Rethinking the Network

Marten Terpstra

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Visiting customers is necessary, customers visiting you is priceless

This week we hosted a (potential) customer that really wanted to dig in and understand what we do and how we do it.  Not the powerpoint kind where we go through endless monologues of all the good stuff we say we do, but roll up the sleeves, let’s install some boxes and actually see what how this would work if they would do this ourselves in their lab or datacenter.

As an engineer turned product manager, direct interactions with customers are invaluable. I have seen many organizations where the engineering teams are hidden far away even from a company’s own field facing organization. Requirements and feedback comes through official channels, filtered several times, prioritized and re-prioritized based on seemingly random factors. It’s watered down into a document of some sort and unless the product management organization is really good, the actual customer, user and workflow context is totally missing.

I have always been a big fan of putting engineers in front of customers. Whether those are good circumstances where the customer is buying some more or needs details on feature this or that, or even better, when things are totally broken. Nothing bring the importance of visibility and debugging or predictability and reliability closer to those that can change it, than a customer on fire, and the engineers directly working with the customer to put out the flames.

It is not always fun, it is always very stressful. But there is no better feedback for an engineer. And while not every engineer has the right personality to interact directly with an end customer, pretty much all of them come out of direct customer contact with enthusiasm and a list of things they want to “fix” right away.

When a customer comes to you, and does not want the typical Executive Briefing Center treatment, the learning gets amplified. And if you are a smaller company like we are, with all of the engineering team together in one place, the place starts to buzz. We actually created a small network for this customer that we would use for demos and let the customer play with. Their first request: lets turn everything off and start with just one switch. Outstanding. We love a customer that wants to take our stuff apart and understand the ins and the outs. And ask questions we cannot answer. Or have to find the answer to. We had a few of those.

On the table is a Plexxi switch, without a cover, but with a piece of plexiglass in its place. On the big screen a Plexxi network, with traffic generators attached, with more windows open with pings and CLIs going than any one person can manage. Most things work well, some not so much. And that is ok. Most customers understand you will run into some stuff, especially when playing with some of the latest and greatest.

Days like these are not productive by typical measures of code generated, documents written or power points created. But the experience is priceless for the company. It is not polished like an EBC visit. And this customer does not want it. They want to interact with those that develop and test the solution day in and day out. They want to understand the possibilities, but also the restrictions. We find that we do not always explain things clearly. We find that some of our documented procedures need some work. The customer asks “but what if there are 1000s of those”, and our answer is “shoot, we did not think about that”.

The kind of feedback you get from an intense multi day visit like this is priceless. Any customer interaction is very useful. Deep dives like this are far beyond useful, but only if you allow it to be. You have to be open. You have to be willing to show the warts. You have to be willing to say “I do not know, let me find out”. You have to be willing to admit to mistakes and follow up with plans to correct.

I have yet to find a customer that does not appreciate such an open kimono kind of visit. The consume a lot of energy for both the customer and us. You cannot do one every week. But boy are they worth it. I would do one every month given the opportunity. And if you are a vendor or customer, so should you.

[Today's fun fact: A pineapple is neither an apple or a pine. It is, in fact, a large berry.I don't like pineapple much]

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Marten Terpstra is a Product Management Director at Plexxi Inc. Marten has extensive knowledge of the architecture, design, deployment and management of enterprise and carrier networks.