Episode #014: Eric Hauser, VP of Engineering at DroneDeploy
The mobile experience is a critical component of almost every business which is why a mobile-first mindset is extremely important. Then, there are some other companies where a mobile-first mindset is a requirement because such a large portion of their business actually requires the mobile device. And that’s the case for DroneDeploy. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to DroneDeploy’s VP of Engineering, Eric Hauser, about what it’s like to have customers in more than 180 countries use your product, how a mobile-first mindset is required for their business, and why you may want to rethink how you obtain customer feedback and run your quality assurance process.
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Stephanie Cox: I’m Stephanie Cox, and this is Mobile Matters. Today, I'm joined by Eric Hauser at DroneDeploy. Eric is the VP of Engineering at DroneDeploy, which is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Previously, Eric was the Head of Engineering for the Salesforce IoT Cloud and has held numerous other engineering leadership roles at Salesforce, ExactTarget and other tech companies. In this episode, Eric and I talk a lot about the creative ways he's having his team engage with customers, what you need to consider when your company has customers in more than a hundred and eighty countries and why the QA process only really works everyone if you're accurately replicating real-life conditions. And make sure you stick around until the end where I'll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently but implemented effectively. Welcome to the show, Eric.
So, your engineering career over the past 15 years has been super impressive with leadership roles at Salesforce and now DroneDeploy. Can you take me back to how you first got started in tech?
Eric Hauser: I got started pretty early in tech and more by accident really than anything. My dad actually had an old Atari 400 computer in a box in our basement. And I think I just pulled it out one summer when I was bored and started hacking around on it. And they had some old magazines where you've kind of learn to program games using Basic. So, I just started playing around there and got interested in computers then.
Stephanie Cox: So, thinking back to the last 15 years since you graduated college. Like how have you seen technology change that's really been instrumental to how businesses really engage with consumers?
Eric Hauser: It's changed a lot. My first job out of college, we were developing web applications for the government and even back then doing things, just like being able to renew your driver's license online was something that was not used by the majority of the constituency. And renewing your plates and things like that were, just a very small percentage of people were actually doing. And now, it's, I think a lot of people expect services like that to be available online and to be used online. And today, clients have different expectations. They expect to have a great user experience. They expect your web applications to work fast. They expect when they're searching to have type-ahead search and all sorts of other stuff. So I think over the last year, we've seen a huge change in the expectations of users. Because over time, the complexity of front ends has gone up and the functionality available to users have just gone up. And so, I think it's a fun time because the web is always changing and the technologies available are always getting better and it makes it so that you can actually put better apps in the hands of your users.
Stephanie Cox: So, when you think about mobile specifically...mobile's changed a ton, especially the last decade when you think about the first iPhone being introduced in 2007. What have you seen as the biggest impact from a technology perspective that has influenced how consumers engage with brands on mobile?
Eric Hauser: I think originally you know when mobile-first came out, at least for enterprise companies, there wasn't really an expectation from your users that you necessarily had to have a mobile app. And I think that's really changed to where a lot of companies are thinking mobile-first. And that's certainly something that we think about here at DroneDeploy. We have over 4000 customers out in the field, using our application and they're using it in areas where out on job sites, where they may not have great Internet connectivity. So we have to worry about offline connectivity. They may be out in the sun where it's difficult to see their screen. And so, they're using it in all sorts of different locations and job sites and so, we have a lot of interesting things that we think about mobile. But for us, it's really mobile-first and we want to make sure that every feature that we develop is available to our clients out in the field. But, we also want to make sure that they also have that great experience on the desktop. And so, I think that's really kind of the big change, at least in the development side, is that as an engineering team, you really have to think about both sides of the equation. And have a really good understanding from your customers, what aspects of your app are most important, and what environments, and how best you can support them in those environments.
Stephanie Cox: So, I know you mentioned you have to know what your customers want, so how do you involve your customers in that kind of process to figure out what makes the most sense for mobile versus desktop? Or, what are the most important features and functionality that you need to deliver next?
