Reflections on Robot Proof

I recently finished reading the book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, written by Dr. Joseph Aoun, the President of Northeastern University.  My interest had been sparked by a panel on which Dr. Aoun participated concerning the future of work and how it will be affected by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

I’ve written previously about applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a post called “Contact Centers Get Smarter,” but Aoun’s book encouraged me to take a deeper dive into the topic. The intent of this post is to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned and consider some implications.  For context, I am a member of the part-time faculty at Northeastern after working many years within the high tech industry in disciplines which included Product Management, Information Technology, Engineering Management, Operations and Consulting.  I also have two children who been studying at universities in recent years, one in Liberal Arts and one in Engineering. So, I have a personal stake in the matters which Dr. Aoun discusses in his book.

Robot Proof  contends that as AI matures, it will have a dramatic effect on the careers of human workers. Many employment roles which have a variety of repetitive steps will begin to be either replaced or supplemented by algorithms. Thus, a key point in Robot Proof is that human workers should hone cognitive capacities where human skills and adaptability will offer an advantage. Examples of such cognitive capacities include critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility.  Another overarching theme is the importance of lifelong learning for people in the workforce at all levels.  As technologies change rapidly, workers will need to develop enhanced skills and new areas of domain expertise. Aoun also feels that the skills taught in leading liberal arts programs, such as communications, critical thinking and creativity, can also be valuable as part of one’s “robot proof” toolkit.

Robot Proof offers a lot of depth and thought on the matters of what kind of skills and literacies will be useful over the course of one’s career. For example, I’ve found that systems thinking and strong written communications skills have been very useful within my own career in enabling me to shift between different roles depending upon my needs and those of employers or clients.  Being able to make  connections across diverse disciplines and then apply them is an example of a skill that Aoun calls far transfer. Aoun also talks about the value of being  able to shift perspective and change one’s mindset to expand the range of potential solutions. So this book offers encouragement for people who have diverse interests and like to bring a generalist’s perspective into their work or creative endeavors.

Dr. Aoun also contends the university system in the United States needs to evolve from its current focus on teaching undergraduates and engaging in research, and take on the challenge of partnering with industry, government and other institutions to offer programs of lifelong learning. This would be a substantial transformation, but I believe these ideas should be in the mix in the ongoing discussion on how to make higher education both effective and more affordable.

To summarize, I think Dr. Aoun’s book offers a set of useful approaches for anybody who wonders about the future of work in an era where robots and other forms of artificial intelligence will play a greater role. The ideas here are highly relevant for current students and members of today’s workforce who want to stay competitive in their fields.  The book also poses ample challenges for the education and business communities. The value of building a “Robot Proof” toolkit of skills resonates for me as a teacher, parent and consultant. Welcome to the workplace of the near future.

What do you think?  Is your current set of skills and career path sufficiently robot proof?  To continue the conversation , please feel free to comment here or contact me on LinkedIn.

 

Shifting Gears — From Product Management to Teaching

The year 2018 was a time of career changes for me. My last corporate assignment, as a Product Line Manager for the Converged Communications Division of Dialogic ended in early January.  The division was divested to another company, Sangoma, and all of the roughly eight product lines I managed were part of the deal, but my time was up.

I’d had a productive three year run in my return to the company, so I decided this presented an opportunity for me to re-assess how I wanted to spend my time. I considered various possibilities, but one of the most attractive directions was to explore the potential to get involved in university teaching. Teaching or training has often been part of my work in product management and consulting, but I liked the idea of being on a college campus and bringing my business experience into the classroom. Several of my business colleagues had previously made the move from business into academia, so I began  reaching out to them as part of my networking process.

It turns out that having a master’s degree is one of the requirements to be considered for some adjunct teaching roles, so my Master of Engineering in Management Engineering from Rensselaer (RPI) covered that prerequisite. The Boston area has a rich selection of diverse universities and Northeastern University in particular has a strong business program. But it quickly became clear through my networking meetings that if I wanted to seriously pursue a teaching role, I needed to target a particular semester and make sure I’d be available to teach for several months as a time.  My early contacts were promising, so I decided to go for it.

