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Building a customer-focused engineering team

11 March, 2021

Guidelines from the Cofounder and CEO of Bond, Roy Ng

We often notice that our engineers aren't reaching where we hope for them to reach. The main focus of our engineers is mainly on building what the product owner tells them to, but have you ever wondered - "Do my engineers need to be more business and customer focussed?"

Not only engineers but everyone in the company needs to be customer-focused, as we are serving the customer. Many engineers derive a lot of satisfaction when they are involved with the customer and when they know -

  • What they are building
  • Why are they building it? and
  • How will people use it?

If your engineers don't understand why they are building a product or a feature, they may not be able to build the right product for your customers. Let's look at a few steps to build a customer focussed engineering team:

Step 1 - Optimize and empower your team.

Having a smaller team structure can drive towards customer orientation. When you have smaller teams, the developers get the opportunity to participate in the decision-making. They can be in front of the customer, understand the use case and the problem they should be trying to solve. Your teams should also be autonomous because it enables them to coordinate with other teams and minimize dependencies.

Type I and type II decision-making - Type I decisions are not easily reversible, and the type II decisions are those that can be reversed and you have the possibility of iterations.

When we start our career, we feel that every decision is a type I decision. And as we continue to grow, we realize that more and more of these decisions are, in fact, type II decisions. Being able to recognize that well in time is really important. Most companies treat a lot of decisions as type I, whereas many of them can be easily reversed, and you can learn from them. The more you empower your small teams to step up and make decisions, the more they will move quickly without boggling down with other teams and the organization.

Step 2 - Prepare your team.

Consider setting up pre-conversations with your engineering teams internally before having any customer engagement. Ensure that all team members know their roles and responsibilities in the meeting, think through the potential questions that may come back from the customer and who would handle those. Once you are comfortable with the pre-game, your customer success and sales team will also be comfortable with engineers participating. Even if it's not a speaking role, your engineers can learn a lot from direct customer interactions.

Step 3 - Know your team.

The most simple and effective technique is to ask. While having one-on-ones with your reports, ask each other how you're doing, as these conversations are a two-way street. As a manager, it is one of your responsibilities to know if your team is doing okay. Make your engineers feel comfortable so they don’t hesitate asking about your life. While having conversations about product roadmap, customer goals, or career development, any pain points that your team may have will surface.

Integrating external teams into your projects - Treat external teams as a part of your team and give them tangible and ownable projects so that they can drive outcomes. An important aspect here is maintaining the balance of inclusion because if the external team gets too diluted, they will only end up helping the internal team.

Step 4 - Understand what customer-focus means and what the trade-offs are.

Customer service is the speed from idea to delivery (going from an idea to delivering what the customer really wants). Many companies do not get this right the first time, and even if they do, it further translates to doing continual iterations and making the product better. Sometimes we trade-off delivering the most tested product, and other times we wait longer to work out the bugs before the customers receive it. If you have a trust level with your customer, you could probably give them something a little less mature and tested. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a new customer, you could do two more QA sprints before you deliver.

Conclusion

Connecting and exposing your engineers to your customers can enable them to be more effective in their work. Especially in the times of COVID, when most of our conversations are through video conferencing systems, this can be a great opportunity for engineers or engineering managers to join some customer calls. The more context your engineers will have, the more productive and satisfying their work will be.

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