The Business of Hardware Product Development
Spencer: So my name is Spencer Wright. I, with a high school friend, co-founded a company that makes a single channel FM radio. I also run a manufacturing newsletter into the manufacturing world and lastly, I work at a company that makes very specialized CAD software for 3D printing.
Suzanne: This is a bit of special episode of 100PM insofar as I'm in your studio.
Spencer: You are.
Suzanne: What is this? Where are we?
Spencer: We're in my basement in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. The table that we're sitting at is primarily a workbench that is used for doing final assembly and fulfillment of this radio that the company that I co-own makes. The studio portion of it belongs to The Prepared, which is a newsletter and now podcast that I also run, which is focused on engineering and manufacturing but it's a little bit broader than that. It's really the business of hardware product development as it were.
Suzanne: We talk to product managers here on this show, 100 Product Managers, and if you look at your, we'll call it a resume. If you look at all of the journeys that you have taken in your career, one would not instinctively want to refer to you as a product manager. Do you identify as a product manager?
Spencer: You know I've gone back and forth about it. I think that now I think of myself a little bit more as a manufacturing person. My website say manufacturing guy at large, which means nothing at all obviously. I have though always worked with products in some way. Products or projects. I started out in construction. I had a little business making custom bicycle frames for a couple of years. You're working with a customer to understand what they want and then making them a really, really fancy thing. You make one of them, so you only get one shot to get it right. I then went more into product ... I worked for a company that made high end windows and doors for a couple of years and was doing, again, a broad range of things. Some procurement, some manufacturing operations management but.. My title was product manager and that was really the core of what I did.
Now, on a day to day basis, I don't necessarily think of what I'm doing as product management but the primary role in the things that I do is that essentially.
Suzanne: Okay, so let's start back in time. The door company. The first official product manager was robot doors. What are robot doors?
Spencer: Yeah, I grew up in the Hamptons, in Eastern Long Island, a very, very, expensive construction market. The company I was hired by makes the fanciest windows and doors money can buy. They operate mostly in the Hamptons and Park Ave and Martha's Vineyard ... These kind of vacation areas in the east coast mostly. They'd been hired by a celebrity to build the outside of a house. This was an 8,000 square foot, single bedroom residence on the beach in the Hamptons. About 80% of the perimeter of the house was these huge glass doors. The doors were about seven feet wide and 10 or 12 feet tall. Each of them weighed about a ton, literally. There were all electronic and they had a bunch of different control systems that allowed them to position themselves, lock themselves, unlock themselves, seal themselves to the elements. The goal here was this house, in the middle of the summer, could be completely opened up. You could open up the entire perimeter of the house and it would turn from a building into a beach pavilion basically. You'd have this seamless transition from the house to the beach.
Suzanne: They didn't let you keep the house after you ...
Spencer: No, and honestly, I think that part of my takeaway from it was that I wouldn't want to live there. It was not my thing. I think that part of my lesson coming out of it also was that product managing something with that level of complexity was very difficult. Not only was what we were building very complex but we were also existing ... This is a $50 or $100 million project and developing a complex system inside of a complex system is really, really hard. We also ... I was inexperienced as a product manager and the company I was working for was kind of similar in experience. I left it to work on simpler and simpler things as much as possible since then.
Suzanne: Right. Most people they have a different career trajectory. They start simple and then they seek complexity. You sort of peaked early.
Spencer: Yeah. Maybe I'll get back to it but honestly, I miss parts of that but I think that I have also come to really enjoy having from what looks on the outside like a simple product and then finding all these weird nuances in it. It's pretty easy to create complexity and create hard problems if you want to rather than starting with something that's just really, really hard to begin with. Then every way you turn you come up against something.
Suzanne: Right. It's interesting. I love that you are in manufacturing. I love that a lot of your product experience has been with physical product because physical product is what most of think about when we hear that term product management but of course a lot of our guests and a lot more of the product that people speak about now are soft products. I'm curious about your take on how it's different to be a product manager of physical products or more specifically, manufactured goods as has been your experience.
