September 23, 2014

Can you really be Bias free ?

When we started Percona about 7 years ago one of the ideas behind the business was to provide customer focused services, which I refereed to as “bias free” at the time.

What do I mean by customer focused services ? Is not this something most of the company out there would claim ? Not in our definition! What we have observed years ago is what many companies view the services organization as the part of sales force, looking to recommend the product and services companies sell whenever they fit or not. In fact I had conversation with consultants from number of companies asking them direct question – if you found during project delivery your solution is the better fit can you recommend against implementing it ? In most cases the answer is no, either being direct management instructions or a fear of confrontation – Sales team could be quite unhappy with sale which they have done rolling back because of “consultants fault”. We wanted to be different. We wanted to ensure our services are the best value and the best customer fit to our knowledge.

Our first focus was Bias because in the smaller organization the other things are less of the issue – if I both sell and when deliver the project there is no one to be upset about if I decide something is better fit. I just have my own integrity and bias to care about.

As the time passed though I came to realize it is quite Utopian to strive to be bias free. You are biased whenever you want it or not and attempt to be “bias free” would much more likely to cause you into denial about your existing biases than anything else. We are biased by our knowledge and experiences this is just how life goes and I think the most important thing we can to do in this regard as professionals is to acknowledge our biases to ourselves. For example I’m biased against using Windows on Servers, and much more Biased towards Linux compared to other operating systems… and of course I will have a lot of facts to back up my bias. (This is what happens – we tend to filter information which supports our predispositions).

As I came to understanding myself as well as other members of our team can’t be Bias free I needed a different idea about how we can provide customer services with highest integrity possible ? Here are my current thoughts:

Acknowledge your Bias You are biased. Be honest to yourself about that. This is a first step towards reducing your bias impact.
Maintain your Integrity Being biased is OK. Lacking integrity is not. When you’re working with the customer you need to act in this customer interests. Your and your company interest come second. Some other industries have the laws on the subjects ours do not, but I think if we all enforce this rule on as we all will be much better.
Understand the Customer Reality The Integrity is not enough if you do not really understand your customer as your best recommendations coming right from your heart may be very wrong if you do not really understand customer situation. For example I already told you I’m biased towards Linux when it comes to the Server Operating System of Choice but I’ve recommended customer more than once to stay on Windows because it was completely Windows shop with no Linux experience whatsoever and getting people to install Linux for the first time in their life for the purpose of running mission critical database is not very wise. Another example would be Percona Server product. We do recommend this product to many customers, due to some specific valuable features we have added to the stock MySQL. We also may recommend MariaDB if some of its advanced features are needed. In many cases we however do not recommend any change because the system is working fine with Community MySQL and any change comes with its risks and costs.
Problems have Multiple solutions The big mistake often comes from “School-like” approach to the problems thinking it has “the solution”. In fact there are probably more than one solution to the same problem and it if often impossible to predict in advance which one would be better. Accepting existence of multiple solution and your limits in understanding all implications of them help to keep an open mind. Frankly it was very eye opening experience for me when I would think there is no way the client’s approach would work but it actually worked out quite fine, better than more complicated solution I was advocating.

There is an other danger though with this approach – if you do not push your product hard (as other vendors may do) you might come across as unsure about your product or not interested in the business. It is a tight line to walk. I teach my team to come up with the options and highlight the benefits and drawbacks we’re aware for any solutions allowing customers to make the choice. Even if we strive to understand Customer’s Reality there is a lot of internal process and politics which you would unlikely ever know.

We can also use this as a learning opportunity – if we’re not a fit is this an opportunity to improve our products and services ? Sometimes it and sometimes it simply falls outside of the area you want to focus on as a business.

So I do not claim to be bias free any more. I also do not claim us to be perfect – over last 7 years there have been many mistakes done by the team causing pains to our customers. At the same time I am staying committed working hard at having products and Services which would be great fit for our customers and really pursuing the customers where we can make a positive difference in their life, understanding there are always situations when something else is better fit.

About Peter Zaitsev

Peter managed the High Performance Group within MySQL until 2006, when he founded Percona. Peter has a Master's Degree in Computer Science and is an expert in database kernels, computer hardware, and application scaling.

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