Work Backwards From The Customer

At the 1996 Microsoft Professional Developer Conference (PDC) I stood up in front of 8,000 customers and announced what I’d been working on for the previous two years: the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM). On stage, in front of all those people, we wrote and demoed code running on one Windows 95 PC talking over the network to code on other PCs. This was back in the day when being able to write programs that worked across a network was a very fancy idea™. Every attendee at the conference got a CD-ROM with a beta version of DCOM to try once they got home. This was back in the day when the only way to get software on a PC was to insert a little plastic disc into an actual computer that sat on a desk.


A few weeks later, one of those 8,000 customers (yes, only one) called Microsoft Support to point out that the most critical file (ole2.h) required to make DCOM work was missing from the CD-ROM.

You read this right. A team of highly-paid, smart, and passionate engineers spent two years (actually more, because I joined the effort late) pouring our hearts & souls into building this AMAZING TECHNOLOGY and when we literally GAVE IT AWAY to 8,000 developers ONLY ONE noticed it didn’t work AT ALL.

I joined Microsoft right out of college. I was just a kid who wanted to build technologies that lots of people would use. I had no idea what I was doing, so I found people at MS who looked like they knew what they were doing, latched on, and followed their lead. When in Rome, do as the Romans, right?

Before the PDC, six years into my career, I was feeling pretty awesome about inventing this new-fangled technology. After the PDC, when I realized we had built something that NONE of our customers cared about, it was a total punch in the gut. I was devastated.

I vowed then and there to never again build something without starting with the customer. Never again would I start with a technology and THEN look for ways customers might use it. Never again would I “build it, and hope they come.” I finally understood what it meant to be a principled leader; to have a set of rules that dictate how an organization operates. I decided one of MY principles (or tenet; the words are synonyms) would be “always start with the customer, not technology.” 24 years later I’m proud of how I’ve lived that principle.

In 1999 I had my first real chance to lead brand-new product development when I helped found the MS Connected Home Business Unit (CHBU) which ended up building Windows Media Center. I invented my own version of “working backwards” where I asked the team create mockups of the “back of the box” (this was when all products, including software came in cardboard boxes) as a first step in product ideation. We also wrote the review article we’d want our favorite PC Magazine reviewer to write, long before technology was selected. The commercial success of the resulting products proved to me focusing on the customer-centric outcome, before discussing technology (or even business) was right-minded. At Amazon I found everyone, from top to bottom, held this same strong belief and that consistency is a critical success factor for Amazon’s growth and profitability.

We use our own forms of “working backwards” at my current company (SnapAV) and it’s gratifying to see team members embrace them. We are all still learning how to do it effectively, and we’ll all continue to learn and adapt, to make it work for us.

Don’t be shy about commenting on this blog post, if you have questions or ideas on working backwards from the customer.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.


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