Eric Hauser: Well, I think that a lot of enterprise companies make the mistake of not really being customer first and customer-driven. And so we try to do as many things as we can to get the voice of the customer involved in everything that we do. I think it's really easy as your organization grows to start to get, maybe a little bit, like an internal echo chamber going about what things you think are the most important in your application. And if you lose the voice of the customer, you can end up going in the wrong direction pretty quickly. So we do a lot of standard things, I think that a lot of other companies do which is one, making sure that we're out in the field talking to customers as much as possible. And we have an advisory council set up for the different verticals that we work in, which are construction and agriculture and mining. And so, we get that level of feedback but maybe more interesting is on the engineering side. We also are trying to look for a lot of different ways to actually get our engineers out there with customers. It's not always easy to take an engineering team and find ways to get them on-site working with customers. But we're lucky enough that here, in the Bay Area, we have a lot of customers who use our product so it's a short drive. And so, we actually set goals for our engineering team. And so, this year we've got a goal that every engineer is going to go out and visit a customer on-site and write up a set of learning and kind of send that back to the team. Another really great way to kind of engage with your customers is to get our engineers involved on this with our sales team and have engineers participate on sales calls, where they're talking to new prospects so they can learn a little bit about what those prospects are trying to accomplish. And so, we look for kind of interesting and innovative ways to kind of introduce customers into the process for fewer people who normally wouldn't be customer-facing. I think your product managers and your sales team and they have easy ways to get interactions with customers on a daily basis. But I think it can be a little bit harder for engineers. So we've put some effort into that and, I think it really helps pay off in the development of our software because we can think about customer first use cases.
Stephanie Cox: Well, I love hearing that too because I think it's so different for you to hear the request or the features that you want directly from a customer, versus hearing it from someone else internally who's heard it from a customer. Just carries a little bit different weight and allows you to, one, validate it but also had the opportunity to ask more questions about it. Because I think the questions and engineer would ask, that's probably different than the questions that a sales rep might ask or even a product manager.
Eric Hauser: And it's interesting. I mean a lot of people have said that one of the worst things that you can do is as a product team is develop exactly what your customers are asking for. And the reason that they say that, is generally that customers are coming to you with a problem, well they're coming to you because they have a problem. And they may be bringing you a solution, but if you don't dig a little bit deeper with the customer and then also validate that customer's solution versus what other customers are telling you, you'll likely end up developing the wrong thing. And so, it's great to have engineers talk to those customers, as well because it's really all about getting a diverse set of thinkers involved in the process. And we talk a lot about diversity in tech in the industry nowadays, and one of the things that I think is great about having a diverse team across the company is that you can actually have a diverse set of thinkers go out and talk to customers. And you can come up with a better solution for them by bringing people who are thinking about this problem in different ways. So, we put some effort into that and that can be challenging to coordinate but everyone finds it to be a very rewarding experience when they get to interact with their customers and help solve problems for them.
Stephanie Cox: So, I know you mentioned a little bit already about how mobile is used in the field but can you just for all my listeners that I have never heard of DroneDeploy, share a little bit about really what your company does and how your how mobile is so critical to your business?
Eric Hauser: We make software for drones that helps businesses manage their job sites. And so, our software can really do anything from automating flights with drones and then taking that data and converting it into insights and analytics that kind of allow those users to make informed decisions on those sites. The primary industries that we work with are construction companies, in agriculture companies, and mining companies and really. A lot of different use cases that are used on top of our platform. And so, in construction you can think about in the early phases of a construction project, you're doing a lot of earthworks where you're digging trenches and setting up foundation and things like that. In making mistakes in that that early phase of the project can end up being very, very expensive later on to have to correct. And so, DroneDeploy really provides you with a real-time up to date view of that project. Aerial view and you can do things like bring in CAD diagrams and whatnot and overlay those on top of your aerial data and really validate what's actually being built is what you had planned to build. So that's construction and agriculture. We get a lot of use for farming. So, you can do things like measure the health of your crops or validate that you have set your fields up properly from earthworks' perspective. And just a lot of really interesting use cases that we see on drones, and I think, even though that we have talked about a couple of primary industries that we see a lot of usage, we actually have a wide, wide selection of use cases are used on the platform. One of the things that we're actually really proud of is, we were able to help out with some of the disaster relief for the CampFire fire that occurred in Northern California last year. And we were able to stitch together a large number of maps of the area and make those publicly available for the people who were impacted by the fires and until they get those maps they couldn't submit for FEMA federal disaster relief because they are actually having trouble getting to their property because it was blocked off by the authorities. And so, a lot of really interesting things that are done on our platform and a lot of things that we're really proud of.
