Opinions. Everybody has them.
From topics ranging from politics, religion, science and who the best contestant is on "The Voice", it seems we're constantly surrounded by opinions. Blogs are opinions as well.... a form of "Op-Ed" (the "Op" here being short for "opinion"). And there are as many of us out there blogging today as there are opinions held about the content of those blogs.
Regardless what you think of opinions, or whether or not you feel the need to openly share you opinions with others or keep them more personal or confidential, it seems we're living in a time where everyone wants to share their opinion about something.
As a matter of fact, almost all "apps" today allow people to share/post their opinion about a service or experience they had. So much so, it seems we're almost DROWNING in opinions about pretty much everything.
So, if everyone has opinions, and we're drowning in them, why do opinions matter?
The point of this post is not to bash opinions, or to belittle those who do feel the need to share their opinion about every little thing in their life, but rather, to bring to light the extreme vacuum of opinions we find at companies and in the business world at large when it comes to strategic vision, product ownership and decision-making.
Starbuck's CEO is Stepping Down to Focus on "Premium Coffee"
About two weeks ago Starbuck's CEO, Howard Schultz announced that he is stepping down to focus his time on "premium coffee".
I was really puzzled by not only his decision, but also, by the fact that he does not consider Starbucks a "premium" coffee brand any longer (I consider Starbucks premium coffee). Especially given that he was one of the original founders of Starbucks back when they were a little coffee chain in Seattle. He left Starbucks once, then came back in the early 2000's to right the company back to profitability.
All-in-all, Starbucks is his "magnum opus"... check ANY corner in America (heck, the world!) and you'll see a Starbucks.
So how does this relate to opinions? Well, Schultz's opinion seems to be that Starbucks is no longer a premium coffee brand.
His initial drive and passion is to make/sell/create/be involved in the "premium coffee" market. He OWNED that strategic vision during his time at the helm of Starbucks and now he's at the point where he feels he can no longer grow and be happy at Starbucks. Despite Starbuck's success, his goals and his opinion about coffee hasn't changed.
Some of his choices he's made as CEO of Starbuck's to support his opinions is he caters to a certain market segment of consumers. Don't believe it? Then I invite you to walk into a Dunkin' Donuts, try their coffee and see how you're treated by the staff and what the overall environment is like, then go to Starbucks.
Total difference, right?
Starbucks is successful because instead of trying to be everything to everyone, they've put policies in place (via the CEO's opinions) through pricing, customer service, and even hiring policies that attract higher quality employees, make better tasting coffee and offer an overall better environment/customer experience than other coffee chains.
His strong opinions have to led to decisive strategic vision and product ownership seen through the execution of successful policies at Starbucks.
SwiftType Search Engine
While migrating my blog from wordpress.com to ghost.io, I needed to find a search provider. I found a great tutorial on how to wire the SwiftType search offering into my Ghost blog.
SwiftType came with a 30-day free trial, so I figured I'd see how hard it was to hook it up as well as how the search looked and performed so I could make my final decision later. At the time of the blog writing, SwiftType offered a personal plan for about $10 a month.
It turns out I LOVED the search engine! It was super-easy to integrate, looked great and was easy to customize.
As my free trial came to an end, I went to their site to buy the personal subscription plan. Imagine the shock I felt when I discovered they no longer offered that plan, and the next least expensive plan was $299 a month!
Puzzled, I reached out customer service, asking them what happened to the $10 dollar a month personal plan they offered. The agent replied that they simply do not offer that subscription level any longer. When I pushed and asked "why", the agent responded "I'm not too sure, I just know that we no longer offer that subscription. Would you be interested in the Basic Subscription (the $299 a month one)?"
After informing the agent that was just a bit out of my price range, I found, and implemented Google Search for my search provider. After a really bad, laborious experience in integrating it into my blog and customizing it so it didn't look horrible, I had a search I could afford (aka, free).
But man, I really wanted SwiftType back! It was like going from a Porsche to a Toyota.
Later, when I had finally gotten over my disappointment with SwiftType eliminating the subscription level I wanted, I thought about what could have possibly been their decision to ostracize potentially thousands of potential $10-a-month personal subscription users from their search offering, and then it dawned on me...
SwiftType took a strong opinion about not only the market they wanted to corner, but the type of client they wanted to use their software.
By being opinionated about the strategic vision of the company and exercising product ownership, they can now optimize their software, their UI, and their customer support to this segment of the market instead of catering to "Joe Blow and His Blog about Something Important".
I think this decision makes them a HUGE contender with Google Search (as well as other search providers) that a company looking for a solid search offering would easily pick SwiftType. To a company, $299 a month is a pretty reasonable offering for a great search for their site.
What Opinions Can Teach Us About Software Development
If software is eating the world, then it's eating the world with no opinion.
With so many software projects still failing these days, and as I get further and further into my career and work and talk with more and more people, I am starting to find that unless you have really, really REALLY bad programmers, most software fails because no one has an opinion about what the software should actually do, what segment of the market the software is optimized for, and how the business actually expects to make money from the software being built.
When pushed to answer the questions posed above, the short answer from most product owners, product managers and/or business analyst's is "it needs to do everything, it needs to do everything right now, perfectly, for whatever client walks through the door with money for anything they want it to do".
No opinions are held at these companies or on these projects. These companies/projects also seem to lack a cohesive understanding of the product they're building and the users of the product they're building it for. As a software engineer, trying to find anyone to make a decision about anything is next to impossible.
Why is this?
- the product owners/product managers/BA's are not domain experts.. They know very little about the domain the company is operating in, and even less about how the business either works or should work.
- companies are no longer silo'ed to the point where there is a single decisions maker from a single department in the company (remember having to requisition the marketing department for data using a form? Those days are no since gone.). Now there are 10 people that "kind of" manage the decisions for the same thing across multiple "verticals" that are mis-aligned with the domain the company is operating in.
- technical people and/or true product experts are being managed by people that are not qualified to manage them, which in turn, keeps those technical/product people from being able to do their jobs.
- control is in the hands of those who book meetings and focus on process instead of in the hands of those who want to deliver value via iterative analysis and frequent deployments.
- feedback loops are non-existent or are so slow, they're rarely effective.
- lack of a clear product/strategic vision and constant re-prioritization of the technical teams's work obfuscate the real problems and hinder delivering value to the customers
So what do we end up with?
- CRUD UI's
- All meetings and no substance
- a corporate "CC" email culture: this is where more and more people are CC'ed until someone, anyone, makes a decision about something.
- 25% percent of your staff are actual "do'ers". 75% do nothing, but man, they sure as heck are busy! Just look at all the meetings on their Outlook calendars!
- opinions are strongly held about things that don't matter (you filled out those TPS reports in triplicate, right?). It's easy to rely on tools and process and focus your energy solving problems that are not real problems, while the real work, the hard work, goes undone.
Because of the lack of opinions (or staff willing to voice those opinions), the company as a whole ends up with a lack of strategic vision, product ownership and decision makers. This "product apathy" manifests itself as non-opinionated software, which is just a slow death by a thousand non-decisions.
Remember, it's better to make a bad decision than to never make a decision at all.
- be opinionated/make decisions
- enact policies based on those opinions