Apr 15 2013

Want to make a great product? An engineer isn’t enough.

This post originally appeared as a guest post in The Next Web.

Every few weeks, I’ll be going back and forth with someone about what our team can do for them. They might be looking to build a brand new app from scratch, extend an existing product line or improve on something that they’ve already built.

Then this happens:

“Thanks for helping me define my product more clearly, prioritize my feature set and create some milestones. It was very helpful and your process makes a lot of sense, but I’ve found a programmer on Craigslist who said he could do it for a quarter of the cost.”

Every biz-dev person in every design and development firm that’s reading this is simultaneously nodding their head and face-palming themselves right now.

This happens a lot.

It takes more than an engineer to make a product.

Yes, there are engineers who have single-handedly turned out some great products. Those are what we call “exceptions”.

There are two issues at play here:

Engineering Is Not A Commodity

This point has been discussed at length within the community, but essentially, there’s a monumental difference between good developers and ones that are simply average, or worse.

Engineers aren’t interchangeable pawns. They have individual strengths and weaknesses, and the difference in capability between an average engineer and a stellar one is exponential. We’re not just talking about productivity: the quality of code is massively important, and quality engineers simply command a higher cost.

This is the first of many elements that put the buyer at a huge disadvantage; unless you have a keen understanding of code and development, it’s impossible to properly evaluate the hard skills of an engineer. That’s one reason why a lot of folks go with the lowest bidder, or perhaps by “personality”, which tells you absolutely nothing about an engineer’s ability to build a great product. Save the ‘beer test’ for your presidential vote — it’s a dreadful way to pick a developer.

But the less-covered issue that I really want to address is this: writing code isn’t the only thing you need for a great product. Far from it.

Great Products Go Beyond the Code

You may not know how to code, but you think that if you just had an engineer to build out your idea, you’d have something great. Ask yourself: do you DEEPLY understand the concepts and best practices surrounding the crucial elements of building a product? Things like user experience design and optimization, usability testing, QA, project management, UI conventions, copywriting, branding and many, many more.

Chances are, the answer is no. And in that case, I can promise you that a single engineer will not get you to where you’re hoping to go.

Ideas are incredibly fragile things; most die far too easily. To nurture an idea from it’s early stages and craft it into a tangible, workable product that people love to use — without obfuscating or otherwise diverging from the vision — takes great skill and care.

In the case of products, this means that it takes the care of engineers who can build concepts into elegant reality with top-notch code, designers who can create a beautiful experience that makes users unable to turn away, adept product managers who know how to get the most out of their team, and often other experienced entrepreneurs who’ve been there and know what it takes to build products that win.

Why the disconnect?

The above isn’t new to any experienced development shops. It’s something that industry folks love to complain about.

Here’s the plot twist: it’s our fault.

When we tell someone, “how could you possibly compare a budget engineer to a world-class agency?”, we’re completely missing the point: most people don’t understand how great products get built.

This isn’t unique to development.

Think about it this way: if you’re not a fitness buff, you might want to hire a personal trainer to help you get into shape. You have a clear goal (six pack abs), and a desire for a trainer who will get you from A to B.

But when you look at the options, you’re completely overwhelmed. Hourly rates range from $40-$200, there are choices for partner or team training, add-ons for nutritional consultation, plus a bevy of choices depending on whether you want a trainer that specializes in bodybuilding, cardio, sport-specific training, weight loss, weight gain, or just about any fringe fitness movement mentioned in Men’s Health.

In this situation, it’s easy to say “This is crazy. I don’t care about all of these choices, I just want a six pack.” This is where most people usually do a cost comparison, and choose the cheapest, simplest option.

And if you’ve ever trained with a mediocre trainer, you know exactly what happens: there you are, six months later, and you don’t remember the last time you’ve even gone to the gym.

Why? Because the chasm between an average trainer and a great one is colossal. A great trainer will motivate you to continue going to the gym because you’re seeing results, help you understand exactly how they will help you reach your goals, and most importantly, will work with you to make smart decisions, both strategic and tactical, that achieve the best results your body allows, because they’ve been there and know exactly what it takes.

But you’ll probably never see those results, because the buying process is confusing and you had no way of knowing that there was actually a significant qualitative difference between your options.

Your prospects aren’t stupid.

When we don’t understand something, we do our best to simplify it. For many looking to work with developers, this means an apples-to-apples cost comparison. It’s not stupid. It’s human nature.

We’re the ones at fault. The design and development shops who, upon encountering an attitude like the one at the top of this post, throw our hands up and wonder why we’ve wasted our time pitching a prospect who clearly doesn’t get it.

Newsflash: they don’t get it because you’re not doing your job, which is to demonstrate the value that you can provide.

Your prospects aren’t stupid, and if they had all of the facts necessary to make the decision, far more of them would choose the option that sets them up for success over the bargain that will cost them more in the long-term. As the salesperson (whether you call yourself that or not), it’s your responsibility to respect your prospect’s intelligence enough to help them understand their choices and make an educated decision.

Help In The Fight Against “But This Guy’s Cheaper”

It happens to just about every developer and designer, and everyone else that does excellent work competing against less-skilled professionals charging a fraction as much.

Hearing it is incredibly frustrating. It’s easy to become angry at what people like the prospect above do, which is to reduce everything that you and your team passionately do every day to a commodity.

But the truth is, it’s not their fault. You can help battle these perceptions by not walking away from these prospects, and by educating them and giving them the resources they need to make the best possible decision.

There are people out there who will always price-shop, and you can’t change their minds. But there are many more who want the best possible value for their business, and by putting in the effort, we can all help to ensure that more entrepreneurs and product owners choose to do justice to their brilliant ideas.

—Nick Kishfy (@kishfy)

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Sales and marketing are skills that many developers and designers struggle with; stay tuned for a post that will show you how to actually demonstrate your value to prospects and help them make the right decisions for their business. Be among the first to see it by following MojoTech on Twitter (@MojoTech).

Nick Kishfy