by Leon Rosenshein

What's an Internal Customer?

I’m a platform and tool builder. I’ve spent most of my career building platforms and tools. Tools that others, inside and outside the company, use to do whatever it is they do to add value to their respective businesses. Even when the “tool” is something like Flight Simulator, built as a game to provide entertainment. Many, probably most, people who used Flight Sim used it as shipped. They might buy a airplane or some scenery, but basically they used it as shipped. But even those people also used it as a platform.

With platforms, I’ve talked about the difference between customers and partners before. It’s a big difference. With Flight Sim we had both. Some people who bought Flight Sim were clearly customers. They bought it, used it, and never talked to us about it. That’s a customer. Others, the people who built the add-ons, were partners. We worked with them. We made changes for them that made their jobs easier which made it possible for them to build more add-ons and make money doing it. Then, they built add-ons that we didn’t have time or resources to make. Those add-ons increased the demand for Flight Sim. So we did better. And the more copies of Flight Sim that sold the bigger the installed base they could sell to. So we treated our customers and partners differently.

And nowhere is the difference bigger than when you’re talking about the difference between an internal customer or partner. With Flight Sim our customers and partners were clearly external. With other platforms, such as the various versions of distributed processing platforms I’ve built, the customers were very much internal. We were building tools and platforms for other people in the company to do their work to build whatever product they were building. Sometimes it was maps, sometimes it was image processing. Sometimes it was large scale ETL jobs. Regardless of what they were doing, they needed our platform to do their job. So were they our customers or partners? They needed wht we were building, but if they didn’t need it, we didn’t need to build it. We needed each other.

Or at least we did at the beginning. As John Cutler put it, that internal team is your customer if you can

  1. walk away from the “deal”
  2. charge their “customers”
  3. sign contracts
  4. pursue work outside the company with other “customers”
  5. manage their own budgets
  6. hire their own teams

You know, the kinds of things you can do when you’re a company trying to sell something to someone outside the company. Of course, you can’t arbitrarily do any of those things without consequences, but there’s lots of choice on both sides. If that isn’t the case, for whatever structural, organizational, or financial reasons, it’s not a seller/customer relationship. It’s a partner relationship.

When we started building those platforms we had nothing to sell to our customer, and there was nothing they could “build/buy”, internally or externally. Neither side could walk away. We didn’t have individual budgets and we couldn’t just decide to go do something else. The situation was what it was, and we had to work with it. We had to work together to build the product(s) our customers wanted. We had to be partners in creating both the “product” our team was building and the maps/imagery/data sets that the other team needed. So that’s how we started out.

That doesn’t mean it had to stay that way. We aspired to have products that our customers wanted to buy. They aspired to have products to “buy” and that they could make feature requests on. And we eventually got there. By working together in partnership to build those first versions. And once we had products, as William Gibson said, the street finds its own uses for things. Once those other use cases were found, we could (bud didn’t) walk away from one of them because there were other customers. We could build a chargeback model. We had contracts (SLAs, usage commitments, etc.) We looked for (and found) other customers and related work. We got a budget and managed our own time and its size. In short, our partners had become customers.

That’s how you get from internal partners to internal customers. And give both sides the autonomy they want (need?) to get their jobs done and feel good about it.