Spencer: I think that maybe one thing to note here also is that in most of my roles as a product manager, I've also been responsible for some aspect of procurement or logistics or operations as well. I think if I had been working for larger companies ... If I had started my career working at Lockheed Martin or something like that, a big hard engineering company. Or Apple for that matter, that would be very different. The kinds of companies I've worked at ... It's been my responsibility to design a thing and in order to know what to design, you have to have a supply chain that can inform you a little bit. I think that push and pull between design and implementation is very different. I constantly rely on my supplier to tell me what's possible and then use that to inform the solution for whatever user problem I'm trying to address.
I do also think that the language of software product management has not penetrated that deeply into hardware product management. I think it does in Silicon Valley, like funded Starbucks. That's a tiny fraction of the physical products that are made in the world today. You don't think about writing a user story for a watch or a microphone ... Those aren't words you would ever use. I think that in some cases it's been useful for me to have that language. I also think that it's nice to be a little bit outside of that dogma myself and to have a little bit more ... I can create my own flexibility in my jobs and take what's useful from software product management but also ultimately ... I'm going to call my sheet metal shop and say, "What can you possibly do to fix this problem?" And just work through it on the fly.
Suzanne: Yeah, I think what's similar is that you're relying on engineering teams. What's different is the context of the conversations. Certainly for many product managers, one of the biggest challenges is, learning how to be an effective communicator with all of your key stakeholders. What can you say about the challenges of communicating with engineers in your space?
Spencer: Well, engineers, sure. It’s suppliers more. I procure a decent portion of the stuff that I buy for the products I manage from China and Taiwan. Not only is it not somebody who's sitting next you me, you're in the next room over, it's somebody half a world apart that has very different cultural references than I do. I do however want to note that I've had, in some cases, worse problems in dealing with the supplier in Chicago. I think we think of the cultural divides, like linguistic challenges, being a big factor in holding projects back or being the cause of issues, but I also find that cross-cultural issues of someone from a different part of the country can be very difficult as well. I would imagine that most people at startups work closely with engineers that they also see on a daily basis.
I, for the most part, haven't had that. The team that is executing what I'm designing and managing is very, very diverse and has very different daily rhythms than I do. They come to work at a different time. They eat different things. They might not take a subway to work whereas I do.
Suzanne: Are you a technical designer or is it really more you put together concepts and part of what you're looking for from these supplier partners is for them to supplant the engineering behind the aesthetic if you will?
Spencer: Much more the former. I've never worked in a sheet metal shop. I never worked in a laser engraving shop. I've never worked in all these kinds of places but ... My goal is to get as close to the person who's doing the actual work, the actual implementation as it were, and learn as much as possible what their constraints are. Then design that into the product. When I was working on robot doors, downstairs there is this huge hangar that's full of people sanding and cutting wood ... Laborers basically. Then upstairs on the third floor, there was all the business management. There was a bunch of drafts people. I was in the second floor working in a Skunk Works-like environment. We had 20,000 square feet and we had a row of machinery. We had a million machines and lathes to prototype things that we were going to then procure from outside. My desk was right there. I could shoot spitballs at my machinist.
Suzanne: You didn't?
Spencer: I didn't, no.
Spencer: But that relationship was totally critical. Also, I'm a halfway decent machinist myself. Every once in a while I would go there and cut a part myself. I think that going into conversations with somebody who's going to make a thing for me, I really want them to be an expert in their field. I want to trust them to do the thing however is right. I want them to tell me when I'm making their job hard. Understanding as much as possible about what they're doing helps me do that.
Suzanne: Right. Tell us about this radio company. First of all, what's it called?
Spencer: The company's called Centerline Labs. We have one product which is called The Public Radio. I had stopped working on robot doors and moved from eastern Long Island to the city and my friend Zach, he wanted to make a radio for his mom. He thought, "She only listens to NPR every day, so I'm just going to remove the tuning knob and just have it turn on to one station and only be a volume knob." There was this great Radiolab episode about choice and about the paralysis of choice when you have too many options. We took this philosophical stance that the seek and scan buttons on FM radios are overrated. No one really uses those and really no one really uses the tuning buttons either. They pretty much ... If they're going to use FM radio, they're going to have a routine. Probably it's going to be the morning and the evening and they're going to turn the radio and then turn it back off and not change a channel at all.
