, Kate, I just can’t. But there’s too much! I can’t see how they can possibly do it all.” There were tears in her eyes.
Kate said, “That’s your job. Welcome to the big time.”
“I can’t do it, Kate. No one could do it. There’s too much to do.”
Kate paused until Susan seemed more steady. Then she said “Exactly. And that’s how we get done on time.”
Grabbing her tablet, Kate said, “Let me show you. This box is the time and effort we have. These colored rocks are the work we have to do.
Kate went on: “Look … they just won’t fit.”
“I know, I know. We just can’t do it. They just won’t fit.”
“Not like that,” Kate said. “But take another look. Parts of those rocks aren’t colored at all.”
“So those are parts of features that we don’t really need. Let’s break off the unnecessary bits and see what happens.” Kate drew again. “Look. Now more of them fit.”
“It’s still not enough,” Susan said. “We can’t get all five of them in.”
“Does the product need every one of these entire rocks? Or does it just need all the colors? Could we break up the rocks and do this?”
Susan said, “You mean trim down each feature area, and put in as much as we can? Well, sure. But we don’t really know what’s important and anyway we can’t take the pressure off development.”
“What’s going to happen if you work on just one big rock at a time?”
“Kate, I’ve told you and told you. There’s too much. They have to go faster or we’ll fail. I’ll fail.”
Kate said, “I think they can go faster, but that pressure won’t do it. But for now, let’s imagine that the team is going as fast as it can, and that my picture shows the best we can do with those rocks.
“What else do you notice about my picture, Susan?”
Susan looked. “Well, there’s white in it. Space between the rocks.”
Kate said, “Yes. When we give a team big features to do, there are always rough edges and gaps. There are things they miss, things we miss, things we put in that we shouldn’t have, things they put in that they shouldn’t have. Big features are always wasteful.”
“So small features are better? Why?”
You tell me. Suppose we broke up all those stories into really small bits, pebble size, and did something like this.” Kate drew again.
Kate said, “So if I gave you a team that could do little things like this, and they could only do that many, how could that help you?”
Susan thought. “Well, I guess if I picked the right little things, I could at least get the best possible product by December?”
“Exactly!” said Kate. “We can get the best possible product by the date you need. That’s the difference between failing and succeeding. Not being perfect, but succeeding. And it would be in your hands.”
“OK … so if we can give them small stories, we can adjust to get the best deliverable. I see that. Isn’t it hard making all those little stories? And can they do them?”
Kate said, “Both good questions. And the answers are, ‘Yes, but it beats failing,’ and ‘They can learn.’”
“OK,” said Susan. “If they can do it, I can do it. But you also put them in in little layers. Why?”
“Well,” said Kate. “We don’t really know how fast they can go: we can only guess. So what do the layers do for us?”
Susan said, “I get it. We build the product up bit by bit but it’s always ready to go. So when time runs out, we might not be perfect but we’re at least able to ship and the product can be used.”
“Exactly! That’s where the real skill is in managing product development. We don’t really know how fast the team can go. So what we do is build up the colors bit by bit. We make a minimal product ASAP. Then we add in more of this and that, still in small chunks. We make the product as good as we can by the cutoff date.” Kate drew a line across her picture.
“But we still might fail. We still might not have enough.”
“That’s right, Susan. We might. But this gives us our best chance, and it’s the real job of a product owner like you. You get to decide … you have to decide … what to do, and what to put off.”
“But up until now, it has been all or nothing. They build the software in some weird way that we don’t understand and come the date either we get it or we don’t. Usually we don’t.”
“That’s right, Susan. So we have to improve both development and product management. You need to give them small things to do, the most important ones first. And they have to learn how to do it. Right now, we’re pretty far along. We’ve got the team working in stories. They’re too big, perhaps, and frankly the stories and the system aren’t as done as I’d like. We need to work on both sides. Your job is to provide the small stories, with Jim’s help of course, and to help us determine how to know that they are really done, and that the system is ready to ship.”
Susan said, “But they still aren’t going fast enough.”
“How do you know,” Kate said.
“Well, we need more. They have to go faster.”
Kate said, “Yes. How far from work do you live?”
“So if you leave at 5:00, and need to get home by 5:05, it’s no problem. You just have to average 240 miles an hour. What is that little red car you have?”
Susan laughed. “It’s a Miata. I don’t think it would go 240 falling out of a plane. I get your point. If I want to get home by 5:05, leaving at 5:00, I just can’t do it. I need a better plan.”
“Exactly. As it happens, I’ve already been hit by a car once, and I’m sure a Miata going 240 would hurt. Now we will work to help the team go as fast as they can with safety … and what we need is a better plan. Small stories are your part of that better plan.”
“OK,” said Susan. “I’m not sure I’m up to it, but I see it’s our best shot.”
“It is,” said Kate. “And the whole team will help with getting it right. We’ll all have to learn things, and if we get to it now, I think we can be in great shape by December. I’m sure of it, or I wouldn’t have bought in.”
“I’m starting to see why Dan asked you in. It wasn’t just the money, was it?”
“No. I’m also stupidly optimistic. He likes that in a woman, I guess.”
Susan laughed. “I should try that. Anyway I get it. Are we done?”
“One more thing. Just a word about pressure, and nice.”
“We must. Think of it this way. We’re going to be piling lots of stories on the team. And we didn’t talk about it here but sometimes we’re going to get them wrong and need to change our mind. Even when they’re right, we have to be sure they are built correctly and that the system works. You’re going to need to work very intimately with the team, and very effectively.”
Susan said, “So I’d better not make them hate me. If they don’t already.”
“Right. I have noticed just a little tension in the room,” said Kate. “That won’t serve you well.”
“What do you want me to do?” Susan said.
“I want you to succeed. What do you think you should do?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe they hate me.”
Kate said, “Well, Susan, it’s up to you. Think about all this, and do what seems best.”
“OK, Kate, I will. Thanks for the ideas, and for not firing me.”
Kate smiled. “Thanks for the Diet Coke, Susan. I’ll see you tomorrow.”