At Intercom we believe that clear guiding principles are the best foundation for building product and keeping teams aligned.
Our engineering principle “shape the solution” allows us to deliver better customer value and maintain a team of highly engaged, aligned and motivated individuals. Shaping the solution means that we never blindly execute on requirements defined by others. We deeply understand the value of our work, and help design solutions which efficiently deliver that value.
This is the sixth post in a series exploring our product principles. Here, Levent discusses our engineering principle “Shape the solution”.
Engineers are involved from the outset
In a lot of companies, the product development process is based around negotiation. A product owner, business analyst, or product manager articulates the customer’s requirements and passes them on to the engineering team. The engineers provide feedback, generally in the form of pushback, and the parties negotiate towards consensus.
“A truly high-performing, self-organizing team would never organize itself into silos”
Not only does this guarantee that, by design, only one person is empathetic towards the customer’s needs – but it’s the opposite of a culture of collaboration. A truly high-performing, self-organizing team would never organize itself into silos in this way.
At Intercom, our engineering team values mark out the qualities that we think make for great engineers. Engineers that shape the solution from beginning to end:
- Truly care about what they’re working on.
- Want a say in the outcomes they work towards.
- Understand the role collaboration plays in building great products.
Great engineers care about the product they are building
At Intercom, engineers aim to deliver impact and value. Shaping the solution means playing a crucial role in addressing our customers’ problems, and making sure we’re involved every step of the way.
“We help product and design make informed trade-offs so we can all deliver meaningful value in the most cost-efficient way possible”
Engineers offer an important perspective, not just on the technical side of a product, but on the cost to the team and the business – so we involve ourselves early in the design process. We clearly communicate the costs of a feature to non-technical stakeholders and constructively push back against features where the cost and value are misaligned.
Costs encompass everything from development effort to increased system complexity, operational costs, and maintenance effort. We help product and design make informed trade-offs so we can all deliver meaningful value in the most cost-efficient way possible.
Great engineers understand that collaboration is key to a great product
Shaping the solution means that engineers don’t work in silos – they collaborate with colleagues across Product and Design teams to see their work through and share perspectives on what the solution should look like.
This has a range of benefits: problems are viewed from a variety of perspectives, making every solution more three-dimensional and ensuring we don’t miss any key elements that might improve the outcome for the customer and the business.
“No one ever says ‘it’s not my job’”
It also means that engineers learn to think like designers and product managers – and vice versa – making for smoother processes, more effective dynamics, and ultimately, better products. Each discipline starts asking similar questions and caring about the same outcomes, leading to a culture of ownership and zero blame. No one ever says “it’s not my job”.
Occasionally, engineers on my teams have stepped into the roles of Product Manager or Product Designer if we’ve been bottlenecked on the throughput of the single PM or designer on a team – to great success. It adds an extra dimension to their role, and is an incredible way to grow as an engineer. It also means we can grow our organization quicker. I expect my tenured engineers to be just as involved and capable of onboarding product managers and designers as they are their engineering peers.
When we began planning for our Inbound Custom Bots, the best solution design on offer was not the best overall solution – it would have been too expensive and time consuming to build.
“Engineers worked closely with designers to come up with a new pattern that would serve our customers well and bypass technical constraints, sending a quicker solution to market”
If we had gone ahead, we would have had to shelve the entire project as it wouldn’t have been worth it. Engineers worked closely with designers to come up with a new pattern that would serve our customers well and bypass technical constraints, sending a quicker solution to market.
The system’s technical architecture dictated the visual design of the product, which was best accomplished by our designer and engineer sitting in Figma and drawing it together. This eliminated any back and forth and ensured everyone involved in the project had a complete understanding of the end-to-end problem and solution. There was no way a designer working alone would have come up with usable work unless they had the same level of context as an engineer and vice versa.
Great engineers want to have a say in what they work on
Every member of the team should deeply understand how their customers use the product, and what problems they need to solve. They should feel empowered to take on their customers’ problems and develop opinions on how to solve them.
Good early decisions save time and increase the value delivered. We work with our design and product partners to deliver just the right amount of scope to balance the highest value with the lowest effort – factoring in time estimates, operational costs, and impact on the wider ecosystem. We assess risks and use our judgment to decide whether to increase or reduce system complexity.
“Allowing engineers the freedom to take ownership of solutions, and see them through to the end, builds a better work environment and encourages engineers to grow and learn”
Allowing engineers the freedom to take ownership of solutions, and see them through to the end, builds a better work environment and encourages engineers to grow and learn. Working this way ultimately means we solve our customer’s problems faster. An example would be our work on Custom Bots. We noticed that our customers were building complex bots that were hard to iterate on and manage, and we wanted a way to reduce this complexity. At the time, our designer was fully committed to a different product launch – so one of our engineers stepped in to prototype several design solutions instead of waiting for the designer to take the lead.
Once the solution options were documented, along with associated tradeoffs, the designer was able to pair with the engineer to make a decision and iterate on the details. The team managed to complete and ship a great solution while massively reducing the time to value. It is this level of ownership and involvement that sets our approach apart – “shaping the solution” brings so many benefits for our engineers, product teams, and ultimately our customers.
Are you interested in joining an engineering team that shapes solutions from beginning to end? We’re hiring – check out our open roles.