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“We need to stop breaking the software people use.” Thus wrote Tim Bray, noted software developer, and he’s not wrong. Bray was writing about the impact product managers have on consumer-oriented software (like the apps running on our phones), but his premise rings generally true. Namely, that when promotions depend on a given activity, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more of that activity, even if it’s not the best outcome for customers.

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Customers are casualties

Bray works through a few examples of apps that he feels became worse with age. From iPhoto to The Economist’s and MLB’s apps, for Bray, certain apps become “immensely slower” or “fancified and crippled,” for no apparent reason.

Or maybe there is a reason:

It’s obvious. Every high-tech company has people called “Product Managers” (PMs) whose job it is to work with customers and management and engineers to define what products should do. No PM in history has ever said “This seems to be working pretty well, let’s leave it the way it is.” Because that’s not bold. That’s not visionary. That doesn’t get you promoted.

He went on: “It is the dream of every PM to come up with a bold UX innovation that gets praise, and many believe the gospel that the software is better at figuring out what the customer wants than the customer is. And you get extra points these days for using ML.” So PMs may be fiddling with products with the intention to fix their careers, not necessarily the customer experience. Is this malicious? Of course not. It’s just human nature: people trying to succeed within the “rules” for success within their given organization.

Not that this is confined to consumer-facing software.

What you reward, persists

Bray believes this sort of behavior is better in the enterprise, and when it comes to the kind of product development he’s castigating, he’s mostly right. “Because these were Enterprise products, …the number of customers was orders of magnitude smaller than [for a consumer app], so the PM could go talk to them and bounce improvement ideas off them. Customers are pretty good at spotting UX goofs in the making.”

Well, yes. But the underlying point that Bray makes–that promotion incentives often (always?) guide product decisions–isn’t just a consumer software problem.

If I were to tell you there are companies that highly value creative software engineering, such that engineers get promoted for building a gee-whiz, machine learning algorithm that can coordinate taco delivery instead of a PostgreSQL database service that many customers want, would you believe me? Well, it’s true (or was). Or what about companies that promote PMs for bringing new products to market, rather than making incremental improvements to existing products? Also a true story.

I could go on, because the perverse incentives structures for PMs are as numerous as there are companies in this world. No one is perfect. Among other suggestions, Bray said, “Maybe we ought to start promoting PMs who are willing to stand pat for an occasional release or three.” Again, he’s talking about a particular problem in consumer software, but think about your own company and what you reward. It’s easy to talk about being customer-centric (and who doesn’t say that?), but it takes careful attention to internal incentive structures to ensure what companies actually build aligns with what they say they care most about.

Disclosure: I work for AWS but the views expressed herein are mine.