Builiding Things That Don't Matter
Retain Talent, Conserve Resources
Anyone who has spent time in Silicon Valley or working at a startup knows that it is a culture that prides itself on being customer-centric. Whether it be from blogs, product road map meetings, town halls, or the tattoo on your product manager's arm, you can hear the "customer first" mantra being shouted from the rooftops and echoing through the halls. Proselytizing is all good and well, but it will not save your team from building something your customer doesn't want. Simply having a "customer first" culture is not enough to keep a product team from building things that don't matter. There are high costs to building things that don't matter: wasted engineering resources and much worse, high engineering attrition. I've built many things that don't matter and I have seen other engineers build things that don't matter. We don't like to do it. The most talented engineers know the value of building things. A company will clearly fail if it can't retain talent and wastes the resources it does have.
For the Customer
Let me use a story from my past as an example of why the customer-centric approach is not enough on its own. At somewhere near the beginning of my career, I was working as a hardware engineer for a late-ish stage (series C/D) startup in San Francisco. The details are not important, but our team was looking to source some new hardware, a task which involved visits to manufacturers. In short, we wanted to make sure good manufacturing processes were in place at the company we ended up working with. At this point, I was still quite new to the "factory tour", (as was the rest of the team), so we were not sure what to expect. We met up with the salesperson we have been interfacing with and most of the tour goes off without a hitch. Their facilities aren't the best we've ever seen. but they are decent and we have already decided we like their product. Then we get to the room where they do touch screen assembly. A brief aside on touchscreen assembly for the uninitiated: there are typically four layers in modern touch screens that have to be pressed together; a very delicate procedure for sure. Tiny particles getting sandwiched between the layers during manufacturing will yield shitty, broken products. Because of this touchscreens are generally assembled in cleanrooms. (I forget the exact ISO standard recommended but it's not anything like what you need for manufacturing silicon or anything). Before we go in our tour guide/salesperson gets us to put on little booties over our shoes. So far so good, wouldn't want dirt from my shoes getting in the cleanroom! I'm thinking. Then we walk up to the antechamber that precedes the cleanroom and we each step in one at a time. When it's my turn, the doors on either side of me seal, and heavy-duty air blowers start going off, buffetting me from all directions. I can feel the ions, particles, and contaminates from everyday life wash off of me, along with my anxieties of not being able to find a manufacturer that cares about what their customer wants. The blowers stop, the doors unseal and I walk into the cleanroom. We walk around the room for a bit, check the jigs they have installed for assembly and quality testing. Things are looking good. Then our tour guide/salesperson declares it's time for us to move on to the next section of the tour. She leads us to the back of the cleanroom and unceremoniously opens up an emergency exit door which leads outdoors to a metal walkway a few stories off the ground. It's midday and unadulterated sunlight pours in from the courtyard illuminating our aghast faces, burning away all the comfort that had been showered down upon me in the antechamber. My boss and I look at each other. I am speechless, but my boss somehow finds some words. "So, what was with that blow-drying in the airlock about if you just enter and leave through this door?" Our salesperson stares at him blankly, wondering why he would be asking such an obvious question. "Oh. that's for the customer of course."
Why Not What
Now, this didn't happen in Silicon Valley, but I would argue that the behavior came from a culture that is even more customer-centric than Silicon Valley's. The point, I hope, is obvious. You can't just ask what the customer wants and call it a day. You need to understand why they want what they asked for. The importance is two-fold. Firstly, it is the only way you can implement "what the customer asked for" in such a way that it actually solves their needs. As evidenced by my story, building what your customer wants without knowing why will yield an embarrassing result. Secondly, it is the only viable path to innovation. Innovative products are driven by an understanding of the motivations and behaviors of the customer, not by product managers or designers or CEOs or engineers or whoever asking their customers what features they want. Let's stop being satisfied with knowing what your customer wants from your product (and even worse, only understanding whether or not your customer is able to use your product), so we can stop building things that don't matter.