Don’t Shield Engineers from Customers

My first role at Microsoft involved supporting the top Search Engine Marketing advertisers on Microsoft adCenter, which was just being launched to compete with Google adWords. The first version of adCenter lacked a ton of basic functionality required for SEM, and I took on the responsibility of collecting customer feedback from the frontline and presenting it to the product’s engineers. I couldn’t understand how the architecture didn’t support such basic and critical features and functionality, and why subsequent releases still didn’t include the updates customers needed.  As I dug deeper, it became apparent the engineers were being shielded from customers. Working directly with customers, I saw the value of customer feedback, and the importance of engineers meeting with customers firsthand. So you can imagine how disappointed I was in myself last week when I realized my startup had the same problem.

As a product manager for LazyMeter, I meet regularly with prospective users and report back to the team with feedback and features. During team meetings, I usually push for launch dates to be moved forward. While the team probably thinks I’m being an annoying business guy, I am pushing on behalf of a growing audience begging to use our product. I didn’t realize the rest of the team wasn’t getting to meet with this audience.  They’re located in Boston, so we have even more distance than usual between business and engineering.

During a phone call last week, a potential consulting client went into a rant about why he needs LazyMeter. “I have ADD,” he said, “and I need your product bad.” As he continued to beg us to launch, I heard the energy in my co-founder’s voice go through the roof. A few hours later, I got news that we hit a major milestone – early, for the first time.

The role of product manager is typically described as being the “voice of the customer”. Some product managers will go as far as to say they protect engineers from customers, who could easily take up all their time. While this is true, it doesn’t mean engineers should be denied access to customers completely. I cannot convey the need for a feature as well as a user, because I will miss their subject matter expertise and, more importantly, their passion. And the customer will always have the best insight into the solution, ensuring the feature is built correctly the first time. Too often, product managers ask for features without enough context, so the resulting feature isn’t what the customer asked for. Too often, product managers only take work items and negative feedback to engineers. It turns out part of the product management role is motivating the engineering team. Engineers need to see the difference they’re making in people’s lives. They need to feel the passion for the product they work on. Give an engineer features and you’re like a boss giving them more work.  Give an engineer a meeting with a customer and you’ll inspire and motivate them.  Direct meetings between engineers and customers improve the quality of the product, the speed of development, and the morale of the team.

When I left my first role at Microsoft, the sales team was setting up meetings with customers and engineers directly. The customers loved it – even if the results weren’t immediate, they liked that they were being heard and became ambassadors of the product. The engineers loved it – they stopped seeing feature requests as disruptive and understood how they impacted customers firsthand. And the salespeople loved it too – the customers spent more money.

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