I continued job hunting, but also looked hard for potential consulting assignments that would give me more time flexibility in the event a teaching assignment opened up. I was open to a lot of options and got a tentative offer from Northeastern to teach an Introduction to Business course around March. The details firmed up a couple of months later.

In parallel, I started doing some consulting, so I was busy with that work and had a teaching assignment which would start just after Labor Day. In preparation, I continued my networking, but now with a specific focus. I had several informal discussions with colleagues who had moved into academia and they were virtually all willing to share takeaways from their experiences in the classroom. This was all helpful and I felt good about the upcoming change.  One big change from my other teaching work was the extent to which the current teaching tools are online and highly integrated.  I took a course in Blackboard, which is the teaching platform used at Northeastern, but had to come up to speed very fast in its practical use for this particular class. My years of IT experience helped, but there were many fine details which weren’t always obvious.

Intro to Business at Northeastern is somewhat unusual in various respects. I became part of a faculty teaching team which teaches the class to several hundred incoming freshmen at the D’Amore McKim School of Business.  A standard syllabus had been prepared, but it was up to each individual teacher to deliver the material in an effective manner. We met as a team before the semester began and typically met every two weeks after that. Our class sizes were relatively small — my fall semester sections had fewer than 15 students.

Classes began on the Wednesday after Labor Day.  From this point forward, I taught the students three days a week in the classroom, but quickly found I needed to spend much more time outside of the classroom to prepare. As teachers, our goal was to provide students with a foundation in the basic elements of business — addressing topics such as entrepreneurship, marketing and accounting / finance — while simultaneously helping them form teams which would apply the concepts in a variety of assignments. The early workload was substantial, but the students quickly had chances to develop new skills in areas such as conducting research surveys and learning about finance using Bloomberg terminals. As teachers, a key challenge was to engage with the students on various aspects of business through readings of a textbook, numerous articles and other tools such as videos, and encourage the students to use critical thinking in applying the material. The teaching was less about lecture than alternative means; as a professor, I facilitated in-class discussions and encouraged the teams to work together to  reach conclusions.

Here are a few takeaways from my first semester on campus:

  1. Teaching a class for the first time is a lot of work. I’d seen this before in my earlier teaching experiences, but it was particularly true for this class. Most of the effort was outside the classroom and included preparation, review and grading of assignments and meeting with students. It felt like I learned a lot over the course of the semester and this will help me to be more efficient and effective in teaching future classes.
  2. I found this particular class drew upon a wide range of my business experiences and skills.  For example, the review of supply chain and operations tied well into my original degree studies in Management Engineering at RPI and experiences from the three years when I managed purchasing and materials management for Burroughs and Fujitsu.
  3. Managing the class relied heavily upon online technology, notably on the learning automation tool known as Blackboard. Blackboard is a bit quirky, so the integration between 3rd party software and Blackboard is brittle and held a few surprises. My many years of IT experience helped here.
  4. In business, the focus is on meeting customer needs. When teaching university classes, meeting the needs of students is the central focus. One key goal was to bring my business experiences to the classroom, but the nuances of teaching a broad set of concepts required a great deal of focus.  Since this class included several team-based projects, I spent a lot of time coaching the teams on how to successfully complete their assigned presentations and projects. The improvements the students made in areas such as making presentations and preparing business plans demonstrated how they were able to take the concepts of the class and apply them to entrepreneurial projects.
  5. My business focus has been heavily in the business-to-business (B2B) arena, but most of the examples used in this class were business-to-consumer (B2C), since the major projects were tied to the consumer retailing giant TJX (the owner of stores which include Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Homegoods).  I enjoyed applying my marketing background in this somewhat different business context.

In summary, the transition from conducting business to teaching business has proven to be a career change which has many challenging elements.  I enjoy the work, especially when the students progress in learning many new skills over the course of a semester.  I also liked the university environment; Northeastern treats part-time faculty and staff as professionals and I’ve enjoyed my interactions with other professors and the support staff team. So this career change has been a positive one for me and might also work for other business professionals who’d like to apply their career skills in a university environment.

Have you considered a career change which leverages your experiences in a different way?  If you’ve had similar experiences in re-imagining your career or are contemplating such a move, I’d love to hear from you on LinkedIn.

