Dmitry looked at me, not with anger, but more with a determined angst. He was obviously shaken by my request that he take a call with a customer who had technical questions about our companys software product.
Dmitry was one of the leads on our development team. He was very quiet, brimming with intelligence and could actually get quite lively as he discussed with his fellow developers.
But one thing was clear. Dmitry avoided extended interaction with anyone in the office who was not a technically trained engineer.
Besides, I knew for a fact that Dmitry was THE expert on the module this customer would be most interested in learning more about.
I tried flattery.
Dmitry, I have seen you talking about these features with the utmost confidence with others on the development team and even the QA and support teams. You helped architect this code and you wrote the majority of it. And this discussion will be over the phone, so how hard could it be to talk about something that you are the obvious, unqualified expert in?
He glared back at me. Not doing it.
I briefly considered giving in and asking one of the less experienced developers take on this task, but this was a very large deal for the company. I knew if the call went badly, the account executive who owned this customer would raise holy hell. That she would be angry about losing a huge commission wasnt the issue. My boss, the CEO, would also not be happy and that was most definitely an issue.
So I tried for sympathy.
Look Dmitry, please consider my position. If I have someone less experienced talk to the customer, Im just asking for a disaster. All you have to do is answer a few questions on a topic you know the most about. How hard can that be? Besides, this customer isnt even that technical.
No response. So I tried the Feel - Felt - Found method of persuasion.
I know exactly how you feel. When I was a developer, my manager asked me to sit down with some end users to explain how a new application worked. I felt the same way as you scared to death. But you know what? Once I started talking about this app, which was quite familiar with, I found that there was nothing to be worried about. If you know your topic, you will be respected and well received.
He just shook his head. And as he got up and started for my office door he said, Sorry, but this isnt in my job description.
So I went for the jugular.
Do you still want to go to the Microsoft Tech·Ed conference next year?
Dmitry stopped in his tracks and swiveled around.
Yes, he said tentatively.
Well, if you do me this favor and take this customer call, I will approve the conference.
Of course, I was likely going to approve this conference anyway, but had been dragging my feet waiting for more clarity on next years budget. Evil of me? Bad form? Maybe.
He shrugged like a 50 pound weight had been put on his shoulders.Ill do it. But dont ever ask me again.
Later that afternoon, Dmitry, the account executive, and me sat around a large conference table with one of those speakerphones that looks like a small UFO. Daniel, the account executive, dialed the number.
I looked over at Dmitry and noticed he looked pale. I caught his eye and smiled reassuringly. Youll do just fine. Simply answer the questions. He gave me a nervous, terse look.
The customer answered the call. To our surprise, he introduced a second person on the call. Hope you all dont mind but I asked my buddy Jerry to sit in on the call. He is an expert in this type of application.
Daniel piped up: Not a problem at all, Im sure hell be impressed and we welcome his feedback.
Daniel had no idea Dmitry was nervous. I mouthed the words Dont worry to Dmitry as Daniel finished the introductions. I noticed his leg was going a hundred miles an hour under the table up and down.
The customer, who had been nice as pie on my prior call with him, hardly talked at all. As soon as his expert consultant started in with I downloaded your software trial and to be honest, I wasnt very impressed, my heart sank.
I connected to the database with no problem, but I kicked off the update process and it has been running for 12 hours and still hasnt finished. That isnt acceptable, even for an overnight batch process.
After an uncomfortable pause, I spoke up. Sorry to hear that. The update process shouldnt take more than an hour. I looked at Dmitry and motioned for him to chime in.
Dmitry took a deep breath and said with a slight edge to his voice, You must be doing something wrong. Nothing in the code would cause it to run that long.
I cringed as Jerry the expert spoke up. I can assure you, I followed your operations instructions to the letter and the systems minimum requirements are in place. Ill also mention we arent processing more than a few gig of data.
Dmitrys face began turning a shade of crimson and answered in a raised voice. If you followed the instructions as you claim, then it should work.
Daniel quickly interjected. Hey, we can set a time to figure out whats happening. I was hoping to focus on technical feature questions today.
Jerry the expert responded. What is the use of talking features if the product doesnt perform as promised? And your user interface was not very intuitive.
Dmitry was now standing, with fists clenched and pacing. Oh yeah, well you must not be very smart Jerry because my 10-year-old could use that UI without any problem.
Daniels mouth dropped in horror. I decided to interject and attempt to end this debacle.
You know what, everyone, lets set a time for a sales engineer to come out and take a look at your setup and Im sure we can work this out.
Our customer spoke up to put us out of our misery. Actually, Daniel, I think we are going to move in a different direction. But thanks for your time.
And just like that it was over. Dmitry gave me an anguished I told you so look and stormed out. Daniel just sat there with his head in his hands.
Guess what? It turns out that Jerry the expert was actually representing a competitor and had sabotaged our efforts. Daniel agreed that the call was a trap to begin with and even though Dmitry responded inappropriately, we were fighting a losing battle. As a result, luckily there was no major fallout for me from the CEO.
As for Dmitry, he tried to apologize and I stopped him. Instead, I apologized for putting him into a situation where he wasnt comfortable.
Bottom line: Even the most brilliant developer may not be able to convey his or her knowledge outside of the techie inner circle. Dmitrys strength was architecting and writing code, not customer interactions.
I have since learned that some developers do have an innate ability to communicate technical topics, but not all are suited for sales situations. Dmitry went back to writing great code, had a great time at the conference and I never again asked him to talk to a customer. Frankly, I was very lucky he decided not to quit after all.