Making Salesmen and Engineers Play Nice

SAN JOSE, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- With the exception of exterminators and cockroaches, no two groups coexist with more derision than marketing professionals and product engineers.

To engineers, the marketing department is full of fast-talking fluff-spewers who make impossible promises. To marketing executives, engineers are misfit geniuses who can't see the forest from the trees.

"Managing between marketing and engineering starts with the recognition that the tension between them reflects something intrinsic," says Larry Lang, a technology marketing executive with an engineering background, who spent eight years as the general manager of the mobile and wireless business unit at Cisco ( CSCO). "Customers want infinite capability and performance delivered right now for free. Yet the laws of physics and state of technology constrain what can be produced. This dissonance will never be fully resolved, so the goal must be to channel the energy in constructive, creative ways."

Everybody knows that a company's success depends on making and selling a useful product. Fortunately, there are ways to smooth interdepartmental rifts and make customers happier in the process.

Put down the ego and ask for ideas: Businesses large and small often employ a product development model that works like this: A marketing team creates a list of product requirements, based on industry research and customer feedback, and the engineering team parses the list into a functional specification. But this model leaves no room for engineers' creativity. That can be a mistake because (at the risk of stereotyping) engineers tend to spend a lot of time online, either deliberately or inadvertently learning what competitors are doing. They're also natural inventors.

"The engineer guys have better marketing ideas than the marketing guys do," says David Callisch, vice president of marketing at Ruckus Wireless in Sunnyvale, Calif., which makes wireless networking equipment. "The problem is the marketing people don't give them the time of day."

Engineers expect marketing people to be cocky, he says, so it's best to approach them with humility.

"If you go to the engineers and say, 'Look, man, I don't know what to do,' and you solicit their opinions, those guys will come at you proactively and say, 'Hey, you should do this and this and this,'" Callisch says.

Take steps to avoid feature creep: Anyone whose company makes stuff is familiar with "feature creep" -- the tendency for a list of requirements to keep growing throughout the product development cycle, leading to disgruntled employees and late shipments. The marketing department often commits feature creep after getting customer feedback at trade shows and conferences, well into a product's development cycle.

"Events like this typically flush out opinions and suggestions from customers or potential customers, ranging from 'it needs to be $10 cheaper' to 'it has to be completely different and toast bread as well,'" says Lewin A.R.W. Edwards, a wireless security engineer and author of So, You Wanna Be an Embedded Engineer. "Marketing then comes back to the engineers and presents all this new information as 'must-have', without which the project can't ship."

Meanwhile, engineers can be responsible for feature creep if they woo company executives with a whiz-bang idea too late in the product development cycle. "Stuff developed as a side project for fun is almost always difficult to integrate into a formal project," Edwards says. This leads to late projects and a disgruntled marketing team.

The easiest way to avoid feature creep is to drop the idea that the customer is always right. Barring that, companies can mitigate the problem by putting one person in charge of any given project, with both marketing and engineering reporting to that one project manager, rather to a department head.

Try to speak a comprehensible language: Marketing people have been known to speak in generalities: "We must empower a dynamic enterprise framework!" "We need to leverage proactive synergies from end to end!" Meanwhile, engineers tend to be more direct. The world would be a better place if they all cut that out.

"If I get a good engineer who can be articulate, I can do anything," says Callisch, adding that a good marketing executive can gain respect by trying to understand the technology behind a product.

Talk it out: Marketing people tend to talk more than engineers. That's why there needs to be someone who makes sure everyone has an opportunity to speak, says Ian Pennell, senior vice president of the small business technology group at Cisco.

"If one is allowed to dominate, the others will only begrudgingly go along," he says. "That is what makes the biggest difference in companies that succeed or don't succeed"

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.