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From Building Features to Leading Product Development

Tech Debt
Prioritization

16 August, 2021

Jan Macek
Jan Macek

VP of Engineering at Vendavo

Jan Macek, VP of Engineering at Vendavo, shares how his team moved away from operating as feature factory.

Problem

If you have a successful B2B product, it can easily happen that you end up in a vicious cycle of customers asking for more features that can be one-off and hard to reuse. At the same time you don’t want to disappoint your customers. This can also divert your work away from the long term feature roadmap, deferring technical work and eventually accruing of the technical debt.

Addressing individual feature requests also puts product into the perspective of the follower, not the leader. Ideally you want to build capabilities before customers ask for this, which means you are leading the market and setting the tone. To change this situation we needed to change the narrative of how we work with customers. Instead of letting customers tell us what features they need, we had to understand the problem that they are facing and propose the most optimal solution that can be widely adopted.

Our inability to lead product development by ourselves and just waiting for what customers ask for, could be put on the account of missing direct access to users. Sales teams wanted to have accounts under control, blocking us from talking to users. No one in the organization could truly be the voice of customers. Apparently, it was a misunderstanding, because sales talks to different people in customer’s organization than product managers and owners. Account managers talk to decision makers, budget owners, while users are typically a different persona. And user is the target persona for engineering and product teams.

Once you have access to the actual users, you need to run continuous customer research. You need to speak to these people; you need to understand how they use the system, what they are missing and what problems they are facing with the product.

Actions taken

Apparently, we had to start with clarification internally about the different personas at customer - buyer vs user. At the same time we had to gain trust between sales and product teams, so that our activities won’t harm any relationship, on the contrary it changes the relationship with customers to true partnership.

Next to this we had to educate people in engineering, product and UX how to approach customers, how to communicate in front of them, how to build successful customer research programs, and how to gain and manage insights from customers. All these conversations have to be formally prepared, and followed up.

Despite all the effort, you always find customers requesting specific features for them. You have to avoid this trap and also update the architecture of your software, build proper extension points, so that functionality can be extended through professional services, not utilizing engineering.

Change of architecture and introduction of extensible API was a huge relief for engineering. Instead of putting capacity on one of the features, we could focus on building a consistent roadmap, predicting the needs of the market and becoming leaders in the field.

We also introduced KPI’s around teams’ focus, so that we better understand where they put an effort. Is it a new roadmap item that has potential to positively impact the top line? Is it technical improvement that improves operational excellence? Or is this customer support and/or bug fixing, that supports customer retention? We found it very beneficial to track these three simple “effort buckets” to understand what teams are working on and how it relates to the market demand. It also helps to understand if the team size corresponds with product success.

Lessons learned

  • There was one critical outcome. It is related to building features based on specific customers’ requests . When you focus on that, you are constantly following demand, you are always late in delivering. If you change it to the other way around, you are building features for the future. You are then in position to please customers, because they don’t have to wait for your development. And you take pressure off from engineering.
  • If you operate as a feature factory, the success is only measured by timely delivery of the feature. But this is an unrealistic dream . Real succes of the product is measured differently. It is about the satisfaction of customers and whether it solves their problem. You can reach that in multiple different ways then focusing on features.

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