There are plenty of articles talking about DevOps and Teamwork and Aligning Authority with Responsibility, but what does that look like in practice?
Having been on many different kinds of teams, and having run a Product Team, I will talk about why I think that Product Teams are the best way to create and run products sustainably.
Hey, Didn’t you start with “DevOps Doesn’t Work” last time?
Yes, (yes I did). And I believe every word of it. I consider Product Teams to be a definitive implementation of “Scaling DevOps” which so many people seem to struggle with when the number of people involved scales beyond a conference room.
To my mind, Product Teams are the best way to ensure that responsibility is aligned with authority, ensuring that the applications that you need are operated sustainably, and minimizes the likelihood that a given application becomes “Legacy”.
What do you mean “Legacy”?
There is a term that we use in this industry, but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen it be well-defined. In my mind, a Legacy Product is:
- Uncared For: Not under active development. Any releases are rare, using old patterns, and are often the result of a security update breaking functionality, causing a fire-drill of fixing dependencies.
- In an Orphanage: The people who are responsible for it don’t feel that they own it, but are stuck with it.
If there is a team that actively manages a legacy product, they might not be really equipped to make significant changes. Most of the time they are tasked only with keeping this product barely running, and may have a portfolio of other products in similar state. This “Legacy Team” might have some connotation associated with it of being “second-string” engineers, and it might be a dumping ground for many apps that aren’t currently in active development.
What are we coming from?
The assumed situation is there is a product or service that is defined by “business needs”.
A decision is come to that these goals are worthwhile, and a Project is defined.
This may be a new product or service, or it may be features to an existing product or service. At some point this Project goes into “Production”, where it is hopefully consumed by users, and hopefully it provides value.
Here’s where things get tricky.
In most companies, the team that writes the product is not the same team that runs the product. This is because many companies organize themselves into departments. Those departments often have technical distinctions like “Development” or “Engineering”, and “Quality Assurance”, and an “Operations” and/or “Systems” groups. In these companies, people are aligned along job function, but each group is responsible for a phase of a product’s lifecycle.
And this is exactly where the heart of the problem is:
The first people who respond to a failure of the application aren’t the application’s developers, creating a business inefficiency:
Your feedback loop is broken.
As a special bonus, some companies organize their development into a so-called “Studio Model”, where a “studio” of developers work on one project. When they are done with that project, it gets handed off to a separate team for operation, and another team will handle “maintenance” development work. That original Studio team may never touch that original codebase again! If you have ever had to maintain or operate someone else’s software, you might well imagine the incentives that this drives, like assumptions that everything is available, and latency is always low!
See, the Studio Model is patterned after Movie and Video Game Studios. This can work well if you are releasing a product that doesn’t have an operational component. Studios make a lot of sense if you’re releasing a film. Some applications like single-player Games, and Mobile Apps that don’t rely on Services are great examples of this.
If your product does have an operational component, this is great for the people on the original Studio team, for whom work is an evergreen pasture. Unfortunately it makes things more painful for everyone who has to deal with the aftermath, including the customers. In reality it’s a really efficient way of turning out Legacy code.
Let’s face it, your CEO doesn’t care that you wrote code real good. They care that the features and products work well, and are available so that they bring in money. They want an investment that pays off.
Having Projects isn’t a problem. But funding teams based on Projects is problematic. You should organize around Products.
Ok, I’ll bite. What’s a Product Team?
Simply put, a Product Team is a team that is organized around a business problem. The Product Team is comprised of people such that it is largely Self-Contained, and collectively the team Owns it’s own Products. It is “long-lived”, as the intention behind it is that the team is left intact as long as the product is in service.
Individuals on the team will have “Specialties”, but “that’s not my job” doesn’t exist. The QA Engineer specializes in determining ways of assuring that software does what’s expected to. They are not responsible for the writing of useful test cases, but they are not limited to the writing of tests. Notably, they’re not solely responsible for the writing of tests. Likewise for Operations Engineers, who have specialties in operating software, infrastructure automation, and monitoring, but they aren’t limited to or solely responsible for those components. Likewise for Software Engineers…
But the Product Team doesn’t only include so-called “members of technical staff”. The Product Team may also need other expertise! Design might be an easy assumption, but perhaps you should have a team member from Marketing, or Payments Receivable, or anyone who has domain expertise in the product!
It’s not a matter of that lofty goal of “Everyone can do everything.” Even on Silo teams, this never works. This is “Everyone knows enough to figure anything out“, and ”Everyone feels enough ownership to be able to make changes."
The people on this team are on THIS team. Having or being an engineer on multiple teams is painful and will cause problems.
You mentioned “Aligning Authority with Responsibility” before…
By having the team be closely-knit, and long-lived, certain understandings need to be had. What I mean is that if you want to have a successful product, and a sustainable lifecycle, there are some understandings that need to take place with regards to the staffing:
- Engineers have a one-to-one relationship to a Product Team.
- Products have a one-to-one relationship with a Product Team.
- A Product Team may have a one-to-many relationship with it’s Products.
