A Presidential Failure: Decisions and Consequences

I have a unique distinction that few of my peers in software product management can claim.  While we’ve all seen key customers walk out the door, not many can say they’ve been canceled by the President of the United States of America.  Unfortunately, I can.

I was hired by Northfield Communications to head up our mobile engagement software portfolio.  If you’ve ever received a notification on your phone from a coffee shop as you drove by, this could have been us.  We handled mobile wallet tickets to concerts and organized the text-to-win giveaways you hear over the radio.  Best of all, one of our products supported some of the largest cause-related non-profit organizations and government agencies.  One of those teams was Joe Biden for President.  

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Our text message product was born way back in 2007 to help send text messages to interested parties.  It worked well for early customers.  A small museum could advertise a new exhibit by sending a few thousand text messages to members.  A local fundraiser could request and collect donations over text messaging.

But over time, something happened with our typical customer profile.   It grew.  New organizations found our product and really liked the opportunity to maximize audience engagement.  It meant more donations.  More subscribers.  More petition-signers.  A “good problem”, right?  

Initially, we felt fortunate too.  The reality was that we had an engine built for a four door sedan and we were now signed up for a monster truck rally.  More customers meant more texts, more marketing programs, more customers, more word-of-mouth marketing (the best kind mind you).  Over time, the type of customer changed.  No longer were we supporting the “Protect the Endangered Pupfish” cause.  We were now supporting the largest civil rights NPO’s in America looking to combat some of the most critical causes: world hunger, gun control, abortion rights.  The customer persona had changed, seemingly overnight.

Eventually, the Democratic National Party came asking for help. It didn’t take long to realize that the center could not hold.  Eventually, their scale became too massive and we couldn’t throw more computing power at the problem.  Eventually, the DNC saw their messages slow to a turtle’s pace and at times did not send at all.  In some cases, text messages would show up in the middle of the night and recipients were annoyed with the ill-timed communication.  They’d type back “STOP” and that was one less subscriber for the Hilary Clinton campaign.

We pulled out all of the stops, even going so far as to create a duplicated tech infrastructure dedicated to Biden alone.  That too failed and the team felt defeated.

The Product team had a decision to make.  Do we fix the technology in place or build something entirely new where we can move these customers?  We were desperate to hold onto our largest customer, so we set off to build something new.  Shiny, new interface.  Robust infrastructure.  Integrations galore.  If our current tech stack couldn’t support the upcoming Biden run, then a brand new product might.  So, the team set out to fix the problem with a new solution.  The team named the project “Best of Breed” and the goal was to build a completely new project to support Biden and – eventually – our entire customer base.

This is when I was hired.  The “best of breed” project had been in the plans for three years but hadn’t made much progress.  The new product looked good, but there was no validation that it could scale.  I had a track record of successfully building products from the ground up.  However, just one month into my time at Northfield, Biden canceled.  We had failed to demonstrate that we were fixing their quality problems.

“Best of Breed” never came to be.  The Product team had been working on it for several years but had optimized for a flashy UI and hadn’t focused on system performance. In fact, in its initial stages, it failed to send a single text message.  Looking back, I wish we had pulled the plug earlier as we hadn’t been in a position to succeed. 

Eventually, Joe Biden won the election in 2020.  However, the Democratic National Committee no longer trusted our product.  They canceled what was far and away our largest account.  Worse of all, our other cash cow accounts were on the threshold of leaving too.  They were suffering the same problems of scale with no future product in sight.

Over the next two years, we would figure it out.   We effectively fixed our quality problems directly in the existing product.  We brought in the right people in to help.  We spoke with customers and measured our progress.  We advocated hard for change when it was necessary and persistence when it was called for.  We would ultimately harden our product through constructing a culture of quality.  But Biden never came back.  Neither did other large non-profits.  Northfield’s stock would lose 71% of its value from January 2019 through January 2023 .  Decisions have consequences.

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