Stephanie Cox: That's a really cool story of how you're able to use your platform in a disaster situation.
Eric Hauser: Yeah and unfortunately with all of the issues that the climate issues that we're seeing, is there there's there ends up being more use cases for that. We've had people use it for hurricane relief, like measuring floods. We've actually been used in, I believe about 180 countries all over the world. And a lot of those have been humanitarian use cases. We have people who are measuring coastal erosion, for instance, with drones and so we see a lot of really great things on the platform. And I think, tying it back to what we talked about earlier, it's really just about connecting with your customers and, especially when it's in a humanitarian or disaster scenario and we're just there to help. I think that's something that we're really proud of and really like to rally around as a team.
Stephanie Cox: So, you mentioned 180 countries. How do you think about making sure, specifically, like your mobile app works on a variety of devices and then also in a lot of situations where there's limited connectivity. How do you handle thinking about what's available offline and how it's all gonna work when there is connectivity versus when they're not?
Eric Hauser: It's a challenge to think about when you start to think about things like internationalization, which we'll start there first. Today, we currently operate in 180 countries where we offer a first-class experience in English and Japanese. And you know for the development team, there's some effort that goes into there and making sure that our application is internationalized, and getting the build process set up. And making sure that we get the right keys to our translators, and so we use a couple of tools in that process.
I would say that as far as I'm aware, there's not any really amazing tools out there today that help solves offline challenges with mobile.
Stephanie Cox: So thinking about the new features and functionality you decide to put in DroneDeploy, I know that you guys also have your app market. How do you balance what makes sense for your business versus what makes sense for maybe a partner to deliver?
Eric Hauser: Yeah, I think that we generally try to focus on the use cases that broadly apply to most of our customer base. And being a horizontal company can sometimes be a challenge in that area. I've been lucky enough to kind of be working for platform companies for the last eight or nine years or so. And that is always a challenge where you have customers who are using your software across a vast number of industries, and a vast number of use cases. And you're always trying to figure out where to make the right investments. I think one of the important things about our app market is that we can't invest everywhere, and in the areas where we choose not to make investments, we have the capability to be extensible for our customers. So whether that's through the use of partners, whether that's the use of companies utilizing their internal development teams to develop apps on our platform, that extension point is really critical. Because we're not going to be able to solve every problem as a company and we have enterprise companies out there who have very unique requirements and we need to be in a position where we can be extensible for them. So just to answer the question, we generally look for a lot of the overlaps and it's a lot of listening to our customers and finding out what the most important areas of functionality are for those customers. And we go after those and trying to, once we have that figured out and aligned and we have a good roadmap internally, that's when we start to talk to some of our partners and let them know about areas where we may not be investing so that they can invest them.
Stephanie Cox: So one of the other things that there's been a lot of buzz about lately has been 5G. What kind of impact do you think 5G might have for DroneDeploy?