- A Product Team will have a one-to-one relationship with a Pager Rotation.
- An Engineer will have a one-to-one membership with it’s Pager Rotation.
Simply put, having people split among many different teams sounds great in theory, but it never works out well for the individuals. The teams never seem to get the attention required from the Individual Contributors, and an Individual Contributor is in a position of effectively doubling their number of bosses having to appease them all.
Some developers might balk at being made to participate in the operation of the product that they’re building. This is a natural reaction.
They’ve never had to do that before. Yes, exactly.
That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have to. That is the “we’ve always done it this way” argument.
In this regard, I say is that if one’s sleep is on the line - if you are on the hook for the pager - you will take much more care in your assumptions when building a product, than if that is someone else’s problem.
The last thing that amazes me is that this is a pattern that is well-documented in many of the so-called “Unicorn Companies”, who’s practices many companies seek to emulate, but somehow “Developers-on-Call” always is argued to be “A Bridge Too Far”.
I would argue that this is one of their keystones.
Who’s in Charge
Before I talk about anything else, I have to make one thing perfectly clear. If you have a role in Functional Leadership (Engineering Manager, Operations Director, etc), your role will probably change.
In Product Teams, the Product Owner decides work to be done and priorities.
Within the team you have the skills that you need to create and run it, delegating functions that you don’t possess to other Product Teams. (DBA’s being somewhat rare, and “DB-as-a-Service” is somewhat common.)
Many Engineering and Operations managers were promoted because they were good at Engineering or Ops. Unfortunately it’s then that it sets in that, in Lindsay Holmwood’s words, “It’s not a promotion, it’s a career change”, and also addressed in this year’s SysAdvent article “Trained Engineers - Overnight Managers (or ‘The Art of Not Destroying Your Company’)” by Nir Cohen.
How many of you miss Engineering, but spend all of your time doing… stuff?
Under an org that leverages Product Teams, Functional Leaders have a fundamentally different role than they did before.
Under Product Team paradigm, Product Managers are responsible for the work, while Functional Managers are responsible for passing of knowledge, and overseeing the career growth of Individual Contributors.
|Product Managers||Functional Managers|
|Owns Product||IC’s Professional Development|
|Product Direction||Coordinate Knowledge|
|Assign Work & Priority||Keeper of Culture|
|Hire & Fire from Team||Involved in Community|
|Decide Team Standards||Bullshit Detector / Voice of Reason|
The Product Manager “Owns the Product”. They are ultimately responsible for the product successfully meeting business needs. Everything else is in support of that. I must stress that it isn’t necessary that a Product Manager be technical, though it does seem to help.
The product owner is the person who understands the business goals that knowledge and those stakes, they assign work and priorities such that it’s aligned with those business goals.
Knowing the specific problems that they’re solving and the makeup of their team, they are responsible for hiring and firing from the team.
Because the Product Team is responsible for their own success, and availability (by which I mean, of course, the Pager), they get to make decisions locally. They get to decide themselves what technologies they want to use and suffer.
Finally, the Product Manager evangalizes their product for other teams to leverage, and helps to on-board them as customers.
At this point, I expect that the Functional managers are wondering “well what do I do?” Functional Managers aren’t dictating what work is done anymore, but there is still a lot of value that they bring. Their job becomes The People.
I don’t know a single functional manager who has been able to attend to their people’s professional development like they feel that they should.
Since technology decisions are made within the Product Team, the Functional Management has a key role in coordinating knowledge between the members of their Community, keeping track of who’s-using-what, and the relevant successes and pitfalls. When one team is considering a new tool that another is using, or a team is struggling with a tech, the functional manager is well-equipped for connecting people.
Functional Managers are the Keepers of Culture, and are encouraged to be involved in Community. That community-building is both within the company and in their physical region.
Functional managers are crucial for Hiring into the company, and helping Product Managers with hiring skills that they aren’t strong with. For instance, I would run a developer candidate by a development manager for a sanity-check, but for a DBA, I’d be very reliant on a DBA Manager’s expertise and opinion!
Relatedly, the Functional Manager serves as a combination Bullshit Detector and Voice-of-Reason when there are misunderstandings between the Product Owners and their Engineers.
The Reason for Broad Standards
Broad standards are often argued for one of two main reasons: either for “hiring purposes”, where engineers may be swapped relatively interchangably, or because there is a single Ops team responsible for many products, who doesn’t have ability to cope with multiple ways of doing things. (Since any one Engineer might be called upon to solve many apps in the dark of the night.)
Unfortunately, app development can often be hampered by those Standards that don’t fit their case and needs.
Hahahaha I’m kidding! What really happens is that Dev teams clam up about what they’re doing. They subvert the “standards” and don’t tell anyone, either pleading ignorance or claiming that they can’t go back and rewrite because of a deadline. Best case is that they run a request for an “exemption” up the flagpole, where Ops gets Over-riden. And Operations is still left with a “standard” and pile of “one-offs”.
