The concept of a 10x engineer is deceptive. You have engineers that are excited and driven to build things. Or they’re not. A while ago, I realized I’m a true product engineer. Product engineers are happiest when building something tangible that directly impacts customers. While they can work on things that don’t fit into that category, they truly excel when their work fulfills that motivation of building tangible products for the customer.

The pitfall of just being an engineer

I’ve found (especially at larger companies) it’s easy to lose the bond between the customer and yourself. An engineer has the luxury of deferring decisions and customer interactions to product managers and designers. There might even be a QA team and customer success team that abstract the customer interactions from engineers. Engineers can focus purely on engineering.

Many engineers thrive under these conditions, but not product engineers. Product engineers want to see the immediate effects on the customer of what they’ve just built.

How to shorten the feedback loop and create a bond with customers

Create an email group for feedback on beta and experimental features

I brought an Applicant Tracking Feature from a hackathon to life a while back. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on any roadmap, and we had no PM, design, or customer success resources allocated for it. However, a few dedicated engineers were excited about its potential.

To get feedback, we created an email alias that beta users could directly reach us at rather than going through more traditional and less direct means of communication. We also listed the feature in our App Directory, where non-beta users could request to join via our email alias.

Several things happened:

  • The involved engineers were reading all the feedback. Being solely responsible for building it, we felt a strong sense of ownership, pride, and shame in the product.
  • We were directly responding to the customers, so we built empathy and spent time trying to understand the parts they loved and their needs we weren’t meeting yet.
  • We started seeing many patterns in feature requests and customer needs. This made it very obvious what to build next.
  • But the most exciting part of all was waking up every morning and seeing 5–10 emails in your inbox from users who were super happy about the feature and eager to join the beta!

The email alias directly connected us to users who had thoughts on the product we’d built, no middleman needed.

Even if customers respond through formal processes, let engineers feel that feedback

My team had been working on a new product with many interesting technical challenges and features. That was exciting in itself. However, we were working in a customer vacuum. The team was not directly seeing the impact of their work because it was not yet released. This brought the spirit down. It felt like nobody was getting value from all our hard work, even if we knew the theoretical long-run value.

Meanwhile, we created a new feedback form that interested users could fill out. These responses could have remained only within the product manager's view or been displayed to the engineering team later in a curated format.

I decided I wanted to feel that feedback immediately. So I hooked up a slackbot message to our team’s channel. Every time a user clicked the signup form, we got a message from the slackbot.

The instant we released the form, our channel exploded with hundreds of slack notifications. Which was funny and simultaneously re-energized some of us who’d been doubting the impact of our work. We had to shut the bot off after a few days to spare our slack channel!

Create analytics dashboards early on and talk about those numbers

You should already be creating analytics dashboards to understand your feature usage better. However, building these early lets you see the immediate impact of what you’ve built.

At Gusto, we use Redash; all it takes is a few simple SQL-style queries to see your products being used. Don’t wait for your PM or data science team to build one. Just create a basic one by yourself! Then, you can check in every morning and see the actual usage your hard work has led to.

Create easy-to-consume channels where feedback can come in a free-form way

Customers are paying for Gusto’s products, so they want it to serve them as best as possible. As a result, they’re eager to give feedback through various means.

At Gusto, we have a slack channel for ‘All product feedback.’ This is feedback any Gusto employee can forward from customers. You can see many positive comments, feature requests, and some frustrations. It’s a great way to see how your changes impacted people or what you could change to impact people.

Similarly, we have a channel for ‘Feedback from Twitter’ and ‘Churning customers.’ These channels make it quick and easy to see what customers feel and potential ideas for building something beneficial.

Actually talk to customers outside of a purely user research context

I’m lucky to work at Gusto, where hundreds of thousands of small businesses use our product. Living in NYC, I’m surrounded by thousands. There are even several in the same building as our office.

Go and talk to them and build empathy. Learn about their business and what’s working well for them and what’s not. Even on road trips, visiting customers along the route is fun. They’re often excited and happy to share. You’ll undoubtedly learn something new and surprising about how they operate or run their business.