We took that to an extreme and just removed the knob all together. We also, in order to make our lives easier and partly to appeal to the kind of people that would have this kind of routine, we designed it so it fits into a Mason jar. It was partly a manufacturing constraint where we were like, "Hey, we're not Apple. We're not going to be able to make this beautiful, brushed aluminum thing." Partly, it was just the kinds of people that might buy this product are ... We should be charming them. We should be delighting them in some way. Putting an electronic device in a Mason jar is a pretty good way to do that.
Suzanne: And is that just to create enough projection of sound?
Spencer: Yeah, exactly. The genesis was we were actually ... We were testing speakers. In order to test a speaker, you have to actually put it in an enclosure otherwise you won't actually hear very much. We had cut a piece of cardboard with a hole in it and dropped a bunch of speakers in it and put it in the one vessel that we had near us, which was a Mason jar. It ended up being a great resonator and they cost like a buck. They're very easily available and there was no engineering that had to go into it. It just worked. It ended up being a much better hook to get people in a way. The Venn Diagram between NPR listeners, which is mostly our target audience, and people who may have canned some jam at some point in their life is pretty significant.
Suzanne: I was going to ask ... So, NPR is the one channel that it's tuned to?
Spencer: No, no, no. You can ... The product ends up being very complex. We're using the same electronics that any FM radio that you could possibly buy is using. We're actually using the same chip that was originally in the iPod Nano, so it's fully featured. It can do everything. When we ship the device out, we tell it, "Tune to 89.3," or whatever station the customer asked for. We allow for them to choose anything they want. I have a couple of radios here. Most of them are tuned to Hot 97 cause that's what I listen to when I'm working downstairs. Right? Most of our customers are going to listen to ... Our biggest channels are WBEZ, WNYC, KCRW ... Big NPR stations.
Suzanne: So the radio is made to order? Is it self-serve? I go to the website, it's like pick your station ... Do I get to pick my color?
Spencer: Nope, just station. After doing something that was so complex, my philosophy has been no more features. I want one feature in this product if I can get it. It's just, you choose your station and that's basically it. The product management of The Public Radio, of the product itself, has been just purely an exercise in restraint. People email us now like, "Can we get a USB charging on ... Can we get a USB Bluetooth?" We say no to all of it. If we can make a certain customer, one type of customer really, really happy, that's fantastic. We're a two person company. Our bandwidth to try and expand to multiple customer types is just limited. Not that we won't ever do it but ... I want to be really, really sure that I'm doing one thing right before I try and do a second thing.
Because we wanted to limit the functionality of it so much, it has meant that we had to build a whole suite of products to just make this thing. Which has been, honestly, really fun because we really, really know what we're shooting for. We are shooting for a single channel radio that works really well and that, even though it's customized, it ships the next day. You place your order, it ships the next morning. Which is really, really difficult to do but we figured out how to do it and it's only because we have that focus.
Suzanne: And so do you assemble them yourselves or they kind of arrive to you assembled?
Spencer: I have personally in the past year, I have personally shipped 2,000 of them. Something like that. Which I got pretty good at. A lot of long nights and weekends, especially after Thanksgiving. We have a contract manufacturer who is ... They make a couple key components for us and then they are also doing drop shipping as well. What that has meant though is that our manufacturing tools, the software and hardware that we provide them with to make this possible, have to be so much more robust. When it's me doing the work, it's ... You'll train yourself to do things just right so that the tool that you're using doesn't break. Handing it off to somebody else and having another user and another stakeholder ... This person, this company, Worthington ... Worthington is an incredible stakeholder in our business. Our partnership with them is incredibly important and so, it's not longer just about, “Spencer thinks it’s easy to use”. It's that they can train anybody on their floor to do this thing and it'll work 100 times out of 100 because, in manufacturing, that's what's needed. You can't have ... When things crash, it just causes huge problems.
You know our contract manufacture, they're paying their employees wages. When the system is down and they're struggling to get it to work, that's money that they're losing. It puts pressure on us to be really, really stable and to explain things in a different way to them in our software tools.
Suzanne: So there's really, and this goes back to what you said at the outset about it being a project within a project ... The product is the finished radio that somebody can go and order and then drop in their Mason jar. Do you give them the Mason jar? Or do they have to get their own?
Spencer: We do. Yeah, we do.
Suzanne: Alright. So they get their Mason jar and they get their radio but there's actually a second product which is the internal tool that you developed. And is this software?