Eric Hauser: It could have a massive impact for us. I mean, I think one of the things. If you think about some of the scenarios today, where you have people who are wanting to get real-time access to insights to some of this data. Today, when you go out in the field and let's say you go capture 250 images with a drone, you have to sync that data onto, there's a couple of different ways you can do it. But if you sync the data to your mobile device and start uploading there in the field, that could take in the range of an hour to upload over an LTE connection. I think that maybe it's 50 photos in 10 minutes is the area. And we have customers who capture anywhere from 50 photos to 10,000 photos, depending on the scenario. Most wouldn't try to upload 10,000 over mobile today. But so, with 5G coming along we're talking about an order of magnitude or potentially multiple orders magnitude, increase in upload speeds directly from the mobile device. And so, if you're out in the field and you capture imagery and you can upload that data instantly. All of the backend and stitching that we do, we create 2D maps and 3D models and we create a bunch of insights off of that data and that can be a fairly complicated and intensive process that may take a few hours. We also have a real-time mapping technology that you can use in the field, as well, for a little bit less detailed maps. But the sooner you're able to get that data from your drone to the cloud so that we can do the processing, the faster we can get that data back into your hands. And so, 5G has a lot of potential for us and for our customers in order to just really increase the speed of delivery. And that's a step change for them, it's not just kind of an incremental improvement. So we're very excited about 5G and the possibilities that come along with it. And there's also some interesting techniques that we've started to think about and explore a little bit about if we can get those amazingly fast upload speeds, how might we be able to take advantage of some hybrid scenarios between the mobile device and the cloud? Because everybody's mobile devices are getting to be having, starting to have a lot of power behind them.
There's some interesting scenarios that you can start to think about when the transfer speed between the mobile device and the cloud, there's not really a barrier for moving around data. You can start to think about some scenarios where you can actually take advantage of hybrid processing between the two.
Stephanie Cox: No, I think that's really interesting that you brought that up because the other thing that I think of is, I'm personally super excited about the possibilities and 5G in general for mobile. But what the impact it's going to have on consumer expectations too if I'm able to do things faster, like to your point, uploading photos from my drone literally almost within seconds that I take a thousand of them, what does that mean for the expectation I now have for getting those maps back to me? Do you start to see that before waiting a couple hours made a lot of sense, but now I'm impatient because I can do this faster, why can't I do the next part faster too?
Eric Hauser: Speed of delivery is something that is always generally talked about in a number of the platform companies I've worked at. And from a very end-user perspective, there's a barrier there where you think about, can I get something in real-time versus do I have to wait for something. And if you have to wait for something, generally that if you know a 10, 20 percent difference in speed is not something that's as noticeable by the user, if they're waiting hours or something. But if we can now go and find a way to make it so that instead of it being two hours, it's 10 minutes, right? That is noticeable to the user. And so, yes, I do think expectations ramp up as 5G and it becomes comes a little bit more widely available and that's something that we're always keeping an eye on. So, we actually developed a solution called LiveMap last year and have released it as a GA product. It actually allows customers to make maps in real-time, in the field directly on their phone. And that was something even three years ago, two, three years ago, we probably couldn't have done because the phones really just did not have enough horsepower to be able to do that. But, if you imagine taking a drone and flying it over a field and just seeing that map render right there in real-time on your screen, that's how LiveMap works. And so, we are always trying to balance the speed versus quality, which is really the trade-off in mapping. But the phones have gotten good enough to where we can do a lot of really interesting things in real-time.
Stephanie Cox: So, speaking of balancing between the two and just overall, all the decisions that you have to make in general, what do you think your biggest challenge has been on mobile?
Eric Hauser: Making sure that you're always testing your software in the environment that your users are using it. One of the things that I always say here is that we can go out and QA our drone software a hundred times in our QA environment and it will work the same every time. But, if we then go release that software out to our users, we're now using it in scenarios where they don't have great connectivity or a scenario where potentially they are using a different device than we were testing with, then it can work very differently. And so, we've invested a lot of energy into our QA processes, making sure that we're using, testing on all the different devices that our users are testing with, and our users are actually using. Making sure that we are testing in different climates and scenarios. I'll give you an example is, we had a customer who we were demoing on our software for and a feature that we've used a lot of our customers use in production. And so, no concerns about it and they were having a lot of trouble getting it to work. And we had a little bit of trouble figuring out why, and it so happened that this customer was flying next to a utility that was producing a large amount of they believed it was electromagnetic interference. And so, there's the signal between the drone and the phone, it wasn't working correctly. That's something that's very difficult to QA or to replicate. And it's not like a normal scenario. So, we've had to build tools, for instance, for making it so that we synthetically create those scenarios and our QA and testing environment to make sure that we're testing for things like that. As well as making sure that we've got the tools in the backend for when those situations do occur that we can debug those for our customers.
