The recent McKinsey Quarterly carries an interview of Bill Campbell. John Doer, no less, has called Bill Campbell the “single best mentor and coach of CEOs, teams, and talent” in his forward to the book Inside Intuit.
“I’m a product guy”
I’m a product guy. I mean, I like products. And I believe that intellectual property is a huge differentiator.
Look, innovation can occur in a couple of ways. Many company founders really want to be inventors. They want to break new ground with products and services that haven’t been done before. Google wants to let a thousand flowers bloom. It gives its engineers personal time to work on things of their choosing—potentially breakthrough stuff than can make a difference. These projects are reviewed and evaluated and have the opportunity to become mainstream Google products. On the other hand, Apple applies technology. It says, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do it better than anybody.” There were MP3 players out there before the iPod. And people forget the fact that Apple put out the iPod before the iTunes store. Just think about it. Today everything looks so seamless, but Apple didn’t do that right at the beginning. Steve Jobs, over a period of time, figured out how to apply technology to consumer products that people want: a seamless end-to-end experience.
“Empowered engineers are the single most important thing”
Some companies continually support an environment of innovation. It’s where the crazy guys have stature, where engineers really are important. And this will be the unique thing you hear from me. If you start with that, you have a better chance of maintaining a culture of innovation.
The real point is that engineers should have the ability to say, “This is what we want to do, and all the product managers in the world aren’t going to talk us out of this.” Later, when we started doing a lot of banking, we hired some product managers with bank experience. One day, one of them comes to a meeting that included me and banking engineers and says, “I want these features.” And I replied, “If you ever tell an engineer what features you want, I’m going to throw you out on the street. You’re going to tell the engineers what problem the consumer has. And then the engineers are going to provide you with a way better solution than you’ll ever get by telling them to put some dopey feature in there.”
I can tell you this: empowered engineers are the single most important thing that you can have in a company.
Recruit people who have the “DNA” that you want. But you’ve got to be careful that you don’t make engineers beholden to product-marketing people. For me, growth is the goal, and growth comes through having innovation. Innovation comes through having great engineers, not great product-marketing guys.
You should act as if you’re the venture capitalist, as if I came to you and said, “Look, I’ve got a crazy idea. Let me tell you about it.” You would reply, “Give me a little bit of a business plan here. I’m not expecting this thing to be the tightest thing in the world, but let me just ask this: who’s the product for? What’s the total available market for this product? Forget what share. And just what will this do? What in the behavior chain is this going to change?” People have got to be able to justify why they’re doing something. Just what problem are we trying to solve? And a product has to pass somebody’s test of reasonableness before it can be initiated.
“A marketing person would never have conceived of a Macintosh. But a marketing person could have made it better.”
I spoke at one of these CMO conferences, and the topic they wanted me to talk about was why marketing lost its clout. My short and simple answer was, “Because marketing forgot its first name—product.”
What I’m saying here is that we’ve elevated brand management, PR, and advertising to the point where the communications seem more important than the product.
My take: I broadly agree with Bill Campbell about the primacy of engineers in a product company. The trick is to keep make sure that they don’t become too focused on features. Sometimes creating a strong customer-centric culture in the product development team isn’t easy. This is where product managers can help. More than anything else they need to be the embodiment of the ‘voice of the customer’ internally. This comes before their other role of championing the product externally.
[David Eckoff has a short commentary on the interview here.]