Travel Horror Stories

Product management and product marketing are two fields where you can expect to travel often. Unlike sales, who usually have a territory, we cover the world and are called to travel widely.

Horror StoriesEvery one of these jobs I have been in has advertised 25% of travel. And every one of them has underestimated the percentage of travel required.

Pro-tip: If they tell you while interviewing that you will travel less than 25%, they don’t know what product management is.

Yes, we travel a lot, to a lot of places. Our IRL friends often think this is glamorous, and it was the first couple of years. But then it becomes a grind.

Fortunately, most travel is innocuous, and you are more likely to die of boredom waiting for planes, trains and automobiles than have a hair raising experience.

Thus, when something goes wrong, it will be a disaster:

Travel Agent Insanity

Today, most of my domestic travel I handle with the web based reservation system. It is usually efficient, and I have some control.

However, it hasn’t always been like that. When I first started in this career, we were at the mercy of the corporate travel agency. Being people, and having an “interest” in how they processed our travel, they would direct us to their preferred carriers and hotels (nb: places that gave them a commission or kickback)

Today it is better, but incompetence still rules the day. Some blunders:

Tickets not issued: this really happened. Circa 1999, I was flying to Japan in February to present a paper at a technical conference (I used to be really really smart). I booked the trip in November once I knew the paper had been accepted, knowing that I needed to be in Tokyo. At this time, I was quoted a pretty good fare (I don’t recall ever spending more than $800 round trip from SFO to NRT until 2006 or so).

So far so good.

I get to SFO on Saturday to catch my flight. I check in, and the counter agent sees my reservation but it wasn’t ticketed. apparently the agency didn’t ticket it because they thought I might not travel. So, it is Saturday, about 90 minutes before boarding time, and I am on the phone (on hold) waiting for an agent. Mind you this is in queue at the check-in counter, as I had no cell phone then. Then I get the message that I had been on hold for the maximum time they allowed for customer satisfaction purposes, that I could leave a message and an agent would get back to me.

Excuse me, I am at the airport, 90 minutes before my flight, I have a reservation, but the ticket was never purchased, and instead of answering the fucking phone, you dump me to voicemail?

Fortunately, I called our group administrative assistant at home, who got on the priority line and got my ticket purchased.

Today, I would just whip out a card and buy the ticket, but back then, if it wasn’t charged to the corporate card, it wouldn’t be reimbursed.

Going home wasn’t an option, as we co-wrote the paper with a large semiconductor manufacturer whose name begins with ‘i’, and is the largest IDM maker in the world.

Stupid routing: Once I was traveling to Busan South Korea from my home in Tucson Arizona. The way the ticket worked was that I flew through LAX to NRT, then switched carriers to get to Busan. I thought nothing of it when I booked the ticket.

I get to the airport to check in, and I get my ticket to Tokyo, but since the carrier from Tokyo to Busan was different, I needed to check in there. No big deal.

Except that it was a big deal. Apparently, you can’t check in more than 24 hours in advance, and I missed that by about 3 hours.

So, I get to Tokyo, needing to catch a flight to Busan, and I have 45 minutes between flights. A legal connection my idiot travel agent swears.

What I had to do: Land in Tokyo, go through customs, pick up my bags, go to the check-in counter at the other airline, check-in, go through immigration control and security, and board my plane. All in about 45 minutes.

Yes I made it, but the stress was incredible. And the irony is that the travel agent didn’t understand why it was stupid. And his fault.

Botched Instructions: One time, I was on a trip to California. I was in meetings, and supposed to return on Thursday. But I needed to extend the trip a day. So I called the travel agency and had them change my flight out on Thursday to be Friday. Seemed clear to me.

bzzzt: Wrong answer. The doofus travel agent canceled my return trip, and canceled my flight to Austin, TX the following Monday. So I had a trip with a flight into San Jose, and returning from Austin the following Friday (and I was already in San Jose). Nothing in the middle.

When I called up livid, he said he thought I wanted to cancel my return from San Jose and my flight to Austin.

I asked him if he thought how I was to get from San Jose to Austin, he thought I would just drive. Just 1,716 miles by road. Idiot.

Ended up re-booking my return, and my entire Austin trip. Of course < 6 day advanced notice meant that my return from San Jose was $800 (when my entire ticket was $250 before), and my trip to Austin was $1,400 (when it was $300 RT before he messed it up).

Naturally my boss wasn’t amused. Neither was I.

Canceled Flights and missed connections

Nothing is worse than that sinking feeling when you are going to miss a flight. Perhaps a meeting ran long. Or traffic snarls prevent you from getting to the airport. Whatever the reason, it can be a sucky day.

Those are things that you ultimately have some control over. But there are a class of insanity that will screw you even if you do it all right.

Canceled Flights: It used to be that flights were never canceled unless there was a DGR (damned good reason). A DGR would be a Typhoon headed for your destination. Or a plane crashed on the runway at an airport. Rare, and special.

