When you work in the communications or technology industry, it’s hard not to be connected to the hit HBO series Silicon Valley, which is about the growth of a fictional data-compression startup called Pied Piper. While the show’s first two seasons brilliantly depicted the trials and tribulations of the tech start-up culture (via satirical humor and jokes that only developers might fully understand), the third season widens its audience by poking fun at the internal struggle between engineering and sales teams.
That occasional departmental clash is something that almost everyone in tech has experienced. The show also introduced a fictional business philosophy based on compromise among the sales, manufacturing and engineering departments, and that too has roots of truth -- provided you substitute the word “respect” for “compromise.”
Art imitates corporate life.
For those not familiar with the show, it’s important to know in the beginning of season 3, the awkward yet assertive founder, Richard Hendrix, is replaced as CEO of his own company by Jack Barker. Jack is a sales-focused businessman determined to take the company to the next level. At one point, Jack introduces a corporate philosophy that he’s developed called, "The Conjoined Triangles of Success," which is supposed to help explain the relationship between the sales and engineering departments. Despite the visual being completely made up, and the fact that Jack uses it to defend his backwards business logic, the balanced visual could make sense in the real world. Let me explain.
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In the visual, Engineering and Manufacturing form the upper triangle, which Jack views as a “necessary evil” in business. The lower triangle, comprised of Sales and Growth, is Jack’s specialty and represents his sole focus. In order to conjoin the triangles into a perfect square, he created a line of demarcation labeled compromise. Instead of synergy between the triangles, as the visual suggests, Jack believes that improving one side of the square makes the other side worse. Avoiding that lopsided success requires a compromise from engineering in order to quickly sell product. As Jack explains, “The way you keep the best salespeople is to give them something easy to sell, otherwise they go somewhere else.”
When truth makes you laugh.
Having been in sales for the majority of my career, Jack’s view of “compromise” makes me laugh. However, my professional experience reaches beyond the sales room, and because of that, I have a unique perspective on the real-world relationship between sales and engineering.
Over the course of my career, I have worked as a software engineer for a $78B Fortune 40 company, and as a sales executive for companies that include a small regional integrator, a large telecom manufacturer, and now Digium, which offers unified communications solutions for small and midsize businesses. As a senior executive at Digium, I focus on all customer-facing aspects of our business, and have responsibilities in sales, customer success, and technical support. My previous experience has allowed me to see business processes through the eyes of an end user, the eyes of an integrator (middle man), and the eyes of a manufacturer.
When comedy contains insights.
That being said, in my position it would be easy to take a Jack Barker philosophy on business, one that is constantly pressing engineering and manufacturing to compromise long-term aspirations for short-term gain. However, if I have learned anything over my sales career it is that successfully leading an organization and delivering innovative solutions to customers is much more about respecting another department's values and opinions, rather than forcing sales-driven organizational compromise.
Assuming you have hired the right business leaders, when the manufacturing department is obsessive about quality and needs another two weeks to “get it right,” the sales team needs to respect manufacturing’s decision. When the engineering team needs more time to implement an easy-to-use feature in a reliable and supportable manner, the sales team needs to respect that new timeline.
Sales team leaders live in a world where exceeding customer expectations is the name of the game. It goes without saying that sales should pressure internal departments to deliver superb features and world-class quality in the most aggressive time frames possible, to meet customer requirements. But compromising quality or product in a significant way for short-term gain is a recipe for long-term failure.
The takeaway can be real.
Even though Jack’s "Triangles of Success" is a satirical visual for an unclear business philosophy, I would replace Compromise with Organizational Respect to form the perfect square. Time to market is critical, but over the long haul, if we are to truly deliver an exquisite product experience that will delight our customers, it’s of paramount importance the product has the right features and superb quality, all implemented in a manner that allows for a positive support experience. In order for all these elements to work together, organizational respect is the key to forming the perfect product philosophy.