Management 101 - What Have I Learned ?

Lars Poulsen - 1997-09-30

In the fall of 1995, I was working for a small business owned by a very large multinational corporation. Our business unit had been losing money for as long as I had been there, and word was slowly spreading that the patience if not the deep pockets of the large corporation's management was running out. Expecting a shutdown, many of the most astute middle managers had jumped ship, and I was trying to decide where to go with my own career. The crumbs from my thinking spilled out in a handful of editorials on my web site.

Several friends, with whom I had discussed career issues, had asked me why I was not planning to either start a consulting business or "move up". The answers were complex. On one hand, I had seen many consultants, who ended up ruining their family life: Since they could never be sure to have employment beyond the current contract, they did not dare turn any jobs down, and ended up with unreasonable amounts of stress in their life. And on the other hand, I had seen how hard it is to maintain personal integrity in middle management.

10 years earlier, I had accepted a post as supervisor of an engineering team for 18 months, only to ask for re-assignment when I was asked to develop a product which I was sure would be an un-saleable piece of garbage. While I went on to build a customer support organization from the ground up for the same company (and had a great time for the next 3 years), one of my engineers with more management experience agreed to do the project. It was exactly as disastrous as I had predicted, but the product manager who sent us into the swamp somehow managed to avoid damage to his career. Since then, I had stayed away from anything resembling management, preferring the purely technical battle against code bugs to the political battles of budgets, resources and deadlines. And in the next 5 years, the only manager I had really admired, appeared to have lost his professional integrity to the pressures when the company crumbled around him.

By January, we had been sold off to a venture capitalist, who was building a new networking company from distressed businesses sold off by dispirited owners. As they worked with the senior managers to formulate a new business plan, I continued to evaluate where I wanted to go. After getting some very attractive offers from successful companies in my field (Internet infrastructure technology, specifically routers and remote access switches), I decided to stay with the company and take on the role as project manager for a new product to be developed, with a feature set exactly matching what I believed was the best tradeoff between the features most needed by customers, and the best leveraging of my expertise, our existing software base and our limited resources.

The project was risky:

Well, here we are a year and a half later. We are almost ready to ship to beta, and while we still have more bugs than I'd like to see, (to a large degree because we are still putting new features in), I'm fairly confident that we will all be proud of the product when it ships.

Meanwhile, the political battles resulting from assembling a geographically dispersed company by acquisitions are complicating life around me. The local management that came with us from the former large company have finally been forced out. The unprofitable manufacturing operation has been shut down. The other engineering group at my location has finally been told that they are being shut down over the next 60-90 days, after which I will be the highest ranking manager at this location. I am being asked to prepare to move to a new, smaller building ASAP (preferably within 30 days) without losing any workdays, even as we start beta test of our product. And by the way, we expect you to do the next generation product, which is a lot more ambitious, in half the time, with no additional staff, even as you finish getting the bugs out of the product you are releasing now.

So, I have had to take a couple of "mental health days", to catch up on the things that have been piling up around the house the last six months, and to think again about my career. Here are the big questions I am asking myself:

My report card

The high level overview is

Why so late ?

Our old problem - under the old management - was that we would develop excellent products, but we'd have trouble meeting the manufacturing cost goals, and we could never connect with the customers whose needs we had designed it for, so sales were always disappointing. Now we had brought the costs under control, by setting very specific cost goals and designing to them, working two competing designs based on different chipsets until we had bargained for the last possible discounts, and then sending the purchasing agents in ... and were had connected with the most cost-effective manufacturing group in the new company. But my new division manager told me he did not think there was a sufficient customer base for the product we had designed.

Our product was designed to fit the networking needs for mid-sized businesses; but the word coming back was that the computer managers in these companies were to unsure of their requirements to want to buy anything but the full-featured name brands. Our product had fewer features than the top brands, and even though we argued with good reason that most people would not need the additional features, and would get a better deal by not buying features they did not need (i.e. buying our lower-priced, less-featureful unit) the price difference was not that big a deal to them. After all, the networking equipment was a small part of their total budget, so they would rather buy the security than save the money.

On the other hand, Internet Service Providers are often very small, cash-strapped businesses, managed by people who know the technical issues extremely well, and who would appreciate being able to save a few percent and spend it on adding more lines instead. In addition, this group of customers tended to need larger systems, so that fewer unit sales were needed to meet our revenue goal. Our mandate was clear: Change course in mid-stream to build a system targeted to the ISP market.

Having had more difficulty than anticipated recruiting people up front, we were late getting going; tripling the number of circuit boards we had to design and push through prototyping and pre-production meant lots of long hours for the hardware team, and when we had trouble deciding up front whether to hire a diagnostic engineer and firmware programmers for the on-board microcode at my site or at our twin site on the east coast (co-located with the manufacturing and test groups we were already planning to be working with), my carefully laid out sequencing of the project turned into a scramble, which we are still recovering from.

We are converging, but it is painful to be behind the expectations we had set earlier. Still, it is now clear that the re-targeting was necessary. And the bugs can all be fixed. After all, delivery to market is always a tradeoff between revenue pressures for early shipment, versus engineering pride and long-term confidence building by letting every customer have a good experience.

What about integrity ?

The line manager's job satisfaction rests on the ability to feel in control, and to be allowed to make good decisions and learn from the bad ones. Life is good, if you know that

Life is bad when

Most of the time, we live somewhere in between.

And we should never forget that when you get right down to it, the only authority a low level manager ever has, is the authority to walk out the door. To say "I am not willing to let it be said that I run this place." In the end, that IS real power. And if you feel that you want to say those words, but are afraid to, you have lost your integrity. It is a power that can not be used often, but when the day comes, those words will improve your life tremendously. It has been ten years since I last had to say them.

My staff can legitimately complain that I lectured them on design documentation, but when the pressure went up, I tolerated and even encouraged "design as you type", and we have hacked up some previously clean pieces of code, which we will have to clean up and document in the next few months. But only if we don't get the resources to do that clean-up will I have failed them.

2020 Hindsight

The company I was working for at the time had gone through several name changes reflecting changes in ownership: The project we were working on was a follow-on to the technically successful but financially disastrous NetHopper project. I am amazed to realize that I have forgotten what our marketing name for the product was.

From 23 years hence, I still believe all of the things that I wrote, even though our project did not succeed.

It was not the fault of the project, but the company was never willing to buy into our vision for the product. Even though a marketing group in the Boston area had a large file of small business IT departments, they would not allow me to even get a copy of the mailing list to send a postcard saying "we have a new Internet edge router product that will connect you cost-effectively to the Internet". The sales deprtment noted that our maximum configuration might allow us to build a box with a couple hundred modems like AOL and CompuServe used, we had never tested such a configuration and were not sure it would actually work. Yet, this was the only version they wanted to sell, even when we told them that those customers already had a very good solution that they had been using for years, and which was expressly designed for their needs.

In the end, fewer than 50 units were ever shipped, mostly to field test sites promosed free eqipment in return for testing it for us. And from the lack of support issues that came back to the design group, we doubted that they had ever unboxed the product.

With the insight of hindsight, I think I expressed my concern for all the right issues pretty well. In the end, the company shut us down with no warning. I came in on a Monday morning, to find my employees huddled on the sidewalk saying "They are waiting for you." I had 4 weeks of severance pay; they paid me for 2 weeks of work on top of that to organize files to hand over to my boss in Maryland, and within 2 more weeks, I was working with the people I still work with over 20 years later.

I like to think, I had stored enough integrity to serve as the foundation for the next few decades or work.

More pages

(End of page)