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‘Tis the Season for Giving Back …. With the University of Dundee in Scotland

December 22, 2011 - 0 Comments

In many cultures across the world, this is a time for giving.  In a departure from my previous blogs discussing data center services, cloud adoption and IT architecture transformation, I’ve decided to end the year by discussing how we in Cisco give back our time and money to help others, something that Cisco most definitely encourages. Here I’ll discuss how a few colleagues and I have helped out in one of the computing degree courses at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

The Winning Team - with Steve Pickavance of Cisco Services

Many would argue that large companies in particular should give more money to worthy causes.   Or have staff invest time in local community projects.   And in Cisco we do both. I’m not here to debate that.  However I would side with Louis Gerstner, the former IBM CEO, who wrote about Corporate Social Responsibility and “Corporate Giving” in his book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”.  He strongly asserted organizations who engage in (simply) “cheque-book philanthropy” are “under-performing in a substantial way”.  He goes on to explain that it’s far more valuable for companies to donate their expertise, especially specialist expertise and perspectives that are not readily available in many local communities and organizations. This in my view has a higher multiplicative effect than say an equivalent cash donation.  And this is where myself and a number of colleagues from Cisco Scotland, together with a number of individuals from a range of technology companies both in Scotland and North America, have helped out in a University of Dundee initiative to broaden their course content.
A few years ago, the School of Computing at the University of Dundee decided to bring a commercial focus to some of their teaching. Recognizing the need to train engineers with an appreciation of marketing and business, they decided to add a Product Management module to their honours and masters degree courses in applied computing.  Product management is a core competency of successful companies in many industries.  While some of my engineering colleagues may not agree :-), product management has a central role in Cisco in understanding customer problems and requirements, driving and managing the value creation process for both products and services, prioritizing the requirements for engineering to execute upon, followed by communicating the end result to the outside world for both product and services.

The course itself has been delivered by local consultancy Northface Ventures for a few years now.  Part of this course involved the students acting as product managers, interviewing a range of product managers in industry.  Their goal is to propose a new product to help industry product managers themselves in their day to day work.  The students were tasked in assessing the market opportunity, writing a market requirements document (MRD), defining the product requirements (authoring a product requirements document, or PRD), and assess the overall business opportunity, concluding with a clearly rationalised go/no recommendation to “their company board”.  This is significantly outside the normal syllabus of a computing degree (and in fact product management, while a central function in technology companies in particular, doesn’t yet achieve much coverage in typical MBA courses).  Consequently, you can imagine this marketing focus stretched the computing science students in ways they hadn’t been stretched before!  In fact, one of the class lecturers, Dr Annalu Waller, made a very pertinent observation – “the students at first struggle to stop thinking about how to build their product, when in fact they need to focus on what to build first”.

Over the past few months, indeed over the past 3 years, myself and two colleagues from Cisco Scotland, Josie Goodale from Cisco Services (who also sits on the School of Computing Industry Advisory board) and KJ Rossavik in the Cisco Development Organization (R&D), participated in the student interviews.  Here the students tried to figure out from us what kind of software tool would help us do our daily jobs.  The students were quite astute in many cases, trying to figure out the kinds of problems we face in our jobs, so that they could develop an appropriate solution to help us.  The students showed that they had learned quite a bit about the roles, responsibilities and challenges of product managers in industry from the interview process, more insights than they would typically gain from academic course work.   There were quite a number of companies participating, including product managers from the likes of Amazon, Freescale, NCR, and IBM as well as a number of Scottish start-ups and companies including Wolfson Microelectronics, PrismTech and Sumerian.

A few weeks back, I was invited back to be part of “the board”, or judging panel, to assess the student’s final presentations, along with a number of other judges including Polly Purvis who chairs ScotlandIS, the local ICT industry trade body.  The assessment we provided counted towards their final degree mark, so there was quite a bit of apprehension I think when the students started the presentations, where their proposals were critiqued by the judging panel.  Steve Pickavance, Cisco Services delivery director for Scotland, chaired the judging panel, and our Cisco Scotland country director Donald McLaughlin (thanks Donald!) funded the prize for the winning team (£600, around $1000 US).  While the prize money I am sure was appreciated by the winning team, what in my view that was far more valuable was the learning opportunity presented to the students of having their proposal critiqued by industry practitioners.   We questioned the completeness of their product definition, its feasibility, their roadmap priorities, the competitive analysis, their forecast and go to market strategy.  While the panel asked tough questions, each question helped the students learn more about the challenges of brining products to market from a “real world” perspective.

Participants and Judges

Participants and Judges

I have to say, I was very impressed by how many core principles of product management that the students had picked up in the course work, and applied in their project.  All teams showed an appreciation of the challenges of assessing market opportunities and defining what features to build into their project (and what not to – which is almost as important in practice).  Some teams extended their work to a three year financial projection and even in one case an advertising strategy.  While most teams settled on a software tool to help product managers define and prioritise requirements, one or two teams did come up with quite innovative ideas, one being quite an interesting idea to help gather competitive information.

All too often universities and colleges are criticised for offering courses that don’t meet the needs of industry. The University of Dundee’s School of Computing has most definitely taken a bold step here to help mould engineers who have an appreciation of the commercial and product management challenges facing business today.   I commend them on their vision.  The time invested by the various industry representatives will I am sure pay back in multiples in ways that a cash donation alone could not.  As a result, the university, Northface Ventures and the various industry representatives who participated have helped the students be more attractive to potential employers.

Those in the technology industry have a role in developing the next generation of technologists, so as we move towards 2012, why not see if your local school, college or university would appreciate some help from you!

PS: In another of our “giving back “ initiatives, this week in Scotland we ran our now annual Connected Santa, where we connect children in a local hospital, Yorkhill Children’s Hospital in Glasgow, to Santa Claus via Cisco TelePresence.  The children were able to see and talk to Santa and were given presents (funded by the local Cisco Scotland team) in what is a very touching and emotional event.  Donald McLaughlin, director for Cisco Scotland, said: “Over the years, Santa and his team of elves have continually looked for new and innovative ways to make toys and communicate with children, so it’s only natural that Santa will be using the latest video technology to pay a personal visit to children in hospital.” 🙂

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