But now the carriers are maximizing their revenue by ensuring that seats are filled. All too often, an underutilized flight will be canceled, and the luckless passengers will be crammed into the next flight. This happens all the time now (cough US-Air cough, cough United cough). Last month I got my ass out of bed at 3:30 to catch a 6:30 flight to be in San Jose by 8:30. Of course, they canceled my 6:30 flight due to “mechanical” troubles (the trouble being that it was only about a quarter full), and instead crammed us all into the 8:30 flight. Got to San Jose at 11:30 (one stop instead of non-stop).

This used to happen a lot when I lived in Tucson. United would get you to Phoenix, then cancel the last flight to Tucson at night, so you would end up renting a car and driving the 2 hours home.

Even Southwest, a carrier that almost never canceled flights is getting into the game.

The worst one for me was a flight to Dublin (via London). British Airways, direct from PHX to LHR. Departs at 9:00PM. Except that when I got to the airport, it was delayed 6 hours, and wouldn’t depart until 4:00AM. Of course, that fouled up my connecting flight, so I got to stay in the LHR hotel, and get up at 4:00AM to catch the first flight to Dublin. Fun.

Once, I was flying to Taiwan. There was a Typhoon, but as I checked in for my first flight to Tokyo, the agent said all was well, that the Typhoon wouldn’t interfere. Lies. The typhoon camped out on the Taiwan island for several hours, so I got to spend a night at the Narita airport, before getting on a plane at 5:00AM specially for us to get to Taiwan the next day.

Missed Flights: Of course, since flights are fuller, and the advent of baggage fees means that people are trying to carry on way too much baggage, this makes for fun if you happen to miss a flight.

It used to be (and as an elite traveler) pretty simple to get on another flight later. But this is no longer true or applicable. If you miss a flight, it will often take 5 or 6 hours, and as likely as not a bizarre connection to get home. Oh, and if you miss an evening flight, I hope you enjoy the hotel they put you up in.

This usually means that you get to spend some quality time at the customer service desk. It can be entertaining to see the people in front of you reading the riot act to the customer service personnel, but it really isn’t helpful to yell at them. They didn’t make the plane late, or decide to cancel the flight. They are victims as much as you are. Be polite to them, and they may give you an extra meal voucher.

Summary

When you put as many miles on as a typical product manager, you are bound to experience the best and worst of travel. At one point I flew so much international United Airlines flights that I got free upgrades to business class almost every flight. That was choice. Of course it no longer happens.

With the advent of telepresence and webcasts, the demise of the need to travel has been foretold, but in the end, a good fraction of what I do requires making personal connections, and that means going out to visit customers in their native environments.

As long as I will be traveling, I am certain I will continue to amass horror stories.

Product Marketing/Management Partition

I have started this blog posting several times, and have been diverted each time. It is a complex topic, and it almost seems like heresy, but I believe it needs to be said.

There has been much said on the roles of Product Management, and Product Marketing. There are firms who have well developed frameworks, and extensive training to help you get to a “good” state. In particular, I am familiar with the Pragmatic Marketing work, and the Blackblot BOK*. Both have similarities, and both are profoundly helpful. But…

The first But…

Perhaps for me, it goes back to when I started in product management. There really wasn’t a BOK to draw upon. There was literature, but the vast majority in the pre-Google days was centered on packaged consumer goods, and product managers were much more like General Managers of a business, or business unit (today, they would be better described as “Brand Managers”). Enter the tech world. I was a new product manager, climbing a steep curve. I had to know my markets. Cold. I had to know the dynamics of my business. Cold. I had to know my product inside and out. I had to know enough of the technology to talk to the engineers (hint: It was electron microscopy. I.e. lots of physics, quantum mechanics, E&M etc). I had to be the point of sales enablement. There was no segmentation of the role. No partitioning. No delegation of the responsibility. It was just me. Sure, I had peers, but they all had businesses to run. We all learned together, and we all eeked out path forward.

So, when I see a framework where the role is partitioned, I am immediately skeptical. Not that it is a bad idea. Lord knows that the all in one product manager is a tough place to be. But there is comfort with having all the bits and pieces within grasp. When I see a recommendation to split the role into two, I worry about how each half will work together to make the whole picture.

The second But…

Can you be successful at only half of the role? This is a question that really bends my mind. To me, the Technical Product Manager (or product manager), whose role is mostly limited to the bottom-left portion of the Pragmatic Framework (below the descriptive bar, to the left of Programs) is really not a product manager. Sure there are some meaty tasks, knowing the competitive landscape, assessing the technology, managing the roadmap, but it is commonly held that this role delivers and hands off a product to the product marketing manager (or product marketer), who then owns and drives the business aspects (GTM, positioning, pricing, promotion, sales enablement etc.)

The theory is that the product marketer will hand down to the product manager the input from the market, direct VoC feedback, a semi-prioritized set of features. In return the product manager then cranks out the detailed product development plan and cycle. A pretty thankless job, if you ask me.

