Innovating from Within: Patty Tang and the Launch of Dell’s Latitude Z Laptop

“It’s about going out of our normal way of doing things in order to deliver on the product.”

The original Skunk Works was a specialized team formed in 1943 at Lockheed Martin, operating within the corporation, but free of the formal restrictions inherent in the corporate bureaucracy. Waiting around for a purchase order to clear accounting isn’t a winning proposition when you’re trying to outpace the growth of German jet fighters in WWII.

Plenty of corporations have taken stabs at skunkworks-style operations, specialized groups of workers hyper-creating in an entrepreneurial environment unfettered by nasty protocol and silo issues. Rob Adams often makes the point that the skills of entrepreneurship (risk analysis, rapid prototyping, customer insight, etc.) have utility in any work endeavor, even if your cubicle is number 213 on level 4A.

I recently sat down with Patty Tang (MBA ’00), Product Manager with Dell, to explore what it was like to operate in an “intrapranuership” mode during the development and launch of the Latitude Z laptop.

David Wenger: I recently spoke with Professor Ben Bentzin about the Latitude Z, and he calls it a next step in the development model for Dell. What makes it so?

Patty Tang: Latitude is the number one notebook in the corporate market, and Latitude Z introduces the concept of customization within that market. It features innovative technologies that may not be primed for your mainstream corporate user. So this is a very different product because the system itself is more distinctive, and shows off technologies that don’t exist elsewhere. The form factor is very slim and light, yet the screen size is 30% larger than other products targeted to frequent travelers. This is also the first time wireless charging has been introduced in a notebook, a technology leap that has attracted a lot of notice.

DW: What had to be done differently in order to make a product like this possible?

PT: So many computer products today are ODM-driven models, designed by a contract manufacturer, and constrained by their parameters. Latitude Z was completely designed in Austin by a specialized engineering group, a team of 5 to 6 engineers. They went off for about eight weeks and actually produced a prototype using available technologies. Showed they could do it. And they identified some challenges.

DW: What were those challenges?

PT: Customers want the slimmest notebook, ultra light. Normally, to have a system like that you have to compromise features in exchange for slimness. For example, the standard Ethernet connector is almost half an inch thick, so that means if you include Ethernet it will dictate the thickness of the system, along with all the other features that have to fit inside.

So we made some conscious choices  and one of them was that the system would have an Ethernet port, and our industrial design team got very involved in the early design. They actually produced a customized hinge that integrates an Ethernet port, a tricky piece of engineering because you have to have electrical components within the hinge. So it is very beautiful, but adds a functionality very important to our corporate customers.

DW: How were the principles of entrepreneurship applied in this process?

PT: Creativity is definitely very key because you can’t just do what you did last year. And as an individual, you can’t rely on what you have done before, you have to come up with new solutions. Because the sales volume in corporate notebooks is very large, normally we have to select components we can source from multiple suppliers. For Latitude Z, some of the components were highly specialized, in the whole world there may be only one vendor that can make it. So the level of tolerance from an operational perspective is very different.

DW: How do you push past some of those operational constraints?

PT: It begins with a company vision. We had a lot of visibility to our senior management, and they put this project as a priority. That cures a lot of the internal issues. It’s about going out of our normal way of doing things in order to deliver on the product. Really a team of people from various functional areas working together as a core team to deliver. As a side note, one benefit is that when you move to the next project you know who can get things done.

DW: Is the Latitude Z considered a success within Dell?

PT: We definitely achieved what we wanted. One of the surprises for me is the popularity of the wireless charging technology, which was a very difficult technology innovation to achieve. The coverage we got on that technology was tremendous, from newspapers, pc mags, business journals, and even CNN. It’s a relatively pricey accessory, but the early adoption rate is four times our projection.

DW: You’ve been out of school for ten years. Any advice for business students?

PT: When I think of what I got from McCombs, a big part of it is the network and the culture. I’m from China, so I was an international student and learning the American business culture was huge for me. And the second thing is the interaction, the teamwork. In our world it is about working with a group of people from different functional areas, and different cultures. Your engineer is in Asia, and your operations and your factories are here.

I also value all the connections I made. When I go to Japan or China, I’ll get together with my MBA network. I value the network, those connections, most of all.

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