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High Tech Headwinds and Project/People Management

High Tech Headwinds and Project/People Management
by Peter Gasperini on 07-30-2014 at 4:00 am

 In previous posts, we discussed the growing set of challenges and threats faced by the semiconductor industry. From saturating & stagnant systems markets to the gears starting to seize up in that engine of growth we’ve been calling Moore’s Law, chip revenues are – with the exception of memory price boosts from supply shortages – stalling more or less across the board.

The industry is responding with its usual can-do attitude on the technology front, with a great deal of work going into new memory capabilities such as ReRAM and MRAM, 2.5D packaging & test, and calls for fundamental process improvements such as FD-SOI and monolithic 3D-IC. All of these are being pursued in hopes of adding several more years of viability for silicon on the 3P (price, performance and power) improvement curve and pushing off the inevitable moment when the technology simply runs out of steam.

It is, of course, vital that the industry pursue these enhancements while awaiting the arrival of whatever it is that will replace silicon. Companies must take every step they possibly can to reduce the rate of price erosion on their offerings. Yet this is only one aspect of what needs to change in the chip industry. The way high tech companies are organized needs to be completely overhauled.

And each man stands with his face in the light
Of his own drawn sword,
Ready to do what a hero can.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Consider the matter from the following perspective. All enhancements, innovations, upgrades, feature improvements, customer support, product maintenance and new product development originate from the working stiffs at a semiconductor enterprise. Stated differently: the source of value-add in any chip company is, ultimately, its people.
That source of wealth and prosperity is already under severe stress in every High Tech company, whether in systems, software or semiconductors. Quite a few firms since 2008 have had to reduce staff and shrink operations thru closing or selling off divisions. This week alone, Microsoft – which has been doing rather well over the years despite chronically negative press coverage – announced it was cutting 18,000 employees.

This leaves company workforces, already squeezed for maximum productivity, in a critically overburdened condition. The difference between enterprises that survive this interim period of technology transition in a relatively healthy state and those which struggle or wither will be determined by the strength, skill and sagacity of their management. Put another way, firms that can utilize their constrained and limited resources most effectively will be in a position to dominate when the new technology that replaces silicon becomes available.

Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.– Richard Hooker

Which brings us to an important question: how do technology firms organize their people, projects and programs nowadays? All of us have been called into meetings with members of a Task Force, Core Team or what have you. Someone produces a Gantt chart and passes copies around, either on paper or digitally. Someone also takes meeting notes to distribute, and there is a spreadsheet generated for things like budgets. Thus, the most common tools employed include scheduling software along with a couple of selections from MS Office. If the team is meeting to develop a new product, they will use these tools to create a project plan that includes a request for resources and a timeline commitment. After the project goes thru a review and approval cycle, Executive management will then assign personnel as available, pull in the schedule by at least 20% and drive the team to execute.

Of course, this almost never works – features get cut along the way and deadlines get missed. It’s a ludicrous state of affairs with which we have all learned to cope. Nonetheless, such inefficiencies will no longer be tolerable in this period where price-protecting feature improvements will be harder to come by and have a much shorter shelf life. Thus, the tools and methodologies for developing new products and enhancing existing offerings will need to evolve and improve dramatically.

High Tech is a realm of engineers – people who improve on & fix broken old things and develop new things. Ever true to their nature, there are some engineers out there now who are creating offerings to fix the problems of current product development tools and overcoming their inadequacies.

These new tools capture a company’s entire institutional history of product development in order to specifically identify all of its characteristics – including inefficiencies, skillsets, impediments, strengths and weaknesses. From such a comprehensive database, a much more sophisticated method of developing product, project and resource planning becomes possible – one where teams can be assembled with a more appropriate mix of abilities for a given project, programs can be scheduled in detail with much higher probabilities of meeting milestones, and organizational frictions can be much more precisely diagnosed and consequently reduced across the board.

Whereas the previous approach has been based on a fundamentally seat-of-the-pants assessment, the new tools and their employment methods are quantitative. This allows a company to become smarter about assigning people with the right skills, training and hiring, planning for resource availability, shoring up the organization’s deficiencies, determining accurate schedules and then meeting those schedules.

There are many more details regarding this new resource and program/project management methodology. The issue is explored in depth at http://vigilfuturi.blogspot.com/2014/07/high-tech-people-management-in-hard.html .

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