Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Want to be a Jolt Award Finalist? Three Steps

I have been a Jolt judge for all 17 years that the award has existed. This position has been a great privilege because during that time span, the award has become the equivalent of the Academy Awards for software-development tools. One reason for this rise to prominence is that vendors sense that the judges put a lot of work and deliberation into their choices. This somewhat understates the work we do, as I'll explain shortly. This post, however, focuses on a common query from vendors whose products did not advance to the final round: what more could we have done to advance? The answer frequently is: plenty.

To give context to the pointers below, it's important to understand a few things about the Jolt judging process:

  • For judges, the Jolt season represents a period of intense activity. I expect that in any given Jolt season I will spend more than 100 hours on product selection. That's a lot of time, and it's all volunteer. We receive no payment for our time.

  • Judge deliberations are secret. We use several mechanisms for sharing our perspectives. Their contents are sealed at the end of the judging cycle. Only discussions relating to procedural matters are retained year to year. So, asking for the judges' rationale for a certain decision will not (or, at least, should not) result in useful information.

  • Judges vote in secret. No one but the person tabulating the results at Doctor Dobb's knows which judge voted for what. Frequently, the results are mystifying to me. I don't understand why product X was left out, while the clearly superior product Y was included. There is only one obvious answer: other people evaluate the product differently than I do.

  • Judges recuse themselves from any category of products in which they can derive financial benefit or where they work for one of the vendors whose product is nominated.

So, how can a vendor influence a product's fate?

  1. Have a good product. This more than any other factor will improve your prospects. If your product is nominated year after year, make sure that you have something new to say. We frequently kick out products that are the same as last year's save for a few tweaks. Remember this is an annual award, so greatness must have occurred during the coverage year (generally November to November).

  2. Be able to articulate why your product is better than others. Judges who have never heard of your product need a reason to vote for it. Give it to them. Many vendors set up portals specifically for Jolt judges. They include movie clips of the product (10-15 minutes), screen shots, and generated reports. This is a superb idea. Judges can go to the site and in 20 minutes figure out whether they see any magic there. If you choose to do this, emphasize how your product is different or better than others. Don't try to demo every feature. The judges just want to know why they should vote for you. If you want to create a competitive grid with feature comparisons, this helps too.

  3. Follow up with the judges. Two categories I voted in this weekend (when we voted for finalists) had more than 30 products. After looking at a large number of websites, the products tend to blur. Even though I take notes, when I go back and re-read them, it's hard to remember my exact perspective. If I don't know a product beforehand, it's likely to fall in this blurry region unless it has some incredibly good (or bad) feature. You have a PR agency, right? Put them to work. Have them contact me. Send me a press kit in the mail. Some companies used to send 'swag'--an industry terms for those inexpensive promotional chotchkas vendors give out. Better yet, send out a boxed copy of your software. This helps. In a sea of choices, having a name to remember and with which I can associate specific features is a big plus.

    Depending on how I split my votes I can vote for anywhere from 4 to 10 products per category. I almost never vote for as few as four. A problem I have is that once I've voted for the top products, I might have only a few votes left for the remaining 20-30 products. At this point, I need some reason to vote for your product. Just because it's good is not sufficient. Make its good points memorable and you're likely to get one of those last few votes.
The coming stage--choosing the winner from the finalists--is completely different. Now judges will want to download software. A common error vendors commit at this point is to make the licensing difficult. The more difficult you make the licensing, the less time I will have to look at your product. This seems obvious, but many vendors have a fear that somehow judges will do something terrible with their software--something like using it after the judging period is over. All the judges know that they can't turn over their license key to their employers. At worst, they will keep using the product for themselves. This is desirable. You want judges of the product to tell other developers, "I use the Acme debugger and it runs circles around product X." Almost invariably, the judges are influencers in major communities. Celebrate their use of your product. Make licensing easy.

I hope this post answers some preliminary questions.


Anonymous said...

Nicely said!

Kayla White
Compuware Corp.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, I'm new as a judge, but goodness NO -- do NOT send me a software disk in fancy packaging. It'll sit on the floor of my office until I throw it out, particularly if it's a DVD since the computer I use for this stuff doesn't have a DVD drive. That's because I get my software by download.

I've already thrown out 17 Microsoft MSDN DVDs by the way. They come automatically with, according to MSDN, no possibility of not getting the physical media nor of not getting language versions (Japanese, German, Korean, 3 different Chinese) that I will never use.

Anonymous said...

Cosmopolitan magazine's two-part secret to fashion success: (1) Show up and (2) Look good.

Andrew, I heartily agree with the "distinguish your product to make it easy" and "streamline the ****ing licensing already!" points.

The latter in particular should be a no-brainer for vendors, unless we judges are WAY OFF about our level of influence in the community outside of Jolt season.

But when it comes to followup, vendors should be aware that there's a fine line between helpfulness ("Anything else you need?") and perceived attempt to influence the result ("Here, let us send you a quad-core Opteron to help you evaluate our product"). And the perception need not be on the part of the judge(s); if the readers or vendors get the idea that we're in it for the swag, or that such-and-such vendor had the ear of the judges during the process, we're in trouble!

I know you can't be influenced so easily, but I worry about less strong-willed judges, such as, oh...me.