Virtual Software: Changing Business Models

One of the best texts I’ve ever read about business models was written by Cory Doctorow, a famous writer and entrepreneur. His novel Makers was not only a great story, but virtually a doctoral thesis on how business models can change and have a radical impact on everything they touch.

A couple years ago, I helped launch a new virtualized software product line for Dialogic. The PowerVille™ Load Balancer was different in many ways from other products I’d managed. The software was totally agnostic to the underlying hardware, courtesy of a Java code base which was highly portable to multiple topologies. As a result, it fit nicely into a variety of virtual environments and also was poised to make the leap into emerging Cloud architectures, in line with trends like the emerging Virtualized Network Function (VNF) and approaches like the use of HEAT templates for configuration.

A few months into the launch, my manager and I talked about how to take this product to the next level and realized that we needed different business models for this kind of product. The traditional load balancer provided by industry leaders such as F5 was built on top of proprietary hardware platforms, and the business model followed suit. Pricing was typically based on a purchase, where all of the hardware (and software) was purchased upfront, accompanied by a service agreement which was renewed year by year.  This approach is often called the perpetual model.

But with the Cloud taking over, customers were looking for different answers. Cloud Services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and lots of industry software had moved to subscription or usage based business models. For example, if you buy a subscription to to a software product like Adobe Acrobat, you get the right to use the product so long as you keep paying the monthly subscription fees. Amazon went further. You can buy rights to AWS services and only pay for the usage of the Cloud infrastructure you have purchased. In the world of virtual services, this permits customers to scale up for high usage events—think of the capacity need to support online voting via text for a television program like American Idol—and then scale back down as needed, perhaps even to zero.

We considered these kinds of changes for the Dialogic load balancer, but other virtual software products at the company ended up taking the lead in becoming available under subscription or usage based models. The implications were huge. Salesreps loved the perpetual model, since they’d get a big chunk of commissions every time they sold a big box.  In a subscription or usage based model, the revenue—and the commissions—move to a “pay as you go” model. Hence, no big upfront commissions payout and you need to keep the customer happy to get that recurring revenue stream. By contrast, finance executives now had a revenue stream which was less bumpy, since there was somewhat less incentive for Sales to go out and close those end of quarter deals. Customers also like the flexibility of subscription models. Typically, they may pay more over the long haul vs. the perpetual model, but they also have the option to change to a new product or service mid-stream. In summary, the move to virtual software and related technical innovations such as Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or by extension Anything as a Service is likely to drag in new business models.  These new business models change the finances both on the customer and vendor side and not everybody will be pleased with the results, but momentum for these trends continues to grow.

If your organization has participated in the evolution from perpetual to subscription or usage based business models, please  weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products in this rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

 

Testing Product Proof of Concepts

Product managers are called upon to accomplish many tasks at different points in a product life cycle. One which can be important and potentially even a game changer is to develop a proof of concept for a product and then test the idea out.  I’ll provide an  example.

In one case, my division wanted us to explore a potential product concept for a hot business area — the Internet of Things (IoT).  The first challenge was to look at the market and see if there was’s a value proposition that made sense for the company.  My company was well known for being able to integrate hardware and software, so a product that built on that approach potentially offered both a technical and business fit.  Next came study of the market and examining the current players. In the IoT space, it’s somewhat crowded, but various companies like Intel offer starting points in the form of toolkits, white papers and architectures, and there are several industry organizations that also offer guidance to would-be participants. Based on those resources and other investigations, we developed a product “Proof of Concept” presentation.  It addressed the product concept, identified where our company added value and a contained a series of questions for potential partners / customers.

The next step was to test it out.  Our division put the word out to our sales team that we had a product concept we’d like to review with potential prospects.  When a couple of candidates were identified, we set up calls.  We shared the product concept in the form of a presentation and used it to discuss three main areas with the prospects:

1) What did they think of our concept?

2) What had their experiences been with similar products?

3) Could they share any pain points?

