What’s a Solution vs. a Product?

There’s an overused and overloaded aphorism: words matter. Usually, this phrase is used to state that the selection of words has particular import (true). Yet to a product marketer, the definitions of those words and a company’s alignment around them is much more important. I don’t just mean the terms that you use to market your products (though I’ve had many vigorous arguments about “incident management” versus “incident response” that I’ll save for another day.) I mean the terms that you use inside your company to refer to the various parts of the kit you produce – your firm’s products and solutions. “Products” and “solutions”, though… what the heck do those terms mean, anyway?

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What Tech CEOs and Product Managers Need to Consider Before Entering the US Federal Market

I have now worked at several software companies who have either entered or considered entering the US federal government market. From a distance, this market appears very attractive. After all, the government spends about $90B per year on IT services, an addressable market size that dwarfs private sector IT spending of whole countries. Sometimes, individual solicitations like the (recently-cancelled) $10B JEDI initiative can do so as well.

However, many tech CEOs often make the mistake of assuming that the capabilities needed to service this market are similar to those that need to be developed for pure geographic expansion. Simply hire a sales specialist and you’re done, right? Wrong. Failure to anticipate and build critical product features that are mandatory for successful entry into this market, as well as understanding the peculiarities of the go-to-market capabilities necessary to do so, are the two biggest mistakes I’ve seen when tech CEOs seek to capture US federal government market share.

Below are the various product, marketing, sales, and channel requirements that CEOs and product managers must consider prior to entry so that you do not unintentionally turn that attractive top line into a negative bottom line.

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How to Have Effective Trade Show Booth Interactions

I’m returning from my first conference/trade show in over a year. It’s wonderful to be able to hit the road again and meet customers face-to-face. After all, humans are social creatures, and while the last year has brought some interesting innovations in virtual events like wine tastings over Zoom, there really is no substitute for in-person conversation.

I’ve been “working the booth” now for nearly ten years, first as a solutions consultant, and then as a product manager and product marketer. Yet I’ve often noticed that booth conversations between vendor reps and customers can be extremely awkward. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are some tips for you as an exhibitor to make the most of your customer interactions at the booth, all distilled from advice that I’ve given to sales and marketing teams over the years to prepare them to have effective conversations with customers on the show floor.

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What I Learned from Journalism, As Applied to Product Management

I often get asked for advice from product managers on the skills I consider critical for the role. Invariably, I find myself falling back on some practices that I learned as a journalism student nearly ten years ago. Although I never actually worked as a full-time reporter, I found that basic skills I learned in my very first “craft of journalism” courses are the ones that I now return to again and again as a product leader.

As such, here are the top five things I learned in journalism school that I think are important for emerging product leaders.

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Demystifying Roles in a Modern B2B Marketing Department

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, I come to marketing not from a traditional marketing background, but from product development and engineering. When I first showed up in marketing, I was as baffled as many of you might be by all the different roles in B2B marketing, and wish I’d had a primer to explain what all the different roles in marketing are.

This is that document. I hope it’s a handy guide for folks outside of the marketing department who need to interact with it. It’s also helpful for startups to understand what kinds of marketing they need right now and what types of people they should be interviewing.

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Why I’m excited about Dark

The Dark language and coding platform launched this week, and I couldn’t be more excited. (I had half a mind to fly to St. Louis and see them launch in person at StrangeLoop.) For a while, I’ve been following what Paul Biggar (founder of CircleCI) and Ellen Chisa (a product leader whom I respect) have been building in Dark: a product to democratize software development and make it easier for everyone, particularly for folks who haven’t previously coded before. The frustration Paul expresses in his launch video –- about infrastructure and today’s delivery process getting in the way of delivering code – resonated deeply, particularly when I think about how we used to “deploy” in the early days of web software engineering (FTP-ing PHP files to production). Obviously, that was risky.

Today, however, in the name of risk reduction, we have complicated CI/CD pipelines, Kubernetes and rolling deploys, thousands of lines of AWS CloudFormation and Chaos Monkey to kill it all, and a million other extraneous guardrails that developers today need to learn just to get something into production. An end-to-end, low-friction developer experience such as what Dark is providing is certainly appealing, not just for new developers, but for old folks like me who would like to program again occasionally but find today’s frontend and backend stacks daunting.