Spencer: Yeah. There are 20 different internal tools, some of them are software and some of them are hardware. On the manufacturing line, there is a laptop that is displaying ... It's basically like a PowerPoint that shows the person working the manufacturing line what to do next. Then there's a series of pieces of hardware that support that process and a bunch of software that they're not even aware of that's doing things in the back. We have a cloud based org-management database that we had the contract build for us. It handles importing orders from our retailers. It handles creating shipping labels. It handles lookups. When a person is on the manufacturing line fulfilling an order, they don't even know it but they're making API calls to a Heroku app.
It’s pretty complex. It's doing a bunch of different stuff. It could be doing so much more too, right? We mark orders as fulfilled and then every 24 hours after that, we check to see if they've been delivered. We're emailing customers when their orders have shipped. We are recording quality issues. We’re recording timestamps for every single thing that happens on the line. The database in itself has a ton of infrastructure. We have a handful, five or 10, different Python and Shell scripts that do different things locally. Then we have a couple of pieces of hardware that make the entire thing possible. Some of that is off the shelf stuff that we're just using in our system.
You have to think of the entire system as a product. You have to think of each ... We have these scripts that are doing critical parts of our infrastructure and if they don't work, then we don't get paid or our customers don't get their stuff. Bad things happen.
Suzanne: Yeah. It goes back to this idea of what is product. I was talking earlier about, we think about physical product and then when we have conversations like we do on this show where folks are sharing how their different product teams are organized, you begin to think differently about what would constitute a product. Even if it's software, you start to slice it up based on certain features. Or maybe it's not based on features. Maybe it's workflows. To build on what you're saying, that a script, which the average person would never think of as being a product, in this context takes on an entire new identity. So what it means to be a product manager or think with a product mindset is to look at all of those component parts as their own miniature products.
Spencer: Yeah. There's definitely aspects of that underlying infrastructure that we have not done a great job product managing because we hadn't thought of them that way. Or alternately, the stakeholders didn't exist yet. Our database really only supports one manufacturing location currently. There are some pretty good reasons for us to support multiple manufacturing locations. There are also really good reasons ... Currently, when an order comes in, a shipping label is automatically created immediately. Then, that order might be processed today or it might be processed ... We give a seven day window to our retailer. Typically, we're shipping within 24 hours. Then what happens is, our retailer has said, "Hey ship this Express." We buy a really expensive shipping label. The customer isn't actually expecting it for 8 days. We have paid $35.00 for a shipping label and then it's going to show up in 36 hours.
There are so many systems here where ... It was only once we integrated with our retailer that we realized, "Hey you know what? We really should be buying shipping labels at the time that the order is being processed rather than the time it's being imported." Which is something that we would have never really thought about and, honestly, I think it'll probably be changed when we take on new retailer relationships, distributor relationships.
Suzanne: Is it an online retailer right now?
Spencer: It is, yeah.
Suzanne: Okay. So, it's available in one location?
Spencer: Depending on where you live ... We sell it through our site directly but then, for international orders, but then there's one retailer for US orders. Suzanne: What does it retail for?
Spencer: It's $45.00. We played around with that and honestly, I think I have come full circle. As a customer, I hate the 99 stuff but as a business person, I think it's an incredible piece of behavioral psychology that I don't understand. People will pay more for a thing if it ends in a nine. It's crazy.
Suzanne: So is it for $45.99?
Spencer: No, no, it's $45.00 even.
Spencer: It's been really interesting thinking through things like that. The other one that we debated about a ton internally was batteries. As a customer, I hate it when a thing shows up with no batteries. And the first time that we shipped, we shipped 2500 radios. We included batteries and it was a disaster. There all these issues when you start shipping batteries like you can't ship them internationally. They have a shelf life and ultimately, we don't really know how long they're going to sit around our shop before we send them out. It's a better system overall, for the world, if the customer has to go to the bodega and buy a pair of AA batteries before they can use their device. It has made me rethink my actions as a consumer in ways that I wouldn't have expected.
Suzanne: Right. Was mom thrilled with the radio? She was customer number one. Or was she like, "It's only got one channel."
