Book Review: Ask Your Developer by Jeff Lawson
tl;dr A quick summary of three main themes in Ask Your Developer: How to Harness the Power of Software Developers and Win in the 21st Century, by Jeff Lawson.
Jeff Lawson is a lifelong software developer and serial entrepreneur, turned co-founder and CEO of Twilio. In his book, ‘Ask Your Developer’, Jeff recounts his windy road to founding Twilio in 2008 and how it grew into a multi-billion dollar company and then became a publicly traded company in eight years. Without getting too into the tech weeds, he shares how AWS works based on his early experience at Amazon and how Twilio simplifies customer communications. But ‘Ask Your Developer's’ real "meat and potatoes" is Jeff's rich storytelling and real-life examples of how a culture of continuous experimentation and creativity paired with open communication between developers and customers yields more successful products and both happier employees and end users.
As a strategy team member at Echobind, a software development agency, here are my three favorite takeaways from the book.
Innovation = Experimentation + Iteration
Jeff encourages teams to shed the traditional rigid company culture where mistakes get punished and instead celebrate on-the-job learning and testing. And with that added on, to be comfortable with "disproving hypotheses," or in other words, "failure." Jeff sees code as a creative medium and developers as creative problem solvers who probably got into engineering because they like consistent new challenges that allow them to learn and expand horizons. Everyone benefits when engineers are presented with the customer's problem (not a list of requirements) and asked to experiment with their creativity to build a solution within existing safeguards — time restraints, data structures, code paths, etc.
A Culture of Small Teams is Key
Beyond an open learning environment woven into the development process and supported top-down, Jeff also values a culture of unity and collaboration across departments. The full small project team involved in building the product — developers, creative, customer service, etc. — should meet regularly to test and review progress together. Doing this together allows for early detection of blockers, pivot needs, and holistic solutions. By encouraging a culture of agile flexibility and small project team autonomy keeps everyone on a project connected to the problem and accountable to the customer. Jeff reminds us that the best solutions don’t always come from the loudest or highest-ranked person, and when small teams are valued, quieter voices can be heard.
Customers and Engineers Should Be Communicating, Early and Often
A customer-centric company consistently visits and re-visits customers' needs in relation to its outputs and self-corrects when there is a disconnect. Throughout the book, Jeff reiterates this importance by having customers share the problems they are trying to solve via software directly with the engineers and for developers to remain in the customer feedback loop throughout the development lifecycle. Developers are solving real-life problems, and Jeff thinks it is essential for them to know the humans behind the problems and the nuanced depth and whys of the issue. Humanizing the customer and their problem will bring purpose to the developer's work and heighten their instincts when making effort versus expected value estimations and quick decisions that impact product features and functions.
Jeff’s relatable tone and storytelling make ‘Ask Your Developer’ an easy choice for the non-coder wanting to read a book about software. If you work closely with software developers, this book is a good starting point on strategic ways you can better support engineers, the development process, and the end product.