How I overcame product design engineering challenges

By Bal Singh

TECHNOLOGY OPERATIONS EXECUTIVES can find themselves in challenging situations. Perhaps its something you’ve not encountered previously or, its a business environment where you’re the new person on the team. Or, perhaps you’re brought in for a turnaround situation.

Regardless of the reason, you’re there.

It’s important in such cases to properly assess the operational situation before proceeding with any action.

Below is a recent situation I experienced when I was brought into a project that was already underway but product design was behind schedule.

The CEO needed this project completed due to increased product interest by one of our major customers.

The project did not represent major revenue for the company, so the company vice president of engineering mistakenly viewed this as low priority on his list activities he needed to execute.

The cause of this issue traced back to engineering’s vice president allocating minimal employee resources that were insufficient to complete the project on time.

Meanwhile, the CEO, and sales and marketing recognized this as a strategic project because delivering the product to the customer would clearly create a competitive advantage in the marketplace for the company.

In order to adequately address the larger, looming issue of getting us back on track, I had to consider the complexities and risks associated with the challenges present, plus any interpersonal issues in among functional groups.

On this last note, one challenge at hand was the culmination of the various relationships between the CEO, sales and marketing, and the vice president of engineering; each with differing views of the project.


See also
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Sales and marketing saw a clear advantage for the company, over the competition, with the market delivery of this product. The challenge was engineering did not see it in the same light and if the project stayed its present course, the product ran the risk of continuing to be behind schedule or possibly even never being completed from lack of resources.

I also had to be mindful of the unavoidable fact the interpersonal relationship between this vice president and the team lead needed to be protected, since the entire team was comprised of employees directly beneath the vice president.

I needed to ensure the vice president of engineering was part of the final decision. To a degree, he was a stakeholder and I didn’t want to alienate him from the project or the executive team.

With the above in mind, I spoke with the vice president and I asked his permission to speak with the project team.


Overcoming product design challenges


I wanted to see where the team saw gaps in this project so that I could then determine my alternatives before proceeding.

Following discussions with the team, the alternatives I saw were as follows:

a.) Get the CEO and engineering vice president to agree to assign adequate internal resources to complete the project.
One risk here was that they already did not see eye to eye, and this would no doubt further deteriorate the relationship. My assessment of this matter was this would likely not only affect this project but also other projects on the horizon. So, this option was ruled out.

b.) Ask the vice president to release more resources for the project.
Doing this would also be a high risk because there would still not be enough resources to complete the project on time. This was also ruled out.

c.) Hire new people for the team.
Given it would take time to locate, hire, train and then bring newcomers up to speed also didn’t seem beneficial to the project’s schedule. Again, ruled out.

d.) Outsource the entire project to an external product engineering firm and let them complete it.
One risk in doing this would be the equivalent of starting from scratch. We would also lose some control that was valuable to the project’s success plus, we would essentially discount all of the effort invested thus far. Each of these presented a high risk. Outsourcing was ruled out.

e.) Locate external engineering firms capable of coming on board and supplying the required talent and resources, and assign the selected firm to work with our internal team.
This was the final option we reviewed. Our internal team could still be held accountable for the delivery of the schedule, and completing the project.


Essentially, this would be a hybrid model, an outside team working alongside ours. The problem with hybrid models is they are generally risky because project requirements are rarely properly designed, plus there are often accountability issues that can easily surface, and team synergy is either not present or it is very low.

Despite the risks and challenges associated with all of the above as they relate to their respective alternatives, in assessing each risk against the greater list of alternatives – relative to the desired outcome of the project – it became clear that if the project had any chance of success, the hybrid model was the alternative we needed in order to proceed.


See also
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To help mitigate risk, I first asked the team lead to carefully define the project requirements. I also asked that this lead be present for the discussion when I would ask the vice president of engineering for input regarding the project requirements document prepared by the lead.

In this meeting between the three of us, the vice president provided some valuable technical input resulting in his suggested changes amending the lead’s documents.

We would then target three outside engineering firms, for review, and measure the capabilities of each firm against our [now] more clearly defined project scope of requirements…with the intention of selecting one of the engineering firms to then help us with the project.

After the project plan was put together it was presented to the vice president of engineering. I asked him if he wanted to make the presentation to the executive team and he deferred to the team lead.

The team lead presented our plan to the executive team and he also provided updates on the plan’s progress during weekly review meetings.

Ultimately, this project was completed on time.

I was able to deliver on the project, keep the customer happy, and at the same time include the vice president of engineering in the decision-making process.

This was a win-win for all stakeholders involved.


Bal Singh is a Silicon Valley veteran with more than 20 years of experience at the executive and officer levels managing product quality; global operations and advanced manufacturing, sourcing and supply chains at venture-backed startups and Fortune 100 companies serving the electronics industry.

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