The results were interesting.  The prospects were intrigued by the concepts, but immediately began to compare them with existing products. That quickly led to the third phase, a discussion of pain points.  All of this discussion provided helpful clues on where the markets were being well served and where there might be openings for new products. By meeting with multiple prospects, we got diverse perspectives and also heard some common themes.  The testing confirmed the product concept had potential and could be the basis for further explorations and refinement if the company chose to take those next steps.

In summary, one way to test the viability of a product concept is to create a “proof of concept,” which may be as simple as a presentation or at the next level, a more complete working model. Then, it’s important to test the concept and how well it meets the needs of potential customers, before making the larger investments needed to bring a final version of the product to market.

Has your company seen similar challenges in considering new product offerings? What approaches were taken to test the new product concepts?  Please feel free to offer comments on your experiences. Or, reach out to me on LinkedIn at http://http://www.linkedin.com/in/james-rafferty-ma to discuss needs for similar projects.

 

 

 

 

Refining the Product Vision

One advantage I gained when I went independent for over a year was to consider how to be an effective Product Management leader with a fresh perspective. As a Product Line Manager, it’s very easy to get caught up in the product, the enhancement of various features and dig deep into the technical aspects. All of this is fine, but may overlook opportunities to go beyond the product itself and work with a broader team to build more success in your target markets.

In this post, I’ll discuss an example from my own experiences of how Product Management can be transformed to go beyond the product and create new success stories. In particular, let’s consider an example of refining the product vision and then creating additional marketing tools to support that.

In my last product management role at Dialogic, we had a media gateway product which was doing well in the marketplace, but most of the sales were for the traditional use cases of translating between circuit-based networks based on Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) and the newer SIP-based Voice over IP networks. When I did Google lookups for related search words, the presence of our product was much less than I would have expected based on our market performance of being #2 in the market for low density trunking gateways sold to service providers and related customers for several years running.

To address this, I worked with marketing colleagues to build an updated marketing plan. A core element of the plan was to look at use cases and create content which would explain why the use case was important and how the right kind of media gateways could help provide a solution.

For example, SIP Trunking has been a major driver for growth in the Voice over IP market for several years running and is usually tied to the sales of Session Border Controllers (SBCs). With SIP trunking, enterprises communicate with the outside world by connecting from their enterprise campuses to a service provider. Traditionally, service providers made this connection using ISDN trunks, which needed a fair amount of advance setup time to establish. Since SIP trunks run over IP and don’t require dedicated circuits, the time to deployment can be much faster and the price to the enterprise customers are reduced. As a result, the payback time for moving to SIP trunks can be  very fast. But… Yes, it always seems there is a but.

But, in order to make this change, the enterprise needs to either change their existing phone systems so that they are fully IP-based or establish a transition plan. In the latter case, the transition plan needs to enable them to use their existing TDM phone system infrastructure within the enterprise, but still connect to SIP trunks and gain savings in operating expense. This was consistent with industry data which showed that 40% of enterprises still had investments in TDM-based infrastructure. And it turns out that a media gateway which can manage that transition from TDM to SIP could be a valuable part of that strategy.  As a result, we created a white paper which talked about SIP trunking and why Media Gateways were an effective solution for the related TDM to IP use cases. In addition, we updated our marketing collateral on the web and in our product presentations to make sure this SIP Trunking use case was highlighted.

Within weeks after the new content was posted, we started getting much more visibility in our search rankings on the web and many prospects were downloading the new white paper. In turn, we were also hearing about related business opportunities which aligned closely with this refined product vision. We also highlighted the revised strategies in a webinar.

This was just one example of how we expanded the product vision and re-focused the sales team on a broader set of opportunities for this product.

In summary, in this post we reviewed an example of expanding the product vision to highlight an important high growth use case and then implementing related marketing content and tactics to reinforce the vision.

If you’d like to continue the conversation, please leave a comment. If you’d like to explore how similar approaches might benefit your company’s product strategy, you can reach me on LinkedIn .

 

 

 

 

 

Going Independent — Again

After a challenging but rewarding three year stint in product management at Dialogic, I am now independent again early in 2018. Four years back, I ran my consulting business for a year and gained some additional training before re-joining Dialogic. In this post, I’ll talk about some new and different approaches I took in my role with the company during the past three years that produced positive results.