In this post, I’d like to give my thoughts in just three areas: what did Ellen and Paul and their team build? In what way could they reasonably go to market? And also – to address some of the early criticism about Dark, e.g. that it’s a closed ecosystem and not open source – does it matter? Are there are other valid criticisms and how could they overcome them?

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On leaving Chef

Yesterday was my last day at Chef Software. It is the second-longest I have been at any company — nearly six years. I have been very fortunate to have held four very distinct positions at Chef over my time there: professional services consultant, engineering manager, product manager, and finally, product marketing manager. When I contrast my experience working for a startup with the time I spent in the enterprise, I would, without question, state that this has been a better experience for me both personally and professionally. I could not go back to work for a huge company where the sense of urgency and determination to succeed are just not there, and where the needless bureaucracy snuffs out the flames of innovation before they have a chance to catch. I’m sure there are exceptions out there, but when I think about the poor customer experiences we all have interacting with our bank, college, grocery store, or health care providers, those are fundamentally a direct result of company-wide complacency driven by sheer size and corresponding market dominance.

It is also the first time for me leaving a company because I outgrew it — or maybe it outgrew me. In tech, we love to dump on the 99.99% of companies that aren’t Hacker News Hot Shit ™ while neglecting that many of them are doing quite well financially, thank you very much, and solving real customer problems. While the HN crowd is busy chasing shiny objects, the rest of us are off building businesses, and extremely successful ones at that. For me, though, there wasn’t much more I could do or wanted to do at Chef. The company is at a phase of its growth that is about immensely scaling the products it already has and deriving revenue from them, rather than launching entirely new product lines. As a product guy and engineer at heart, it’s therefore time for me to move along.

I wish my colleagues at Chef a great deal of success in the next phase of the company’s growth. It has been a privilege and an honor to have worked alongside so many of you and to have learned so much.

Some Thoughts on the 2018 XOXO Conference and Festival

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the XOXO Festival right here in Portland. For those who don’t know about XOXO (as I didn’t before I moved here last year) it’s a festival and conference for and by makers of things on the Internet: game designers/developers, programmers, filmmakers, comedians, artists, podcasters, and the like. A single-track daytime conference accompanies the evening festivities, packed with thought-provoking keynotes delivered by very accomplished people such as Jonny Sun, Ijeoma Oluo and Demi Adejuyigbe. It’s primarily this part of the event that I want to say a few words about. Continue reading

On Open-Source Business Models

Over the last couple of weeks, many open-source luminaries have written about open-source business models in response to Redis Labs’ modification of their license terms for some Redis Modules. Most of these blog posts dissect one thing: how does one create a business around open source? I actually think that this question, framed as it is, is kind of absurd. It sounds to me a lot like “how do we make money off the horses which have already fled the barn through the doors we left open?” Starting a company off on the wrong foot by giving away all of your valuable IP – and then figuring out how to build commercial products on top of whatever scraps of value remain – is silly. Many such conversations – led by technologists — start first with open-source zealotry and reverse into a business model which is the wrong way to do things. Instead, if you’re considering building a company based around an open-source foundation, first design the business model, and then contemplate how open sourcing certain pieces can serve as an accelerant to that business. If you can’t find an accelerant, maybe your business shouldn’t be based on your IP being open source. Continue reading

An Elegy for Etsy

One of the biggest news events in 2017 for those of us working in devops was hearing about abrupt changes at Etsy. In April, institutional shareholders, disappointed by Etsy’s low share price, ousted CEO Chad Dickerson, and under new CEO Josh Silverman, proceeded to slash the workforce and reduce costs. Many talented engineers that I happen to know personally as well as CTO John Allspaw himself were either fired or saw the writing on the wall and made for the exits.

These events were discouraging on a number of levels. First, Etsy’s world-class engineering and web operations team scattered to the winds. Allspaw and many others contributed a great deal to the discipline of web operations by applying lessons learned from improving reliability in other fields, such as transportation engineering and nuclear safety. More importantly, though, is that Etsy’s very existence shone a light on whether it’s possible to build a socially-responsible company within the constructs of the current venture capital, and by extension, capitalist system. What is the place of the social democratic entrepreneur within these confines? Continue reading