Allen Wyke is SVP Digital Technology and Product Development at CNN and founder of the Ripple Group.   He has over 15 years of direct operational experience in digital media, online advertising, software and eCommerce and has worked for or implemented solutions at roughly 200 companies over his career. He’s a technologist that often architects and leads the buildout of technology and infrastructure platforms as CTO, but has spent a significant amount of time providing business planning, strategic planning and technology assessments as Chief Digital Officer (CDO).  He’s authored or co-authored several books.

I first worked with Allen when was CTO of iVillage.  He was brought in by the CEO/COO on interim basis to turn around and rebuild struggling technology and product teams after iVillage was acquired by NBC Universal.  I’ve always enjoyed his let’s-get-it-done approach and his no-fluff perspectives about what works and what doesn’t.   After a recent conversation he agreed to answer a few questions about sales, product management and working with technical teams.

1) You’ve served as CTO and CDO of dozens of companies so you’ve also purchased a lot of products and services. What insights can you share as a buyer?

The most straight forward advice I can share to a sales person is “put yourself in my shoes”. What I am really saying is this:  stop trying to figure out how to package things that you hope I will buy, get to know how I buy first then package that. When you have been on the other side, you know, for instance, that emerging markets, tech, ideas, etc. are often tested under a “Testing” budget…a small part of discretionary spend that is allocated each year to try new things. If you are in the new and emerging space, get use to the fact you should try to go to market early in the year OR at the end (when people are desperate to show success)…and have a small “test” product offering. Get your foot in the door, crush it, and then next year you are part of the core budget.

2) Where do you think the role of product manager should fit in an organization?

Personally, I think Product Management, as an organizational function, is the center of the universe. Assuming, of course, it’s proper Product Management. It’s their job to know the industry, know the competitors, to understand what features really need to be implemented (and which ones are internal personal agendas), and have the skillset to distill all of this down into something that can actually be built AND maintained. Basically, it’s their job to turn ideas into realities; take ideas to market in a way that is successful and profitable. And if they can’t do or are unsuccessful at doing it, then, well…they should change their career. Live by the sword…die by the sword. Product Management isn’t a job title; it’s a responsibility.

3) Do you think the principles of Agile development can be applied to sales and marketing?

I admit that I generally ruffle some feathers when I outline my perspective on Agile, so let me start by saying that. I am not backing down from what my experience has been; just breaking it down to its most atomic level, and then building up from there. For me, agile (the verb, not the noun) is a must-have in today’s world. You have to be able to move fast, change direction, and be nimble. As for Agile the noun, I believe it does 2 things.

First, I believe it is a solve for bad communication between internal groups (generally development and marketing/product). Along those lines, one could argue that if you fix the real problem of bad communication, do you need Agile? My belief is that you do not; not in its defined form anyway.

Second, there are times where you have a CEO/Founder or highlevel Executive that is a involved in the low level day-to-day. Most people call them control freaks. It’s the CEO that is running a $150MM/yr company, but also interviews every employee, picks the coffee filters users in the kitchen, and wants to approve each and every individual invoice as well as own all product decisions. Well, that kind of leader — to be successful and still move the company forward — can benefit from Agile. Because what they don’t generally realize is that while they are preserving, and this is generally true, their vision of the company, they are also completely roadblocking any kind of reasonable forward progress because they simply are not available enough to answer all questions in a meaningful way. Insert an Agile process and bam; great way to extract their ideas, while at the same time keeping the Product and Development teams moving. Much happier scenario.

All in all, however, I do really like a lot of aspects of Agile; it’s just that I believe its a solve for a situation, not a way of life. And that belief/experience, specifically, is where I generally get in trouble with the Agile fanatics.

4) What approach do you think works best for designing a beautiful, intuitive UI (that can be built by the team within realistic time constraints)?

This is definitely an area where I polarize people, because a lot of people will not like what I say here, but my response is simple. The best approach is to hire people who have a proven track record, with facts and metrics as a show of proof, who have done it before. Everyone has an opinion; but candidly, most people aren’t qualified to have their opinion considered on an equal level with someone who has a lot of experience. And many companies try to solve this through consensus or buy in, which, to be honest, is definitely not the best approach.

In fact, I tell you what. Next time someone who thinks this is a good idea needs a major surgery, let’s get all of their (unqualified) family members around and ask them what should be done and not talk to a Doctor. And then let’s do what their consensus is. I, on the other hand, appreciate the input of those around me, but I will trust the professional who does it everyday thank you very much. While no one wants to say it because it hurts feelings, this isn’t a democracy either. Put people in the best position to be successful, but also do not allow people, regardless of how elegant their language and communication skills may be, to have too much influence in areas they simply do not have the background, experience or qualifications.