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Cracking the code on customer-first culture

1 July 2024
Kang-Wei Chan

In this talk, Dovetail Software Engineer Kang-Wei Chan explains the importance of building a customer-first engineering team and shares practical insights for making it happen.

Let me guess three things about you.

  1. You know, your customers inside out.

  2. You love thinking about what your customers need. You have a vision for what your organization needs to do to make all your customers jump for joy and pile all their money at your feet.

  3. You wish that what you envisioned was what actually ended up happening. But it rarely ends up working out like that. There are always shortcuts taken here and suspicious trade-offs made there.

The reality is that when you’re working in a team, everyone will have their own motivations and ideas. So, how do you take your vision—which captures all kinds of customer nuances and is frankly impossible to articulate perfectly—through this execution phase without any catastrophic deviations?

My name’s Kang, and I’m a software engineer at Dovetail. I’m one of those people on your team that takes your idea and ruins it before it gets to customers… Except it’s not like that at Dovetail! And it doesn’t have to be like that in your team, either.

I’m going to show you that by cultivating a team of customer-minded engineers, you can enable your organization to capture your vision just as you had imagined.

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What is a customer-minded engineer?

But what do I mean by “customer-minded engineer”? Who are these people who will change the way that product gets built in your organization?

Well, for me, there are two key aspects that set the customer-minded engineer apart from any other typical engineer:

  1. They know your customer. They deeply understand who they are building for and what their needs are. They have built an intuition for what the customer loves and hates.

    You can trust them to make and champion decisions that the customer would make themselves.

  2. A customer-minded engineer cares about the customer.

    They are passionate about building an experience that the customer will delight in. They’re excited and energized to solve your customer’s problems. They will proactively raise concerns and fix issues because they’re motivated to do hard things for the sake of the customer.

Maybe this description reminds you of an engineer you have worked with or know. What made them valuable to you and your organization?

Keep that in mind because you’re probably asking, like any good product person should, why does this matter? Is this really the thing that will make or break the success of what I’m building?

I’m here to convince you that that’s absolutely the case.

The customer-minded engineer’s advantage

Let me walk you through a scenario that should help demonstrate this.

Working out the details to give you more time

So, you’ve got this grand vision for your organization, and you’ve even managed to turn it into a design for what you want your engineer to build. Your engineer takes the design and breaks it down into working pieces, then starts building. They’ll almost always start to uncover details that you missed. There’s something about the process of building—physically, digitally building—that brings out new ideas and questions.

Your typical engineer might sweep some of those things under the rug and hope that no one notices. If you’re lucky, they’ll barrage you with all kinds of questions.

In this kind of situation, a customer-minded engineer understands the nuances behind the design. They combine that with their own knowledge of the customer to fill in any gaps, and you can trust them to make the right decision. With a customer-minded engineer, it’s no longer just up to you—one person—to consider everything beforehand.

The benefit of this is that you no longer have to deal with the fire hose of practical details. You’ll find you have so much more space to think about the higher-level strategic visionary thinking that only you can do in your organization. Isn’t that what you want to do?

Making more accurate, pragmatic trade-offs

You want your engineers to be making more decisions. In fact, I want to go as far as suggesting engineers can often make the best, most informed decisions.

Here’s how I think about it: Product decisions often boil down to return on investment. What are the highest value changes that we can make for the least amount of effort or resources?

The return, or the value part—that’s customer centric. It requires a deep understanding of what the customer needs, how strong their needs are, and whether one need is greater than another.

The investment part is engineering-centric. You need to understand the intricacies of what you’re building. What’s even possible? What makes building one thing more difficult than another?

A customer-minded engineer deeply understands both the customer and the engineering—the return and the investment. This means they can make the right trade-offs and ultimately make a good, fully informed decision.

At the end of the day, a customer-minded engineer will help both you and your organization invest your time where it’s most valuable and make sure that you’re making the right decisions—from the littlest of details to the biggest existential ones.

At this point, I hope you’re nodding and feeling compelled that maybe this customer-minded engineering thing is worth a try. Now, I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but I want to share some things that I’ve observed at Dovetail that help create this kind of culture.

Four ingredients for a customer-minded culture

Let’s talk about sourdough bread.

Forgive me for the outrageous analogy; I love sourdough bread! I have two slices for breakfast every morning, toasted and topped with butter. There’s no better way to start the day.

