How To Get Things Done

“How can we get anything done across products?”

That was the theme of the 2016 EMC Core Technologies Senior Architect Meeting. Every year, we gather the senior technical leaders to discuss market directions, technology trends, and our solutions. This year included evolving storage media, storage connectivity, Copy Data Management, Analytics, CI/HCI, Cloud, and more. While the technical topics generated discussion and debate, the passion was greatest around – “How can we get anything done across products?” Each Senior Architect got to their position by successfully driving an agenda in their product groups, so they find their lack of cross-product influence to be exceptionally frustrating.

While the challenge may sound unique to senior leaders in a large organization, it’s a variant of the most common question I get from techies of all levels across all companies: “How can I get things done?”

What’s the Value?

Engineers – if your idea does not either generate revenue or save cost, you’re going to have a difficult time generating interest from business leaders, sales, and customers. Everybody loves talking about exciting technology, but they pay for solutions to business problems.  Too often, engineers propose projects that customers like, but would not pay for.

An internal team once proposed a project that would make our UI look “cooler”. I asked what it would do for the customer. It wouldn’t eliminate a user task. It wouldn’t help them get more done. But they were convinced it would be more “fun” which would convince more enterprises to buy the product. Not surprisingly, we didn’t pursue that project.

I recently met a startup with very exciting technology, but I couldn’t see how/why anybody would pay for it. The founder looked me in the eye and said, “People will love it so much, that they’ll just send me checks in the mail. But I’ll only cash the big ones, since smaller companies shouldn’t have to pay.” I started laughing at his joke, then felt really guilty(OK, sort of guilty) when I realized he was serious.

As you think about your value, it’s preferable to focus on revenue generation. Customers and executives would rather invest in solutions that increase their revenue rather than those that save costs. Cost saving discussions are either uncomfortable (and then you lay off ‘n’ people) or hard to justify (if you spend a lot of money today, you’ll save even more… in three years ). On the other hand, everybody likes talking about generating new revenue.

My Executive Briefing Center sessions often come after either Pivotal or Big Data discussions. The customers are excited about CloudFoundry, analytics, and new development techniques because it allows them to more quickly respond to customers and generate new revenue streams. As I walk in, they’re excitedly inviting the Pivotal presenter to dinner. After I discuss backup or storage, they say, “Thanks, this should help us reduce our costs. We still wish it weren’t so expensive, though.” Oh, and they NEVER invite me to dinner. Because nobody likes the “cost cutting” person. Or nobody likes me. Either one.

What are the Alternatives?

Technical people tend to make three mistakes when pitching an idea.

Mistake 1: Leading the audience through your entire thought process.

First, most senior people don’t have the attention span (I blame a day full of 30 minute meetings) to wait for your conclusion. Quickly set context, then get to the conclusion. Be prepared to support your position, but let them question you, don’t pre-answer everything. Second, most people don’t problem solve the same way you do, so your “obvious” thought path may not be clear to others. Finally, the longer you talk, the less likely you are to have a conversation. Your audience wants to be involved in a decision; that only happens when they can express their viewpoint and know that you’ve understood it.

Mistake 2: Not presenting actions

Let’s say you’ve made an astounding presentation. The audience is engaged. You’ve had a great discussion. Everybody supports the conclusion. And… you walk away. Too often, engineers forget to add: “And here’s what we need to do.” If you don’t ask for something to be done, nothing will be done.

Mistake 3: Not presenting alternatives

People and executives (some of whom display human characteristics) want to feel like they have some control over things. That means they want to be able to make choices. They also want to believe that you, the presenter, have considered many alternatives before drawing your conclusion. To satisfy both needs, you must present two or three (more than that and it’s overwhelming) legitimate approaches that address the challenge. If you don’t they’ll feel like you’re trapping them.

One of my worst presentations was titled – “Large file system restores are slow.” I spent an hour walking through 23 slides detailing the pain of restoring large file systems (both by capacity and file count). At the end, the Sr. Director said, “We knew it was slow. That’s why we hired you. Are you saying that we can’t hire someone to solve this, or that we just made the wrong hire?” Now THAT is an example of quickly presenting actionable alternatives.

Who are You Selling To?

As you sell your idea, you need tailor the pitch to your audience.

  • What actions can you ask for? If your audience doesn’t control resources or roadmaps, then ask them for what they can give – support, personal time, etc. Conversely, if your audience can make decisions, ask for the decision. It’s better to get a “no” than to drift forever.
  • What does your audience care about? Business leaders want to hear about revenue, routes to market, investment costs, etc. Your demo may be the coolest thing ever, but it won’t move them until you get them interested. Technical leaders generally care about both, but be careful about losing them on a deep dive. Technical experts want the deep dive. Engineers want to know what work they need to do.
  • What is their background? If you’re selling an idea to non-experts, you’ll need to spend more time setting context (business, technical , etc.). If you’re talking to experts, don’t waste their time with the basics.

In other words, there is no “one size fits all” presentation. It may be more work to tailor your approach to each audience, but nobody said this was easy.

When I first started working with customers, I would race through my presentation – always doing it the same way. I was too nervous to ask what the audience was interested in hearing. As I talked, I’d never give the audience a chance to respond. I considered myself lucky if the audience sat in silence, so that I could quickly exit, drenched in sweat. One day, I walked into the Briefing Center, saw 2 people in suits sitting there, and rattled through my 30 minute talk. At the conclusion, one of them said, “That was good. That was a lot of the content we want to cover. Just so you know, the customer is running late, but they should be here soon.”


How do you get things done? You convince people. You need to convince business leaders, peers across groups, technical experts, and the engineers who will actually do the work. Whether you’re a new college graduate or a technical leader with decades of experience, the formula doesn’t change:

  • What’s the value?
  • What are the alternatives?
  • Who is the audience?

If you follow these guidelines, you may not always get the decision you like… but you will get a decision. And “getting decisions about actions” is the only way you can get anything done.

-Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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