Delivering on Something That Doesn’t Exist

My Employer

First, let me just say for the record that my original tweet wasn’t meant to be read as pertaining to anything specific happening at my current employer. It’s not hard to figure out where I work by Googling me, and once you’ve done that exercise you’ll discover that I’m a low-ish-medium-high-ish level engineering director at a big, recognizable, reputable software company. And, yes, they are reputable. And, no, they don’t fraudulently sell vaporware to noobs and then abscond with the money stashed in offshore bank accounts. The company is full of good, hardworking people who want to do the right thing by their teammates and their customers. In fact, I’d consider my current company to be above average in this department. No, really. So, while reading this, please keep two things in mind. One is that I said “my 20 year career” quite deliberately. That means, I’m speaking from the cumulative experience and scars I have working at (or with) literally dozens of companies. Second is I may have been being hyperbolic when I said “doesn’t exist.” As any grownups in the room would be quick to point out to me, there’s a lot of nuance around what exists and what doesn’t exist in the world of software. So let’s go there now.

Defining “Doesn’t Exist”

The most jaded in the crowd were quick to say that sales guys will cynically sell complete vaporware that they know damn well doesn’t exist at all, even a little bit just to make a sale. I wish I could say this never happens, but, sadly, it does. It does quite a bit. But, when I’ve seen this happen in the wild, it’s almost always the CEO or the founder of the company doing it and it’s almost always an early stage company whose survival depends on the next sale. I don’t consider it an ethical practice and I don’t consider it even an effective business practice (I’ve seen more than one company go completely out of business for this exact reason) but I do acknowledge that, as the head of the company, it’s that person’s call if they want to bet the farm like that or not. In any case, I think the “complete vaporware” case is actually the least common case. Let’s explore more common cases, instead.

Sales People

You can’t really find two tribes of people who are more different from each other than developers vs sales people. So, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the vitriol I saw directed at sales people as a whole. But, really, I was surprised. And I don’t think most of it is merited. I love sales people. One of my best friends is a software sales person. I’ve found most people I run into in sales to be intelligent, engaging, energetic, optimistic, gets-things-done kinds of people. So I’m not knocking sales people, as a class. What I am knocking is two things: 1) the system of incentives that creates the moral hazard that attracts people to sell things that don’t exist, and 2) the handful of individuals (and it really only takes one) who push this system too far. This is what needs to be held accountable. Not just for the sake of engineers, but also for the preponderance of good sales people who suffer because they won’t cheat in this prisoner’s dilemma problem to make their quota. Because sales people really do have to work their ass off to move the company forward, just as much as engineers do. Which brings me to…

Making Revenue and the Contribution of the Sales Team

I got several tweets like “without sales you wouldn’t have paychecks” or “you’ve never been in the hot seat so you don’t know what it takes to sell.” Let me address those one at a time.

So Why Do We End Up Here?

Clearly, from the tweet storm I created, this happens a lot in spite of it being a Bad Thing. So, why? I think it’s a mixture of a testosterone-driven culture, misaligned incentives, and lack of visibility.

What’s the Cost of Being Here?

Too often, we focus on the client we’re going to lose if we don’t deliver the “doesn’t exist” feature. But what about the other clients and, it should be called out, the other sales people who the company made commitments to in an orderly fashion and put on a roadmap to deliver features to? The sales person who promised a world that doesn’t exist is not just screwing the engineering team who has to deliver the feature, he or she is also screwing their comrades who sold what was actually on the roadmap. And they’re screwing their comrade’s customers. They’re probably even screwing themselves, because some of those screwed customers are going to be their own accounts.

Ok, Tough Guy, How Would You Fix This?

I’ve got two easily-digestible fixes and one hard-to-swallow pill.



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Tim Cull, founder of @pollen_io. Random rants about business and my life, plus some politics around election time. Aggressively moderate.