Through a comedy of errors in 2008, SW PR offered to let me interview Paul Chastell, at that time the director of SolidWorks software development. I wanted to talk to someone who could talk candidly, using English that users could understand. I didn’t want canned answers out of the SolidWorks playbook. But it was all I was getting, so I sent him my questions. Now Paul is not a bad guy, but he was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as the interview went. I actually feel badly about the way I handled this situation with Paul, which is something I’ve never owned up to in writing. For what it’s worth, 4 years late, I’m sorry for what happened.
The resulting article is still on my blog, called Inadvertent Straight Talk. This is the kind of thing that should have gotten lost in one of the two blog meltdowns I’ve had since it was written. It’s not worth reading it, but I include the link mainly for reference.
I was trying to write about the role of a Devil’s Advocate in product development for the critical review of ideas. I believe that in order to distill the best idea from any initial idea, you have to have real debate, point and counterpoint. You have to see an issue from multiple points of view. In physical exercise, you don’t improve without some resistance, and I believe the same about developing ideas. Business doesn’t seem to recognize this. So much of business leadership is pathologically focused on the “non-negative” that ideas get through the system which have not been properly vetted based entirely on enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a great thing, but it’s not the only thing.
To me, this was the problem with the changes in SolidWorks 2008. The changes were based on a lot of good or even great ideas that had not been thought through. The ideas solved the problem as stated – “interface needs consolidation”. It’s just that no one thought to consider what problems the new solutions might cause. In the end, it took two full releases to fix 2008. This is why I always cringe when SolidWorks implements a customer idea – too often there is a huge caveat that makes it unusable.
Folks at SolidWorks and certain fanboys didn’t understand why I was so opposed to some of the changes. “We did all this customer research” was the common response to any doubts. One huge sign of trouble is when a person or a group doesn’t allow any doubt. It usually means the idea is untested. It’s that same unassailable belief in fantasy that most people find so annoying in door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen.
Anyway, the customer research. SolidWorks can find support among customers for just about anything. What I’ve learned from the SolidWorks Top 10 exercise every year is that users themselves are the source for a whole lot of really bad ideas. There were several ideas in the Top 10 voting this year that had negative tallies. SolidWorks seems to keep track of people “interested” in a particular idea, and then they contact them during the project for some sort of validation. Two things here. “Interested” to SolidWorks means they support the idea, not that they have experience, an opinion, a real need, or whatever. So the deck is stacked against critical review from the beginning. Second, “validation” is exactly what they are looking for. They are not looking for “negation”. If SolidWorks is talking to users, it is my experience that it is already too late. The idea is already framed, and they are just looking for support. So you often get a one-eyed view of any given issue.
Then there’s this word – grinfuck – which you can read about from Suster, Feld, urban dictionary, and here and there. It means that someone is just telling you what you want to hear, without being honest. Some people call it “being polite”, although I never thought that lying through your teeth was polite. It happens all the time in business, and in personal life. It might even be more common than telling the truth.
There are ways of asking questions in which you form the answer in the hearer’s mind. So it’s possible that SolidWorks is habitually asking to be grinfucked. A lot of people will also just be very polite out of habit, even if that means handing you a major load of bullshit. Other people just like the attention, so if you buy them lunch, or give them special access, they will tell you anything you want to hear, so long as it prolongs the relationship. Just to say that there are a lot of ways to collect bad information using the methods SolidWorks uses, without the expectation of critical review.
You could consider what Paul Chastell did to me as this sort of corporate sanctioned jive. I asked questions, and he replied with playbook pleasantries that didn’t have any real meaning – stuff that is designed for “the press”, not for end user blogs. But on the other end, software users also grinfuck product definition people by just basking in that glow of being behind the scenes, saying “Yeah! That’ll be GREAT!!” with great enthusiasm. So it happens all the time on both sides.
Over the years, the development of the SolidWorks software has become more and more driven by internal corporate politics (which is corporate jive for “egos”), and the customers just provide justification. Four years ago, when I wrote that misguided blog post on “Inadvertent Straight Talk”, I was really appealing to SolidWorks to filter their ideas through more critical thinking. The ideas that come out the other side will be much stronger, with a broader appeal and usefulness. This concept applies to all stripes of product development. If you can some how coax users to be less “polite”, and more honest, you’ll develop a better product. Read the Mark Suster article for more on that.
Why does this come up now? SolidWorks World is a place and time to meet SolidWorks employees. They will be looking for validation. If you start talking to someone, tell them what you really think. If you’re in a situation where you have to sacrifice politeness or honesty, always be honest. If there’s something you value, say so. If something doesn’t look like a good idea, let them know. Don’t just smile and say “Yeah! That’ll be GREAT!!” if you don’t really mean it.