Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson says wisdom lies with your developers

Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson knows a thing or two about unleashing developers. His company has garnered a market cap of almost $60 billion by creating a set of tools to make it easy for programmers to insert a whole host of communications functionality into an application with a couple of lines of code. Given that background, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lawson has written a book called “Ask Your Developer,” which hit the stores this week.

Lawson’s basic philosophy is that if you can build it, you should.

Lawson’s basic philosophy in the book is that if you can build it, you should. In every company, there is build versus buy calculus that goes into every software decision. Lawson believes deeply that there is incredible power in building yourself instead of purchasing something off the shelf. By using components like the ones from his company, and many others delivering specialized types functionality via API, you can build what your customers need instead of just buying what the vendors are giving you.

While Lawson recognizes this isn’t always possible, he says that by asking your developers, you can begin to learn when it makes sense to build and when it doesn’t. These discussions should stem from customer problems and companies should seek digital solutions with the input of the developer group.

Building great customer experiences

Lawson posits that you can build a better customer experience because you understand your customers so much more  acutely than a generic vendor ever could. “Basically, what you see happening across nearly every industry is that the companies that are able to listen to their customers and hear what the customers need and then build really great digital products and experiences — well, they tend to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers,” Lawson told me in an interview about the book this week.

Billboard for book Ask your Developer by Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio

Image Credits: Twilio (image has been cropped)

He says that this has caused a shift in how companies perceive IT departments. They have gone from cost centers that provision laptops and buy HR software to something more valuable, helping produce digital products that have a direct impact on the business’s bottom line.

He uses banking as an example in the book. It used to be you judged a bank by a set of criteria like how nice the lobby was, if the tellers were friendly and if they gave your kid a free lollipop. Today, that’s all changed and it’s all about the quality of the mobile app.

“Nowadays your bank is a mobile app and you like your bank if the software is fast, if it is bug free and if they regularly update it with new features and functionality that makes your life better [ … ]. And that same transformation has been happening in nearly every industry and so when you think about it, you can’t buy differentiation if every bank just bought the same mobile app from some vendor and just off the shelf deployed it,” he said.

Ask the experts

When it comes to your company, deciding to build or buy might seem like a daunting decision, but Lawson says to ask your developers, as the book title suggests and then make a determination. If they are enthusiastic, he proposes experimenting and iterating as a way to see if the idea is really a good one.

“Really good business leaders should be turning to their technical talent and people who know what the technology does. People who know how to create the shortest path between where the company is now and how to build some solution. They should be asking those developers for their input to help them decide which things they are going to buy and which things they are going to build,” he said.

He doesn’t just preach this, his company actually practices it. Last year when Twilio realized it was going to have to make its customer conference virtual, it put its money where its mouth is and built a conference platform using its own tools. It was pretty bold, but Lawson told me that they executed and made the decision using the best practices he describes in the book.

“In the book I talked about how experimentation is a prerequisite to innovation. [My conference team] said here’s an idea and they quickly built a prototype. We said, ‘Wow, this is really compelling. Great, let’s do it.’ And that’s when we decided that we were going to build our own platform, partially because as a company whose entire product set is about communications we thought what a great way to use our own product,” Lawson explained.

For organizations that aren’t as developer-focused as Twilio, he still sees this as the best path forward. He suggests that many companies fail when they try to go big too quickly or they feel an application has to be perfect right away. “Try to test out your ideas with customers, and you should start at a small scale. Then when you feel like you have validated your ideas, you can start scaling them up,” he said.

One way to kill this kind of experimentation, however, is to penalize failure. Lawson says that while many executives will say they want innovation, they will inadvertently discourage failure. He believes that even learning what things don’t work has a lot of value.

“If a team says we have an idea and we’re gonna build a prototype, and they build that prototype and they come back to you in a few months, and they say ‘Oh, you know, it didn’t work, customers didn’t like it,’ do those people get rewarded for very quickly and inexpensively figuring out that the idea was bad, or do they get sort of subtly punished?” Lawson asked.

Finding developer talent

It’s fair to ask where these developers might be coming from since there seems to be a dearth of software engineers in many regions, and even pure tech companies complain about the lack of talent. But Lawson is putting his money where his mouth is. Proceeds from the book will go to four organizations — NPower, Black Girls Code, Smash and YearUp — to help bring more people from underrepresented groups into developing, while helping increase the supply of programmers.

But beyond that, he says you have to create an environment that attracts developers to your company. “You have to have a pitch to the technical talent that senior executives of the company support this and are building a culture that is conducive to innovation and developers. And the second thing I would say is the companies need to make sure they’re using the full capabilities of those developers,” he said.

That means you need to treat your developers like adults, keep them in the decision-making loop, let them experiment without fear of reprisal for failures and give them an environment where they feel valued.

If you do those things, you’ll be on your way to building an innovative organization focused on building instead of buying, and if Lawson’s right, your company should thrive as a result.