The Sniper and the Spotter

Those who are familiar with my background know that I have worn multiple hats over the years as an Engineering Manager (EM) and as a Product Manager (PM). As a result, I often get asked a few questions which are all kind of related:sniper

What do I think of these two roles? Which one do I like better? Do I not miss coding? How do I make sure I am not stepping on the EM’s toes when I am wearing the PM hat ( or vice versa)?

I usually try my best to answer these questions as one-offs and give narrow window into my view of the world on the topic. But most of the times, because of the framing of the questions, I don’t end up providing my entire perspective.

In parallel, over the years, I have seen multiple attempts by various companies and teams to define the roles of EM and PM. More often than not, these tend to be two separate documents independently defining the roles and leaving the interaction between the two roles unaddressed and subject to interpretation. Also the roles are usually defined by describing a laundry list of activities EM and PM are responsible for and expected to conduct.

There is one more observation I have made that I will add here to finish my context for the rest of the post.

What makes interpretation of the EM and PM roles defined in the manner I described above harder in practice is the fact that the EM and PM are usually people with overlapping skills.

The point I am trying to drive is, over the years through these interactions and observing teams struggle to clarify these roles across big organizations, I have realized a need to have something simpler yet powerful and sticky to explain the two roles and the ideal interaction between them. A metaphor, a model, a framework if you will.

Note: The rest of this post is applicable even if you substitute EM title with other similar engineering leader roles like tech lead, lead engineer or architect etc. because the post is about interaction between the engineering leader and the PM discipline.

The Model

I have been thinking about this for a while and have come up with the following model that I think is useful.

EM and PM should act like a  team of  sniper and  spotter respectively.

Think about it. According to Wikipedia in a military Sniper team, “The shooter(s) fires the shot while the spotter(s) assists in observation of targets, atmospheric conditions and handles ancillary tasks as immediate security of their location, communication with other parties; including directing artillery fire and close air support. The spotter detects, observes, and assigns targets and watches for the results of the shot. Also, in conjunction with the shooter, the spotter will accurately make calculations for distance, angle shooting (slant range), mil dot related calculations, correction for atmospheric conditions and leads for moving targets.”

Lets look at the parallels here for the EM as the sniper and the PM as the spotter.

Just like a spotter, the PM should detect the optimal target customer base, observe and document their problems and then inform the shooter about the target customer and the problem worth solving. From then on, just like the sniper and shooter collaborate to make calculations for the shot, the EM and PM collaborate to define product roadmap that will address the target customer. At some point the mission switches over to the execution mode where like the shooter it is the EM who fires the rounds. The spotter’s job in that phase is to observe and report the results of the shots just like a PM reports out customer feedback on the prodcut. You get the idea.

Need more proof? More from Wikipedia: “It is not unusual for the spotter to be equipped with a notepad and a laptop computer specifically for performing these calculations.” Now if that does not sound like a PM then I don’t know what does 🙂

Applying the Model

You can leverage the model in various ways.

You can use the model to create an initial frame in a new team or introduce a new frame to an existing team. The model can help EMs and PMs make sense out of navigating the grey areas of responsibility. Should an EM do a particular task\activity or a PM? You can ask questions like: is the task more about detecting, observing, reporting on the target or is the task more about maneuvering the weapon?

But more importantly, you can use the model to illustrate that EM and PM must operate as a well-cordinated, tight team. They are the co-founders. They don’t jostle for control, they simply complement each other. A great working relationship is critical to their mutual success.

You can also use the model to identify dysfunction in the relationship as well. We all know some shooters who only trust their own spotting and we know some spotters too who love to be in charge of firing the shots as well.

I want to clarify one more thing before we wrap up.

You may ask. What about other disciplines? What about design, QA? Are they not important?  Why are they not part of the model?

My simple answer is of course other disciplines are just as important if not more. The model only addresses EM and PM because of the observation I shared towards the beginning of the post about EM and PM on the team often times having overlapping skills and higher level of  grey areas between their respective responsbilities.

To conclude,  hope you like the model and find it useful. Please share comments or other models if you have found them useful.

On To The Next One

Ren profileIt was September 2003 when I walked in as a new hire at Microsoft in the Visual Studio Team. 13 years later, Microsoft has fulfilled almost all the dreams I had for this phase of my career. So with bittersweet emotions I am saying goodbye to MSFT and moving on to my next adventure.

I thought I would use this post to not just summarize my emotions but also provide my take on where the company is and where I think it is heading. I want to set this up as fuel for the endless Seattle winter cocktail conversations or as things are nowadays endless winter toddler play dates  with little to no cocktails 🙂 If you are curious about my work at MSFT here is my LinkedIin page.

It’s Graduation Day!

Let’s get the emotions out-of-the-way first. The best way I can describe the feeling is the one of graduation and gratitude. This company is one of the oldest and one of the finest institutions in the tech industry. One of the things the company is great at is nurturing college hires and help transform them to thorough professionals. I found a lot of great mentorship and opportunities to develop new skills. MSFT supported my education goals and my transitions across disciplines. My family thrived with MSFT’s support.

