Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Dog Food Buffet

In software companies, someone mentioning "dogfooding" often results in two reactions from employees: excitement or groans. Dogfooding, in layman's terms, means that all employees in a company "eat their own dogfood" by using the product internally first before releasing it for everyone outside in the world. For example, while I was working at Google last summer, I opted-in to dogfooding Google Instant (aka. search-as-you-type). As you might imagine, dogfooding can be a wonderful way to test your design and implementation on a larger scale. Employees usually can submit bugs to the engineering team before the launch, leading to a more polished and stable product for the actual release.

It's a no-brainer that dogfooding your company's products is a great practice (caveat being that you can still be moderately productive in your daily work). Yet I'm always surprised how few people even touch their competitors' product. Not even a quick walk-through of a primary use case? In fact, I have even met some folks over the years who adamantly oppose using a competitor's product. Some of the more bizarre justifications I have heard include: "It's so bad that it's not worth my time," "I've clicked through the screenshots on TechCrunch already," or "Their implementations will taint my own design ideas." Set your ego aside; you should know what your competition is doing. While you may live in a bubble at the office, we now live in a connected world where VC investors, potential partners, and end-users can observe and pick between many relative choices without asking your permission or opinion first. Note that I am definitely not advocating copying features; let's be honest, in great companies, usually your competition is heading the wrong way.

You might have already deduced where I am going with this. In some ways, it would be nice to be able to dogfood your competition too. A dogfood buffet! Yet, by definition, that metaphor won't hold and is ruining this blog post title. Luckily, a (slightly-stretching) pun saves the day: in a busy ecosystem, there is a good chance many of your competitors' products looks like, well ... worse than sloppy, moist dogfood. So sit down and really dig in. Savor it. Chew it over for the flavors. Because as any great wine connoisseur will tell you, it's much easier to find an ambrosial Bordeaux after sampling a bunch of Trader Joe's Two Buck Chucks.

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