Always Be Working With Customers

Last week I was in Israel for the MongoDBeer meetup and an enterprise event, both hosted by Matrix, one of our partners, and a few really great client meetings. One of the things that I don’t get to do often enough these days is work directly with customers on interesting technical challenges, so those client meetings were really quite invigorating.

I was reminded of this recently when I was doing a fireside chat with Albert Wenger at NYCode, an event hosted by NextView Ventures. We were talking about some of the things we did early on at MongoDB that led to the great momentum we now have. Albert said that a major factor was how obsessed I was with making our users successful with their deployments. That’s true, I was completely obsessed. I had this thing about all the questions on our google group being answered as fast as possible. Day or night, if someone had a problem, I was trying to fix it with them.

As my responsibilities to my team grew, I had to leave that phase of my role behind me. It was hard to do. Albert joked on stage about how it became a board-level priority for me to stop handling support issues.

But my obsession produced more than successful users. In that formative period, those interactions taught me what people wanted from our product, enabling me to steer MongoDB towards where it should be better than I possibly could have without those direct relationships.

Of course, that “formative period” will never end, and my role remains to ensure that MongoDB is always evolving to meet the needs of as many users as possible. This is the sibling to my claim that engineering managers have to keep their hands in the code: a technology leader should never stop working directly on customer issues. If you do, and only get filtered information, you will not be able to help make good decisions, and in fact run the risk of making poor decisions. Does that take a lot of time? Of course it does. But spending that time isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s core to your job, and a well-run team works independently enough that you should have time for it. If you can’t find the time, you need to to reevaluate the rest of your commitments, as I periodically have to.

Are you getting enough exposure to your customers’ issues?