Walking a mile in a customer’s shoes

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At Tasktop’s headquarters in downtown Vancouver, it takes around 300 feet to do a lap around our entire office. At one of our automotive customers in Michigan, a round-trip walk of their premises is a daunting half mile. 

I’ve always heard about the size and scale of some of Tasktop’s customers, but until I walked nearly half a mile in their shoes, I only had the faintest idea.

Recently, I was lucky to be a part of a two-day customer site visit at the automotive customer with a group of five other Tasktop software engineers. It presented an invaluable opportunity to get a better sense of how our customer uses Tasktop and foster a deeper relationship with end-users to mutually improve our product, for their benefit and for ours. Upon being told I was selected to go, I was excited to take part in my first ever business trip to Michigan. As that sunk in and I thought about it more, I started to have some reservations: 

  • What will the customer be like?
  • What kind of questions will they have?
  • What kind of questions should I have?
  • Will we get along?
  • Do they expect us to solve all of their problems?

All of those concerns dissipated when we arrived at our first meeting to an assortment of Tim Hortons coffee and snacks from the customer’s Planning Tools Team. We were going to get along just fine.

Our first meeting laid the groundwork for the ensuing dialogue of the trip, such as how their team set up/configured Tasktop, what integrations were they running, the potential integrations they would like to run, and some of the problems they were experiencing along their journey. Some problems were enlightening for us developers because it’s hard to imagine problems that are introduced by scale. 

For example, the customer was interested in integrating GitHub pull request links to a user story in another tool, but it was easy for a developer to make a mistake in their commit message that could cause it to be linked to a completely different user story. This problem does occur at Tasktop, but it can fairly trivial to remedy when you only have a couple of engineering teams. For an organization of the customer’s size, with thousands of developers, projects, Git repositories, and hundreds of different teams, it’s easy to see how mistakes like this can be hard to mitigate and control.

These sorts of problems were refreshing to hear from the customer first-hand because as much as you try to simulate or understand a customer environment, it’s hard to replicate the uniqueness of each deployment. It can sometimes be difficult to imagine what some of their problems could possibly be. Being able to ask questions first-hand and discuss these problems with the customer reinforced the power of the feedback loop in successful software delivery, and having that face-to-face time provided ample motivation for us developers.

From that meeting onwards, it was clear that their team was not looking to demand answers from us; they were starting a conversation. It was almost like a chat between co-workers teaming up to navigate a problem together. 

Throughout the rest of the two-day trip, we split into different groups to talk about problems like the one mentioned above. We drilled down on some ideas and approaches to help them straight away and also to shape potential features and fixes for Tasktop Integration Hub. We also had “Buy a Feature” sessions, which allowed their team to invest (with fake money) on features they would like to see in the product. It was extremely interesting to overhear conversations from their employees about what matters to them most in our product. To our surprise, it’s sometimes the smaller features that can have the most impact: much of their investment was directed towards simpler usability features such as reusing transition graphs, auditing user actions, and some UI formatting on lengthy project names.

In retrospect, it was an amazing opportunity to get a first-hand account from a customer perspective on our product. As a developer, it’s easy to get tunnel vision, so getting a look from outside the box can have an immediate impact. I believe that will have a resounding effect on our developers’ mindsets moving forward, and I hope that more of our team can experience that opportunity to foster new and improved relationships with our customers to develop a powerful symbiotic relationship.

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