Stephanie Cox: So what's been your biggest success, then?
Eric Hauser: I take it back to the customer, right? And if we are finding value for our customers and they love using our software, then I think the other stuff falls into place. And we have a great set of customers here at DroneDeploy and they've done some tremendous things on top of the platform. And when I go back through our blog and look at the different use cases that we've been able to talk about and then some of these cases that I know internally with what our customers are doing with our software. That to me makes me feel pretty good and tells me that that is a big success.
Stephanie Cox: So one last question for you. If you have to look into your crystal ball and tell me where the future of mobile and tech is headed in the next, let's say five years, what do you see?
Eric Hauser: I mean, at some point I think we'll see that desktop really becoming almost irrelevant. The question in when that will happen is probably the more interesting one. Do I think that will happen in five years... I don't know. You still see the desktop as the primary tool for business users you're sitting at a desk all day. And in our field, a lot of the customers a lot of their users are actually people who are out in the fields, right? So mobile matters for them a lot more. But most consumers today are primarily using mobile as a way to interact and I believe that the stats saying this year might have been the first year where more online shopping was done on Black Friday on mobile devices than it was desktop. And so, I think that we'll hit some point, an inflection point at some point within the kind of the enterprise SaaS industry, where we start to see that business users are primarily using mobile, as opposed to desktop. But I think the question is really when. For us, we're a mobile-first company anyways because that's where a lot of our primary user base is. And so that transition will be a little bit easier for us to swallow. For other companies who've been developing their platforms for a long time and have built up a lot of technical infrastructure on their frontend on desktop, finding a way to deliver that same experience on mobile, is it is a challenge because it's a big investment and you know trying to balance you know when you want to start that investment and how much you want to put into it is not an easy question to answer.
Stephanie Cox: How much fun is it to talk about drones with Eric? What I really loved about the conversation with him is that we're not only talking about technology that most of us probably find extremely interesting, but such a significant portion of his business is actually dependent on mobile. While we all know the importance of delivering these exceptional mobile experiences,the stakes are even higher for companies like DroneDeploy where mobile is really a linchpin in how their product actually works. And even though we were talking about drones which once again, I love, all the insides he shared are applicable to almost every business. There's so much we can learn from our colleagues and engineering and development that help us as marketers develop one, closer working relationship with them but also gives us a different perspective on how we think about engaging with consumers on mobile. Some of the best inspiration I’ve found comes from people with diverse backgrounds. And that's one of the many reasons why I wanted to interview Eric on the podcast. Now, let's get to my favorite part of the show where we take the education and apply it to your business.
There's so many great insights to my conversation with Eric that can really help transform how you think about mobile marketing. Let's dive into my top three takeaways. First, we have to start coming to terms with the fact that we need to take a mobile-first approach to literally everything we do. This is a topic that I've talked a lot about previously on the podcast, but I think it's really worth repeating because as I speak with more and more marketings across the country and really across the world, we're all talking about the importance of mobile first, but when I dig into what people are actually doing to make that a mobile-first mindset in their company, I realize that we still have a long way to go. That's why I want to reiterate the value of leading with a mobile-first mindset within your organization and actually putting that into action. With consumers spending more than three hours a day on their mobile devices, more than 50% of web traffic coming from mobile, 61% of email opens once again on your mobile phone, in almost all of social media being consumed on a mobile device and 46% of consumers being willing to give up one day off of work a week people rather than their smart phone, we have to realize that mobile is really a majority of where are content is being consumed and it needs to be the focal point of all marketing efforts. Now, I'm not saying that we need to ignore the desktop completely. We still need to take it into consideration. Right now I'm recording this podcast on my laptop, but we need to design for the mobile experience first and consider desktop second. Consumers expect us to deliver an exceptional mobile experience that really meets or exceeds our expectations. And if we don't, we're going to see the consequences of that decision and sometimes I don't think we realize that. So let's take a look at some numbers, 57% of consumers won't recommend a business with a poorly designed mobile website and 62% of people are less likely to purchase from a brand again if it had a negative experience on mobile. Those are big numbers everyone and that's why I really believe it's time for us all to adopt this mobile-first mindset and start leading the change in your strategy within our company's.