The product marketing manager then is responsible for all the interesting parts of the job. The marketing component, including win/loss, Go to Market strategy, distribution, pricing, business case building, the market problems, and much more.

Blackblot breaks this down a little differently, essentially calling the product marketer as handling all the inbound data flows, processing and passing them to the product manager, who creates requirements, and drives the development process.

Either model leaves me thinking that the parties are not whole.

If the product marketer is completely disconnected from the nuts and bolts of the development process, their understanding of core competencies is incomplete, as well as their understanding of the team’s capacity, capabilities, and past performance. This leads to some pretty wild miscommunications and mis-set expectations of deliverables. I have often seen this manifest itself in promising more than can be achieved, and then being stunned/angry/indignant when plans go awry.

On the other side of the fence, if the product manager is insulated from the business and marketing aspects of the organization and product, then they are like the boy in the bubble. This leads to a disconnect, disenchantment, and disfranchisement.

Compounding this, is the fact that the two roles will often report into two different organizations (marketing, and engineering are common), with different comp plans, and most importantly incompatible objectives set. Thus while their success is often so intertwined, they are paid on such orthogonal metrics, that neither will be inclined to help the other be successful

The way forward:

It is my belief that there is plenty of work to justify two different people for these roles. But to manage towards success, it is critical that they are not insular. Your product manager needs to have some skin in the game on the inbound marketing-like activities. Likewise, the product marketer needs to have some shared experiences in the trenches. This helps them understand why their preferred prioritization may not make it into the product plan. Also, it helps them understand the dynamics of the development team, the process, and gives them a fuller view.

Lastly, and this is for a mature organization, I believe that both roles should report to a single leader. Splitting their allegiances to two departments will dilute their mutual goals, and purpose. They both need to have visibility into the other’s objectives, and ideally have some skin in the game. If you have product management and product marketing at odds, you have a truly dysfunctional team.

Summary

To steal a page from Hewlett Packard, “Product Marketing is too important to leave to Marketing” rings true. Yes, it is marketing, but it is really a component of product management, and the goal is to build kick-ass products, that delight customers, are easy to sell, and are widely applicable. The Pragmatic framework offers a great guide, and having the three chief roles they talk to, marketing, product marketing, and product management is important, more crucial is to have all parties on the same page, rowing in the same direction.

To me, that is what defines a great product management organization. Do you have it? What are you doing to get there if not?

The future will bring a post that describes how to develop each role to peak efficiency

  • BOK = Body of Knowledge

Modified Joke – Product Manager, the Lawyer and the doctor

A doctor, a lawyer and a product manager were discussing the relative merits
of having a wife or a mistress.

The lawyer says: “For sure a mistress is better. If you have a wife and
want a divorce, it causes all sorts of legal problems.”

The doctor says: “It’s better to have a wife because the sense of security
lowers your stress and is good for your health.”

The product manager says: ” You’re both wrong. It’s best to have both so that
when the wife thinks you’re with the mistress and the mistress thinks you’re
with your wife — you can do some product management.

Only three excuses from Engineering to change a Spec (requirement)

You are sitting in you cube, listening to some kick ass tunes in your headphones, and an engineer drops in. “I need you to change spec X”.

My response is to ask why, like all good product managers do.

Invariably there are three answers

  1. It is impossible to meet that spec without changing the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and here is why …
  2. It is very difficult and we don’t know how to do it.
  3. It is difficult.

Only one of those I will accept. Guess which it is…

Annual Sales Training/Meetings

Ah, I am procrastinating in the preparation of my decks for the sales meeting and/or training next week, I have come to reflect on the whole concept.

I have written in the past on “Sales Meeting Musings“, as have others, including a snark filled comment by The Cranky PM.

But this ritual is rife. Once a year (or every other year), you gather the sales people into a room, and you let them bask in the glory that is Sales, have them tell Paul Bunyon sized bullshit tales of their heroics (never once acknowledging the parachuting in of Product Management to salvage a HUGE deal), and to drink expensive booze and smoke cuban cigars.

Every time, I have to prepare a deck. I have to tailor it to the lowest common denominator, usually a greenhorn sales asociate, or a senior guy that “doesn’t know how to spell AFM let alone how it works” even though he has 10 years of experience in the company.

This is a hugely difficult task.  You have to cover the basics, and cater to the vast middle ground.

This invariably comes down to stroking egos, yielding up the best nuggets from my market and competitive analysis (that I don’t want to share, because the blabbermouths will email it to their friends at our competitors) to keep their interest.

One year, we had a product that was going gangbusters in photovoltaic research.  But our sales people couldn’t speak the language.  I put together a 4 hour bootcamp that started from the basics (semiconductor diode) through the principal technologies, and what we could do to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

And not even a week later, I was required to fly to the Philippines to talk with a customer, because our sales team was too weak to do it.

Weak sauce.

Why bother?