The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Monday, August 23, 2004

Engineers vs. Salesmen 

I've mentioned Virginia Postrel's Dynamist blog as a must read before. Well, this morning I have a bone to pick with Virginia. She's gone and taken a pot shot at my profession. In her post entitled Dilbert vs. The Aesthetic Imperative:

But the strips also represent the engineer's rebellion against the idea that style has value--or that, on the margin, additional style might have more value than additional function.

She then goes on to quote from her book saying (which I haven't read... but maybe now I should):

Missing the effects of the technological progress he sees as legitimate innovation, the engineer doesn't consider the tradeoffs. For a long time, ever-greater computing power was indeed what people looked for in a new machine. But computers are so capable these days that most customers don't need the absolutely fastest chip. To someone who doesn't plan to tax the machine's processing speed, a beautiful case may be worth more than cutting-edge technology, not just for status ("to impress people") but for personal enjoyment. At a given price, adding style will be more valuable, at least to some people, than adding power. True, you can't get any more work done with a fancy case, but you can enjoy the same work more.

I've mentioned before about writing elegant code. In general, I think it's part of an Engineer's job to combine function and form. In Engineering school, that is one of the stated differences between an Engineer and let's say, a scientist. Engineers put scientific advance to practical use. Part of practical use is making something that is, well, practical to use. The problem that comes into play, which I don't think Virginia takes into account, is the speed at which development occurs. Reading her own blog, one of the great advances she touts often is that the economy today produces with greater efficiency. Product development and manufacturing are occurring at a more rapid pace. This is one of the reasons why our economy is growing well, despite other negative factors, especially compared with European countries that don't produce as efficiently. However, one of the first things that is sacrificed when speed is a concern, is elegance and beauty.

Ask any Engineer who their greatest foe is, and they will say a salesman. This may seem strange. After all, without someone selling what you design, you'd be out of a job. The relationship is definitely a love hate one. And when you have that kind of relationship, you tend to concentrate on the hate part more, it's just human nature. In most engineering firms, you tend to have your ideal development cycle (which you can find referenced and taught at any good school), and you have the real one out in industry. Here is an abbreviated version of a typical industry cycle:

  1. Marketing writes up an incredibly vague request for something cool. Sometimes this is replaced by an Engineer's idea he's been thinking up for a while.
  2. Engineering comes up with a "Proof of Concept" model. Of course, often times in order to prove a concept, you have to actually make the thing work. This also occurs because engineers love a challenge, and don't stop when they should.
  3. Engineering has a meeting with Marketing and Sales in order to get feedback on the "Proof of Concept" model. Is this what you were looking for? How can we make this better? Maybe we can do a usability study on this.
  4. A salesman sees this new and wonderful (yet very unfinished) product, and realizes that this might sedate an angry customer he just got a call from that morning. He calls them back immediately after the meeting to tell him about this new great product, and how he can get it to him very soon.
  5. The Engineering team is called into a meeting by the Director of Engineering to inform them of the schedule for release of the thing they've been "playing" with. The timetable is of course driven by the promises made by the salesperson, and are usually impossible.
  6. Engineering scrambles around like chickens missing their heads, frantically makes the "Proof of Concept" model work and salable, and writes up a list of dozens of things they'd like to make better for the next version. Many of those items include usability issues that they know can be made better, we just don't have the time, or the proper outside input to do them for the initial release.

I've worked at two large engineering firms and one medium sized one, and it's worked the same in all three despite my best efforts. At the first large company I worked for, I actually got to be involved in a usability study on our software. It was very rewarding, and we got lots of good ideas to use for the next version. Of course, the next version was subsequently canceled. This leads nicely to the other major issue.

It is very difficult to make those aesthetic changes in a released product. I've been part of teams that have tried to get the upper management nod on those types of projects. The problem is that management types rarely see the financial benefit of a redesign, if you can't roll in other feature upgrades. After all, a product that does the exact same thing as the last version, but looks cooler won't be something salesmen can convince buyers to upgrade to. The problem is that those feature upgrades that you need to include in order to get the project approved will always take precedence over aesthetic and design improvements. That means that the aesthetic and design improvements always get the axe first when it comes time to trim features to meet the schedule.

It's a vicious cycle... one that I don't think Virginia is very aware of. So don't blame the Engineers Virginia. Blame the sales force!

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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.


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