This week's Bartzometer: Sales vs. engineering

Simmering tensions between sales and engineering teams are a fact. In good times, it's manageable. When times turn tough, look out. Yahoo's new CEO should keep this in mind.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

One of the great things about Silicon Valley can be that freewheeling engineering culture. And one of the worst things about Silicon Valley? Yeah, it can also be that same freewheeling engineering culture.

When companies are flush, it's all grand. Beer bashes, special outings to the beach, and hugs all around between corporate divisions. But culture clash is unavoidable in companies with strong engineering traditions. And when times turn tough, the constant, low-grade tension that defines the sometimes awkward relationship between sales and engineering boils over and inevitably leads to finger pointing. We saw it happen at Apple. We saw it happen at Hewlett-Packard. (Reading between the tea leaves, it may be happening at Yahoo, though newly installed CEO Carol Bartz is doing what she can to heal the rifts. I'll get to that in a moment.)

I'm generalizing but the complaint from the engineering side roughly approximates the following: You guys aren't at all technical and are simply a collection of Johnny-come-latelies riding on the backs of the people whose computing science expertise founded this company.

Bartz: How does "kumbaya" go again?

Actually, they're right. Sales (and marketing, for that matter) do come later. Most of the time it's the folks with the technical chops who have come up with the idea about how to build that better mousetrap. They are the ones the venture capitalists are investing in, not the guy who can bore you silly about CPMs. But that's just the opening act. The chronology of any successful start-up always involves the addition of smart sales and marketing teams that can package and present the technologists' best ideas to the public.

Apple was a Silicon Valley phenom in no small part because of the image Regis McKenna and his team helped foster. John Sculley, who succeeded (and pushed aside) Steve Jobs was a great bloviator-in-chief for a time. Most people back then didn't have a clue about personal computer technology and Sculley's formidable marketing skills helped him sell Apple's story to a wider public.

Unfortunately for Sculley, he failed to command the respect of the company's engineers. Even during the best times, they still considered him to be something of a carpetbagger who should have remained at PepsiCo selling sugared water.

It was even worse for Carly Fiorina, who was widely despised by so many Hewlett-Packard insiders. Like Sculley, she was portrayed as a lightweight. The code heads inside the company found her pretensions to be tech-savvy simply risible.

I was reminded of all this as Bartz tries to revive Yahoo in what obviously is a hard assignment. Check out the text of Bartz's latest internal memo reposted by Kara Swisher over at AllThingsD.

"First, I really want to congratulate Joanne Bradford's team for hosting and running a first-class event. I know many of you in the company have absolutely no idea what happens in our regions or what salespeople do for a living (in fact, my past history has shown me that the way most engineers perceive salespeople is as lightweight, backslapping meeters and greeters)."

Meeters and greeters? That's just the setup. Bartz goes on to praise Yahoo's sales team to the high heavens--even to the point of assigning them an A+. Professor Cooper would be a much tougher grader, but I understand what she's trying to do here. And it's the smart move by a savvy CEO. Bartz wants to eliminate all the internecine BS that defines a dysfunctional corporate culture and make sure sales, marketing, and engineering are all on the same page. The different teams may not like each other but they need each other more than ever before in Yahoo's history.

Right now she's still in the corporate honeymoon period so the cheerleader-in-chief routine is appropriate. Still, Bartz still might want to hang photos of Sculley and Fiorina in her office as a reminder. Plus ça change.