The Importance of Off-the-Record Conversations with Engineers

cindyalvarez_blog.jpg

By Cindy Alvarez (Head of Products and Customer Development, KISSmetrics) Do you talk to the engineers you work with?

I mean, outside of specs, user stories, and meetings to review specs or user stories?

If you aren’t, you’re leaving a lot of untapped potential on the table and your company is losing a competitive advantage because of it.

I mean, you’re probably pretty smart. But unless you are also an engineer (and no, having come from an engineering background 5+ years ago doesn’t count —- that’s like 35 years in Internet-years), you really don’t have a good sense for what is possible.

The little off-the-record conversations I have with our engineers are usually one of the highlights of my day. That really annoying product quirk that costs me an extra 20 minutes every day? Fixable with a 2-minute code commit. That "if only our customers could do X..." idea? 10 minutes for an engineer to throw together a bookmarklet that solves it.

(And on the other side: that feature request that will be a beast to build? 3 minutes and we’ve negotiated a simpler version that can be built in half the time.)

Now, I’m not saying that engineers should be at the whims of product managers poking their heads over the cube wall with every wacky idea that pops into their heads. Pulling someone out of ‘flow’ when they’re coding might cost you 3 hours of productive time, even if your request “only” took 5 minutes.

But your culture needs to allow for asking questions and mentioning problems in an off-the-record way.

Engineers need to feel empowered to answer your question with “Nope, actually that would be a really tough change and hard to test” —- without someone accusing them of being lazy. They also need the freedom to respond to your question with “Hey, it took me 2 minutes to build what you asked for!”

Product managers need to feel empowered to ask a quick question -— without spending an hour going through official process and writing a spec. They also need the discipline to retract a request when it becomes clear that there’s a high time cost or high risk involved.

This is a big challenge when the culture isn’t in place. Far too many companies have an adversarial products vs. engineering culture -— and whichever team dominates, the other team often ends up blamed for too many things and overly defensive. This makes it hard for this kind of conversation to flourish -— but makes it even more critical. Because regardless of which way the pendulum swings, both teams have some crazy ridiculous stuff to put up with. Better to understand together, commiserate together, and problem-solve together than over the wall.

This post was originally posted at The Experience is the Product.

About the guest blogger: Cindy Alvarez is the head of products and customer developmentfor KISSmetrics, where she is currently building two products (KISSmetrics and KISSinsights) using customer development / lean startup techniques. Cindy is passionate about helping startups succeed through early focus on product management, user experience, and customer outreach. She blogs at The Experience is the Product. Follow her on Twitter at @cindyalvarez.