Product-Engineering Collaboration – Getting Past Waterfall

I was reading a book on a lazy Sunday afternoon when I learnt something that completely changed the way I looked at one of the iconic movies from my childhood – Toy Story.

This was the first computer-animated feature film ever attempted, and, as I was beginning to realize, the challenges were staggering. One of those challenges involved the need to create every single detail that the audience sees, literally everything… In animation, there is no sky, no trees, no leaves, and certainly no gentle breeze rustling those leaves. There is just a blank screen on a computer. If you want anything on that screen, you have to give the computer instructions to draw it. 

There are challenges even more daunting than these. We take for granted elements in our reality like light and shadow. But if lighting and shadow are off, even a tiny bit, in a photo or portrait, we notice it immediately. It looks weird to us. In computer animation there is no light, no shadow. It all has to be created. 

Even this pales in comparison to something as seemingly innocuous as skin… Skin is one of the most complex things to create artistically. It is full of details—color, hair, blemishes, folds, and texture—and it is very difficult to capture the way light interacts with skin. These are nuances we never think about, but they are glaringly obvious when they are missing. Ed told me that without these careful details, skin would look like “painted rubber.”

I began to fathom how these technical challenges imposed enormous constraints on the film. I learned that there was a reason the film was specifically about toys, and not about animals or people. Toys are made of plastic. They have uniform surfaces. No variation. No skin. No clothing that needs to wrinkle with every movement. Toys have geometries that are much easier to create with computers. 

For similar reasons, the opening scenes of the film take place inside Andy’s bedroom. The bedroom is a square box. Its features—bed, dresser, fan, window, door—are more geometric than outdoor features. Easier to draw. Much easier to light. Audiences would be in the last ten minutes of Toy Story before they saw the scenes that were far more technically challenging.

It turned out that part of the genius of Toy Story was not just the brilliance of the story and characters; it was crafting them amid almost impossible constraints.

I had always admired and appreciated the story behind Toy Story. The story was engaging and its characters were endearing. Hence why it was a shock to realize that they were specifically chosen, not just on their narrative merits, but also for their technical and pragmatic advantages.

In a number of tech companies, Product and Engineering operate as siloed teams, using what is essentially waterfall. Product decides what feature to build, and how it should look. They then chuck it over the wall to Engineering, who is tasked with building it. In particularly bad companies, these teams even have an adversarial relationship. Engineers grumble about the overly complex requirements they are given, and unilaterally cut corners to fit a square peg into a round hole. And Product people grumble about engineers repeatedly running behind schedule, producing buggy deliverables, and deviating from the precise designs and requirements given. “Why can’t they just build what I asked them to build??”

The Pixar example above beautifully shows a better way of working. Imagine if Pixar’s creatives went off into a room, brainstormed a bunch of story ideas, ran them past various focus groups, and came back with the grand announcement that they were going to make Tarzan. “It’s going to be a really cool story about a human orphan raised by apes, living in the jungle! People will love it!” And they wouldn’t be wrong. Tarzan is indeed an awesome story, and kudos to the creative talent behind it. But at a company like Pixar in 1995, the technical challenges of illustrating outdoor scenes filled with lighting and shadows and trees and fur … would have doomed the project.

Thankfully, that’s not what Pixar did. Their creative and technical folks collaborated effectively to come up with a story that was emotionally engaging, and also required far less technical effort. From the perspective of the “Product” folks, it must have been frustrating to continually come up with really cool and engaging ideas, just to have them vetoed by the technical folks because of the work involved. And from the perspective of the “Engineering” folks, it must have been frustrating to spend so much time sitting in meetings, listening to a bunch of half-baked ideas, instead of doing “real hands-on-keyboard work.” But ultimately, this collaboration is what made Toy Story a success.

Inter-disciplinary conflicts and snobbery are an easy trap to fall into. But organizations succeed when everyone recognizes the unique value their colleagues bring, and figure out how to work effectively as a team. Product people bring to the table a wealth of knowledge about what users would like to see. And engineers, in addition to making ideas come to life, can also guide product decisions by explaining the technical pros and cons of different features. And suggesting alternatives that are almost as good, but can be delivered in significantly less time. When Product and Engineering teams collaborate effectively during the design process, companies can more effectively deliver successful products, while still staying on time and under budget.

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