February 13, 2022

Lesson 17: Internal Tools

I know you've heard the phrase "red-headed stepchild". It refers, of course, to the kid who gets ignored and neglected and who doesn't get a second helping of soup. But when it comes to red heads

Lesson 17: Internal Tools

I know you've heard the phrase "red-headed stepchild". It refers, of course, to the kid who gets ignored and neglected and who doesn't get a second helping of soup. But when it comes to red heads, did you know that in Ancient Greece, when people with red hair died, the prevailing science of the time was that upon death they would turn into vampires.

It's true. Isn't science awesome?

But what does all this talk of red-headed step children and vampires have to do with Product Management? Well. It has to do with your company's internal tools...

...and no...

...I don't mean your sales team...

...I mean your internal software applications.

You see, internal tools are the red-headed stepchildren of your product portfolio and they are going to suck your lifeblood until you no longer possess a soul...

..."I vant to suck-a your blood."

That's either a quote from Dracula, or the launch screen tagline to your internal tool. I'm not sure.

And while we are speaking of vampires. My wife married me the year that Twilight hit the box office. The timing of these two events meant that I was constantly being compared to that dipwad Edward and his sparkling sunlight skin.

"No, my skin doesn't sparkle when I take off my shirt," I was still saying to my disappointed spouse as late as 2016. "But look at this sparkling family budget I built in Excel."

Every woman's dream.

Here's what no book on product management is ever going to tell you. Here's what no blog article about the 7 Habits of Highly Effective PMs is going to tell you. Here's what no Steve Jobs biography is ever going to tell you:

It's not going to tell you how to satisfy a woman, nor is it going to tell you that your company has a lot of shitty internal tools which it depends on to do all its business...

...And you are going to manage them to death...

...and if you're a red head...

...that death will turn you into a vampire...

...it ain't easy.

I still remember my first experience with an internal tool. We used it to onboard new clients by inputting users, defining roles, assigning permissions, and so on.

How we ever onboarded a single customer I will never know because this thing was atrocious...

...and it was atrocious when it worked...

...which was never.

I'll also never know how this internal tool slithered it's way up the backlog like a snake in the grass.

"This is SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSuper imporant," the user story hissed.

The user story got assigned to a halfwit engineer with roughly the same intelligence as a wobbly bowling pin, and one day he slapped together some half-ass code in Visual Basic.

"I delivered the story, George. I did. I did. Are you proud of me, George?"

Well first off, my name isn't George. Second, no, I'm not proud of you. I hate that you were ever born to be able to create this piece of crap that people now expect me to manage.

As it was explained to me, the original purpose of this internal tool was to be customer facing in order to save the time of our support reps. So imagine my shock when I saw it for the first time. I thought, "WTF. WTF. WTF." Only back then we didn't abbreviate what we said. "This can't be the first impression our customers have of our product." And then I concluded...

..."SOB. We're kinda F'd."

I tried to do my job as a PM by asking a support rep about this insulting piece of software, and she said, "Well, it doesn't really work that well, so we don't really have the customer use it, really." She was trying really hard to be really nice by using the word "really" a lot. She continued, "We just have them fill out an excel spreadsheet and then we manually input the data in this tool. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

It's hard to quantify the level of patience that this poor support rep developed over the course of her pathetic career. It qualifies her for whatever is the highest level of angelic order in heaven. At the top there's going to be Mother Theresa, whoever invented the recipe to the Krispy Kreme donut, and this support rep.

Honestly, I sincerely hope she gets whatever she wants in the afterlife. Like, as a reward for a good life – a good life that was ruined by my deplorable internal tool – I hope she finally gets to be free of a life of subjection to oppressive software.

I can picture her finally getting her turn in the spotlight, standing up there on a vibrant stage in front of a massive heavenly crowd, wearing a "Satan Sucks" t-shirt, and plucking badass riffs on her electric harp.

"1... 2... 1... 2... 3... 4...," she shouts. The other Angels Of The High Order join in while we all bang our heads in unison with the thunderous beat. She starts singing and we all follow along with the familiar words, "I fought the Internal Tools and the Internal Tools won"...

...at least that's what I hope heaven is like...

...or at the very least I hope there is a band called Angels Of The High Order...

...with perhaps Mother Theresa as the front-woman.

So here's the lesson. No experienced person in Product Management talks about internal tools because we all have such severe PTSD that we really try to block it out of our memory. Most of us have gone to intense therapy to get over it. But the reality is that we all deal with these pieces of crap. Just make sure you have some sympathy for the poor unfortunate souls who have to use them. That way when a sorry support person requests an enhancement to one of these tools, of course you are going to ignore it...

...but at least you'll feel good knowing you are granting them a high place in heaven...

...but also watch out for red heads up there...

...I heard somewhere that they are vampires.