Another claimed reason for broad “Standards” is to “reduce the amount of duplicated effort”. While this is a great goal, again, it tends to cause more friction than is necessary.
The problem is the fallacy that comes from assuming that the way that a problem was solved for one team will be helpful to another. That solution may be helpful, but to assume that it will, and making it mandatory is going to cause unnecessary effort.
At one company, my team ran ELK as a product for other teams to consume. A new team was spun up, and asked about our offerings, but asked my opinion of them using a different service (an externally-hosted ELK-as-a-Service). I was thrilled, in fact! I want to see if we were solving the problem in the best way, or even a good way, and to be able to come back later for some lessons-learned!
At some point, your product is going to get bigger than everyone can keep in their head. It may be time to split up responsibilities into a new team. But where to draw boundaries? Interrogate them!
A trick that I learned a long time ago for testing your design in Object-Oriented Programming is to ask the object a question: “What are you?” or “What do you do?” If the answer includes an “And”, you have two things. This works well for evaluating both Class and Method design. (I think that this tidbit was from Sandi Metz’s “Practical Object-Oriented Design in Ruby” (aka “POODR”), which I was exposed to by Mark Menard of Enable Labs.)
What Doesn’t Work
Because this can be a change to how teams work, it’s important to be clear about the rules. If there is a misunderstanding about where work comes from, or who the individual contributors work for, or who decides the people who belong to what team, this begins to fall apart.
Having people work for multiple sets of managers is untenable.
Having people quit is an unavoidable problem in any company. Having a functional manager decide by themselves that they’re going to reassign one of your people away from you is worse, because they’re not playing by the rules.
WARNING: Matrix Organizations Considered Harmful
If someone proposes a Matrix Org, you need to be extremely careful. It’s important that you keep a separation of Church and State. Matrix Organizations instantly create a conflict between the different axes of managers, with the tension being centered on the individual contributor who just wants to do good work. A Matrix Org actively adds politics.
All Work comes from Product Management. Functional Management is for Individual Careers and Sharing Knowledge.
This shouldn’t be hard to remember, as the Functional Leaders shouldn’t have work to assign. But it will be hard, because they’ll probably have a lot of muscle-memory around prioritizing and assigning work.
Now, I’m sure a lot of you are skeptical about how a product team actually works. You might just not believe me.
If you properly staff a team, give them direction, authority, and responsibility, they will amaze you.
As with anything, the hardest thing to do is begin.
An easy candidate is a new intiative for development that may be coming down the pipeline, but if you aren’t aware of any new products, you probably have many “orphaned” products already running within your environment.
As I discussed last year, there are plenty of ways of finding products that are critical, but not actually maintained by anyone. Common places to look are tools around development, like CI, SCM, and Wikis. Also commonly neglected are what I like to call “Insight Tools” like Logging, Metrics, and Monitoring/Alerting. These all tend to be installed and treated as appliances, not receiving any maintenance or attention unless something breaks. Sadly, it means that there’s a lot of value left on the table with these products!
Speaking with Leadership
If you say “I want to start doing Product Team”, they’re going to think of something along the lines of BizDev. A subtle but important difference is to say that you want to organize a cross-functional team, that is dedicated to the creation and long-term operation of the Product.
I don’t know why, but it seems that executive go gooey when they hear the phrase “cross-functional team”. So, go buzz-word away. While you’re at it, try to initiate some Thought Leadership and coin a term with them like “Product-Oriented Development”! (No, of course it doesn’t mean anything…)
What you’re looking for is a commitment to fund the product long-term. The idea is that your team will solve problems centered around a set of problems. The team is of “Your People”, that becomes a “we”. Oddly enough, when you have a team focused and aligned together, you have really built a capital-T “Team”.
The Product Team should be intact and in-development as long as the product is found to be necessary. When the product is retired, they product team may be disbanded, but nobody should be left with the check. Over time, the features should stabilize, and the bugs will disappear, and the operation of the application should stabilize to a low level of effort, even including external updates.
That doesn’t mean that your engineers need to be farmed out to other teams; you should take on new work, and begin development of new products that aid in your space!
I believe that organizing work in Product Teams is one of the best ways to run a responsible engineering organization. By orienting your work around the Product, you are aligning your people to business needs, and the individuals will have a better understanding of the value of their work. By keeping the team size small, they know how the parts work and fit. By everyone operating the product, they feel a sense of ownership, and by being responsible for the product’s availability, they’re much more likely to build resilient and fault-tolerant applications!
It is for these reasons and more, that I consider Product Teams to be the definitive DevOps implementation.
I’d like to thank my friends for listening to me rant, and my editor Cody Wilbourn for their help bringing this article together. I’d also like to thank the SysAdvent team for putting in the effort that keeps this fun tradition going.
If you wish to discuss with me further, please feel free to reach out to me. I am gwaldo on Twitter and Gmail/Hangouts and Steam, and seldom refuse hugs (or offers of beverage and company) at conferences. Death Threats and unpleasantness beyond the realm of constructive Criticism may be sent to:
Waldo c/o FBI Headquarters 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20535-0001