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Pioneering a category—and creating a culture—in Research and Development at Medallia


For Mike Ottosson (CTO and VP of Engineering) and Krish Mantripragada (Chief Product Officer), leading the R&D team at Medallia is a rare opportunity to define the new space of Customer Experience Management. In this interview with Ariel Jolodovksy, Mike and Krish discuss the technology they’re developing, the scaling challenges they’re facing, and how their team’s cutting-edge approach has influenced the tech community at large.
For those who don’t know, what problems does Medallia solve?
Krish: We help companies understand what their customers think about them, which is becoming the primary way businesses set themselves apart. Most companies—hotels, banks, or retailers, for example—are beginning to look largely similar in products and service capabilities, so customers are deciding who to do business with based on their experiences with those companies. Customers also expect their experiences to be consistent, whether they’re interacting with a company in person, on the phone, or via a mobile device. We help our clients provide delightful and consistent experiences across these multiple channels by enabling them to gather customer experience data and feedback along their customers’ journeys, analyze this data, and act upon it in a timely and relevant manner.
Mike: We collect all this feedback, and then run analytics and provide insights from the data in real time. We also guide and empower our clients to actually do something with that information, rather than just giving them a pretty report to look at. We might point out opportunities to improve their checkout process, or the way they onboard new customers. At our core, we’re helping them listen and take action at scale, in real time, which gives them a major advantage over their competitors.
Tell us more about what the teams within R&D are working on. What technologies are you using?
Mike: We innovate across multiple layers, from how we run our data centers to the solutions we provide. I think Medallia is pioneering a marriage between the technologies of enterprise SaaS and some of the principles of the B2C world. R&D designs, builds, runs, and supports all our products, which are held to extremely high standards, to make sure we can handle the scale we’re at now and the scale we expect to reach in the future.
To give you an example, we’ve parsed the equivalent of half a million books worth of customer comments in the last two months alone. So we’re running sentiment analysis on unstructured data at a massive scale. And this isn’t keyword matching; this is using data science and machine learning to make sense of what people are talking about and how they’re feeling in very specific contexts. It’s an opportunity to actually apply these very advanced technologies to some real-life business problems.
Krish: Because this is a new space, there’s no shortage of interesting problems. What you work on just depends on your background and what interests you. In mobile, for example, we’re asking, “How do you create an app that’s relevant and personalized for the hundreds of thousands of employees who will use it, from the frontline to CEO?” In design, “How do you build something that’s sticky and will become part of someone’s daily routine?” In analytics, it’s a big data problem. We’re collecting more than 300 million pieces of feedback every day, structured and unstructured.
Mike: Right; there’s something interesting going on within each project, whether that’s implementing a new product feature or working with the latest and greatest in terms of technology—we’re using modern frameworks like React, React Native, Spark, and Kafka, to name a few.
How does Medallia fit into the larger space of customer experience management?
Krish: We’re leading the innovation of the Customer Experience Management field—technology, product, and culture—which I feel incredibly lucky to be part of. It’s what attracted me to the company, frankly. This is a category-defining moment, which you might see only a few times in your career.
Mike: I think we’re moving into a world where every single company will need a customer experience management solution. The problem we solve is truly horizontal. Whether you’re a huge bank or a local retail chain, you need a way to manage and learn from what your customers are telling you.
Krish: And as technologists, we’re at the forefront of an explosion of new touchpoints between customers and companies. People are volunteering more information than ever before, and that comes with the expectation that businesses will use that information to provide a personalized experience. If I come into your store but I’ve already been on your website, I expect you to know me—who I am, what I like, what I’ve purchased before. So it’s not just the volume of the data, it’s putting all the little bits and pieces together. That’s part of what we help our clients do.
Who are your clients, and what problems do you solve for them?
Krish: What’s especially exciting to us is the companies that come to mind when you think of great experiences—Mercedes, Marriott, Hilton, Airbnb—all run Medallia. Great experience is what they provide to their customers, and that’s what we enable them to do.
It’s also an interesting challenge to serve people in diverse roles. For one client alone, our users might include a frontline employee who interacts with customers every day, a regional manager overseeing a group of stores or functions, and an executive who wants to change the entire organization’s priorities and culture. Our products have to empower each of them, and give each of them information that’s relevant, timely, and simple to act on. Some of our clients have more than 200,000 employees who use Medallia, so that can be a real scaling challenge, but it’s a lot of fun.
Mike: Given that some of the largest companies in the world run parts of their business on our system, we live and die by a principle of enterprise-grade everything. That means stringent security requirements and certifications, high-quality releases every two weeks, zero downtime patching, and four-nines-plus application availability, among other things.
How do the Product and Design teams work together?
Krish: Very closely—we’re basically tied at the hip. Both teams are focused on understanding customer needs and translating that into effective, delightful products. It’s a very agile, collaborative environment, with small teams that have full ownership over their projects and can iterate quickly.
Mike: We like to talk about the triad of design, product, and engineering. It’s one organization with one purpose.
What values guide your team and its culture?
Krish: Empathy is first. Putting yourself in your customer’s or colleague’s shoes and genuinely caring about their problems is integral to what we do. Second, we need to be passionate. We’re in a category-defining moment, and can’t settle for mediocrity. Discernment is also important. We need to be able to listen to our individual customers but still step back, see the broader themes, and build for the market.
Mike: One of the things that drew me to Medallia was the culture and values that our founders had already put in place. I think one of our primary strengths in R&D is teamwork. Engineering is about being smart and innovative and striving for excellence in your craft, and collaboration is a critical tool to that end. We mean it when we say this is a team sport. Being humble, being generous to your colleagues—those are some of the shared values in R&D and across Medallia.
Krish: We celebrate successes all the time, but not as individual achievements. When we sign a new customer or release a new function or ship a new product, we recognize every person who contributed and, really, the entire team.
What does leadership mean to you?
Krish: We emphasize empowerment and accountability. We try to give each team clear direction and remove any roadblocks in their way. We also hold each other to a standard of doing what we say, not just with each other but with our clients. Our customers are building roadmaps for their businesses based on our insights, and that’s a responsibility we do not take lightly.
Mike: We talk a lot in the software industry about evolving our technology, but it’s equally important to evolve your people and help support the next generation of leaders. We do that through a mix of formalized learning and on-the-job training. Our People and Culture team is a key partner in tailoring leadership development paths that align with the company goals. Then there are more informal learning opportunities, like tech talks and group demos. And we regularly meet with each team member to discuss their goals and how we’ll measure their progress. We work together to build a strategy, and then we let them run with it.
What’s most exciting to you about Medallia’s future?
Mike: It’s exciting to interact with our clients and see how Medallia is changing the way they operate. The Department of Veterans Affairs is one of my favorite success stories—we’re giving VA employees real-time access to veterans’ feedback, to help the VA build trusted, lifelong relationships with veterans. On the technology side, it’s the data science, the machine learning, and the opportunity to work at the cutting edge across the frontend and backend. The innovation we’ve achieved so far is just the beginning.
Krish: We’re at the intersection of so many exciting areas right now and I think it’s a great environment for someone who’s imaginative and not afraid to challenge the status quo. We need entrepreneurs, risk-takers, people with a variety of skills. We’re pioneering an entirely new field, and there’s so much interesting work to be done.
This story was created in conjunction with Job Portraits, a San Francisco-based creative agency that helps teams scale using culture-focused content.