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Leading By Obsession: Two Tech CEOs Share Their Secrets

The CEOs of two fast-growing tech companies, PagerDuty and Intuit, confessed on the stage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, Colo. to a shared obsession—with understanding customer pain points.

It’s not as kinky as it sounds.

The revelation came at the top of a conversation on “leadership” led by Fortune’s own CEO, Alan Murray, who asked both to share the secret of their success.

PagerDuty boss Jennifer Tejada, who joined as CEO before the company became a unicorn—the techie term for private companies valued at $1 billion or more—and guided it through a successful initial public offering in April, cited customer focus without a moment’s hesitation.

“It means that every waking hour of the day you’re spending thinking about how your customers are trying to get their jobs done and what their ultimate goals are," she said. "What are the obstacles and barriers that they find in the way of their success?”

Sasan Goodarzi, CEO of online tax preparation software maker Intuit, which has navigated several waves of technological change since it premiered in 1983, readily agreed. “We were born in the era of DOS,” he said. “The only way to do that is to fall in love with consumer problems, not our solutions.”

But the two also agreed keeping customers happy is getting harder as technology plays a greater role in daily life. Tejada’s company produces a software-as-a-service incident response platform for IT departments for more than 11,000 companies, including a third of the Fortune 500. PagerDuty has built a thriving business around the proposition that customers have come to expect so much from the cloud. But it can be a nerve-wracking line of work. She sketched the nightmare scenario:

“Imagine it's tax season, people are filing, the website, the mobile site goes down. It's the spinner of death. Consumers will give you about three seconds before they start to flood the phone bridge. Almost everything we do with our daily lives is running and in some ways dependent on the cloud. You expect to work perfectly all the time. And when it doesn’t, you’re angry!”

Goodzari said Intuit, famed for TurboTax, a consumer tax preparation application, and QuickBooks, an accounting program used by millions of small businesses, is so focused on how customers use its products that executives often ask to follow to customers to their workplace or home for observation. “It’s something we get really rigorous about.”

Both CEOs hailed artificial intelligence as a vital tool to help them manage complexity, improve their understanding of customers and be more responsive to their needs. Goodzari called A.I. the “third platform,” after electricity and the Internet, that will “fundamentally change the world.” AI capabilities, he added, are “critical to helping our customers get paid the next day.”

Correction (July 19): The original version of this article gave inaccurate timing for when Jennifer Tejada became PagerDuty's CEO. It was before the company became a unicorn. A quote by Tejada in the article was also updated for accuracy.