Gap Theory of Technology

Every time I attend a meting between “business people” and engineers I get a little anxiety attack. There is always a level of tension. Even when things are going well. Even when everyone in the room is on good personal terms. Regardless of the situation, I always leave these meetings with my blood pressure higher than when I entered.

It took me a few years to realize that this is natural, or at least normal. And that no matter the pit in my stomach that is warning of impending doom, the best emotional position to take is one of complete calm. And that the best tangible action to take is to focus on the next task at hand. No need to pull the emergency alarm. No need to go running to senior management. Do not prophisize doom. Stay clam and carry on.  But I will get to all that later.

First, let me set the stage. A company is planning a new product. The engineers need to build it. The business people need to market and sell it. This will lead to many, many meetings. For some products this meting can have as few as two people in the room. Most products will require many more people to be in the room, sometimes dozens. The business people will lay out what they want the new product will do. The engineers will lay out what they can build and how long it will take them. And this is when the tension begins.

It turns out, there is always a gap between what is being asked for and what is being promised for delivery. No matter the business, no matter the product, no matter the context. This gap will exist. Successful businesses find ways to bridge these gaps. Successful managers find ways to minimize that gap, and to know how to motivate both sides.

Successful businesses find ways to bridge these gaps. Successful managers find ways to minimize the gaps.

There are several ways to think about these kinds of gaps. They reflect the difference between what is possible (the engineers) and what is desired by customers (as reflected by the business people). I think this is also tied to personality types. Engineers have to be grounded in specifics and details. Sales people tend to be more expansive, hoping that everyone can just get along. I am not a believer in the strength of personality types, or the idea that are personalities are rigid and fixed from birth. Nonetheless, whether it is nature or nurture, these kinds of meetings bring out certain aspects of peoples’ personalities, depending on what side of the room they sit.

I think it also helps to understand that the concept of ‘engineer’ and ‘business’ people are very broad, there are many sub-constituencies within these groups. The exact division varies company by company. The engineering side can include product designers, hardware and software people, operations people, back-end, assembly and many other categories. The business side includes the salespeople, the marketers, the accountants and beyond. Certainly, I have been in all ‘engineering’ meetings that were full of their own tensions with the designers and the operations teams at each others throats. But the worst tension always seems to take place when the engineers and the business people meet. Certainly, the only times I have ever seen a fist fight almost break out was in those meetings.

I should also point out that this problem is not new. It has existed for a long time. In modern technology companies, this gap has given rise to the functions with names like “Product Management”. Other companies have different names for this, but there is always a role for the people who try to sit on both sides of the divide. This is not a perfect solution, for many reasons, but when done well, it can be a crucial role.

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I am planning a longer series on this subject. In future posts, I want to look into more detail at what takes places in these tension-setting meetings. I also plan to explore the root causes and of course potential strategies for dealing with gap-closing.

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