  1. Using Agile to Manage and Change Priorities – In 2014, I took a course in SCRUM at Quality and Productivity Solutions and got certified by SCRUMStudy as a SCRUM Product Owner.  At Dialogic, I wore many hats and had frequent changes in priorities. By creating SCRUM Epics and Stories, I updated my priorities weekly and was able to make fast changes when needed in reaction to market changes, new projects or other internal factors.
  2. Building and Managing Teams – In earlier Product Management roles, I mostly focused on the product in areas such as managing the roadmap, setting pricing and training Sales. During the past three years, I reached out to the other departments and convened cross functional meetings about once every two weeks. In other words, I managed the products as programs.  This way, our departments worked together to drive success for our products and the results were very positive for both startup products and more mature product lines. For example, we identified customer pain points and then the team created solutions to deal with them.
  3. Going Virtual – My products varied over the three years, but included a mix of hardware and software, or were purely software.  A trend which cut across several of the product lines was the need to run the software on Virtual Machines, notably in the VMware and Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) environments. For example, by running in a virtual environment, customers got to use their own choice of servers for routine management tasks. For our virtual load balancer product, Dialogic® Powerville™ LB, we took it a step further and could run all of the software on VMware or other virtual environments and included sophisticated features such as built-in redundancy.
  4. Marketing via Effective Content Management – In the past year, I worked with the Dialogic marketing team to devise a marketing plan for the Dialogic IMG 2020 Integrated Media Gateway and revise our content management to help drive more leads.  We wrote several new white papers on important use cases such as SIP Trunking, Transcoding and SS7 to SIP interworking.  We also promoted recent design wins and market leadership via press releases and conducted webinars which tied into all of these marketing themes. The net result was to bring more attention to these products, improve our SEO rankings for related product searches and reinforce our position as a market leader in the low density trunking media gateway market.

These four approaches are examples of ways we were able to innovate.  They enabled me to both be a product-focused individual contributor and lead broader team efforts that produced lasting results. If you’ve had similar needs or experiences, I’d love to hear your feedback.

I’ll write more about my recent experiences in Product Management, Marketing and Communications Technology, plus thoughts on the year ahead within upcoming posts.

 

 

 

Need to Manage a Career Change? Try SCRUM

One of the major challenges of a career change is to manage all of the details. Whether you are looking for a new full time position or would prefer consulting assignments, you’ll need to have a clear direction and an execution strategy. Some of the tasks are to identify prospective companies and potential roles, make networking contacts within the companies, apply for positions, conduct company research and prepare for interviews.  And the list of potential activities goes on.

I found my local career center was a great resource for learning the “how to’s” for a job search in 2014, but that managing and executing the activities was a full time job in itself. A few months ago, I took training courses in two of the leading project management methodologies: PMP and SCRUM. PMP reviews the classic methodology for managing large complex projects and includes up to 49 different processes in the latest (5th) Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK). It’s very thorough and well regarded, but is really best for truly complex projects with lots of interactions between the steps. I also took a course in SCRUM, which is one of the Agile methodologies for managing projects. What’s the difference? SCRUM is much more lightweight, has fewer processes and is designed to enable very rapid responses to change.

A few weeks after taking the courses, I decide to put these skills to work. I looked at what I needed to do in my job search and decided that SCRUM was probably a better fit for the task than PMP. Why did I choose SCRUM?  First, I liked it’s lightweight approach. I already had a pretty clear idea on my goal — looking for a full-time position which used my product management, marketing or project management skills. I also had lots of potential tasks every week — identifying companies, networking, creating cover letters and tweaked resumes, making followup contacts and so on. Plus, depending upon what happened from week to week, I might need to change the emphasis — for example, to do company research for upcoming interviews and reduce the amount of prospecting for new companies. SCRUM also is useful for promoting action. I wanted to track my activities and be able to monitor progress with some visible metrics. With SCRUM, you can assess progress day by day and week by week.

If you’re in the process of making a change in your career, what approaches are you taking? Have you considered using project management methodologies such as SCRUM or PMP?  In my next post, I’ll talk about the steps I took to put SCRUM to work to help manage my job search.