Next, we all know the importance of listening to the voice of customer and most of us probably has some type of VOC program that's running already and that's a great first start. But what we can really learn from my interview with Eric is how valuable it is to get more people involved in the process of talking with customers. In my experience, most of the VOC work that is done at organizations, whether it's formal or informal, is really led by Marketing, Customer Success and Product teams. In other areas of the organization like Engineering, Finance and operations don't tend to be involved in hearing directly from customers and said they're hearing that customer feedback from someone else in the organization that's kind of sharing it as a rollup report. Now, I get it, tt's not possible for every single person in your organization, especially if it's a large one to talk to customers, but there are ways for us to create these engaging experiences for more people in the organization. And that's really why I love what Eric's doing with his team. How many times do you hear of engineering teams that have an annual goal of going to the field hearing directly from customers and writing up their learnings to share back with their team? I know I haven't heard of anyone doing that until I talked to Eric. Now, that's not only going to give them great feedback, but they get to hear directly, but it's also going to give them the ability to ask probing questions that others may not think of asking because we think about it from a different perspective. Finally, how many of us are making sure our QA process is truly aligned to the actual conditions that our mobile experiences will be used in. Now, if you're like me, your immediate reaction is “Well of course mine is, why wouldn't it be,” but start to think back to what Eric said. He shared about how the DroneDeploy mobile app is used on construction sites where there's low conductivity, the sun can shine directly on the screen and even electromagnetic interference can impact their ability. How many of those would you have immediately thought about needed to be included in the QA process for testing their app? I know I wouldn't have thought of all three and that's likely the case for every business. You're going to have some work conditions that are unique to who you are, how your mobile experience is used, where it's used when it's used and by who and that's why you need to think beyond just device testing when you go through the QA process. We should be thinking about QA processes that really replicate as much as possible the real conditions that our mobile experiences will be used in and that's going to help us ensure that we're aware of any potential issues and have the ability to fix them before they get released. I also want to touch on device testing as part of a QA process. Unless you have an enormous QA team, which most of us probably don't, it's going to be impossible to test every single mobile experience and every device type and every operating system that exists. And I’d love to believe it's possible, we all know it's not reality. So many of us are probably testing based on the top devices and operating systems used to access our mobile experiences and given our limited resources that makes a ton of sense. However, I think the question we need to start thinking about is, are we overlooking how many people might be impacted when it's only 1% of our users? Prior to last week, I would have said “Nope, 1% don't need to worry about it,” but David Bernal, he happens to be the Director of Product Engineering at Starbucks, last week on Twitter he said something super profound that really stuck with me, What if that 1% represents a hundred thousand people?
That really puts things in perspective. We can't just go by percentages when we think about device testing or how many people might be impacted by a bug in our product or mobile experience. We have to look at both percentages and the total number impacted. The percentage might seem low, but the actual number of people could tell a completely different story.
Now, here’s my mobile marketing challenge for the week. Think back to the last time you got out of the office and talk to your customers and I mean physically out of the office and talk to them face-to-face. If it wasn't the last month then it's time to find time in the next week to make that happen. You should be finding ways to connect with your customers on a monthly basis at minimum everyone. I'd also encourage you to bring along other members of your team, especially developers, who are responsible for creating those mobile experiences that your customers use on a regular basis. It's going to be extremely beneficial for them to hear that feedback directly and it’s also going to have this great benefit of energizing them when they realize how much they can actually help.
I'm Stephanie Cox and you've been listening to Mobile Matters. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Until then be sure to visit Lumavate.com and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders, best practices, and all things mobile.