CEOs get a taste for the frontline experience

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In March the co-founder and head of consumer engineering at DoorDash, Andy Fang, could be found dropping off an order from a sushi restaurant to a customer’s apartment in San Francisco.

The food delivery app had restarted its WeDash programme that requires all of its salaried employees in the US, Canada and Australia to get out on the road and make deliveries. “It’s pretty core to our DNA as a company . . . it ties to one of our values of being customer-obsessed,” says Fang.

The act of testing your own product or service has been dubbed “dogfooding” in the technology world. It traditionally took place in software development but the use of the term has since expanded to refer to other employee initiatives such as spending time in frontline roles. When DoorDash was created in 2013 the founders carried out deliveries themselves out of necessity. Its WeDash initiative, which began in earnest in 2015 before being paused during the pandemic, has turned a necessity into company policy.

According to Fang: “One thing that makes this programme so effective here is the fact that the founders and the company leadership team engage in it very passionately.” He recently used it to test the feasibility of using e-bikes for deliveries, partly as a response to rising petrol prices and concerns over environmental sustainability. He describes WeDash as a way for staff to understand the company culture, stay in touch with frequent changes to the product, and to provide feedback on how to improve the service.

However, at least one DoorDash employee was not happy about the reinstatement of WeDash. In a post on the workplace app Blind in December, the staff member claimed to have not received prior notice of the policy before joining the company and appeared to object to the deliveries being tracked in performance reviews.

In response, Fang says: “This has been something that the vast majority of the employee base has been positively receptive to. We are giving people different opportunities to engage with the product.” The company asks staff to complete at least four deliveries and they can also shadow customer experience colleagues, to make up 10 “dashes” per year. Shadowing restaurant partners on the DoorDash platform will also become an option. Employees are encouraged to do one of these tasks on a monthly basis.

Other “dogfooding” participants include Airbnb co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky, who announced in January he would be staying in Airbnb’s rental properties every few weeks — he did a similar stint in 2010. John Zimmer, the co-founder and president of Lyft, has had a New Year’s Eve tradition of driving for the ride-hailing service for the past 10 years.

John Zimmer with passengers in a Lyft car on New Year’s eve 2021 © John Zimmer/Twitter

Jennifer McFadden, associate director and a lecturer in the practice of entrepreneurship at Yale School of Management, says employers have to ask whether such practices are the best use of high-salaried employees’ time due to the cost to the company. “I personally would argue yes,” she says. “Anything you can do to get closer to your customer in any way, shape or form is great.”

She did, however, raise concerns about safety and employees’ ability to understand problems experienced by workers in the gig economy. “I do think that does help you build empathy with your end user, but you really can’t understand that role unless you jump in, your salary is dependent on it, you are feeding your family based upon that salary, you’re working 14-hour days.”

The phrase “eating our own dogfood” was popularised at Microsoft in 1988 by former manager Paul Maritz. He sent an email about the need to trial new networking software internally, using the phrase in the subject line and, as a joke, the testing manager then named the test server “dogfood”. “Somehow from there it took on a life of its own and started to spread to other parts of Microsoft and then from there, other parts of the industry,” Maritz recalls. He himself had been inspired to use the term by his first boss, who would say it to question his team on how what they wanted to build would fare in the real world.

“Sometimes I’m afraid that when I die they’ll write on my tombstone, ‘he ate his own dogfood’,” Maritz says. The business and cultural legacy of the phrase was underlined nearly 25 years later when his daughter-in-law started working at Google and returned with a T-shirt branded with the slogan. “It’s a very good discipline to say to yourself, if we can’t use it ourselves then there must be something fundamentally wrong.”

Ilma Nur Chowdhury, senior lecturer in marketing at the Alliance Manchester Business School, says companies should consider whether they have recruited an inclusive “dogfooding” team that reflects the different needs and backgrounds both of employees and customer groups. “You could see a firm trying to become much more socially responsible, trying to take into account diversity when they are engaging in this process.”

She believes ill-thought-through dogfooding programmes can lead to problems such as staff fatigue and resentment [when workplace culture is an issue], but these can be avoided if employees are not forced to work extra hours and frontline personnel do not experience ad hoc disruption to their teams.

At workflow automation company Zapier, all staff are asked to help with customer support every week. Co-founder and chief executive Wade Foster says: “It helps them to feel much more connected to the work that’s going on.” He claims the policy has led to better understanding of customer demands and faster fixes to problems raised in calls, as well as the building of a team bond, which includes trust and greater respect towards customer service employees.

Foster believes the policy helps everyone to “see through a similar lens” and appreciate why other departments advocate for certain changes. Early on in the pandemic, staff both inside and outside Zapier’s customer support team identified the impact Covid-19 was going to have on small businesses and, within less than a week, the company launched an assistance programme. “It allows us to better size up opportunities and jump on the ones that we think are interesting, maybe just a little bit sooner than how most companies would do it,” Foster adds.

Such practices are not confined to the technology sector. Ahead of becoming Burger King chief executive in 2013, Daniel Schwartz worked in its restaurants, flipping burgers and learning how other roles in the business worked.

Staff take part in the Helping Hands initiative at John Lewis © James Mackenzie

John Lewis, the UK retail partnership, has run its own initiative called Helping Hands since 2006; it is primarily centred around head office staff. Ben Farrell, director of operations planning and delivery, says the co-owned business “very much [has] a spirit of we are all in it together”.

For the first decade of the scheme, employees were asked to assist on the shop floor of John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas. The scheme was then adapted as the nature of the retail sector changed with the shift to online. Now, staff can also sign up to help in its warehouses, contact centres and on home deliveries for a few days during busy periods. “This is the business coming alive in front of them.”

Volunteers take part in addition to their usual responsibilities. “People are really remarkably committed. I know several people who are getting up at 4am to get there to do the 6am till 2pm [warehouse] shift, and then they’ll go do their day job,” Farrell says. The partnership matches employees to nearby locations where possible, to avoid incurring additional costs to the business.

While leading the pandemic response, Farrell’s own experiences helping out with deliveries influenced his approach to the safety of employees and customers. “All of this detail that you get from doing all these jobs really helps you make better decisions,” he says.

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