How important is it for engineers to have direct access to customers?

Today I attended Barbara Finer‘s excellent roundtable discussion on customer interactions at Product Camp Boston.  At one point, Barbara asked everybody to rate the importance of direct access to customers for product managers and for engineers.  Everybody agreed direct access for PM’s was extremely important.  However, the room was divided on the importance of engineers having direct access to customers.  One person rated it a 5 out of 10.

WHOA!

A few people, including myself, were up in arms over this.  I firmly believe we should have engineers meet and observe customers as much as possible, and as often as possible. In my 16 years of experience, this has never failed to make an impact.

To me, it’s an absolute no-brainer.  Engineers can get siloed unless product management makes it a point to provide them with context.  They need to be given the tools to understand how the features they are developing will be used, and why they matter to the company and its customers.  Nothing beats the immediacy of meeting customers and interacting with them.  It turns on the passion in engineers, and helps align them towards developing the right solutions to solve the customer’s problems.

Of course, budget and time is always an issue, especially in these lean times.  But if we believe this is important enough, we can certainly make it happen.  I currently have a budget for each engineer in my organization to travel to see a customer once a quarter. I’ll work fiercely to protect this budget to make sure my engineers are tuned in to the needs and wants of the customer,  instead of being tuned in to technology for technology’s sake.

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