Riding the Front Wheel

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I love thinking and writing about technology.

I love writing and thinking about motorcycles.

It is very rare, if not unprecedented, that I encounter a topic that partakes of both.

This one does though, so reboot and then fasten your chinstrap.

Motorcyclists have a phrase that indicates a lack of ability to look far enough ahead and plan appropriately. Riders, and especially riders that compete – racers – call this “Riding the Front Wheel”.

The implication is that your attention is not pushed far enough out in front of your progress – that you are watching and reacting to things that are essentially already happening, rather than watching the horizon, and smoothly plotting a course that will take you through traffic and around obstacles with a minimum of drama.

Riding the Front Wheel results in too many direction corrections, usually the wrong ones, at the wrong times, and a very ugly and inefficient way down your course.

The fundamental nature of technology and the technology service business is that it is always changing, and astute practitioners know how to navigate within the currents of that constant change.

Working with customers to meet their technological or technology service needs is seldom a simple, point-in-time exercise. The larger the client requirement – whether it be for network switches, for storage, for outsourced support, or for consumption-based infrastructure or application services – needs to be viewed within a continuum of time.  Skilled sales practitioners seldom sell today what they have available for sale today – it’s just not that simple.

I’ve seen several hardware product manifestations of this – like anything involving time, it can go one of two vectors – forward or backward. The Reverse Time notion was exemplified by a PC manufacturer that developed and sold an ‘Enterprise Variant’ of their standard PC that designed specifically not to change over time. They recognized that the nearly constant improvements in the product were causing havoc for their customers that deployed them over time – the changes to the support and life cycle management requirements created by constant changes was making the task of the Internal IT team essentially impossible. The Forward Time notion was exemplified by one Storage Vendor who consistently sold products that didn’t yet exist and then went all but crazy trying to develop and ship products to land underneath the falling purchase orders.

The art and science of managing the flow of change in products and services is called product management. Product Managers look at the features and development effort involved in changing their products, and then make and manage plans to implement change in a controlled way over time.

Consider a customer that wants to extend secure line of business applications access to any device with an internet browser, so that their employees can do their jobs from any smartphone, tablet or laptop with an Internet Protocol network address anywhere on the planet. There are elements of this that sound nearly SciFi, and someone Riding the Front Wheel would conclude that since this service isn’t something your team delivers today, that you and your company are out of the hunt. And although you know that your company can’t actually provide this service today, but you’ve been buying some craft brews for the guys that work back in the skunk works, and you know from talking to them that you will be able to deliver this service in the future.

You make a call to the Product Manager, and she confirms that the features your customer are asking for are scheduled for release in May of next year. A few qualifying conversations with the client develop additional information that it will take them at least until July of next year to make the fiscal and support preparations.

Fast cut to Halloween of next year, and you, the guys from the Skunk Works and the Product Manager are all lifting a few jars of celebratory Coconut Porter as your client successfully wraps up their service pilot and is heading into full scale production deployment.

Now don’t think for a minute that this approach is not without risks of its own. We all know that time is a big ball of wibbley wobbley timey wimey stuff, and that the assumption that cause always follows effect in a completely linear fashion is bound to produce a few surprises. It’s not like a product development team has never missed a deadline, so one needs to be prepared to deal with some slippage and non-deterministic behavior.

But Riding the Front Wheel, being fixated on what exists at the time, you would have been found crushed under your bike, pinned to large desert cactus. But you had your head up, had your eyes on the horizon, and could plan to be in the right place and ready to execute, when the time was finally right. You get to see the winner’s checkers, stand on the podium and taste the champagne.

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