I’m sure some of you have made your own sourdough before. But for those who haven’t, the whole process starts with a living culture of fermenting yeast and bacteria called a sourdough starter. If your sourdough starter is healthy, it can help lay the foundation for the light texture and subtle sourness that make a perfect sourdough loaf.

Today, I’m going to give you four ingredients that will help to make a (kind of) sourdough starter—a culture within your organization that needs to be cultivated and thriving in order to lay the foundation for this beautiful picture of customer-minded engineering that we’ve just talked about.

1. Excite

The first ingredient is to excite your engineers with your company’s success and engage them with your vision for what you’re building.

Customer-minded engineers need to be passionate about the customer. But more importantly, they need to be passionate about how your product solves your customer’s problems.

When engineers are engaged with your vision, they’ll go above and beyond to ship delightful experiences. They won’t be afraid to challenge decisions that don’t align with that vision.

How exactly to engage your engineers with your company’s vision is a much broader topic that I can’t go into fully in such a short amount of time. But I do want to share what helps me get excited about Dovetail’s vision.

Benjamin Humphrey, Dovetail’s co-founder and CEO, told audience members at Insight Out about some of the really exciting parts of Dovetail’s vision for the future of research and insights. Internally, we build layers of strategy on top of that vision to help light the pathway that leads to it. We’ve also started working in the cadence of seasonal launches, which has helped align and excite us all to be moving in the same direction—toward a pressing customer problem or problem area.

2. Empower

The second ingredient is to equip and empower your engineers to drive change.

The key here is psychological safety—helping people feel like they can raise concerns without fear of being humiliated or punished. Engineers who are customer-minded need this freedom to be able to challenge questionable decision-making. Otherwise, you risk them losing interest in your vision and not feeling like they can do anything to change it.

One way you can help engineers be more customer-minded is proactively involving them in product decisions early. By doing this, you encourage them and recognize the value that only they can bring as an engineer. You also provide a platform for them to contribute in that way.

When engineers feel they can affect and drive change, you also see this virtuous cycle start to happen where engineers feel empowered to take responsibility and ownership for their own engagement with work. This makes them even more excited to affect and drive change.

3. Exposure

The third ingredient is exposure—exposing your engineers to customers regularly.

An insightful article by Jarrod Spool explains how even two hours every six weeks spent watching customers use your product is enough to make a noticeable improvement to your team’s product decisions.

At Dovetail, engineers regularly join customer research or sales calls. We also use Dovetail to capture our customers’ interactions with the product. We either watch these directly, or they get turned into highlight reels or reports that we learn from.

One example of this at Dovetail is a monthly themed customer showcase where together, as a company, we sit and watch our customers talk about what they want from our product.

We also have a direct line to our customers through our Slack community and our various feedback forms, which we keep a keen eye on.

4. Enlist

The fourth and last ingredient is Enlist—hiring engineers who want to be customer-minded.

Some engineers just don’t care for the bigger picture. They care more about solving an interesting problem than a problem that actually exists. There’s nothing wrong with loving to solve complex problems. I do, too. But, a customer-minded engineer loves problems that are grounded by purpose.

Lessons you can learn from Dovetail’s approach to customer-centricity

Customer centricity is at the heart of Dovetail’s values. Our hiring process even involves a values-based behavioral interview. We also establish a customer-minded culture early by encouraging new starters to participate in what we call a “researcher for a day” program, where they watch customer clips, interview a colleague, analyze that in Dovetail, and familiarize themselves with the product they’ll be building.

We also have a “support for a day” program where we encourage and support everyone across the company to interact directly with real customers.

The four ingredients above—excite, empower, expose, and enlist—will help you create a customer-minded culture. I hope they will also spark even more ideas to make this happen in your organization.

But can I let you in on a little secret? None of this is really limited to engineering—that’s just the language I’ve been using. Anyone who impacts the customer can become more customer-minded and help the organization make better decisions. These four ingredients apply just as well to engineering as they do to marketing, support, sales, research, and so on.

So why don’t you take these four ingredients, excite your team with your company’s vision for what you’re building, empower them to drive change, encourage them to interact with customers more regularly, hire people who want to be customer-minded, and, ultimately, cultivate an organization that knows your customer and is passionate about how your product solves their problems.

You’ll start to find more time to lead your organization in the right direction and see better, more informed decisions being made all the time. And maybe you’d even find that when you look back, the vision that ended up happening wasn’t quite what you imagined—it was even better.

Editor’s note: This article is a condensed overview of Kang-Wei Chan’s spark talk at Insight Out 2024.

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