• Austin Brailey

Ask Your Developer: Top Takeaways

The messages that pop-up on your phone, whether telling you your food delivery is on its way, or that your Uber is ready, are likely provided by Twilio.

Jeff Lawson, the cofounder and CEO of Twilio (one of the fastest-growing tech companies on Earth), has written a really good book.

It has a ton of practical advice on establishing the processes, structure and culture that enable companies to thrive, but here my personal top takeaways...

* 1 * Twilio rented a big billboard in San Francisco but had no idea what to put on it. Coming up with a message was extra tough, Lawson explains, because “Twilio doesn’t sell products to consumers. We sell a service to software developers… our software hides under the covers, inside websites and mobile apps.”

At the last minute, he joked “Why don’t we just say, ‘Ask your developer’? But it worked because it didn’t try to explain what Twilio did, but instead "provoked a conversation".

If you don’t know what Twilio is, your developers certainly will!

* 2 * Lawson says the secret to Twilio's success is "empowering a type of worker that few vendors actually treat as their customer: software developers.”

* 3 * A ‘Software Person’ is not necessarily a developer - it’s anybody who, when faced with a problem, asks the question: “How can software solve this problem?”

* 5 * “You can’t buy differentiation. You can only build it.” Lawson’s rule of thumb is that you should build "...anything where your customer will be saying, why doesn’t it do X, and your answer is, well, the thing we brought doesn’t do X.”

* 6 * To articulate a core company value of always “wearing the customer’s shoes”, Twilio commissioned a run of Twilio red Chuck Taylor Converse shoes sporting dual branding. If a customer gave Twilio a pair of their shoes, they got a pair of Converse in return.

Twilio quickly amassed hundreds of pairs of shoes, which are now hanging in their offices. Everyone asks, “What’s with the shoes?” and that “...keeps the value alive and part of a daily conversation. Yes, it’s cheesy, but it works.”

* 7 * Lawson cites AWS as changing the game when it allowed people to pay only for what they used, saying “to me, the most interesting implications of AWS was that it changed not just the way computing power was bought, but who was buying it”. Now it's no longer just CIOs and CFOs making high-stake decisions, but ordinary developers with a credit card.

* 8 * "The key to getting business people and developers to work well together is for the businesspeople to share problems, not solutions."

* 9 * “When things go wrong, it’s either time to blame, or a time to learn."

* 10 * "In the coming decade, the winners will be companies that build the best software - which really means, the companies with the best software developers."

* 11 * Real learning, Lawson says, is the “the kind where people learn by doing. You can’t learn to swim by watching videos and listening to lectures. You learn by getting into the pool.”

* 12 * 'Bikeshedding' is “the tendency for non-experts in charge to expend a lot of calories on unimportant details, because they lack the context to make the most important decision”. For example, focusing on the colour of the company’s bike shed because it’s all they understand.

* 13 * Great companies don’t say "I need better customer support", they say "We should reduce the need for customers to contact customer support.”

* 14 * People, often investors, ask Lawson why he give so much autonomy to small teams. He replies: “who knows best how to serve customers? I’m sitting here right now, talking to investors, while my teams are busy talking to customers. Who do you think knows more about what we need to do for our customers today?”

* 15 * At Twilio, the first step in defining a new product or feature is writing the press release.

* 16 * Lawson is wary of the word ‘strategy’ because “it can be mistaken for marching orders from executives, versus listening to customers. At Twilio , he often says “our strategy is simple: build things our customers want for which they’ll pay us.”

"Obviously we have long term plans for the business, but I don’t want teams to confuse our company’s goals for serving our customers.”

* 17 * One thing that regularly frustrates execs and managers is the inability for engineering teams to commit to hard deadlines; the way Lawson thinks about it is "there are four attributes in software development: features, deadlines, quality, and certainty. Generally speaking, you can pick any three, but you can’t have all four…”

The book is available on Amazon and comes highly recommended.

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