TL;DR — Release products at conferences. The products will be better and you’ll be happier.
Test-driven development is a technique that helps programmers build large applications from small, working components. It has been successful enough to unlock developers’ innate love of acronyms, ranging from ATDD and BDD to MDD and UGG. TDD is important in the industry because it forces a mental shift inside the programmer’s mind. Like most humans, programmers are all too willing to succumb to really lame brain bugs. Instead of falling for the trap of designing and implementing a grand cathedral in one single volcano of brilliance, TDD focuses on a continuous stream of achievable, minor, functional bricks. Conference-driven development offers similar rewards for virtuous choices, but works for the whole product development team rather than just programmers.
Pick a high-quality conference you have attended (or would willingly attend). Submit a proposal that hinges, at least in part, around your new product. Get accepted. Make the product on or before the conference date. Impress people and launch at the same time.
Write the press release first
Product teams often get caught in the trap of deferring important questions (and the answers). If the team hasn’t internalized exactly what pitch they’re making to convince a customer to switch to the new product, they’re rarely able to focus on the essentials. One antidote to this trap is Amazon’s practice of working backwards. By starting with a press release, the team is forced to write out a short and compelling description of why the new product deserves attention.
Conference-driven development forces the same behavior by getting the Call-For-Proposals submitter to write up something sexy way before the product launch. A mediocre CFP submission won’t get accepted, so the team is pressured into distilling their ideas into a clear, interesting pitch.
Fewer abstractions, more humans with pulses
A good CFP for an interesting conference will help the team avoid another trap: only thinking about new customers as abstractions. In the world of web-based products, it is incredibly easy for teams—especially programmers—to never meet their customers in the flesh. This can lead to astonishingly casual abstractions of customers’ needs, and from there to vague, unfocused products. The CFP should force you into thinking about the attendees very concretely. By targeting a conference they would attend, the team can avoid this abstraction because they themselves are part of the target community.
Put simply, find the person you most admire on the featured speakers list and figure out what you would have to do to make them impressed (or at least attentive).
Literally captive audience
If you’ve managed to get accepted by pitching an idea of actual interest and relevance to the completely non-abstract human attendees, you then get the benefit of having them in an actual room in front of you when you present. While this won’t solve all your PR problems, at least you know you communicated with someone. If you really nail your presentation, you’ll often have the good fortune of having your talk—and hopefully your product—mentioned alongside the other reporting on the conference itself by people with bigger audiences than your own.
Very few ideas, but multimedia
Getting anyone with a big audience to pass along your message will require an engaging talk, but this is another area in which public speaking and good product development are well aligned. The best public speakers communicate very, very few ideas in a single talk, but they do so emphatically. There’s often no choice but to have this sort of focus, as most conferences limit the length of sessions, and the best do so very aggressively. A good new product will have very, very few ideas (or features) that it does better than anything else.
Designing the actual talk to highlight these ideas is yet another virtuous reinforcement for the team. The hidden benefit of the launch-as-talk approach is that you can deliver your message in a literally multimedia way, with pictures and movies and stories and words. Use this opportunity to engage a wider cross-section of your team, as abilities often complement each other in different forms of expression.
Finally, conference-driven development gets the whole team to commit to a date and stick to it. No one will believe that the CEO can save them at the last minute by slipping the date—or that someone will unexpectedly move it sooner. “The date is the date and your name and promise are already on the program, so we have no choice but to ship.”
What not to do?