Spencer: Yeah. Zach's mom has been an amazing supporter of us. The first 2500 that we shipped was like bubblegum and duct tape and a lot of pizza and beer and friends. We're really lucky. The company that I was working for at the time, called Undercurrent, we have this office that for reasons that aren't worth getting into, was not being fully utilized. So, we took over the lobby and made it into a manufacturing line and had all of our friends show up and make this thing. At the time, all of our manufacturing tools, all those ... The database was Google Docs. The API calls were all being made via the command line which meant that we had to train someone a bunch to use that and it really limited our ability to send more than a couple a day. Right?
Spencer: So, Zach's mom helped us out a bunch. All of our families helped us out a ton. We would get there Friday after work and we would spend all evening prepping the line and getting everything ready. Then Saturday morning would come around and trying to change gears and all of a sudden you're now this weird operations person and you're the boss. You're telling people how to manufacture this thing and realizing that all these tools that we had made were just totally for us. They weren't very well thought through.
We had designed fixtures around a single user story, in the parlance, right? Rather than thinking about the overall journey and what someone assembling this thing would need to get out at in the end. If you're not there, if you're not on the line watching people, you are worthless. There's all this Toyota production system stuff ... I think the one that I'm looking for is genchi genbutsu, which means "go to the place, see the thing," or something to that effect.
Spencer: If you're not there, watching this thing get made, you have no role in trying to make that manufacturing process more efficient. It's the same thing ... It's like seeing people interact with your product ... You don't think of that in the manufacturing context the same way for some reason. It was an incredibly enlightening experience.
Suzanne: Right. Again, it parallels where you don't necessarily readily see them? Right? This idea of observing users, understanding the workflows, and building products that enable or expedite the true workflow rather than trying to force the user into some system that you think is great. Which is, of course, where so many software developers go wrong. Another great lesson in figuring out what works and then scaling it. You had to put those 2500 together over pizza and beer to figure out how you were going to actually make it beyond that. Cool.
Spencer: It's funny ... I meet a lot of people who are asking me about contract manufacturers and to me, the idea that you would stop building them yourself after anything less than 2500 is like, "What are you doing?" You won't learn anything ... You'll build five and you'll learn a little bit. You build 50 or 500 and still you don't really know what it's like to do this process. We'll ship 10,000 units this year and I hope that at the end of this year we have our process pretty well dialed but that's a bunch of these products to make. Last year we actually rolled out at ... We had a contract manufacturer in Chicago who we ended up having to fire and I think that part of the reason was that we rolled out too quickly. We had only made 2500 ourselves and then we rolled out to them. We didn't anticipate a bunch of issues that they totally had. It was because they were just a flight away. It becomes very difficult to do that kind of user testing with them.
If there's any kind of issue in that vendor relationship, where you don't trust each other, then ... Having those conversations and asking them about the problems that they're having and really understanding their responses became very difficult. They were just being jerks about it.
Suzanne: Right. Yeah, don't work with jerks if you can ...
Spencer: Don’t work with jerks. No.
Suzanne: You said that you do a lot of different kinds of things. Is this company now at a point where it can be a full-time endeavor or do you have side-side jobs as well? For your side-side projects?
Spencer: No, it's not. I think it is now more or less stable. I think that we ... We know the big things that are in our way at this point and our contract manufacturer, Worthington, is excellent. We have a great relationship with them and they are ... I think a key part of this is they are able to step back from their frustrations they may have and actually doing the work that we're paying them to do and think about it as product managers themselves a little bit and understand what we're getting at. I think over this year we will slowly hand over more and more of the process to them. I hope but the idea with the company is still to be a thing that runs itself and makes this product because this product ... We were out of production for two years, between 2015 and 2017 I guess it was.
We had a mailing list for 'Be Notified' and it just grew. We felt like the goal here is to make this thing so that it is produced. It does exist and it provides some interesting problems for us to work on but it's not a full-time thing probably. Other things that I work on myself ... My 'job' job, I work at a company called nTopology, which makes very, very specialized CAD software for industrial 3D printing. I work primarily on third party integrations and partnerships. So basically, the software that we make, it's design software. It's CAD software but it sits between most ... The most common CAD software is SOLIDWORKS or Siemens NX. Those are big programs that do a lot of stuff. You can do assemblies and motion. You can design airplanes or headphones or some parts of cellphones at least, water glasses. All range of products in these pieces of CAD software. Our CAD software just does one thing really, really well which is complex patterns.
