Why you should have skin in the engineering game

Main illustration: Reina Takahashi

On my way to becoming a product engineer with Intercom I took an unusual diversion for a few years – I became a professional cyclist.

I would race along unknown roads in various countries with the constant knowledge that one false move could mean pain, injury and defeat. I learned to remain in a state of constant awareness of my surroundings, reacting to the terrain, weather, road conditions and competitors. I would instinctively react when I felt a rider’s elbow knocking me from the side, or when a pothole appeared just in front of me, adjusting my position to stay upright and avoid hitting the tarmac.

In such moments, every movement and every decision has an immediate and direct impact on the outcome – you literally have skin in the game, as the scars on my knees, elbows and collarbone can attest to.

That’s the sort of disconnect that can happen between engineers and customers.

That state of constant focus and constant feedback is exhilarating, but it’s also nearly impossible to replicate in other areas of life.

Getting off the saddle

So when I decided to hang up my cycling shoes and return to engineering, I was looking for a role that would at least partially continue that strong connection between actions and consequences.

However, that’s not so easy to find. Most companies above a certain size have dedicated customer support teams and product managers – these allow us to stay focused on the task at hand, but also insulate us from customers to a degree. As a result, it’s easy to lose that feeling of your work having any direct impact on customers, either positive or negative.

It is a bit like being a passenger in a bus with air conditioning rather than cycling on a flimsy bicycle – in both cases you are going from A to B, but in one you are observing the landscape from a comfortable height, and in the other you are acutely aware of the rain in your face and the smell of the countryside in your nostrils.

That’s the sort of disconnect that can happen between engineers and customers in larger companies – when the sense of personal and professional responsibility to the customer is lost, you can feel far from ever hitting the tarmac.

This isn’t always the case, especially in an early stage startup where it is often “all hands on deck” and the engineers are the first customer support team, hustling to help their precious new customers. As the company grows and more customers onboard, more support is needed and a dedicated customer support team is put into place, both to free the engineers to carry out their product development and to provide a more controlled and consistent customer experience. You leave your bike at home and take the air-conditioned bus instead.

Intercom’s approach to product feedback

At Intercom, we understand the importance of getting on to the bike from time to time and nurturing that close connection to our customers. All employees are expected to regularly spend a day directly talking to our customers to help resolve their issues. These “customer days” give everyone the chance to see our customer issues at first hand.

I spent the next week iterating on a solution with constant feedback from our customer.

Another method we use to get a better feel for our impact on customers is our Github integration that allows us to quickly dig into real customer conversations when investigating issues or expanding our knowledge on a feature request. When we close an issue our customers are informed and we can easily see the feedback.

Personally though, I feel I get closest to the tarmac when I see a customer is having a complex issue and I reach out to them directly. Earlier this year I worked on group conversations. We had supported a version of group conversations for several years but it was limited. Our designers and Product Managers built out our feature roadmap and we iterated to our full release.

Our customers gave us lots of great feedback, most of it positive. Nonetheless, our bug fixes had broken one customer’s workflow. Initially we thought that their workflow was leveraging old inadequacies but digging into the conversations we realised this was a subtle issue with no easy solution. I needed to get closer to the customer to really understand what they were trying to accomplish.

Keeping in touch with your customers maintains that sense of having skin in the game.

I spent the next week iterating on a solution with constant feedback from our customer. They knew I was working on unlocking their workflow and I knew they were waiting on me to finish – it was motivating, exciting and ultimately rewarding.

Investing in an outcome

In a way I hadn’t experienced since my cycling days, it felt like I had “skin in the game”. The phrase was popularised in financial circles, a quick way to describe having an investment, and therefore having a stake in a certain outcome.

But I learned in my cycling career, when I frequently risked my own skin, that the phrase means a lot more than that – the risk isn’t necessarily financial, but personal. The investment is made up of your time and your skill; what’s at stake is your pride.

That sense of being invested in the outcome of your work is hard to conjure, but as an engineer using Intercom, I can quickly pare away the layers so that I can work in very close contact with our customers, and therefore be personally assured that what I’m working on is having the impact they need. I get the sort of feedback that makes me feel like I have a personal investment in the outcome of my actions.

Keeping in touch with your customers is the surest way to maintain that sense of having skin in the game. Don’t let yourself get too insulated from them; don’t let yourself lose the sense of being close to the tarmac.

If this approach to engineering interests you and you’d like to help build Intercom, we’re recruiting across our R&D team. Check out our current openings here.