What Can Modern Product Teams Learn from the Bobs?

Office Space, 1999

The cult classic, Office Space, was released to VHS and DVD 20 years ago this month. It came out in theaters earlier in 1999, but hardly anyone saw it then. It only became popular after the home video release, so it seemed timely to commemorate that event with a set of blog articles reflecting on the quintessential lessons therein.

In late 1999, I was early in my professional IT career. I was living the hilarity that I saw on the screen. Even though we’ve come so far as an industry and profession, there’s still so much truth that rings through today.

So much so, that I cannot do the film justice in just one blog article. I’ll draw applicable leadership lessons from multiple characters and scenes over the coming weeks.

The Bobs

This week, we will focus on the Bobs. The boss of Initech, Bill Lumbergh, hired Bob Slydell and Bob Porter to help the company get more efficient. Any time IT management hires external consultants to fix their department, engineers everywhere think of the Bobs. Just the thought of sitting down with some consultants and answering the question, “What would you say… you do here?” probably gives many of you chills.

If for some reason, you don’t have the scene completely memorized, check it out here:

The Bobs did plenty of things wrong, but I want to use the rest of this article to point out something they got right.

I have people skills!!

Tom is a people-person. He gets the requirements from the customers and gives them to the software engineers. He does this because engineers aren’t good at dealing with customers. So far this all seems quite plausible.

The Bobs see this as an opportunity to create efficiency by eliminating the proxy, so they ask, “why can’t the customers just take the specifications directly to the software people?” From that point, Tom goes into a defensive downward spiral and self-destructs his career, people skills and all.

Product Teams

Like many companies, CHS is starting to change the way we deliver technology. We’ve been on our agile journey for some time, but have recently started to take it further by exploring what it means to run digital product teams.

Historically, the way companies operate is some version of what you see at Initech. Customers talk to a designated proxy, who then in-turn, talks to the engineers. Usually there is some translation and interpretation involved. The engineers build something, hand it back to the proxy, and then to the customer. Did the customer get what they wanted? Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

I’ve been reading some interesting books recently to get myself up to speed on the digital product movement such as Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan, and Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework by Mik Kersten.

The Bobs asked a powerful question: Why can’t the customers just talk to the software people? 20 years later, we are still trying to figure that one out. Cagan and Kersten absolutely advocate for direct communication between customers and engineers. Cagan goes as far to state that engineers are often the best positioned to come up with the most innovative solutions.

What about Tom?

The Bobs thought that Tom needed to lose his job. In that, they were wrong. They just needed to change the operating model. Product teams are made up of a diverse set of team members and skillset. Product teams have all of the skills and perspectives necessary to deliver a great product to their customers, including people-skills. The difference is that they all show up to interact with the customer together.

What about you?

Do you let your customers and engineers interact? Perhaps you should. This isn’t just a matter of efficiency, but it’s a matter of effectiveness. Value creation through digital products is a complex undertaking. It takes a lot of interaction from a variety of skills from a diverse team. Why not try it out?

Engineers need to take Tom’s assertion that they “aren’t good at dealing with customers” as a challenge. If that’s you, perhaps you need to spend a little more time on your soft skills and self-awareness. You need your customers and your customers need you. Don’t let your lack of soft skills get in the way.

Office Space is a funny movie. It’s unlikely that the writers 20 years ago thought we’d still be tinkering with customer and engineer interactions and operating models 20 years later, but alas, we are. Unwittingly, the Bobs stumbled upon some wisdom that is more relevant today than ever before. We need to take their advice, eliminate the proxies and translations, and orient the full product team to rapidly interact and iterate with the customers.

Read this article on my blog site: https://zachonleadership.com/what-can-modern-product-teams-learn-from-the-bobs/

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.