What technical leaders can learn from my experience with a $500,000 bug

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When I started the social media app Skout in 2007, I was blown away by our traction. We had over 50 million installations globally, had raised over $22 million from Andreessen Horowitz, and there were hundreds of incredibly talented employees making it all happen. 

Despite our success, and unbeknownst to us, there were many 1-star reviews on the Google Play app store in the Polish language, dinging our Android app in a language we didn’t understand. This small piece of the overall Skout community was frustrated and telling us exactly what we needed to know, that the app was unusable in Poland, but we weren’t listening. 

The big cost of a tiny bug

As it turned out, a tiny bug cost us $500,000 in lost revenue and lasted more than six months. No one in Poland could use the Skout Android app for half a year because our data parser couldn’t identify the location of our Polish customers — forcing the app to crash every time it was opened.

We eventually stumbled on our parser problem by happenstance, and it took us 10 minutes to fix. It took us another six months to recuperate our revenue losses.

We had no tools or processes in place that could’ve helped us understand the potential impact of this bug, and the reality is most companies are in a similar situation. Being a good product leader means knowing what information should inform your decision-making, and how to use this information to determine priorities and team direction. 

Throughout this process, I learned three major lessons about building technical products that prioritize users.

1. Create strong and constant feedback loops. 

The people building your product should be in constant communication with the people interacting with customers, like sales and customer success. Every company should ensure there are systems in place that allow for the two teams to consistently collaborate and share information. This feedback loop should also be formalized and documented so that it’s easier for everyone at the company to understand and implement key insights. 

2. Foster a culture of data-driven decision-making. 

While “trusting your gut” has its place in business, when prioritizing product decisions, new features or fixing bugs, data is critical. Humans inherently have biases that can lead to decisions that might impact product utilization, customer happiness and even revenue (as seen in my case). For example, a U.S.-based team might prioritize Apple before Android, because it’s a platform that’s more popular in the U.S. — even if the company is building a global product with an international customer base. Data-driven decision-making eliminates any opinions and ensures what’s best for the business comes first. 

3. Ensure you track and measure the right indicators. 

It can be easy to feel bogged down by data or to be unsure about what data sources are actually most important to the product and business. The good news is that there is one entity testing your product every day, for every update in every language and configuration, and on every platform and device. That entity is your user base, and they’re telling you what is and what is not working. So take the time to understand what your users are telling you to ensure consistent measurement. From reviews in the App Store or on Google Play, customer support tickets in Zendesk, and social media interactions in Twitter or Reddit — it’s possible to paint a clear picture of what features customers need and what bugs should be prioritized by looking at these attributes together.

Ensuring you understand what your users are telling you in real-time and in any language, and then acting on that information, is critical in today’s fast-paced development environment where there are so many solutions to choose from.  

Christian Wiklund is founder & CEO of unitQ.

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