Tech Life Say a lot... with a little.


You’ve just finished your big release and the team has mostly returned from that four day weekend where they’re supposed to recharge from four straight months of work. Everyone is still pretty screwed up. Folks still instinctively check the bug database every 4 minutes to see if anything critical showed up even though there’s no chance of that… the customer doesn’t have the product yet and QA is still passed out in the lab.

No one is ready to start grinding again, but the senior management team is wondering what they’re getting for all that salary that’s rolling out the door. Quick! Someone think of something we can do that is low effort with high visibility! I know! How about a product planning offsite?

Administrators scurry to find a venue, engineering leads fire up their favorite presentation software, and in a few weeks you have your offsite. Invariably it starts with the state of the product presentation and that’s done by marketing.

The presentation leads with actual content. Market and sales numbers. Lessons learned from the past release. Good data based on facts derived from the past sales cycle. You want them to stop while they’re ahead because you know what’s coming next. They’re going to start defining features for the next release. They’re going to start using pitch.

Pitch is the pithy phrases used during that five minute window when marketing explains the feature set for your entire product. Based off this insanely brief content window, you will be expected to figure out what features and technology will be designed to make a sellable product over the course of the next year.

This lack of definition drives most engineers nuts, but when marketing pulls it off, I love pitch. Effective pitch represents something all writer’s respect: using the power of words to effectively express a complex idea and, potentially, change the world.

Not with me with yet? Let’s pitch some products right now. How about these three product ideas off the top of my head:

  • Firefox on Steroids
  • Outlook for the Rest of Us
  • Windows without the Annoying

I haven’t defined new products. In fact, all I’ve given you is an impression… a feeling, but that’s all you need to do in the pitch… say a lot… with a little.

You completionists are already rolling your eyes at me right now. Your claim is, “You have said nothing, Rands. It’s people just like you who sign me up for futile efforts designing impossible products.”

My response, “For all the amazing amount of work you completionists do, you’d think you’d appreciate efficiency. When I tell you that I’m building Windows without the Annoying I’m trying to steer you towards the idea that I’m building a secure OS with a stunning, usable UI, a next generation file system, and a list another 20 features that would competitively differentiate my hypothetical OS with Windows.”

I know Completionists want the details. Don’t worry, I’ll write all that down, but the details aren’t part of the pitch. Pitch is about mass communicating… it’s about building awareness around a great idea and to do that, you need to talk to a lot of people and these folks are often in a big hurry.

First, there’s the executives that will hear about your product exactly twice and these folks sign your paycheck. Then, there’s the two engineering managers that everyone at the company needs a technical favor from… you’ll talk to these guys twice in two yeras, as well. How about the QA folks who already have way too much to do? How do you educate them as quickly as possible? Most importantly, there’s the random engineering manager you meet in the elevator who asks “What are you working on?” After hearing my pitch, he will choose to make a seemingly minor decision for his product that ends up saving your product team hundreds of work hours.

Pitch is designed for informal, high velocity communication that is the backbone of primal software design. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at a start-up or a Fortune 500 company. In order for your product or idea to survive, you, the engineering manager, must be able to talk about it quickly to wildly different demographics. You need pitch.


You probably have some person in mind. Some guy or gal in marketing or engineering that you believe is “All Pitch”. They are buzzwordy, fast talking folks who smile too much and they have no actual content. These people exist and they give pitch a bad name.

If you’re planning on using pitch, you must be prepared for the people who won’t be dazzled by your economy with words. They are going to test you because they’re not going to understand or believe what you are saying.

“Why is it Firefox on Steroids?”

“No, I get that you’re saying it’s faster, how much faster? And why?”

What these folks are saying is “Prove it”. Folks who are all pitch will often use more pitch to make it sound like they know what they’re talking about and that sometimes work because pitch can dazzle, but others will see right through this endless cycle of pitch and start to ding your credibility. They’ll whisper “marketing guy” and this is the kiss of death in engineering. This taints all future pitch.

Intrigued, yet? Wondering how to create pitch for good and not evil? There’s good news. You need do nothing more than listen because great pitch sticks. During your endless brainstorming meetings, one of your team members is going to say it. They’ll summarize the product, the 18 months of six engineers tirelessly working, in a single phrase,

“It’s Tivo with a hint of Google.”

The phrase will hang in the air with strength.

“That’s it.”

“That’s what we’re doing.”

The next question is, “How good is it?” Go ahead. Give your pitch a trial run. Your boss is a good place to start. Pitch him. Do his eyes light up? Great, we have pitch. Blank stare? Might want to keep brainstorming.

You don’t need pitch to develop a product, but my personal opinion is that product without pitch is a solution looking for a problem. You can have all the great features, great performance, and stunning APIs, but you’ve also got to have the pitch ready to go because you never know who you are going to talk to about your product and, when you do, you want to give that person an idea they can dig their teeth into.

There’s a big fat exception to this whole article and that’s original pitch. You’ve noticed a lot of pitch uses existing ideas, existing products as a basis of comparison. The question is, how do you pitch an idea so new that you have no basis for comparison? Better yet, how would you pitch Netscape Navigator to your Mom in 1995? Try it now: explain what a browser is without using the word browser. No fair calling it the “Killer application of the Internet” because know one knows what an Internet is either.

If someone is rabidly pitching you on a idea and you haven’t a clue what they are saying, there are two distinct possibilities. They’re nuts or they might be onto the next big thing. You’d think telling the difference would be easy, but it’s not.

Back to the offsite. The moment when marketing stops talking about facts and starts to pitch the next release. As an engineer, you need to suspend your disbelief and listen to each word marketing is using and decide which are the best. Realize that marketing’s job is to figure out how to create buzz about your product or technology and do to so they must boil the idea down to a sound bite.

These bit-size blurbs of information are the ones that travel best on the buzz stream that is the constant flood of information we all deal with during the course of a day. It will be judged in a moment because we’re buried in a flood of information and they only gauge of good pitch is if it stops and makes us think.

3 Responses

  1. Jack Welch talks about a similar thing in his new book, he calls it the “big a-ha.” I’d summarize but someone already did it for me. 🙂

    I like his “five slides” idea too for a product/strategy review, although I haven’t tried it yet.

  2. Steve 19 years ago

    It’s really tough when you are the engineer, and the pitch man. I’m in an environment where I answer to quite technical illiterate bosses. They’re pitch to me is simply this “Can you make the storefront better?” No detail on what they think will make it better. Not even a buzzword. I mention a widely known and used technology like RSS and I first have to explain the concept of blogs. Oh…How to “pitch” the idea of incorporating RSS and blogs into a marketing service. It’s joyful.

  3. John Whitlock 19 years ago

    Netscape Navigator: Your New Gateway To Porn and Particle Physics and Porn.