20 September 2018

The importance of dogfooding

When I first started this business, I wrote my own service terms and conditions. And, wow, was it a weird experience. I sat there, both lawyer and client within the confines of my own skull, gaining large doses of sympathy for my former clients – where previously there had only been surface understanding.

I felt like Disney’s Pluto, with the angel and devil on my shoulders, arguing merrily while my fingers hovered over the keyboard in confusion (don’t ask me which of lawyer or client was the devil). How can I write this without sounding too lawyerly, or sending my clients running? Did that particular unlikely outcome really justify its own clause, jeopardising my self-imposed one-page limit? Exactly how much risk was I prepared to take on for myself?

What I was discovering, in those moments of doubt, was the benefit of “dogfooding”. It’s a tech world term, coined within the development teams of Microsoft all the way back in 1988, based on the analogy of “eating our own dog food” for the company using its own product. It was intended as another layer on testing and quality control, because there are some bugs – or overlooked potential features – you just don’t find until you put software into real-world practice.

This idea is not often practised in the professions. The phrase “a person who is their own lawyer has a fool for a client” has been kicking around for centuries, and most lawyers – and other professionals – take it to heart. As with all old sayings, there is some truth to it, a warning against the blindness and bias that comes with being too close to your own matter. However, it also neglects the benefits of putting your legal skills into practice for your own purposes once in a while.

It’s common for lawyers to complain about clients being their own worst enemies, like in-house internal clients who negotiate on behalf of their potential customer, before you’ve even had a chance to put a contract in front of the counterparty. Do your own drafting, and you soon develop a visceral appreciation of the fear of driving the customer away. Not to mention the nightmare-inducing risks that clients sometimes choose to accept. When faced with yourself as a client, the balance of risk and reward is that much more tangible. You come to realise that it’s your risk – as the client – to take on.


Bah, I hear you say: this is nothing new. After all, car dealers drive the cars they sell, shop assistants wear the store’s clothes, the retail staff of a certain high-end tech purveyor wander the stores juggling several glowing pieces of fruit. But – while the term has been bandied about in those contexts – none of these is truly dogfooding. These are just examples of marketing gloss, of an attempt to build testimonials through internal use.

Dogfooding, in order to have a real impact, needs to be part of a feedback loop. Are you an HR rep with a new invoice reimbursement procedure? Test it out on your own team, before risking the wrath of employees waving receipts. That way, if it gets stuck in the system for months, you won’t have staff invading your office with sharpened pencils.

There is a point, though, at which dogfooding gets a bit tricky. Let’s take induction procedures as an example. Induction for a desk rider, no problem: write, grab the newbie in your own team, try it out. Induction for an industrial testing laboratory? You’ll be given the necessary information, rules, requirements and combine them with company-wide policies. But how, exactly, can you put it into practice yourself? Anything technical or designed for a specific, specialised audience is difficult to eat as dog food. So, don’t bother? Au contraire: this is where close cooperation with the customer is required. Head down to the lab and shadow an induction using the new procedure. Ask questions of both inductor and inductee, get their feedback, and repeat. Eat that dog food together.

Why the off-putting analogy with dog food, you ask? Who knows. Some tech execs have suggested “drinking your own champagne” (“bubbling” for short, perhaps?) or the rather bland IBM term “eating your own cooking” – whatever you call it, it’s worth chowing down on your own outputs every now and again.