We sit in this area where our users are all using something else and we're, not an add-on, but we're an additional part of their design process for certain components. Which means that not only are we managing our own product and experience when you're in our software but you're also trying as best you can to manage the handoff from their primary CAD environment into us and then back out of us into bill processing or CAM software. I work primarily on those third party relationships and figuring out how to make those transitions easier. Figuring out how to form this relationship in a way that's best for our users is tricky.
Suzanne: Yeah, I bet. I bet. What about your podcast? Tell us a little about the podcast.
Spencer: Yeah, the podcast came out of the newsletter. I started this newsletter called The Prepared four something years ago. The first couple of issues, I sent out to nobody, it was just me. Then, it just ... You get five people on your and you're like, "Oh, I gotta do this now." Now it's a couple thousand people. I send it every single week and part of the reason the podcast exists is because the newsletter is about manufacturing, engineering, product management, and business and I realized that at a certain point that while I loved hearing myself talk and I enjoy writing down my opinions about things, I wanted to have other voices in it as well. In particular, I'm a white dude and I wanted to have a more inclusive perspective represented somehow.
It's hard though. Traditionally, I've always set that the newsletter takes about a day to make. I realized recently that it really takes two, two and a half days. And asking somebody who ... I don't want some marketing person, I want somebody who does work whether that's an engineer, or a manufacturing operations manager or a product manager in an area that's relevant here. But asking that person to take a day and a half, two days out of their schedule to write, which is not something they maybe do commonly, is really, really hard. I figured that well I could interview people. The podcast is much younger. The podcast is nine months old. We've got 14, 15 episodes out. The newsletter ... My philosophy with it has been ... I want to grow it but I have found that the best way for me to grow it is to produce more consistent, good content basically. Which is a combination of ... A lot of it's curation and then ... It's a combination of curation and commentary basically. I think that it has been good for me. At times someone will suggest, "Why don't you just buy some Facebook ads. Get a bunch of new subscribers." I have tried that and it has been kind of effective but you don't ... You get someone to sign up for a newsletter or subscribe to a podcast, you have to have ... There has to be something there, you know? There's just too much out there for them to choose to spend time with you. So it's been good. I haven't thought of it explicitly as product management but ultimately what I have fallen back on is that making the product better is a much more effective way to grow and to relate to people, to have a more engaged audience than anything else I've found.
Suzanne: Yeah. You're creating value and in this context, the product is content. If the content isn't meaningful or relevant to whoever you're talking to, then all of the growth engines in the world are going to leak out the bottom of that bucket for sure. I love that your mission is about inclusivity. It's certainly part of our mission as well here on 100PM. We're not holding it against you, by the way, that you're a white guy because in the spirit of inclusivity, you need to be included too. I appreciate your advice and I'm hoping that you'll ... We do a little segment here called "Get the Job, Learn the Job, Love the Job," and I'd love to frame it a little bit more specifically to your background. With Internet of things, with wearables, hardware is coming back in a different kind of way.
Some people would probably say it never went anywhere but there is integrations is, of course, incredibly important. This pairing of software products to hardware products and I would imagine there's a number of our listeners out there who are either thinking about getting into hardware product management or maybe have just recently been appointed into roles of hardware product management, and are feeling overwhelmed by that. They know user stories. They know software delivery methods. They know a lot of the stuff that we haven't been speaking about but do often on this show. What advice would you offer to somebody in that role who either wants or is just getting into hardware product management for succeeding?
Spencer: So I think that inasmuch as I have succeeded, which is up for debate, I think that I owe it to just doing stuff. I have made a little world around myself. That's a slow burn but that takes a long time and, like I said, I sent a newsletter to nobody a bunch of times, which is hard. It doesn't get you a job tomorrow or in a month or maybe in a year, right? But it's how ... I like having a lot of control over what's going on around me so it has scratched my itches in nice ways. One thing I learned in construction a bunch of years ago is not to act like you know what you're talking about. It's this great fresh air interview with Tom Wolfe, the author ... Tom Wolfe is famous for wearing a white suit everywhere and I've actually seen him out wearing a white suit. It's pretty cool. Terry Gross asked him about this and he said that early in his career that he went to cover stock cars or something like that. He was a really young journalist and he's parading in Vanity Fair or something like that. So he goes down to these dudes who are racing stock cars and he tries to be one of them. The way he does it was by wearing a corduroy suit or something like that. Right? Shows his time. But he also took on an affectation and acted like he knew what was up in stock car racing.
