Dispatches from MWC: Twilio's software mindset - The Signal
Product Foundations

Dispatches from Mobile World Congress: Twilio’s software mindset

Last edited: Jul 23, 2020
Parker Tarun

This week I was across the pond at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, but it just so happened that one of the keynotes really hit home. 

During the Conversational Commerce keynote address, Jeff Lawson, founder and CEO of Twilio, spoke before a crowd of hundreds about the power of a software mindset. What is the software mindset?

The idea that you need to constantly iterate by building, releasing, and revising is nothing new. It’s what has turned the technology world upside down over the past 10-to-20 years. 

But today’s stakes are higher, and the tools available means there’s no excuse but t  Lawson described how we’re entering a time of natural selection, where only those who are able to adapt can survive. If speed and versatility aren’t in your DNA, you won’t just struggle. You’ll go the way of the dodo. And when I say DNA, I mean truly having a framework that can be as agile as your customers.

Only those who can adapt will survive

“An obsession for customer experience is the only thing that can survive disruption,” Lawson said.

No matter our profession, we are all “consumers” and understand how amazing it is to have seemingly limitless choices. Our loyalty lasts as long as it takes for a better food delivery service, messaging app, or streaming platform to come along.

This highlights the key question for any company hoping to survive in Darwin’s world. What does it take to stay relevant?

Lawson told us the story of how he was inspired to build Twilio. When shopping around for communications vendors, he was upset to learn that getting a communications infrastructure up and running would take months without any promise of success.

“This idea—that you would know exactly what you wanted and spend years building it before you got to version one and got feedback from your customers?—seemed insane,” he said.

Why? Lawson’s been a software developer all his life. He knows how the power, speed, and responsiveness of development can make a magical experience.

“The power of software is the ability to iterate rapidly, always be building, always listening to your customer, always iterating,” he said. “Shipping something that’s better, shipping your way to perfection.”

Lawson calls this the software mindset, and it’s the only way to stay competitive.

The software mindset in practice

Next time you’re at home, grab your cable TV remote and place it next to the remote for your Apple TV, Roku, or any other modern device. One is gigantic and has 20 to 40 buttons, while the other is a quarter the size with fewer than 10 buttons.

Which one are you thinking of ditching because it’s expensive, slow, and always broken?

The Apple TV remote shows the software mindset in action. According to Lawson, “hardware should be the minimum bridge from the physical world to the world of computation.” That’s because getting customers into your software preserves your ability to be agile. Rather than building a new remote with different buttons, you revise your software and release a new version.

Whether or not you’re building hardware, I couldn’t help but think that Lawson’s software mindset has some value for all product managers and developers. Avoiding bloat with the entry points in your product and even some of the top-level features allows for greater iteration in the core parts of your product—where your users will see the most value.

Basically, ship the remote as fast as possible. It may be central to your product, but make it a minimum viable product. You can ship your way to perfection from there.

Applications for analytics

One of the emerging themes of conversational products is that they do more than just speed up the engagement with customers. They also speed up the process of iteration. And yet I don’t think it really matters if you’re working on a conversational product or not. This new breed of engagement will have ripples everywhere. 

It’s likely that a lot of the people in the audience thought they already knew that speed of iteration is important. Shipping fast is universally agreed to create strong product experiences. But I see analytics playing a major role as everybody moves into the software mindset and begins shipping fast and frequently.

A key differentiator will be not only gratifying your customer—something messaging apps and conversational products are good at in particular; but also deeply understanding where to reduce more friction—something only market leaders such as Twilio, Kik, and Line do.

The crowds and excitement at MWC this year are a clear indication: It’s never been a more exciting time to be building products, especially in the mobile space. But if you’re going to keep up with customers’ expectations and compete with other products, it’s not enough to scrape by. You need to evolve.  You need to know what users like, don’t like, and be iterating weekly, if not daily. 

Or, as a popular tweet of Lawson’s proclaims: “Get busy deploying, or get busy dying.”

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