posted: June 3, 2023
tl;dr: One of the best hires I ever made was when I hired someone who worked at a customer...
When at ADC Kentrox in the early 1990s, I was leading the development of one of the company's leading-edge networking products which utilized an emerging networking protocol called Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). Because ATM was so new, there wasn’t much other equipment with which the product could be tested. Networking equipment fundamentally has to interoperate with other networking equipment, so we were in a quandary. Fortunately, one of the potential customers for this product had managed to procure other leading-edge ATM products for their own lab. They were willing to let us test our product against other ATM products in their lab. Off to Houston I flew.
This was my one exposure to the humidity of Houston in the heat of summer, which could be the subject of a whole other blog post. There are many reasons why I live in Arizona now, and lack of humidity is one of them (it’s a dry heat, as they say). Fortunately the lab was indoors and well air-conditioned, although the windows of the glass office building dripped continuously with condensation, just like an ice cold drink on a hot, humid day. I made my way into the lab and was assigned a technician who would operate the other equipment while I concentrated on my product.
Because all the equipment was so new, we kept hitting snags as we tried to set up a network. The technician would try various things while I monitored my product, and still we’d be stuck. He’d ask some of the other technicians, and no one would be able to solve our problem. Finally he’d enlist the assistance of the super busy person who ran the lab. That person would come over, assess the situation, make a few changes, and we’d be up and running. Then he ran off onto his next urgency. This happened several times: we’d struggle to get past a roadblock for an hour or two, and then the lab manager would solve our problem in five minutes, and sometime soon after that we’d hit the next roadblock.
It was clear that the lab manager knew his stuff. I made a mental note: if I was ever in a position to hire the lab manager, I would do so. Fortunately, a few years later I was and did. The most surprising thing to me was that he was willing to move from Texas to the Pacific Northwest. He brought along his propane-fired deep fryer, which he used to make fried turkeys one year for Thanksgiving. That was still the tastiest, moistest turkey meat I’ve ever eaten in my life.
But he did more than fry a great turkey: he quickly impressed everyone with his knowledge of not only the technology, but more importantly how to put it to use in real-world networks. His customer-side experience was invaluable in his role as a Quality Assurance Manager. He knew what features were important, and what problems and deficiencies most needed to be addressed. I hired him again after I left ADC Kentrox to found Oresis Communications, where his role expanded to also include Product Management. Since he knew so much about how the products were actually used, he was well-positioned to help define the feature sets of new products. In meetings with potential customers, since he originally came from the customer side, his words and opinions were usually welcomed by customers.
Some companies do customer focus groups, in which they gather together customers for brief periods of time to get their views on products. “Voice of the customer” exercises are another way of assembling customer input. But one of the best ways of getting customer input is to hire a really smart person from a customer and bring them into your company full-time.