Of course, when one of the mechanics was like, "Yeah, yeah John has his whosie-whatsie is broken," and Tom Wolfe is like, "Oh yeah, yeah, his whosie-whatsie, sure." From then on out he realized that he was much better off being a man from Mars, and wearing a white suit has let him achieve that. Where he never fits in. He's never expected to know what the hell is going on because he's wearing a white suit. How weird is that? For me, having that in the back of my head that if I don't know what I'm talking about I'm better off just really trying not to fit in. I think that especially in a heavier industry, typically you're not going to know what you're talking about. The more complex your hardware product gets, and software product to for that matter. The more specialized roles get and for me ... When I was making robot doors, it was my job to spec a motor and we ended up getting this brushless DC gear motor and I don't know anything about brushless DC gear motors. That's a relatively simple part but you can only imagine how complex things can get.
If you're not able to put aside your pride and ask dumb questions ... In some cases, I will even, make a show of, "I don't know what I'm talking about here man. Can you help me out with this?" That's been incredibly helpful to me. It's something that I definitely struggle with too. It's hard to do that.
Suzanne: Yeah, no, absolutely. Choose vulnerability for sure. I get it. You spoke earlier about one critical mistake which was realizing you had designed really great products that worked for you and didn't necessarily account for all of the users. Other hard lessons learned on the job re: product management that you can offer as cautionary tale?
Spencer: Yeah, I'll say again ... The robot door project that I worked on was extraordinarily complex and I think that a big part of the problem was that ... The company that I was working for didn't really have product managers. I was one but for the most part we didn't make products. We made windows. Because of the level of complexity of this job, we kind of needed that role. One of the big issues was that job sites aren't set up that way. There was no counter point ... We were designing a product that was a subcomponent of this house and, in theory, the architect would be a product manager but they don't think of themselves that way and they certainly don't the language of software product management for sure. They don't necessarily think of integration testing. What is the interaction with this one subcomponent going to look like in the context of this larger house? I think part of that was just because we were bringing embedded systems and mechatronics on a level that they don't typically deal with but I think it's also a structural thing about ... Is this a product or is this a project?
We had to make a hundred doors so we had to think of them as products. We had to think of each one was a system that was specified to work a certain way in different conditions. The house was just a house. It was definitely a project.
Suzanne: What do you love? Specifically what do you love about manufacturing hard goods?
Spencer: I like seeing stuff happen. My first experience was on a job site at 16 years old. One of my first experiences was ... Take this sledgehammer and knock this wall down ... I can't tell you how empowering that feels. The idea that you can affect the world around you in tangible ways that other people will notice is great.
Suzanne: What about recommended resources? Books, blogs, podcasts? Anything that you've encountered in your career.
Spencer: So I think the Toyota Way is excellent. It's a tome in the world of manufacturing. I would also really recommend "The Mythical Man Month." "The Mythical Man Month" is written by, I think he was the OS/360 architect. System/ 360 was this hugely important computer made by IBM in the 60s, 70s. OS/360 was the operating system for that computer. They represented a level of complexity that had never really been done in operating systems before. Years later this guy wrote a book about ... It's about product management and project management and has these incredible little quips. The amazing one is that nine women can't make a baby in one month ... Right? It just talks about both architecture and how to lay to something out ... How to lay a very complex thing out and make sure that everyone's on board and then also how to achieve it on any kind of a reasonable time scale. One of the main lessons being that adding more people to a job typically makes it more late rather than more early. It's really fantastic.
Suzanne: Amazing. Both great recommends. We'll put them on our list at 100projectmanagers.com/resources. Last question. Do you have a personal and professional mantra, soundbite, side of the mug quote that articulates who you are in the world?
Spencer: Not who I am in the world but, "Don't add any more features." Don't add any more features.
Suzanne: Amen. Spencer Wright, manufacturing guy at large, maker of The Public Radio. Thank you so much for being part of our show.
Spencer: Thank you.