Success Comes From Passion: A Consultant’s View on Twilio CEO’s “Ask Your Developer.”
Twilio CEO, Jeff Lawson released “Ask Your Developer” in February 2021 to critical acclaim. The book’s title is a double-meaning for a creative marketing slogan utilized by Twilio and Jeff’s philosophy on running the company. Jeff Lawson asserts that the simple collaborative process of “Ask Your Developer” is the key to unlocking software developers’ potential in the modern age. “Ask Your Developer” is a concept for incorporating developers into the business aspect of software development. This includes requirements gathering, strategy forming, and decision making.
Through this methodology, developers are more likely to feel invested in an organization’s success. Developers, by nature, are creatives that want to be empowered. Like an artist with a paintbrush or Tony Hawk with a skateboard, developers use code as an outlet to express their creativity. In particular, their ability to problem solve is where they shine best. Often, developers are excluded from direct discussions of business challenges. Removing developers from the problem-solving process strips them of their creativity and hurts their ability to see the big picture. Jeff attributes this as a major factor for developers switching jobs. Furthermore, he argues that companies rarely appeal to developers through understanding their desire for these job characteristics. Instead, they promote unsustainable and gimmicky attractions, such as having an in-office beer keg or ping-pong table.
While the main idea is clear, I think there is a more broad message of what Jeff is pointing out. People need to be passionate about what they do to feel sustainably motivated and challenged to continue doing it. Passion, similar to problem solving, is miscategorized by public opinion. It’s viewed as only an intrinsic emotion that individuals are born with. World-class athletes commonly are credited for their passion, such as Michael Jordan in basketball or Michael Phelps in swimming. This characterization neglects the external factors that contributed to these individual’s passion, such as the competition with their peers or bond with their teammates. This is the same in software development, business, healthcare, and frankly all other industries. Passion is cultivated. It starts from within, but grows through an environment that supports it. Organizations need to make conscious choices to properly challenge and motivate their employees to ensure they feel passionate about their job.
1) It’s hard to have passion for something you have no ownership over
One of the main team-building lessons Jeff took away from working at Amazon was the “two-pizza” system. This is a system that outlines that every team within the organization should be small enough that it could be fed by two pizzas. We’ve all heard the famous expression of “too many cooks in the kitchen” and how if everybody is responsible for something, then nobody ends up being responsible for it. That’s the goal of the two-pizza system; to give a team a sense of ownership for their tasks, product, project, etc.
A byproduct of the sense of ownership for developers is passion for their work. The top person on a team will always need to have accountability for the team’s performance. However, in a proper team setting, all of the team members should share this accountability. Team members need to feel that their contributions are having a meaningful impact on the project and that they affect the outcome. Ownership creates an internal pressure to feel challenged, motivated, and determined to accomplish a goal.
2) It’s hard to have passion if you don’t understand why you’re doing something
Twilio has a unique creative process for when a new product is beginning development; they create a press release. This press release is not released to the public until much later, but is used to understand and align what Twilio employees are driving towards. Expectations, challenges, and goals all need to be clear for a product launch to go successfully. The press release encourages employees to not see the forest for the trees when development begins.
The press release is a good exercise, but isn’t the only practice Twilio uses to keep a project on course. As the main theme of “Ask Your Developer”, Jeff encourages business consultants to utilize the problem solving skills of their developers throughout requirements gathering. In negative situations, developers are often given a detailed requirements list without understanding what problem they are trying to solve in the first place. Even worse, sometimes their consultation would’ve prevented an infeasible or suboptimal solution from being decided upon. All of these results are frustrating and demoralizing, removing passion. Jeff even encourages developers to occasionally be brought into meetings as a “fly on the wall” for conversations not requiring their input. It’s not to waste their time, but to better understand and create a connection with the customer they are serving.
Developers are not robots. They do not like to be treated like them. Furthermore, they know they don’t serve robots either. They understand that behind every product, project, or task are individuals whose problem or situation they are trying to improve. It’s important to ignite a passion for developers using these personal connections.
3) Inconsistency Can Crush Passion
Cultivating developers, or any talent, requires a consistent approach from leadership. Developers will only believe they have the freedom and trust to impact an organization if it is proven over time. If leadership is inconsistent, they run the risk of alienating developers trying to figure out what to do with their new ideas and expertise.
At Twilio, instead of allocating a ton of resources and money to one large idea, they often split their resources and budget across multiple projects and teams. This strategy allows Twilio to see which projects organically grow and then receive additional funding. This framework creates a merit system, but it also creates consistency across company culture. Developers won’t feel like their ideas are stifled if they have something to contribute. They know they will be able to start small and prove that their idea is worth something.
At VPS, we took on this same approach for internal and external engagement initiatives in 2022. One of the task forces that was created ultimately came up and ran with the idea for our fundraiser golf tournament that occurred last month. Throughout the lifecycle of that idea, leadership provided more resources and trust as the idea continued to take form.
“Ask Your Developer” represents a fresh look at treating software developers separately from the inaccurate narratives permeating through pop culture. It’s authenticity stems from Jeff Lawson’s personal experience as a developer; he even still introduces himself that way today. Ironically, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how the themes he introduces apply more broadly across all industries and companies. You don’t have to be a large company, or even a technology company, to empower your employees through autonomy, trust, and consistency.