So it is with all my heart I say thank you to Microsoft and thanks to all my managers, my sponsors, my amazing peers and my directs over the years!

State of the Union

During the last decade the company has had to navigate through some rough waters. With that backdrop as I keep running into current and former MSFT employees and folks working at other companies at social events I see a few themes in how people in the Seattle area view\rate the company. Some of the arguments can be intense and polarizing. Typical criticism of the company involve themes like : MSFT does not innovate, it is hard to get things done at the company, not agile enough, delays due to lack of consensus across big divisions etc. IMO some of these views ignore key context and often are supported by apple-orange comparisons.

I will try to offer my view of things here and shine light on some nuances.

Spoiler alert: In a typical MSFT fashion I will try to offer a more balanced view and even in more typical MSFT fashion I will do that by offering praise first (and loads of it) 🙂
The company is doing well. The state of the union is stronger than it has ever been and not just because the stock has nearly doubled in last 2-3 years. Satya has brought strong leadership and brought about many a transformations. The company has rightly retreated to focusing on what it is great at – being a platform company selling to enterprises with cloud and productivity as big pillars. Gone are the days of intra-team feuds and rewarding hero performers. The culture is well on its way of transforming and becoming more and more collaborative, customer focused and data driven.

The story of an Apple and an Orange

While many people know about and appreciate these transformations, one aspect that MSFT does not get enough credit for is how amazing and successful it is at selling to enterprises. In the consumer tech world, the success stories often involve tech that offers a creative solution but often times also defines a problem in a way that customers had not imagined before. Successful products often have wow factors.

Things are different in the enterprise world. In the enterprise world the game is about solving naturally occurring business problems in a way that offers the best economic value to all parties involved. It is more about things like  data warehouses with infinite scale in the cloud than about driverless cars or space rockets. In the enterprise world you don’t try to move as fast as you can.
You move at a pace that is just right for your enterprise customers (yes there is something as moving too fast or building software that is too smart in enterprise world). Due to these and other factors innovation can feel more incremental than earth shattering and that is perfectly OK. There are no jaw dropping launches, high-profile secretive press events and that is fine too.

To be honest I would like to offer a deeper dive into enterprise software and what makes MSFT so great at it and better than its competitors but not only will it be a bit off topic it will also leave very little for the cocktail conversations I am trying to ignite 🙂 So I will rely on just some of the facets I hinted above and conveniently jump to the following conclusion.

MSFT gets enterprise customers like no other company does.  MSFT is set to dominate enterprise software including cloud and productivity for a long time to come. 
Another pattern I see when people talk about some of the inefficiencies, slow progress and  coming out of MSFT are comparisons between MSFT and much smaller companies. In my opinion this is another one of those apple-orange comparisons like the consumer tech to enterprise software one . Big organizations inherently work differently compared to small organizations whether it is tech companies, government, sports bodies or charities. From talking to people around the Seattle area a lot of issues people identify with Microsoft are similar problems Google and Amazon also face and are problems arising from sheer size of these organizations and scale of the business they operate in. I am not saying one should tolerate inefficiencies I am just saying the comparisons should be between equals otherwise you are chasing a dynamic that is never going to materialize in a big company setting. An 18-wheeler is not going to handle like a roadster around the curves but it can sure haul a lot more stuff.

So could the fruit ripen more

Alright so now I am primed to offer my view on what I think are challenges unique to MSFT. Continuing on the theme of comparing MSFT to the appropriate peers like Google and Amazon there is one challenge that I think MSFT faces more than the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook do. MSFT has been in existence far longer than these companies. By the time these companies came into existence MSFT already had its share of ups and downs. What that means is that there are folks at MSFT who have perfected their own personal template for success long before the modern (post 1999) era. At times these templates can be at odds with the transformations happening in the industry and at MSFT. Some folks are able to evolve their personal templates for success, others are slow to warm up and that creates impedance mismatch which eventually slows progress.

Another area where I think MSFT’s competitors have historically done better than MSFT are acquisitions. While MSFT is traditionally best at strategic collaborations and partnerships, acquisitions have always been an Achilles heel for the company. Although recent smaller acquisitions like Xamarin give me hope, the price MSFT paid for LinkedIn still feels astronomical.

Could this be Satya’s aQuantive moment? I hope not.
So those are some of my views on where MSFT’s at and where it is going. I wish all my colleagues at MSFT good luck and looking forward to lots of great stuff coming out of MSFT.

On to the next one

And with that circling back to myself. Happy to have been part of this great company and done my little bit. I am excited to announce that I will be joining as the Director of Product Management at Bellevue based Apptio. My charter will be to help evolve Apptio’s  customer base and core platform that powers all of its SaaS applications. I am on to the next one!

Cue in Jay-Z:

I’m on to the next one
On to the next one
On to the next one
On to the next one
On to the next one
On to the next one
On to the next one

Hold up, freeze

Somebody bring me back some money please.