At small companies, engineers often feel isolated on their own island. They write the code that forms the product and design the systems that interact with the end users. But engineers can often be siloed from collaboration with other teams at the company and feel detached from the high-level conversations about product development.
How can they find their way back to the mainland?
We spoke with Ian Reis, a Software Engineer at DC based startup, Till, about his advice on building a strong dialogue between the engineering team, product team, and leadership at startup companies. With almost a decade of experience in the startup space, Ian shares helpful tips on how engineers can provide product feedback to help guide the company on the right path.
In this interview, we cover:
- How startup engineers can contribute to product development and steer leadership in the right direction
- How engineers can provide feedback to companies that don’t seek it out
The conversation below has been edited for length and content.
How can startup engineers contribute to product development and steer leadership in the right direction?
Engineers can contribute a lot at startups by pointing out problems that they see coming. The product team usually only addresses problems that have either surfaced from a customer report or CEO feedback. Since engineers are actually responsible for building the product, I believe that the engineering team is capable of surfacing a lot of problems before customers or leadership ever raise an issue.
At a larger company, a lot of processes are already in place so engineers do not necessarily feel obligated to provide product feedback. However, in the startup world, product teams rarely receive signals that there is a problem. They’re usually working with a small set of customers and the founders might only check in with them once a month because they are busy juggling a million other things.
As a result, engineers have the best capability to provide signals for things that need to be improved because they can see the problems that are going to happen as they’re working on the product itself. If they notice something not working properly, and can provide feedback on how to improve the product and their code, someone is going to pay attention.
When I first started at Till, we were asking the resident a certain question and using that information for a whole host of things. But user submitted data was wrong a lot of the time because users didn’t know what question they were answering. So, one of the first things I noted was, “This field is not good. Here’s how we should fix it.”
That’s a big thing that engineering can provide to a startup. I think a lot of people believe that they can work a startup and just naturally progress to higher roles. Although that’s sometimes true, you get your money’s worth by finding people who know how to give you that constructive feedback ahead of time and know how to move the product forward.
How can engineers provide feedback to companies that don’t seek it out?
If you’re an engineer who joined an organization that doesn’t seek feedback from the engineering department, it’s going to be challenging. But I think there’s always an opening to change that mindset by catching problems that will unlock other features that can be built.
A good example is that field that I mentioned for our system. Once we got rid of that question field, we wondered: if we didn’t need that anymore, what could be in its place? We unlocked new options for them. We displayed value, not by building something, but by pointing out a problem that was holding them back.
For companies that haven’t assigned that type of value to their engineering team, it’s on the engineers themselves to demonstrate that they can provide a lot of value on top of building the product. They must show leadership the value of considering their feedback. The only way that can happen is if you’re constantly telling them where you want to be in the future instead of just what you want to do immediately.
I have a friend who has a company. He was telling me about some of the problems that they were having with their platform, and I just said, “Those sound like very common problems. I’m sure if you just go talk to your engineers and ask, ‘Hey guys, what am I missing?’ They will bombard you with problems to solve. They have them, you’re just not asking for them.”
He just came back to me and said, “Wow, you’re right. They had a million things that they wanted to do. I just wasn’t asking.”