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Israel Ben-Ishai

Israel Ben-Ishai

Israel Ben-Ishai

Product Development, Engineering Leader

Israel is a veteran of the high technology industry and master of engineering and operational execution. His long career spans several software sectors where he developed, mentored and scaled up great product development teams, from under ten engineers to several hundreds and from a few initial customers to thousands of satisfied customers.

Israel strongly believes that people make the difference and espouses a methodology that combines an intuitive/qualitative approach combined with light/smart processes. Over the years Israel continues to reinvent himself and the tools and methods he uses to manage product development. In recent years Israel adopted the SCRUM methodology without having to abandon good traditional project management and strong system testing.

The most important and burning question Israel has attempted to answer over the years is how to cross the product development chasm from a “a few guys doing stuff” to a professional engineering group that can deliver consistent results over multiple products and multiple releases. How to do all this without losing the innovation drive and passion for quality products has been a mainstay of his leadership posts throughout.

InsideSpin interviewed Israel to capture the following insightful points about leadership excellence from his perspective:

Who was your mentor at the start of your career and what was his/her key attributes? Is it important for great leaders to also be great mentors?

I can remember two mentors: One was one of the best system designers and programmers I have met. He taught me how to think about the big picture, simple design and at the same time he helped me develop very good working habits as a programmer.

The second one was my manager at BNR Toronto who taught me some excellent management practices I am still using today. Those two people liked to teach and derived satisfaction from their mentee’s success.

Having a good mentor can make a big difference in one's career. A great leader is by definition a good mentor, because the only way you can achieve success is by creating a group around you that helps make you successful. It is important to remember that a true leader also feels the need to give back and is not threatened by the success of the “next generation”.

You have worked with a variety of development methodologies and processes over the years, SCRUM seems to be settling in as one of the better ones, why do you think this is? What advice would you have for someone looking to get started with SCRUM?

For me SCRUM was a natural evolution. Even before I heard of SCRUM and Agile I was using many of the core values of SCRUM. Those values are much more important than the rituals. I have seen some organizations adopt the rituals but not internalize the core values. Those values are: short releases, small, collocated, self managed (when possible), multidisciplinary teams and complete feature-based development per sprint/release (i.e. at mid way I want to have 5 fully implemented features instead of 10 features half done). Some of these methods might seem counter intuitive or wasteful but they really work.

SCRUM does not solve all your problems. You still need good engineering practices such as design and code reviews, daily builds, good testing practices, etc. My suggestion is to first implement good software development practices (see Joel (very basic) list at Joel On Software).

This list might seems trivial to many developers but you would be surprised how many development shops out there don’t meet even half of those criteria.

If you have all the basics in place and want to move to SCRUM, get very good training. Appoint a few champions in your team and choose a project / product ready for the move. This is a vast topic we could talk about for days. I recommend you bite the bullet and move to SCRUM but don’t be religious about it. The core values are the most important not the rituals.

Product Management and Development often have a love/hate relationship – what’s the secret advice you would offer any product manager looking to build bridges with a quality development team?

Product management is probably the most important function in a company, certainly in a small company. It is also very difficult to find good product managers that truly understand the job and have the skills needed. As far as the interaction between the product manager and development, I would expect the product manager to gain the respect of the development team by doing a complete job. The product manager’s job is not to supervise or control development or act as a cheerleader but to add clear value. The product manager needs to come up with good requirements that reflect the end user and business needs and work closely with the architects and engineers to find the best way to implement those requirements. He/She needs to be able to convey clearly what is the business problem we are trying to solve instead of only asking for the next features or the next piece of exciting technology.

Why do you think the majority of software products available today fail to meet customer expectations?

As a user of technology, I am amazed at the number of products that don’t do the basic functions well but instead keep adding features that most people don’t care about. Product designers don’t spend enough time thinking about the workflow, ease of use and what most people really care about. One example is photo editing/management products. How many of the fancy features do most people use? And yet in my opinion, we still don’t have a good product that manages the end-to-end life cycle of a picture. Another example is email and calendar products. The learning curve is still too long. Most software products are too complicated and frustrate the users. As product developers, many times we live in our own world and don’t go out to understand what the user wants or needs and how much are they able and willing to learn. When is the last time you talked to a teenager or an older person or even better watched them use a computer or a smart phone? We need to talk to and observe real users in action and develop simple products that work all the time and make people’s life easy.

If you were presenting to a group of Grade 7 students keen to learn about computers, what career advice might you provide them about their prospects for employment in the technology industry 10 years from now?

I would suggest to the grade 7 students to learn as much as possible about the underlying technology but then transition quickly to product and system design.

Some of the jobs and functions will disappear because of automation and reuse of software or outsourcing to lower cost labour markets. It is much more difficult to outsource creativity and customer understanding. The next wave of innovation will concentrate on simplification and abstraction. More and more entry barrier will disappear. The previous wave of technology allowed entrepreneurs to develop new applications on their PC in their garage or dorm. With cloud computing one can develop, test, scale and globally deploy applications and services from anywhere with very little capital investment. This opens the door for more innovation and creativity. Understanding the users and the technology available is a great combination of skills. Add to that good communications skills (the ability to articulate and relay ideas and concepts) and you have a sure ticket to career success. To sum it up my advice to the grade 7 students is develop your thinking and communications skills. Those skills survive technology changes, outsourcing and social trends.

If you could become development manager for a day of any product over the last 20 years, which one would it be and why? What key decisions would you try to make to have maximum impact in that one day?

Great question! It is toss up between email and digital media management (photo and video). The interesting thing is that I managed voice mail, photo editing and played for a short time with an add-on to email.

Email is clearly the killer Internet application now being partially replaced by text messaging (just watch your teenage kids!) and managing your photos and videos is a real challenge. If we look at the social media applications they are all about people being connected through words and images. I guess it's the human condition that pushes us to seek this connection.

I just went through a very frustrating experience while preparing a tribute photo presentation for a family member and trying to fish out relevant pictures. The cameras are more and more sophisticated and the mass storage larger and larger, but how do I handle 1500 pictures when I come back from vacation?

In any of those applications I would look for simplification and what features to eliminate. I would start with a SCRUM team that works directly with end users (real users like teenager and older people). Build one feature at a time, make it easy to use and build a no frill product that works really well. So my critical decision would be what features to eliminate from the product to make it simple and usable.